Vegan/GF Cauliflower Katsu Curry

Colourful Katsu Curry

Katsu curry: crazy Japanese, French, Indian hybrid of a dish. Panko coated, pan fried escallops of anything you could possibly imagine: beef, pork, chicken, Tofu, veggies, and in our case, cauliflower.

Smothered in a velvety blanket of sweet, savoury, spicy and creamy curry sauce. Think of curry sauce on chips…think of a creamy Korma…think of that classic school dinner curry from the 1980s: foods that comfort you to the core. This is that.

We happen to have made a vegan/gluten free version here but this can easily be vegetarian or include meat. The choice is for you to make, every time you make it. And make it you will, time and time again.

A whole host of store cupboard ingredients combine to make a fab weekday dinner, a Wagamama recreation or a starter for a datenight at home.

This is our version of a Japanese classic: Katsu curry:

For the Katsu:

  • 1 large cauliflower
  • Panko crumbs (we actually used leftover sourdough crumbs this time)
  • sunflower oil to fry
  • spice seasoning of your choice (we found a cute little pot of Schichimi Togarashi. A Japanese seven spice blend with seaweed, orange peel and sesame seeds)
  • Flour
  • Aquafaba (tinned chickpea water)

We’ve used aquafaba instead of the classic egg in our panĂ© process. (Told you it was a bit French). It’s worth mentioning that aquafaba is a little less sticky than egg but did tick a lot of boxes: used a ‘waste’ product; made the dish vegan, store cupboard ingredient, and, most importantly it did stick the crumbs onto the cauliflower. Egg replacer could also be used to help the coating stick.

Another point of note is that a cauliflower does not slice up with zero wastage. What do we do with the left over odd florets and leaves? Well, watch this space for Bang Bang Cauliflower and cauliflower leaf soup!

Now for the Curry sauce:

Hmm, now what on earth did we actually put in there? Copious internet research presents many many many recipes. So many. Our biggest inspirations were:

Wagamama themselves

Jamie Oliver because, you know, he’s always got a recipe for everything

Gizzi Erskine on the Happy Foodie

Essentially this is a French roux based sauce, but with coconut milk as the liquid and Indian curry powder to flavour. Made by the Japanese.

Core common ingredients are as follows:

  • 2 carrots
  • an onion
  • 5 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
  • a thumb sized piece of ginger
  • turmeric (we used 2cm grated fresh but 1/2 tsp powdered would work)
  • flour (we used cornflour to keep this GF)
  • curry powder (pick a GF brand like Sharwoods)
  • 500 ml veggie stock: homemade, cubes, low salt, GF, up to you

And further ingredients that we have selected to make our sauce our own:

  • 1 can of coconut milk (we used light)
  • soy sauce to taste (use GF if you want) about 50mls
  • honey: to taste. About 2 tbsp
  • 1 teaspoon of garam masala (beware gluten can lurk in spice blends)
  • 2 fresh red chillies
  • 1 tsp your fave chilli flakes, not too hot
  • 2 curry leaves

Bubble the sauce until the veggies are soft and the spices cooked out. Remove curry leaves and blitz the whole dang thing.

Return to the pan and simmer, reduce until it is the thickness you like. It should coat the breaded katsu, not too thin. This is why we like to keep the veggies in the mix, rather than strain them out like some other recipes do.

Add honey and soy to adjust the seasoning to your liking.

And there you have it, our Cauliflower Katsu Curry (Vegan and Gluten Free)

Serve with plain boiled sticky rice and a cheeky pickled salad.

You’re welcome.

Aromatic Lamb Meatballs

We’re still in comfort food season in the UK. There may be sunshine during the day but the nights are cooler and a hearty dish is just the ticket. Meat doesn’t happen every day at The Birdhouse so when it does it is given careful consideration from beginning to end. An unexpected sunny evening has led us to cook outside. Everything is better outside, isnt it?

Meatballs are a family fave. Any style is good but, household heritage dictates that it is curried meatballs today. Lamb takes spices well and has the fat to avoid drying out too much. Let’s go make meatballs!

The more the merrier

You should be prepared for the vast quantity of ingredients we have used here. This is Pakistani Asian cooking. Every Pakistani household would have all of these ingredients to hand. If you don’t then perhaps buy a jar of sauce. Unapologetic.

