The glut is starting

vegetable harvest july 21 2017To sum it up briefly: We can’t keep up with the zucchini. Too hot to do much baking! When we’ve had enough of kale salad, the greens are becoming pesto. There’s been more than enough for that. This evening marked our first harvest of beans, and the Sungold tomatoes are kicking off the tomato season. We harvested the first two three days ago and have had a few more since then. At least we’ll soon be able to use up cucumbers by making gazpacho.

The next debate for the garden: what to plant where the peas have been? A fall crop of peas? Try again with beets? Find a zucchini plant in the clearance section at a garden center and have a fall crop?

Feel free to weigh in.


The marmalade challenge

marmalade-jarsI know these ingredients aren’t from the garden, but I wanted to blog about my first time making marmalade as part of Food in Jars‘ Mastery Challenge. Plus there’s really not much to say about the garden in January (or even the yard, beyond some wood-chopping to keep the firewood well stocked)

I went for a recipe for thick-cut ginger, grapefruit and orange marmalade from my mini Australian Women’s Weekly jams and jellies book, using standard supermarket navel oranges and grapefruit. I needed 2 of each, plus 7 cups of water and 7 cups of sugar — and 2 tablespoons of freshly grated ginger.

I used up all the ginger in the fridge and think I had that much, but given that I think ginger is an essential food group, I would have preferred to put in at least twice as much. Plus I’m searching to get any hint of ginger now. That’s pretty surprising considering that I’ve always found Australian Women’s Weekly to have big flavors (see the chili cordiander jam/chutney that I’ve blogged about before and adore.)

This doesn't look like much, but it's the marmalade boiling.
This doesn’t look like much, but it’s the marmalade boiling.

Another lesson I learned is that I’d prefer smaller slices — mostly not as long, though also not as thick would be fine too.

I ended up with seven 8-ounce/half-pint/jelly jars and one jar half that size

Next month’s challenge is salt preserving. Any suggestions? Maybe I’ll learn to make gravlax? (Does that count?)

Jam from my neighbor’s pear tree

sonia's pearsA neighbor has a dwarf pear tree (Keiffer semi-dwarf, to be precise) that has been pretty prolific this year, and she kindly told me to help myself.

I tried not to be too greedy, but I did get enough to make this pear ginger jam and then share it with her. She pronounced it awesome, so I guess it’s one I’ll be making again (especially if she keeps offering up pears).

Here’s the recipe for pear and ginger preserves, from “Canning for a new generation; Bold, fresh flavors for the modern pantry” by Liana Krissoff:

3 pounds pears, peeled, cored and diced (about 7 cups). I can’t remember my neighbor’s variety, but it’s not the usual kind you find at the store. And they were pretty hard.

3 tablespoons finely diced fresh ginger (I’m lazy — I just grated a big chunk, more than 3 tablespoons)

grated zest of 1 lemon (oops, I skipped)

3 tablespoons strained fresh lemon juice (I cheated and used bottled lemon juice)

1 1/2 cups sugar (I liked that it was so little)

Put a small plate in the freezer.

Prepare jars.

Put all the ingredients in a wide preserving pan (ok, a big pot). Bring to a boil over high heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until the pears are very soft and translucent (these pears were so firm that I took a potato masher to them, leaving some texture) and a small dab of the jam spooned onto the chilled plate becomes somewhat firm (it will not gel), 15-20 minutes.

Remove from heat, stir gently for a few seconds to distribute the fruit in the liquid.

Ladle the hot jam in the jars in the usual way, water-bath for 5 minutes, make sure seal pops… Done.

I just discovered Liana Krissoff has a blog, though it looks like she struggles to keep it going. Just like most of us.


sign at a pick-your-own apple farmMy third type of harvest, and my good deed for Thanksgiving to boot: Gleaning apples in support of New Jersey Farmers Against Hunger.

The Brit and I were part of a relatively small group of volunteers who descended Saturday on a pick-your-own apple farm in northern New Jersey. The farmer said he’d had a great year, but there were plenty of apples still on the trees and yet more good ones on the ground. The goal was to collect enough apples for other people to pack into mixed bags for food pantries to hand out for Thanksgiving. So the apples didn’t have to be the perfect “fancy” grade that you find in a supermarket. We were told to also take those with a bruise that could be cut out and used for pie or apple sauce. Here’s to hoping the recipients don’t turn up their noses at something less than perfect!

Apples on a treeCan’t reach the apples on the tree? Some people used an apple-picking tool that kind of looks like a lacrosse stick. Painfully slow. The rest of us learned to give the tree a strong two-handed shake that would send the apples falling to the ground, where they generally survived (some did crack) and we’d recover them. Quick, but the downside was a few bops to the head from falling apples. One woman decided her basket could serve as an ad-hoc helmet, but I just took the hits.

basket of apples

It was a beautiful day, warm and sunny, and we filled basket after basket, dumping them in turn into giant bins that hold more than 1,000 pounds. We only started to flag in the final half hour. Still, we harvested about 15,000 pounds of various varieties of apples in under three hours — a record for one gleaning there, the farmer said. And we didn’t finish. There’s another gleaning planned for Saturday.

