How to grow and understand broccoli

Broccoli

The wind smells sweet, snow is just a memory, and the ground is soft but not soggy. It must be time to bring the vegetable garden to life. This spring, along with their favourite radishes, lettuce, and peas, gardeners have a new cool-weather variety to try—the broccoli hybrid ‘Blue Wind’ (Brassica oleracea ‘Blue Wind’). According to Johnny’s Selected Seeds, which introduced this broccoli to the market, ‘Blue Wind’ is a Packman-type hybrid, meaning it’s great for an early crop. ‘Blue Wind’ matures in just 49 days, so you can sow it in spring or early summer (or both). The blue-green heads are medium-sized.

Common name: Broccoli

Botanical name: Brassica oleracea ‘Blue Wind’

Plant type: Vegetable

Zones: Annual

Height: About 2 feet

Family: Brassicaceae

Growing conditions

Sun: Full sun

Soil: Well-drained and rich in organic matter

Moisture: Medium. Water is especially important early on and when the heads are maturing.

Care

Mulch: Mulch to retain soil moisture.

Pruning: None needed.

Fertiliser: Add plenty of compost or well-rotted manure.

Propagation

• By seed.

Pests and diseases

• Vulnerable to cutworms, cabbageworms, aphids, and flea beetles.

• Susceptible to powdery mildew, white rust, clubroot, and other diseases.

Garden notes

• Allow each broccoli plant plenty of space—about 2 feet apart is best.   

• Harvest broccoli when the buds feel a bit loose but haven’t yet started to turn yellow.

• After you harvest a head of broccoli, soak it in warm water with a splash of white vinegar to get rid of tiny bugs that may be hiding among the buds.

All in the family

• The Brassicaceae family contains about 3,700 species; the genus Brassica about 30 species. Other garden vegetables in the family include cabbage, radishes, horseradish, and watercress. The common flowers alyssum and candytuft also belong to the cabbage family.

Hot chilli peppers that’ll blow the roof off your mouth!

Hot chilli peppers

Hot peppers (Capsicum annuum) have gained popularity in recent years, partly because of the increased interest in Mexican, Caribbean, Thai, Vietnamese, and other exotic cuisines. Luckily, even folks with only a trace of green in their thumbs can successfully grow hot peppers.

Preparing the perfect bed

When planting hot peppers, choose a site that receives 6 to 8 hours of full sun each day—similar to the light requirement for tomatoes. Hot peppers produce higher yields when grown in well-drained soil that contains plenty of organic matter.

You don’t have to confine hot peppers to your vegetable garden. Tuck these attractive plants in herb or flower gardens or pot them up on the patio or deck. They flower profusely, often bearing blossoms and colorful fruits simultaneously. In the flower border, the bright hues of compact hot pepper varieties blend well with dwarf marigolds, zinnias, and verbenas.

Planting

Don’t plant or transplant seedlings until temperatures are reliably above 60°F. Hot peppers never recover from a cold shock. The plants grow best with daytime temperatures of 70°F to 80°F and night temperatures above 60°F, so wait until well after the last expected frost in your region before planting.

Depending on the size of the varieties you plant, you should space plants 12 to 18 inches apart. For each plant, dig a hole about 6 inches deep and layer the bottom with about 2 inches of organic matter and a sprinkling of 5-10-10 fertiliser. Set the seedling lower in the ground than it was in its pot, then backfill and carefully press down the soil. Immediately water to remove any air pockets in the soil and help settle the roots.

Watering and fertilising

Once the plants are established in your garden, they need little attention. However, they do need a moderate supply of water from the moment they sprout until the end of the season. They won’t tolerate saturated soil; the soil must drain well, yet hold enough moisture to keep the plants producing fruit. Use mulch to prevent excessive evaporation from the soil during the dry summer months.

Don’t over fertilise. This tends to make the plants develop lush foliage at the expense of fruit. Peppers are light feeders. If you work 5-10-10 fertiliser into the soil before planting, that’s probably sufficient. You can also side-dress the plants with a light sprinkling of 5-10-10 when they start blossoming to give them a boost.