The dish is our own Birdhouse recipe. Not necessarily unique but no recipe books were opened or packet mixes used. All ingredients were carefully chosen, as basic as possible and blended by us for our own tastes. No hacks here. All quantities can be adjusted to suit your good selves. We are just a guide.

We have a wonderful local butcher: Kevin. He will supply all sorts of meaty goodies at the drop of a hat. He has minced a kilo of lamb shoulder for us. This will easily feed our family of six and maybe we’ll use any leftover sauce to turn into a ‘slightly’ more veggie meal next week (add a can of chickpeas, fry off some paneer, slice in tofu, a bag of spinach…your choice).

Here we go:

For the meatballs:

  • 1kg lamb mince
  • 2 green finger chillies, finely chopped (check they’re good and hot)
  • 10 cardamom pods (yes, really ten)
  • 3 allspice berries
  • 3 cloves
  • 3 cloves of garlic, crushed
  • a small handful of coriander seeds
  • a tablespoon of black peppercorns
  • half a cup of fried onions. These can be fried by hand or, bought pre-fried.
  • teaspoon of salt

The meatballs are flavoured with highly aromatic spices. This is not a dish for the fainthearted.

Grind up the spices with the salt, add to the mince, along with the garlic, green chilli and the fried onions. Smoosh the mince together and shape into walnut sized meatballs. Fry until golden brown.

It’s always worth doing a little taste test by frying a mini patty. This will give you a chance to taste the seasoning and heat levels before frying the whole batch of meatballs. And gives you an excuse to eat the meatballs before anyone else!

For the Sauce:

  • Whole spices: 3 bay leaves, 2 black cardamom pods, 4 green cardamom pods, 1 cinnamon stick
  • 3 onions, sliced
  • 2 red chillies, mild. Our’s come from Watt’s Farm, via Ocado. Seeds and all.
  • Tomato paste
  • Ginger root
  • Fresh turmeric
  • 1 tablespoon fenugreek seeds
  • 2 tablespoons corainder seeds
  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 3 allspice berries
  • 3 tablespoons garam masala
  • Chilli flakes/powder to taste. We used our Birdhouse blend from 2019.
  • 2 cans coconut milk
  • 4 hardboiled eggs (honestly, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it)

Grind the seed spices: fenugreek, coranider, appsice and black pepper. Add the garam masala. Blend the ginger, garlic, tomato paste and turmeric with water until it is a smooth paste. Fry the onions in a little sunflower oil. Add the whole spices and then the spice grind. Fry off until the aromatic oils are released. Add the ginger/garlic/tomato blend. Add now the coconut milk. Cook until it had reduced to about half.

Or just plop everything in a pan until it is a brown, thick amalgam.

Still with us? Here we go for another round. We promise you’ll have a scrummy dinner at the end of this epic journey.

For the final dish:

  • Add the meatballs to the sauce
  • Add hard boiled eggs if you like that sort of thing.
  • Bubble away until it is all thick and unctuous. We’re cooking on a kadai but this stage could happen on the hob or in an oven.

And now the dish is ready. Meatballs are served with homemade bread, chopped salad and plain yoghurt.

Is it worth it? Totally. Cooking is a tonic for the soul. Feed yourselves and your family well and all is well.

Results of topping chilli plants

It was March 28th when the Big Snip occurred. The tops of the seedlings were unceremoniously chopped off and they have been nursing their wounds ever since. All in the hope that new side shoots would appear and make bushier, sturdier and more productive plants.

That was two weeks ago…what do the plants look like now?

Here they are, in all their glory: tight plants with side shoots a plenty. A bit awkward, in the teenage phase if you will, but their small leaves will soon catch up with their big leaves and all will be bushy and well.

What’s next?

