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From the Garden: Some notes on immature onions and homemade ratatouille

Immature onions and homemade ratatouille are the focus from the garden this week, writes Michael Kelly.

Ratatouille - a French stewed vegetable dish.
Ratatouille - a French stewed vegetable dish.
Image: Shutterstock/Oksana Mizina

WE HAVE BEEN eating onions for the last month or so, even though they are not ready yet. The immature ‘green’ onions are a delight to eat and can be used anywhere there is a requirement for a scallion.

At this stage though, the onions are moving into a territory where they are almost ready to harvest.

Generally speaking, onions are ready when the tops of the plants fall over. An old trick was to bend the stems yourself, but this is now frowned upon.

Many GIYers then loosen the soil around the bulb with a fork to accelerate bulb ripening and allow them some more space to swell.

A suggestion I once received was to turn the onion very gently and very slightly in the soil, which presumably achieves the same thing.

A week or so after the stems bend over, the leaves will wither and yellow. Lift the onions and shake off the soil.

If the weather is dry, place the onions on a wire rack outside to dry. If rain is forecast, keep them on a rack in the greenhouse or tunnel.

Leave for 10 days to dry out or until the skin is paper-thin. It is this drying process that gets the onions ready for storing.

The presence of moisture in the onions is what causes them to rot in storage so make sure all the moisture is gone from them (particularly in the neck) before you store.

Store in net bags or make a braid by twisting the onion tops around some wire or garden twine. Store somewhere cool and dry. Remove any shoots that form over the winter.

The Basics – Bolting

Bolting is a term which refers to vegetable crops that run to seed before their time. The plant is essentially rushing in to procreation mode. It tries to spread its seed by producing flower or seed heads before it dies.

It is a perfectly natural part of the plant’s life cycle, but unfortunately from a GIYers perspective it usually renders them inedible.

It is often caused by a cold spell, changes in day length or other stress in the plant such as lack of water.

Some plants such as lettuce, rocket and annual spinach are particularly susceptible.

Though bolting occurs as the plant reaches maturity it can be caused or initiated much earlier in the life-cycle. In annual crops it is usually caused by changes in day length but can be worsened by stressed conditions such as lack of water or very dry soil etc. 

In biannual crops, it is caused by unsettled weather conditions or a cold spell early in the propagation phase. Cold nights, followed by hot days will also cause it, as will late frosts.

The three main methods of controlling bolting are soil conditions, paying attention to sowing times, and using bolt resistant varieties. I also find that succession sowings are the best way to beat bolting and provide a constant supply of produce.

Recipe of the Week – Ratatouille

Ratatouille is a classic summer dish that makes great use of the veggie patch. It can fairly be described as ‘fiddly’, but I think it’s worth it. This serves four. 

Ingredients

  • 5 super ripe tomatoes
  • 3 courgettes – cut in to slices
  • 2 aubergines – cut in to chunks
  • 2 red or yellow peppers – sliced
  • 1 onion, peeled and sliced
  • 2 garlic cloves , peeled and crushed
  • 5 tbsp olive oil
  • bunch of basil
  • 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp sugar

Directions

Score a cross on the base of each tomato, then put them into a bowl.

Pour boiling water over the tomatoes and leave for half a minute, then pour off the water.

Cover them with cold water and leave to cool – the skin should come off easily now.

Remove the seeds from the tomatoes and roughly chop.

Heat 2 tbsp of the oil in a sauté pan and brown the aubergines on each side, then set aside.

Brown the courgettes in a little more oil and set aside, then do the same with the pepper.

Cook the onion for 5 minutes, add the garlic and fry for a further min.

Stir in the red wine vinegar and sugar, then tip in the tomatoes and half the basil.

Return the vegetables to the pan with some salt and pepper and cook for 5 mins.

Garnish with the rest of the basil and serve with some crusty bread.

Michael Kelly is an author, broadcaster and founder of GIY.

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