If the apples don’t get picked, they’ll just go to waste.

And it’s still shocking how many apples already are being left to rot on the ground to turn into compost by spring. Imagine what you could d if you had a cider press!

Bonus for us volunteers: We all went home with a bag of apples. I went for the green-gold Crispins (sweet and crisp) and the red Winesap, a tart and firm heirloom variety. I made some apple crisp, but it’s time to start looking for some more imaginative recipes.

pallets of apples

Another kind of harvest

Olives on the treeThis has nothing to do with my garden (sorry), but it’s too interesting not to share: An olive harvest in Umbria.

Thanks to a friend who goes to the same spot in Italy every year, I was able to see the harvest at La Montagnola, an olive farm that also rents out really nice rooms and apartments to tourists (= Agriturismo) that is about 10 miles from Perugia in central Italy. This was an opportunity I was not going to pass up!

Once upon a time, olives were plucked from the trees manually using what’s essentially a small hand rake. But now it’s mostly mechanical, at least in this part of the world. It goes like this:

Think of an upside-down umbrella attached to a tractor that envelopes the skinny base of the tree. The tree then gets a good shake for 5-6 seconds, and the olives fall into the umbrella:

Olive harvest: The upside-down umbrella

But not all olives are ready to fall. To get at the many that are still clinging to a branch, the next step uses a gadget (powered by something) with rake-like tines that loosens them, and in they fall into the inverted umbrella.

Raking the olive trees

The other half of the two-person team uses an orange hand rake. It’s different from trying to detangle long hair in that you start at the top, hold on to the branch a bit up from the bottom to protect the newest growth, and work fast, rather than painstakingly attacking each knot (olive) gently.

The olives eventually all end up in the container attached to the umbrella, and it’s time to move on to the next tree.

Overall, the workers told me, it takes 5-6 minutes, maybe 10 minutes, to do one tree.

La Montagnola has 6,000 olive trees (and several varieties) in the various groves on the hills, so the harvest takes six weeks. Vittoria, the owner of La Montagnola, says each tree on average produces three liters of olive oil.

By the way, here’s the view from the part of the farm where I stayed:

The view from halfway up La Montagnola

Before the advent of the machines, the harvest was done by hand. And Vittoria did let us try the old-fashioned way: Clambering up a ladder with rounded steps, grasping a branch and raking out the olives with that orange hand rake. A tarp replaces the mechanized umbrella.

Vittoria told us that the harvest can be done differently in other parts of Italy. In Puglia, down in Italy’s boot heel, it is much warmer, and olives can be left to fall naturally to the tarp below. Because they are on the tree for longer, the taste and chemical breakdown of the oil is different.

Harvesting of course is just the first part. The olives (and the bits of leaves and branches that some are still attached to) get dumped into a giant wheelbarrow-like dumpster and then into big crates, where they are then screened to get rid of the biggest pieces of debris, then washed and screened some more.

Only then does the pressing begin. The olives turn into a paste and then the liquid is extracted. The paste gets reused as a form of compost, oil and water are separated again, and you end up with a really nice olive oil:

Fresh olive oilI came home with olive oil made on Friday and bottled just for me on Sunday. It can’t get much fresher than that!

Here’s my video of the harvest.

We also did an olive-oil tasting. I admit that I don’t have the sophisticated nose to distinguish subtleties (same with wine!), but there was no missing the difference between store-bought, mass-produced oil oil and its solvent-like smell and the smell of olives in Vittoria’s olive oil. Vittoria also helps evaluate olive oils so she knows how to spot the tricks and even which olive oils really can’t be from the area.

Olive oil tastingJust as with wine and grapes (or anything from your garden!), the soil and temperatures influence the final taste. Olive oils, like wine, can be a mish-mash of oil from everywhere (and as long as it’s bottled in Italy, it’s Italian, even if the olives come from elsewhere). Or it can be from one small region, with its own Denominazione D’Origine Controllata, and even be a single variety of olives, just as with wine.

One difference with wine, though, is that you want to use your olive oil when it’s young and fresh. You don’t age fancy olive oil the way you wage a fine wine. The oil I brought home is best when used by Dec. 15, 2014. (Stamped by hand on the label too!). Somehow I don’t think the olive oil on our supermarket shelves is anywhere near that fresh.

Starting Seeds

seedlingsIt’s a new year and time to be more resolute about keeping this blog up to date. The garden did fine in the back half of last year, but I got too busy to tend to it and do everything else .. and take pictures and write.

So we spent part of Presidents Day starting our 2013 seedlings (and trying desperately to use up some seed packets!).

First off, those awesome sungold tomatoes. We have nine plugs, most with an extra seed. All I want is two plants, so if they all come up, we will be taking names for those who want a plant or two.