Harvesting and storing

You can harvest hot peppers at any stage of growth, but their flavor and vitamin content don’t fully develop until they’re mature; hot peppers become hotter as they mature. Peppers are mature when they turn from green to yellow, red, or orange and snap off easily from the plant. (Some peppers are light yellow, lilac, or purple when immature and are harvested before they ripen and turn red. Hot peppers such as jalapeños are often harvested full size but still green; many small hot peppers harvested for drying are harvested when red.)

Capsaicin, the chemical that provides the “heat” in a hot pepper, is in a volatile oil that can actually burn your fingers, sometimes for days afterward. Wear garden gloves when you harvest or handle them. Peppers have shallow roots, so you may wish to cut the fruit from the plant rather than tear it. Use hot peppers the same day you pick them, if possible. Don’t place peppers in the refrigerator—they are warm-weather fruits and do not store well in cold temperatures.

If you have more hot peppers than you can immediately use, they can be dried or pickled. Drying works best with thin-walled hot peppers, particularly the smaller varieties that can be dried right on the plant. Dry peppers slowly to retain their colour and flavour. Keep in mind that dried hot peppers are up to 10 times hotter than fresh ones.

Hot peppers also preserve well in alcohol, particularly brandy, rum, and sherry. Simply wash and core the peppers, place them in canning jars to within an inch the top, fill the jars with alcohol to cover the peppers, and screw on the lids. You don’t even have to refrigerate them‹the alcohol perfectly preserves the peppers, and you can use them later to spice up dishes.

Preparing and eating

Be especially careful when handling blistering hot peppers like Habañero and Thai Dragon. Use latex or rubber gloves and make sure you don’t touch any part of your body, particularly your eyes or mouth, when handling these peppers. (Some people even use goggles or a scuba mask to keep the burning oil out of their eyes.) If you’re eating hot peppers and you feel like your mouth has just caught fire, don’t reach for ice water—it  will only spread the fiery oil throughout your mouth. Instead, have some milk or yogurt, which counteract capsaicin. Bread will also absorb the oil and cool you down a bit.

What makes hot peppers valuable is their versatility in a wide range of cuisines. Check out some cookbooks and don’t be afraid to experiment.

Garlic: the herb of gods

No doubt about it: Garlic is a food with personality. Depending on the variety and the way it’s used, that personality can range from pungently assertive to downright mellow. Three basic varieties of garlic are most commonly available in the United Kingdom: the familiar white-skinned and strongly flavoured American garlic; the somewhat milder, purple-tinged Mexican and Italian garlics; and the much milder, very large elephant garlic. Here are some tips for using the bulb:

Breaking up

To break up a bulb of garlic, insert your thumb at the top of the bulb and pull away the cloves, one or more at a time. Or place the entire bulb, root end up, on a cutting board. Press on it with the heel of your hand until the cloves begin to separate.

Peeling

Garlic is easily separated from its tight-fitting jacket using a knife. Place one or more cloves on a cutting board and press down on them firmly with the broad side of a heavy chef’s knife. The skin will separate, leaving the clove partially crushed and ready to chop.

To peel several cloves, do what chefs do: Spread out the cloves on a cutting board and place a heavy skillet over them. Grasp the skillet on either side and lean quickly and heavily on it, pressing down.

To peel garlic leaving the clove intact, try a gadget called a garlic peeler, a piece of rubber tubing. When you roll a clove of garlic in the tube, the skin separates and the clove comes out clean.

Chopping

The more finely garlic is chopped or crushed, the stronger its flavour. A garlic press yields garlic with the most potent flavor: It releases the most oils from a clove because it ruptures the most cells. Some cooks believe it also makes the garlic taste bitter.

Mincing

Sprinkle 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon of salt from the recipe over the cloves. Smash the cloves with the broad side of a chef’s knife to crush the garlic, then chop, working the salt into the garlic. The salt begins to break down the garlic’s fibers, making it easier to blend into other ingredients. The salt also keeps the garlic from sticking to the knife or cutting board.

Raw

Garlic is at its most pungent state when it is raw. Its assertive flavour lends character to such classic preparations as aïoli (a garlic mayonnaise) and pesto. Because its flavour strengthens as it sits, raw garlic should be used sparingly.

