I’m so flat out planting and working that it’s hard to get to the blog, but I’m taking plenty of pics along the way, so here’s a quick photo update for you:

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We’ve been taking (false) hope from all these false springs and started our January plantings with tomatoes. Planted them in little seed trays in an unheated propagator on January 24th on a beautiful south-facing windowsill and here’s the result two weeks later:

They are Beefsteak tomatoes “Big Boy” and Sweet Olive cherry tomatoes, and have been going really well. They survived a week of us being on holiday and a couple of days ago were ready to be potted up. I really wanted them to go straight into the polytunnel, but that is still dropping to near freezing overnight, so now we have them lined up along the windowsill in the kitchen

Before potting up:

And all the beefsteak seedlings, now without propagator lids, on a slightly cooler windowsill:

We didn’t have space, or enough pots, for the sweet olive tomatoes – they’ll have to hang on for another week or so.

Feels great to be growing seedlings again!

Really getting into my planting list now. As mentioned in my previous Planting List post I’ve been looking at what we eat, and comparing that with the list of tried-and-tested plants for aquaponics systems over at Backyard Aquaponics. Been going through the Garden Organic Catalogue to get an idea of the range of varieties and their planting times etc. I then combined that with expected yield information from my well-thumbed copy of John Jeavons’ “How to grow more vegetables”. and current pricing info from Sainsbury’s.  This gives me a good idea of how much we can expect of each plant and what it’ll be worth to us. It’ll be interesting to see which plants meet or exceed these yields, as they are specifically derived from soil-based techniques.

This is really our first-year test list, so I’ve deliberately gone for a broad range of varieties. Once we start to see which varieties do best I’ll start to reduce the range a little, although I’m very keen to try and keep a diversity of crops to minimise the impact of any particular failures or diseases.

OK, Here goes:

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Starting to think about my wishlist for planting up our proposed aquaponics system, so here goes. From the list of tried-and-tested plants for aquaponics systems over at Backyard Aquaponics, compared with stuff we actually like to eat I’ve got this list:

  • Lettuce / Rocket / other varieties (inc. over-winter varieties) 
  • Peas / Snow peas 
  • Spinach
  • Tomatoes
  • Cucumber
  • Basil
  • Chard
  • Flat Leaf Parsley
  • Chives
  • Some mild chillis
  • Peppers
  • Bok Choy / Pak Choi etc
  • Broccoli (inc. over-winter varieties) 
  • Coriander – slow bolt 
  • Melons 
  • Strawberries

I’ll keep updating this with different varieties as we start to make some real decisions about what we have space for.

I have a dream that we can be free from shop-bought tomato purees, passata and pasta sauces. We typically eat one jar of shop-bought sauce each fortnight, plus extra tomato puree into sauces, cassoulets etc. So my target for sauce-self-sufficiency is probably about 26 500ml jars, and then maybe another dozen 100ml jars – so about 15 litres of sauce would be a good target. Apparently 5kg of tomatoes will get you about 4 litres of sauce, so we need to be looking at around 20kg of tomatoes – no small feat, but certainly not enough to trigger a full-on “Doing the Tomatoes” or “National Wog Day“.

To do this properly, you really need a Passata Machine or a Mouli – these will give you the puree without the skins and seeds, and you’ll need some clean, sterilized jars to contain the delicious results.

Making Passata

OK, here’s the process – it seems really easy 🙂 :

  • First, wash the tomatoes,
  • then cut them in half, discarding any bad bits,
  • then simmer them for 20 mins or so – just to start breaking them up
  • pass them through your passata machine or mouli – process the skins 3-4 times to get all the juice out,
  • bottle the passata in sterilized jars
  • heat the jars to complete the seal
  • store for up to year.

Variations

 Once you have the basic passata, there are a range of different things you can do to it before bottling:

Turn it into a complete pasta sauce. Gently fry onions and garlic, add passata and reduce over a low heat until you get to a more traditional pasta sauce consistency. Add some herbs (basil) to the jars before bottling for extra flavour – this is also a good way to “preserve” your garlic and herbs!

Make concentrated tomato paste / puree. Great for flavouring a range of dishes, this can either be made from the plain passata, or from the garlic, onion and herb-flavoured sauce. Essentially you just keep reducing the sauce until you have a thick paste – there is a great description of how to do it here.

For stronger flavours: Oven-roast the tomatoes for about an hour at a low heat instead of boiling them – gives a richer, thicker sauce.

More Inspiration

This whole post was inspired by an off-hand remark by Contadino about his hand-cranked passata machine – go and have a look at the wonderful description and photos on his website – can you believe how many tomatoes he’s grown!

Another wonderful inspiration is the description of “Doing the Tomatoes” on Cream Puffs in Venice – showing the cultural side.

For really detailed descriptions on making passata have a look at Mas du Diable who also has a great page on other ways to preserve tomatoes – I love a good chutney so I need to spend more time looking at that! 

And for more discussion on hand-powered passata machines have a look over at my Gentle Descent blog.

passataJust been reading some great descriptions of how to make Passata, and Pasta Sauces. I’ve long thought that this could be a good way to make the most of our Aquaponic bounty through the long winter months – delicious home-grown-and-made pasta sauces, flavoured with our aquaponic-grown herbs. I think the Mouli that is already on my shopping list would be good at turning our tomatoes into passata while removing all the skins and seeds, but there are also specific Passata Machines – they look sort of like a mincer. The only ones I’ve been able to find in the UK are these red plastic models, sold by Seeds of Italy for £27.50, or Ascott for £25. Apparently you can process over 50kg of tomatoes in them in an hour! They both also sell the preserving jars we’ll need – Ascott seem to have the best range of jars at the best prices – 12 500ml jars for £17.

Not sure whether this makes it onto my list of must-have post-peak-oil kitchen gadgets, or whether I’ll stick with a nice strong metal mouli. Maybe if I can find a more traditional metal Passata machine like the one Contadino uses then I’d be converted . . . I’ll have to look next time I’m on the continent!