The plants need to have a good space around each of them. They are currently wedged together on windowsill trays and under a grow light in our study. Not ideal. There are now some critical issues:

  1. Shortage of compost: many plants need potting on but compost is in short supply. We are reusing last year’s spent compost, mixed with extra perlite and garden compost. No grit this year as it is too expensive and difficult to get hold of.
  2. Over crowding: by not potting on yet we have larger plants in smaller pots, with less gap between each plant. Light, air flow and good space is what each plant needs to grow to its full size potential. All those new side shoots will grow leggy if they are over crowded.
  3. Pot bound root ball: yet again roots are starting to be seen from the bottom of pots. If they are not potted on the roots poking out will wither and the ones inside will become pot bound.
  4. Space indoors is running out: an entire room has been taken over by chillies. This is not practical anymore.

Solutions are coming.

A 900L bag of compost is on the way (there are also tomatoes, squashes, cucumbers, beans to consider you know). A 3m x 2m poly tunnel is ordered, staging is being prepared. Perhaps within this week our plants will be heading out into the great outdoors (heated poly tunnel).

Guide to Topping Chilli Plants

Do you want bushy chilli plants? Strong & sturdy, multi stemmed, eventually laden with fruit?

Early Red Primavera Habanero from 2019. Topped in April to encourage extra branching and more fruit. Ripe from in late July.

Well of course you do! But maybe your plant are not quite there yet. If not, then look no further than The Birdhouse Miracle Cure!

How do we achieve the ideal chilli plant?

Some plants are just born this way but others need more help. Some will just do their thing regardless of how you tend them but there is nothing wrong with encouraging them in the right direction.

By applying The not-yet-patented Birdhouse Miracle Cure – otherwise known as topping – we can encourage side shoots and bushy growth which lead to strong, multi stemmed, hopefully super fruity plants later on.

In addition to resulting in a good strong, bushy plant, topping will nip out any very early flower buds from the single growing shoot. These buds often drop and do not set fruit. Even plants that do set early fruit can be negatively affected and fail to produce any more flowers. Topping may well avoid flower abscission entirely.

Is there some sort of science that can convince me topping works?

Plants have hormones. These hormones make different parts of the plant act in certain ways. In this instance, we are messing around with the growth hormones, auxins and gibberellins.

These hormones work together in the top growth shoot of a chilli seedling, causing cell elongation and increased cell division resulting in a rapidly growing shoot.

By removing the lead growing shoot we are sending the hormone concentration out to other areas it can be effective, namely the leaf axils where buds can develop. The hope is that each axil will produce axillary buds that eventually turn into extra branches. Thus creating a bushy plant with many growing shoots rather than a single stem.

In previous years topping has largely been very successful. And so we repeat the process this year. However, what occasionally happens is that just one of the axils produces an axillary shoot and that in turn just becomes a new single lead shoot, rather than a larger number of new side shoots. Resulting in a lop sided and unstable plant. Not bushier, not extra flowers or fruit. Just top again!

2019’s results can be seen here

But HOW do we top the plants!?

Patience. Start by selecting appropriate candidates for treatment. Look for plants that are all or most of the following:

Oooh, perfect to whip its top off
  • Tall;
  • Leggy (not necessarily that same as tall) Leggy means ‘larger than desirable gaps between leafs sets’;
  • Single stemmed – best to treat them before they have split to the classic Y ;
  • No side shoots naturally forming;
  • Have 4 or more pairs of true leaves.

Annuum plants are often perfect for topping treatment at this stage in the season. They can take an early top and maybe even another in a couple of weeks. A second top may be necessary if one new axillary shoot becomes dominant.

Annuum chilli plants ready to top

Chinense types are usually a bit slower to grow to start with. They stay shorter too. Good results come from topping but make sure they have enough true leaves before attempting. Keeping in mind that Chinense take longer to produce ripe fruit you don’t want to top too late either.

Chinense type chilli plants ready to top

Baccatum are often sprawling, branched plants. An early top could help them to produce even more branches.

Baccatum chillies ready to top

Rocoto chillies have branched plants. Catch them before they split to the first Y and topping can help reduce the spindly nature of their initial growth.

Rocoto chilli plants ready to top

Come on now, how do we DO this thing?

OK, like this.

  1. Put on your brave pants, this could get scary;
  2. Gather the tools: clean, sharp scissors in one hand (we like embroidery scissors or tiny snips for bonsai work);
  3. Take the selected victim in the other hand;
  4. Carefully position the scissors to snip out the growing shoot, leaving behind at least four good true leaves.
  5. And breathe out. Honestly, within a week, probably five days, new buds of side shoots will have appeared in the crooks of the remaining leaves.

