Finding new favourites
I am addicted to plants and gardening and I love to try new plants in my garden. When it comes to the vegie patch it is just the same and every time I see a new variety of something I already grow, or a new vegie I am not familiar with, I find myself buying the seed or seedlings to give it a go. The reality is that sometimes I need to try for several seasons before I work out whether it is a winner or something to forget about. Many vegie growers like to stick with the tried and true, and while I do keep growing my old favourites, I find the new things I try soon become favourites too, and then become a regular addition to our garden and kitchen.
New Guinea beans
Over the past few years, the two more unusual vegies I have tried which have become staples in our household are New Guinea beans and tomatillos. The New Guinea bean is neither from New Guinea nor a bean, but rather a climbing edible squash. Known as ‘Cucuzza’ by Italians or ‘Lauki’ or ‘Dudhi’ by Indians, this rampant vine produces long pale green fruits with white flesh. They are brilliant in stir fries, stews, curries and my favourite cake of all time! I tried New Guinea beans for two years in a row before they fruited for me and I am so glad that I persisted.
Tomatillos (sometimes called husk cherry or jam berry) are a member of the tomato family related to Cape gooseberry and produce green fruit which eventually turns purple, encased in a husk or capsule that looks like a Chinese lantern. They can be eaten fresh and I think taste like a cross between a plum and tomato, definitely sweeter than a tomato. They are the traditional fruit used in South America to make green salsa, however when you cook them I notice they add a lovely sweetness to a dish, making then perfect for sweet curries or in stews or soups. I have even made a delicious cake from them too.
Persist for a season or two
This year my new ‘hero vegie’ is Caigua or Achocha. This South American climbing vegetable is a staple in Bolivia and Peru and I grew it for the first time last year. It did OK and I loved the fruits which taste something like a cross between cucumber and beans. Since I struggle to grow either with my salty bore water, and Caigua grew, I decided to keep trying it. This year I grew the same normal form I did last year and also a larger form called Giant Peruvian. Next year I will only grow the large form which can get up to 20cm long and 100 grams per fruit. When young they can be eaten fresh in salads or juiced, and when they get bigger you need to remove the inner seeds and cooked them as a vegetable or stuffed like a capsicum. Last year I grew them on a low frame and realised they needed more room to grow so I tried them on one of the arches in my vegie patch, however they didn’t work particularly well as their soft stems and tendrils needed more support, so next year I shall grow them on tall mesh panels.
As an experiment I stuffed them with beef, raisins and olives to make a traditional recipe called ‘Caigua rellenas’. Those of you who know me will know that I don’t like cooking, or more specifically I would rather be in the garden than in the kitchen. With a tribe of 5 hungry kids (including 3 teenage boys) they consume so much that you slave for what seems like ages and they inhale it in 5 minutes. So when I cook, I cook in bulk and keep it quick and simple. Back to cooking the caigua….. it took over 1.5 hours of preparation and another 30 to cook so by the time I served it I had spent two hours in my kitchen. Aaargh! Anyway it was nice but a lot of fiddly work, so I concluded that while it was good to try a traditional dish made with them, in future I will enjoy them fresh, in my juices, in salads and in my stir fries and curries.
Chinese artichoke and Chufa
Two other new vegies at Sophie’s Patch this year are Chinese artichoke and an edible form of nutsedge called Earth almond or Chufa (Cyperus esculentus). Both are still actively growing so I won’t get to harvest their underground edible roots till they die down. There were other things I tried that didn’t do so well, like bitter melon, a staple in Asian cuisine. After several sowings one plant grew however it is now only 2m high and very spindly with two tiny fruits. My growing season may simply be too short for them in this cold frosty part of the world, however I plan to try again this spring, starting my seedlings under cover earlier, and planting them in a warmer position. Some of my new vegies were a complete failure, including American ground nut and in this case I think my water (and not my gardening skills) may be at fault here.
Another trial at Sophie’s Patch is something I meant to do last winter but got caught out before I was ready. This year I am also going to try to keep two wicking beds of eggplants and capsicums alive over winter by covering them in a plastic igloo. A friend who grew up on a market garden on the Adelaide Plains told me that he remembers his dad cutting back the eggplants at the end of autumn and then covering them with plastic. This allowed him to have established plants in spring and get fruit earlier. It will be interesting to see if this will work here and if it doesn’t, it may just be that where I am trialing this is the lowest part of our garden and goes down to minus 5 over winter. I had plans to do this last year but the first frost of the season caught me unaware and the plants got burnt before I got a chance to try this. This year I have the frames over my beds and the plastic out ready to go. The only trick is that I can’t leave the plastic on if the days get warm or the plants will cook!