Give the tomatoes a miss and try tomatillos; GARDENING Alan Titchmarsh tells HANNAH STEPHENSON how he wants us to go exotic for a change.
It is amazing to think that just a few years ago, vegetables like sweetcorn and courgettes were considered exotic in this country.
We tended to stick to the tried and trusted varieties of old: turnips, potatoes, swede and a few runner beans for good measure.
But now our greengrocers and supermarkets are heaving with fruits and vegetables from all over the world, from sharon fruit and guava to mooli and shiitake.
And more adventurous gardeners are turning their sights to growing some of these exotica at home or on the allotment.
Gardening guru Alan Titchmarsh is keen that we should try our hand at growing some of the more unusual vegetables to pep up curries, stirfries and other cosmopolitan dishes.
The TV presenter is on a mission to encourage gardeners to grow their own fruit and veg, but his latest book, The Kitchen Gardener, also offers advice on how to expand your culinary repertoire by growing items such as lemon grass, Thai basil and kiwi fruit.
"There was a time, of course, when courgettes and sweetcorn were considered exotic," he muses.
"Sweetcorn does like a good summer still, but we have more varieties now which are bred for cooler summers, such as North Star. They do better in a colder climate because they grow faster."
Sprouting seeds, which are dead easy to grow without soil, pots or even a garden, add zest to stir fries and salads. These include fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum), spicy sprouts ideal for stir-fries, aduki beans (Vigna angularis), slightly spicy-tasting beans with large seeds, and mung bean (Vigna radiata), the original Chinese beansprout, star of a million take-aways.
Oriental leaves including pak choi, mizuma and Chinese mustard greens are also easy to grow and not very time-consuming. Some are used as baby salad leaves, others in stir-fries. As a general rule, they should be sown outside from May to August (pak choi from mid-June), where you want the crops to grow.
Many of the newer ingredients which we want to grow ourselves, such as lemon grass, will need to be grown under glass, he admits.
"You can't grow lemon grass outside because it's too tender. It's best grown indoors at room temperature in the winter, but it can be put in the conservatory or out on the patio in summer."
The bases of the grassy stems are the only bits that are any good for cooking and are particularly good in Thai dishes. But be warned, lemon grass is quite a large, coarse, grassy, unattractive plant with sharp-edged leaves which can be hazardous if you have small children.
Thai basil is another one to try at home, although it can be tricky, says Titchmarsh.
"Basil likes a warm climate. I grow it in pots in the greenhouse. It's a Mediterranean plant and you need to sprinkle a few seeds in a pot every couple of weeks and you've always got a succession coming along," he says.
"As long as you've got a well-lit windowsill or a porch just to give it an umbrella from the worst of the weather, it'll be OK."
Cape gooseberries, usually served at the side of your plate for decorative purposes in up market restaurants, are another less well-known fruit. The fruit can also be used for making jam and they do best in a greenhouse.
They are an acquired taste and Titchmarsh admits he doesn't like them, but you'll impress your dinner guests if you have grown your own decorative additions.
"Don't think they're anything like the Chinese lantern flower in your border because they're a different species. But you can grow them.
"You might also fancy trying their close cousin, tomatillo, which is currently enjoying a minor surge in popularity as an ingredient of authentic Mexican salsa."
Titchmarsh does have a personal favourite veg, which is a far cry from the exotic - red onions.
"I use them in so many dishes. They are that much sweeter than ordinary white onions and all you need is olive oil in a pan, chop up a red onion and think what else you are going to put in, either an egg for an omelette or a bit of rice and make it into a risotto. It's so versatile and dead easy to grow.
"All you need are sets and you're half way there."
The Kitchen Gardener, by Alan Titchmarsh, is published by BBC Books, priced pounds 20.
"As long as you've got a well-lit windowsill or a porch just to give it an umbrella from the worst of the weather, it'll be OK
Alan Titchmarsh is encouraging us to grow some more unusual varieties to add some zest to our meals
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|Publication:||The Birmingham Post (England)|
|Date:||Mar 15, 2008|
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