In the garden: Spring produce and recipes
Jenny Maidment suggests the little, often and in variety school of gardening
Planning, planting and tending a produce garden is satisfying on all counts, but never more so if you are selective and realistic about spring planting.
For most of us time is limited, you can only eat or give away so much, and eventually hours, effort and dollars spent will exceed any return if planting fever gets too strong a hold. I have been known to raise produce that has cost far more than its bought equivalent, but that's a dispiriting mug's game if repeated too often.
In broad terms, sowing or planting at appropriate times and following the Little, Often and In Variety School of Gardening will reward almost every time. I was impressed and excited when shopping for fresh produce on a recent visit to Melbourne. Variety, quality and price — on every count it seems Australian growers make a much better fist of meeting and stimulating the produce-purchasing market than is the case here.
Great fists full of fresh herbs — thyme, coriander, dill, sage, oregano, mint and parsley for a couple of dollars each, magnificent bunches of irresistibly coloured rainbow chard similarly cheap, kumara (yes, New Zealand-grown) and beetroot each in several varieties for less than $3 a kilo.
I read a complaining piece on the subject in our newspaper on returning home. Why, the writer asked, are we in Aotearoa obliged to pay over the odds for bog standard fruit and veg when we live in one of the world's most productive food baskets? We have the climate, soils and geographical spread for all but the most tropical crops, yet our produce choices, though much wider now, are still painfully limited.
Seeds and seedlings
The way around this is to grow your own, including some of the more exotic — and, when available at all, astronomically expensive — varieties. Kings Seeds catalogue 2017 is a cornucopia of the enticing, the beautiful and the delicious.
Aubergine Tsakoniki (slender, striped, thin-skinned), American heirloom pea Alderman, black-red cherry tomato Indigo Rose, Borlotto Fire Tongue dwarf beans, harvestable at almost any stage of growth, and the Mexican herb epazote.
If I grow radishes this year it will be a red, pink, purple and white mix called Easter Egg, and I'll choose the French mange tout pea Carouby as much for its beautiful purple flowers as for its sweet, fleshy, non-fibrous pods.
I should also try growing the intriguing asparagus pea and dozens of other edible treasures. These are a fraction of the hundreds of varieties on offer, and Kings is just one of several seed suppliers.
If you want to sidestep the seed-growing stage, here in the north at least seedling growers such as Oakdale Organics offer an excellent selection of varieties through the main growing seasons, and their range changes regularly.
We are now attuned to the idea that not every salad has to contain the usual triumvirate of lettuce, tomato and cucumber.
All can be omitted completely in favour of combinations of rocket, young pea shoots, tender young radicchio leaves, endive, fennel shavings, mange touts fresh or blanched, curly endive, mizuna, microgreens and cut-and-come-again mesclun mixes, baby radishes and their green tops, young beetroot, carrot or celery leaves from plants harvested or surplus to needs . . . any mix of these picked depending on what is ready in the garden, pot or planter box and dressed for the table injects variety and appeal.
And the more variety you raise, the less the acreage of lettuce you need to see yourself through the warm months. Less common varieties can be slipped in between standard crops or planted in ornamental areas of the garden, and they help you avoid the disappointment of a large, single crop being wiped out by anything from soaring temperatures to bug infestation.
Of course, not everything you plant will grow to perfection, but gardening never was risk-free. The more reliable nutrition pundits urge us to maximise variety and colour in our diets to promote good health. Equally nourishing to our spirits is the excitement of harvesting our own food, especially when it's varied and beautiful.
The title is prosaic but the ham is prosciutto and the eggs soft boiled so the yolks enrich the dressing. This is a fresh-tasting warm salad of new potatoes, spring vegetables, soft boiled eggs, prosciutto, black olives and herbs with a dressing of extra virgin olive oil and white wine vinegar. Get the recipe
Have everything else ready to cook when the pastagoes into the water. By the time the pasta is cooked the vegetables and parmesan cream will be ready to add to it. Get the recipe
Peeling broad beans is a labour of love but worth it for their emerald green colour and tender texture. This light soup has a tart refreshing flavour which is what I want at this time of year. Get the recipe