Are there any reasons not to treat the plants this way?

Topping will check the production of flower buds as the plant will concentrate on producing more growing spikes. Too late in the season and you risk not achieving fully grown and ripe chillies.

Some plants natural form side shoots, grow short and bushy, are covered in fruit anyway. No need to top. Let them get on with the job themselves.

Slow growing chillies – often Chinense types – do not need further excuses to take longer to flower and fruit. Consider if the extra fruit you might gain is worth the longer wait or even the risk of the first frosts arriving before your chillies are ripe!

Any cut is a possible introduction of infection to the plant. Ensure scissor are clean and each plant is checked for signs of disease.

Discarded growth shoots

And there we have it, a seemingly crazy attack on our precious babies, all in aid of more hot pods at the end of the season.

Good luck!

How and when to pot on chilli seedlings

Here we go again. The seeds have germinated, true leaves are growing. All seems well. And then, suddenly it dawned on us that these precious babies might need a bit more than a teeny tiny pot and seed compost. What next?

Reporting, ready to POT ON, Sir!

Have a look

A seedling that is ready to pot on for the first time will be showing certain key signs:

  1. It will actually be growing. Smaller leaves becoming bigger leaves. The plant will be getting taller. New leaves green up. Plants just sitting there, existing with two seed leaves, sulking, are not ready for a bigger pot yet.
  2. The water is being used up quickly in the first pot. Another sign the plant is growing well and using what you give it.
  3. Maybe a root or two are poking out of the bottom. Chillies like to be potted on incrementally. Not straight into a whopping great 20L pot. The surest sign they’re ready to move home is little white roots peeking out underneath.

Get prepared

The seedlings will wait a couple of extra days whilst you prepare their new home. Get the next size pot in from the cold shed/garage/backdoor step/unheated greenhouse. Bring in any soil that is going to used and let it warm up. Prepare your work station, table coverings, labels, pens, dibber, watering can, chilli feed, trays, capillary matting. It’s like preparing for the arrival of a new baby. Get all the kit sorted in advance. We all have our preferences but make sure you’ve got all your fave tools to hand. We like a teaspoon and a chopstick at this stage.

Your pot of choice will depend on your preference and circumstance. We have been collecting and reusing 9cm square pots at this stage for some years now. These suit us for many reasons: they come to us via purchases at a favourite nursery (West Kington Nurseries name check)… friends and family give them to us…they fit together with no spaces… they fit well on the trays we use on our window sills in the Winter months… easy to stack and store… easy to keep clean… good to write on with chalk pens for labels… discourages roots from going round and round…durable and last for a number of years. Some of our pots are easily seven years old, if not older. Virtually family.

Pick a pot that works for you.

Ahh, but what type of soil?

A free draining soil mix will suit chilli babies

Much has been written about soil type. Lots of advice is out there. Last season we spent many hours researching, sourcing, combining, mixing and using a very special Birdhouse Mix. It all seemed very important at the time. You can read our 2019 soil post here:

https://birdhousechillies.com/2019/02/06/the-quest-to-find-the-best-soil/

But this year, we are doing things a little differently. We have saved and are reusing the Birdhouse Mix soil from pots last year. *Gasp* I hear you all draw breath. It is not the done thing according the the Wise Growing Elders. And it is certain that some of you will just plain disagree with our actions. No problem, we all garden our own way. However, in this day & age of recycle, reuse and reduce, it surely makes sense to reuse the soil we so lovingly created. So we are.

If we’re not convincing enough then why not listen to Alys Fowler, gardening extraordinaire.

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/may/18/how-to-reuse-old-compost-alys-fowler

So how to ensure the old compost is put to good use…and is actually good for our chillies?

Check the texture. Is it good and friable (best word EVER)? Rub through any clumps as if making pastry. The baby chilli roots need air around them and need to be able to push through the soil to spread out. Fluff the soil up nicely for them.

Check the content. Are there pests, seeds, twigs, berries, fungus, or other microbes that could cause harm to the new plants? If so, discard. Pick out any old roots. Our soil store is directly under a gargantuan Holm Oak tree. Great volumes of waxy leaves fall into the soil. They too have to be picked out. Grrr!