I didn’t see any Ramapo seeds, but I filled three plugs withe the last of my Lynn’s beefsteak mix heirloom tomato seeds (supposedly a mix but I only seem to remember big red ones), black cherry and yellow plum. Another set was filled with some ‘peach’ tomatoes (a gift),, very few grape tomatoes (harvested from a previous year’s crop) and Brandywine from a colleague’s oh-so-tasty 2010 crop. Hopefully that will give us some nice variety. And again, if they all come up, more than enough to share (or swap).

And yes, somehow I will restrain myself to about eight tomato plants.

The Brit wants broccoli, so two sets of nine-plug containers have been turned over to that. A two-ounce seed packet comes with so many seeds that it could take us a long time to go through them. If you’d like some, let me know. I’d say if you want to swap seeds, let me know, but we have so many seeds already! (Oh, but I think we could use some rainbow chard)

We do have a set of nine pugs devoted to Fordhook Swiss chard.seedlings on the heat mat

Another set of nine plugs has been turned over to basil. Lemon Mrs. Burns seeds are finally used up, as is a packet of lime basil (a big favorite). The final third went to Italian basil, and I still have some cinnamon basil seeds to try. Once again, if they all germinate (or even if half do), we will have plenty to share.

A second set was devoted to three more herbs: some old Greek oregano seeds, plus gifts of lemon balm and cinnamon basil seeds.

Another set of nine went to parsley. I admit the seeds are a bit old, but there were lots, so we can have a high failure rate and still have plenty of plants to share.

The Brit then went wild with those Seeds of Change packets that my sister-in-law gave us a few Christmases ago. And still we have only used up one packet (Bau Si mustard greens). I think the only thing he forgot to devote any space to was arugula.

Bottom line: We’ve got two full trays on a heat mat and are anxiously checking for signs of germination.

Next month we’ll get a range of peas in the ground. And maybe we can get beets and rainbow radishes in there too. (or is that April? Potatoes are April, probably after a trip to see my mom in Ohio and the obligatory stop at a great garden center there.)

One lesson learned: snap shut that cap on the garden marker that has dried out.

Surviving the Tomato Glut

tomatoes, basil and pepper

First, the disclaimer: I don’t know that you can have too many tomato plants. We officially have 12 this year, but there are also a few volunteers, including one that came up in the newest bed that is pretty soil-free, being heavily filled with peat moss. (I credit the compost at the bottom.) And I’m worried they will run out fairly soon because we’ve got some kind of blight (I think) that is turning the leaves brown from the bottom of the plant up, and I don’t recall seeing a lot of new flower for the larger tomatoes.

So how to cope with too many to eat?

First, plant a variety so you have cherry tomatoes you can eat like candy (Sungolds are awesome), slicers, some oranges or other colors to play off the red ones in your salad.

And there here’s what we’ve been doing with ours (beyond salads… because I have to say, that New York Times food section article the other week on this subject was so unimaginative):

Pasta with red and gold cherry tomatoes, riffed from a cookbook called Fresh From the Farmers’ Market

Gazpacho, paired with our lemon basil and a garden cuke. We like the Alton Brown version; Worcestershire sauce is a surprise ingredient.

My mother’s rice-stuffed tomatoes. It’s really simple, and I don’t follow much of a recipe. A perfect use for the seven Rutgers tomatoes I picked from the garden this evening, with some basil and a cayenne pepper also from the garden. Here’s how to do it:

Cut off the top and set it aside. Then scoop out all the pulp from the tomato. You don’t have to be particularly neat about this. Dump that into a bowl. Repeat until you are done with all the tomatoes. Tomatoes and lids go in an oven-proof baking dish.

Then dump the pulp into a food processor. Add seasonings — in my case, the basil, the pepper and some salt. (I forgot garlic. And season heavily — I am a notorious underseasoner.) Puree it and dump it back into the bowl. Fish out any lumps and puree it again.

Then mix in rice, keeping in mind the proportion of rice to liquid that you use when you are cooking rice on the stove. Tonight I decided to experiment with cracked wheat instead and poured in too much. So I pureed some extra tomatoes to add liquid.

I then filled each hollow tomato most of the way, then put the lid back on. I covered the entire thing with foil and put it in a 350-degree oven. I remember potatoes nestled around the tomatoes from my childhood, and the last time I made this, the Brit had left a garden potato on the counter. This time I sliced up three, but I’m a little worried about whether they’ll bake through. On the other hand, it’s hard to overcook this dish. You leave it in the oven until the rice has cooked, or even longer, say, an hour, or even longer as the oven cools. I have never burned this! It’s a wonderful flavorful mix of rice and tomatoes that also works well for a brown-bag lunch the next day.

Ready for the oven

Still too many tomatoes? Can them, make sauce or this yummy chutney. Then you can enjoy them in the middle of the winter.

And if that’s too much work, I’ve heard some people will just freeze the tomatoes whole and use them when cooking.