Cooking garlic mellows its taste. For a strong garlic flavour in a cooked dish, mince the garlic and sauté it very briefly—20 to 30 seconds or until fragrant.

The longer garlic cooks, the more mild its taste becomes. Slow braising reduces the flavour of several bulbs of garlic to a mild, pleasant presence.

Roasting

When you roast garlic, its natural sugars caramelise, leaving cloves so mild and creamy that they can be spread on bread and mashed directly into potatoes.

Storing

Store heads of garlic in a dark, dry and cool place, preferably one that allows air to circulate. Although not essential, a covered clay garlic keeper works well. Hanging garlic in a braid or keeping it in a bowl in a warm kitchen is fine for short periods but is not suitable for longer storage because it tends to dry out the garlic.

Removing garlic odour

If you don’t want to keep a separate cutting board for garlic and onions, you can deodorise a cutting board by rubbing it with salt.

To reduce the smell of garlic from your hands, rub them with salt and lemon juice. If gadgets attract you, you can buy a stainless steel bar that you rub over your hands to eliminate the odour. It’s said to break the ion bonds, releasing the odoriferous allium compounds from the skin, although cooks’ opinions vary as to its effectiveness. Using the bowl of a stainless steel spoon or even a stainless steel faucet in a kitchen sink also may work. Then wash your hands well with soap and hot water.

Have you ever heard of a Tomatillo?

Next time you’re at the supermarket, pick up a tomatillo (toe-mah-TEE-yo). Sniff: It smells like a spicy apple. Feel: It’s got a pretty, papery husk that’s most likely split but attached at the top, like a cloak. The satiny, plump, round fruit peeking through the husk is just right for cooking if it’s clear light green. Taste: Take a few tomatillos home and use them in your favourite salsa or guacamole, or roast them with garlic to use in green chilli.

Tomatillos are not little tomatoes—they’re a different fruit altogether, and a staple in Mexican and Central American cooking. They’re also easy to add to your vegetable garden. They’re tolerant of a little bit of shade and a lot of heat; you might find they’re even easier to grow than tomatoes.

Common name: Tomatillo, ground cherry

Botanical name: Physalis philadelphica (also P. ixocarpa)

Plant type: Typically grown as annual

Zones: Annual

Height: 2½ to 5 feet

Family: Solanaceae

Growing conditions

• Sun: Full sun to part shade

• Soil: Average, well-drained

• Moisture: Medium 

Care

• Mulch: Mulch to preserve moisture and prevent weeds.

• Pruning: None needed.

• Fertiliser: Add an inch of compost or some liquid fertiliser once or twice in a season.   

Propagation

• By seed

Pests and diseases

• Caterpillars may cause some damage.

• Vulnerable to rust and leaf spot.

Garden notes

• Grow tomatillos as you would tomatoes. Cages help contain these bushy, spreading plants.

• Most tomatillos for the garden are not self-fertile, so plant at least two plants.

• Use tomatillos in salsas, curries, stews, or sauces.

• Harvest tomatillos when the papery husks start to split. If you’re growing a variety with green fruit, be sure to harvest while they’re still bright green. Once they turn yellow, they’re past their prime.

• Like many other members of the nightshade family, the tomatillo has poisonous leaves and stems. The only part of the plant that’s edible is the fruit.

Cultivars

• ‘Toma Verde’: light green fruits; a very common variety.

• ‘Purple De Milpa’: deep purple fruits.

• ‘Cisineros’: very large, apple green fruits.

All in the family

• Tomatillos are in the same family as tomatoes (Solanaceae), but they’re in a different genus. The two fruits share many characteristics, and it’s believed that they were both domesticated in Central America during pre-Columbian times.

• The word “tomato” comes from the Nahuatl word “tomatl.” Nahuatl was the language of the Aztecs. 

• Other members of the Solanaceae family include edible plants—pepper, potato, and eggplant—and popular garden flowers like brugmansia, datura, and petunia. The family also containsNicotiana, the genus that contains cultivated tobacco plants as well as annual species grown for their fragrant flowers.