Check your intentions. Do you intend on feeding your plants? (Yes!) A liquid feed is perfect for reused compost. If not then you may need to add a general fertiliser or want to consider a more nutritious soil to start with.

Check any supplements. Some people add water retention beads. You may want to add grit, perlite or vermiculite (or cat litter, Alys). Good drainage is best for chillies. Our soil mix has plenty of grit, sand and perlite already so we just added a 10% of peat free multi-purpose compost, just to add bulk and a touch of all round nutrients for the next few weeks. We also add a layer of horticultural grit at the bottom of each pot to avoid the roots sitting in anything too wet.

Are we ready to pot now?

Potting on and on and on

And now you can pot on. This is how we do it:

  1. Select your first seedling, check which variety it is and label its new 9cm square pot. We use chalk pen.
  2. Put a layer of horticultural grit in the bottom of the pot, followed by a layer of lightly damp, warmed soil.
  3. Our seedlings are in newspaper pots. Then can just be popped on top of the soil layer.
  4. Back fill around the pot. If the seedling is leggy then top the soil up until just under the seed leaves. Gently not to damage the stem as that could cause weakness later on.
  5. Pick up the pot and gently knock it on a surface to settle down the soil without compacting it. Top up if need be.
  6. Place the pot on a tray lined with capillary matting.
  7. Water with a weak feed. Warm water, from the base.

Presenting the Class of 2020 in their new pots

Of course a chilli head’s work is never done. Here are the rest of the Class of 2020. Chinense on the right, gradually putting on bulk. On the left are the late germinators. Mostly Annuums so they should be fine. All too little for new pots yet.

Not quite ready to pot on.

Keeping chilli seedlings under a grow light

We’ve got a light! Just one mind you… but it may multiply. Let’s see if it makes a difference to last year’s au naturel efforts. We have the Phlizon 1200W LED Full Spectrum grow light. Father Christmas did a lot of research and selected this magnificent glowing product. Good work Saint Nick!

Phlizon 1200W is currently strung up with a Heath Robinson style pulley & rope system between bookcase and curtain rail. Dangling 24 inches from the seed leaves of the chilli babies, it gently whirrs in the corner of the room and the seedlings gaze lovingly up at it.

The Dove from Above: Phlizon 1200W,

Why do we need lights?

When us chilli growin’ Brits want to make full use of the heat and light of our limited Summer months, we have to start planting way back in January – especially with those tricky Chinense types. The UK climate certainly presents some challenges when starting this early. Long, dark nights and cold, grey days are certainly not the perfect environment for chillies.

To replicate what a chilli likes, we use a number of techniques that hopefully give our plants a good start in life. One of these techniques is to use a grow light: replacing or supplementing the seemingly absent sun with an artificial source of light. This instantly deals with the lack of daylight hours in a drab Hampshire Winter.

It’s not just replacing like for like either, an artificial sun can be much, much more. You can tailor the wavelength range of lights to suit the particular phase of growing your plants are in. Briefly, green plants (including chillies) need a range of solar radiation (light) of wavelength 450-700nm to grow to their potential. This is known as Photosynthetically Active Radiation (PAR) and happens to correspond to the spectrum the human eye can register.

Photosynthetically Active Radiation (PAR) range that stimulates plant growth corresponds with the spectrum visible to the human eye

For early growth and strong roots the plants need a wavelength range of 450-495nm. This is the blue light range. Imagine a chilli plant in the wild, early in the growing season (Spring and early Summer) sunlight is naturally more in this range.

Later on, during the flowering and fruiting stage at the end of Summer, early Autumn, sunlight has a more red tone, 680-750nm. We can replicate this by switching to the BLOOM light range. Red tones increase flowering and photosynthesis rate.

When producing chilli plants under artificial light we can replicate and enhance what Mother Nature tells us to do.

What types of lights are available?

Fluorescent lighting

This is a good cheap start-up option. Bulbs are readily available in stores and online. The bulbs and units are relatively small and can be fitted well into grow tents. They don’t get super hot and so no need for fans or large distances between light and plants.

High Intensity Discharge lights: Metal Halides (blue spectrum) and High Pressure Sodium (red light)

These are a serious bit of kit. Probably a bit too full on for a home grower like us but something to aspire to if things scale up.

