TV’s ethno botanist James Wong has inspired many of us through his BBC programs and books. He sees himself as being as experimental in the garden as Heston Blumenthal is in the kitchen! He is the author of ‘Grow Your Own Drugs, and inspired the GYO brigade with his book Homegrown Revolution and in recent years turned his attention to the food we eat and growing ‘Incredible Edibles’, varieties with better flavour and more recently telling us how to Eat Better.
I first interviewed James Wong when he was starting out on his TV journey. I wanted to find out what makes him tick. He told me that he doesn’t just grow your standard veg staples like onions and spuds in his London garden but is trying his hand at growing the expensive deli foods such as shitake mushrooms, saffron and wasabi that many of the popular TV chefs use in their cookery shows and trendy restaurants. Obviously we can see from all the publicity surrounding his TV appearances, books and great results in his own garden plus his popular Grow for Flavour seed and plant range, sold exclusively through Suttons Seeds, it’s been a great success.
James’ mantra is that you don’t need much soil to enjoy success and many of the plants he recommends can be grown in pots and raised beds. Most can even be squeezed into the tiniest gardens and his garden is testament to this.
Some plants like nasturtiums and pansies, you’ll already recognize from your own flowerbeds and like his chef heroes he seeing the value of petal power and putting them to good use in salads and garnishes along with courgette and runner bean blooms. You can follow his lead and be adventurous in the kitchen as well as the garden and sow a few extra seeds next spring.
Tops for taste
Many of his favourite vegetables are ornamental as well as edible and especially chilli peppers, which produce fruits that ripen from purple to yellow to orange and red. His recommendation for patio pots is the highly ornamental chilli, NuMex Twilight, which ripens over a period of time so the effects is a multitude of coloured chillis all at the same time.
Suttons Seeds recommend growing the compact, NuMex Twilight in the greenhouse for even heavier yields
Chilli Trinidad Perfume is a good choice for those of you love that the tangy, fruitiness of habanero peppers but can’t handle the heat. Sweet tasting but with barely any heat, this variety is the ultimate chilli-haters chilli!
Chilli Trinidad Perfume has the authentic intense habanero flavour
James describes the Serrano chilli as ‘Jalapeño’s badass little brother, as it gives a similar bright, biting flavour but with a ton more heat’
He recommends eating Serrano raw and uses its thick, crisp flesh to add a crunch to guacamole and salsas. Dried and smoked and it takes on a sweet, berry-like flavour with hints of chocolate, making it the perfect variety for using to make authentic Mexican mole sauce.
James also suggests that we put a bit of history on our plates too by growing heirloom varieties of yesteryear, which he says, make a great talking point at dinner parties. He was growing Long Green cucumber when we spoke, which told me has a wonderful crisp taste and is the perfect size for slicing, salads, dips and can be ground to make dill or sweet relish.
Don’t be bamboozled…
On travels in Asia, he found that sweet bamboo shoot tips are fine dining so always ready to experiment in his own garden, he’s discovered that the popular golden-stemmed and black-stemmed garden varieties, equally make good eating and a special treat in spring provided the new shoots are cleaned, peeled then blanched in boiling water for 5-10 minutes before using them in stir-fries.
They have a firm, crisp texture and a mild taste but must be treated like asparagus, cutting just a few of the emerging shoots when they are just 5-7.5cm long. If you prefer he says you can also cover them with a forcing pot for an extra early crop but you must give the plant plenty of water in early spring if the shoots are to tender.
Bamboo shoots are harvested at two weeks or when just about the size of a mature ear of baby sweet corn
Precious as gold
Saffron has been traded and used for over four millenia and per ounce it’s more expensive than gold! So to James it makes sense to ‘grow your own’, especially as it keeps forever in an airtight jar. It has a slightly sweet but earthy taste, which can be used to colour and flavour salty or sweet recipes.
To grow your own, simply plant a few Crocus sativus bulbs in a sunny, well-drained lawn, alpine bed or container in August or September and they’ll produce a deliciously scented display during autumn with long saffron stamens dangling from the throats of the flowers. These stamens should be removed and dried, then stored in an airtight jar.
The lilac-purple flowers produce vibrant red stigmas, which have been used for flavouring and colouring dishes since Roman time CAUTION do not eat ornamental bulbs
You might have asked yourself why foodies rave about truffles after all they are just fungi! Well according to James, not just any old fungus, they are a rarity and are uniquely found alongside oak and hazel tree roots. The truffles are a real prize when unearthed and are used by chefs to add an intense earthy flavour to everything from pasta and seafood to scrambled eggs.