The lights produce a significant amount of heat, which can be a good thing for chillies but will also come with additional tasks and risks. Extra watering, fanning to keep cooler air circulating and greater space to keep the light further away from the young plants are all necessary. The results can be damaging if you get this type of lighting wrong.

So we opted for LEDs…

OK, not cheap to buy a unit but cheap to run. Yes, you have to wade through vast quantities of overseas sellers and their Amazon reviews but once installed they are simple to use, safe for beginners and not too bulky. Better for the environment with low electricity required to run them, long bulb life and minimal heat output.

The Phlizon 1200W is a full spectrum unit which has a VEG switch (to turn on blue and white lights), a BLOOM switch (red and white) and both switches can be used together. Not sure if we will end up using the BLOOM phase light option as the plants will be in the greenhouse by then. Mr Birdhouse is hoping to use the blue phase for his tomatoes, squashes and cucumbers so the chillies may never experience the rosy glow of the red bloom light. Perhaps separate lights for each phase would have been better?

How much light?

We’ve covered why we use additional lighting and what types of lighting are available. Now to think about how much light is required.

Chillies originated in places where there are longer hours of daylight. Perhaps they still remember this and will grow rapidly if this is replicated? 12-16 hours of light seems to be a pretty good amount. Too much of a good thing can be bad for them though so remember to switch the lights off. Keep to your routine and they will reward you with strong growth. A plug timer will help with this (next month’s purchase). A ratio of 16:8 hours on:off seems to be just about right for our growing chillies.

Potting on chitted chilli seeds

Having soaked our chilli seeds in tea; chitted them on warm, damp kitchen paper until they germinated; and sung sweetly to them… it is now time to plant them in some actual soil and let them do their thing.

The beginning of the new year is a cold, dark and lonely time for a seedling in the UK. We look after our chilli babies the best we can to stop them being affected by the January Blues.

So what exactly do we do?

Paper pots

Careful preparation is the name of the game. We make newspaper pots using a wooden pot maker. Each germinated seed gets popped into a warmed paper pot for the next stage of its journey

These pots are perfect for us because…

  • they are free,
  • made from recycled materials,
  • can be potted directly into a bigger pot, with minimal root disturbance
  • can be composted at the end of the season
  • No labelling mix-ups, just write on the outside of the pot.

Ok, so they take time to make and are a little flimsy. They can dry out quickly, especially on a heated surface or in direct sunlight but we love them and they work for us.

Paper pot production goes into overdrive as we attempt to keep up with the number of seeds that are germinating. 50 is our goal today, must get rolling!

Seed compost

The seedlings need very little to start of with as they are still being fed from the endosperm (food stash from within the seed). Use a dedicated seed compost as it is low nutrients, good drainage, small particles. All good for little roots trying to develop.

A couple of teaspoons of seed compost fill each pot. Don’t forget to write the variety on the outside BEFORE you water

Warmth

Gently warm the paper pots filled with seed compost BEFORE the seedlings are put in the soil. This means there is no shock to the system and they should continue to grow as if nothing has changed.

We place our pots on plastic windowsill trays. Lined with capillary matting. These tray conveniently rest on top of our radiators. Soil stays warm. Chillies LOVE it!

In addition to keeping the pots warm we use warm water when giving the seedlings a drink. Water from the base every few days. Careful not to overwater as waterlogged soil can check growth. Keep an eye on the outside pots as they will dry out quicker than the inner ones.

Warming nicely

Light

Make sure the seedlings get as much natural light as possible. We started in January last year, grew under only natural light and had a pretty amazing harvest. We just had to rotate a lot. The light keeps the plants from getting too leggy in the early days. Consider a set of grow lights. We are about to embark on this journey with our first set of lights: The Phlizon 1200W. More will be said about this at a later date.

Feed

After a week or so, once the seed leaves are unfurled and looking a good strong green, we start to feed a weak solution of Chilli Focus. Not too much, or the roots can burn, just enough to keep the wolves at bay. 5mls to litre of warm water should do it.

Start to feed after each seedling has

And there you have it, a simple but tested way of looking after your precious babies at this early stage of the game.