When I spoke to James, he had just set himself a challenge and planting oak and hazel tree seedlings that had been inoculated with truffle spores. He expects to harvest a crop of truffles in about five years time, and in the case of hazels to be enjoying an annual treat for around 25 years and that his oaks will remain productive for up to 50 years.
James has been an early advocate for growing and eating ‘Super foods’ like Goji berries, which it is claimed if eaten on a daily basis are the secret to a long life! He recommends eating them fresh or sun drying them and particularly enjoys eating them like sweets.
Goji berries are often called “happy berries” as they are traditionally regarded as a strong sexual tonic
He has planted Goji in a pot on a sunny patio and provided the soil isn’t allowed to dry out, expects that when the bush reaches the expected 1.2m tall, it will produce a crop of around 1kg of berries. If you decide to have a go, James says that it is better to shake the bush rather than pick the berries off by hand as doing this will cause the fruit to oxidize and become black in colour.
One of his favourite treats is to add them to blueberry yoghurt and muesli to make a power packed breakfast. He also uses them to give his flu remedy chicken soup a kick
Wasabi is hot
Another plant that he’s been trying to grow is fresh Wasabi, which is usually difficult to track down and costs a fortune here in the UK. You can buy potted plants from James Wong’s Grow For Flavour range from Suttons Seed.
The roots of wasabi are finely ground to make a staple horseradish-type condiment with a hot flavour followed by a lingering sweet taste, which is traditionally served with sushi and noodles
Wasabi is relatively easy to grow provided you have a cool and damp, shady area within your vegetable patch. Within 2-3 years the roots should be about 15-20cm long and 2cm in diameter and large enough to be dug up and used in the kitchen. As a member of the cruciferous family, it also contains the same cancer-fighting properties as its cabbage cousins.
Kiwis, which are rich in vitamin C, are, according to James, perfect for pack lunches, fruit salads and garnishes. He grows self-fertile varieties such as Issai, which is a cocktail kiwi that’s the size of a grape with a firm edible skin. He recommends trying it on a sunny fence or to cover a pergola where you can admire the heart shaped foliage and clusters of deliciously fragrant small white flowers in summer, which are followed by the exceptionally sweet fruit.
Kiwi Issai, unlike its more well-known cousins, boasts fruit with a smooth, edible skin!
Kiwi plants need large volumes of water during the entire growing season but must also be in well-drained soil. Pruning is done in winter, cutting the growth back to encourage new, fruit bearing shoots for following year and to allow light and air into the vine for pollination.
Fond of fungi?
James suggests you can save yourself a fortune at the supermarket by growing exotic mushrooms like Shiitake, Oyster and Lions Mane at home and use them to give gourmet flair to almost any dish.
Shiitake is also known as the ‘miracle mushroom’ as it’s said to improve health and vitality. You can buy logs or wooden dowels that are inoculated with the mushroom spores and treat them as shade loving plants, protected from sun and wind. Expect harvests in succession from spring through to autumn.
Tongue tingling cocktail!
Finally, if you consider yourself to be truly adventurous in the kitchen and also like to have a bit of fun, James suggests growing Spilanthes oleracea, which are best known as buzz daisies. Its small yellow flowers can be used in cookies, salads and pallet cleansing sorbets and have a surprise that you won’t forget easily. Eat one and you’ll endure or enjoy a fresh tingling sensation in your mouth, which is followed by an effervescent flavour, which James describes as feeling like something electrocuting your mouth!
For a bit of fun, James likes to rub buzz daisies on the rim of the glass when serving Margaritas!
Suttons are working alongside James, offering the plants and seeds discussed in his book Grow for Flavour. So, if you are looking for purple black raspberries or super early bright pink tomatoes then you’ll find them at Suttons along with seeds of many others, of his favourite incredible edibles such as Cucamelon. These tiny watermelon look-a-likes are from Central America and small enough to fit onto a teaspoon, yet bite into one and the flavour is pure cucumber with a fresh tinge of lime. He recommends using them in salads, pickles and even cocktails.
Cucamelon seeds and plants are available from www.suttons.co.uk – they have a cucumber and lime taste and even here in the UK are happy to grow outdoors
Callaloo is another of James’ favourites. It has brightly coloured leaves making it worthy of a spot in a flowerbed. This spinach-like vegetable has a rich, earthy, broccoli-like flavour. Suttons offer both seeds and plug plants of these exciting plants. (www.suttons.co.uk)
Callaloo is sown May – August for harvesting June to October
Suttons complete range of seeds includes over 50 new varieties. New and exclusive bedding plants, as well as an extensive range of veg and gardening equipment.