Real Life Magazine, Fall 1997
As August progresses and kitchen gardens everywhere reach their zenith I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t some quiet conspiracy brewing in the vegetable world. I’ve gardened for both pleasure and profession for more years than I’d like to admit. Every year, regardless of where I live, the same thing happens.
Wham!! Somewhere between dozens and hundreds of tomatoes suddenly ripen in tandem. Oh sure, I’ve staggered my plantings with early, mid and late season varieties, studied gardening books, catalogs, and horticultural manuals – all to no avail! Yes, early varieties do set fruit earlier. Great green temptations hang from these vines, inspiring visions of “tomato steaks” sprinkled with salt and fresh ground pepper.
Days pass, then weeks. My early and midseason tomatoes ripen to a lighter shade of green. Meanwhile, the late season varieties are catching up. Finally, on some arbitrary day, silently agreed upon by tomatoes everywhere – they begin to turn red. At the same time, the local farmers markets are crowded with great deals on wonderfully fresh produce . . . tomatoes included.
What’s a person to do? Now, my family loves fresh tomatoes, peppers, and eggplant and we eat our share when they’re available. But, there are limits. Extended family, friends and neighbors alike cringe when they see me, grocery bags of garden surplus in hand, headed up their driveways.
Years ago, I experimented with canning and freezing vast quantities of excess summer produce. I quickly learned the first law of canning concerning kitchen gardens and the natural world. That is: no matter when one chooses a canning day (or week), it will be the hottest, most humid day of the year. No matter how early in the day you begin, the steam produced from the pressure cooker and boiling water bath combine with the day’s weather to provide you with your own personal sauna. Not much fun!!
Over the years, commitments to work and family have grown, leaving me with less time to “put up” my surplus. The desire still remains though, and I’ve learned to streamline the whole affair, making it easier, more enjoyable and even more productive! First and foremost, live by this rule: if you wouldn’t eat it today or tomorrow, you probably won’t want to eat it in February either. Too often, I’ve frozen veggies in August, only to throw them on the compost pile the following spring. At the time, it seemed like such a waste to throw them out. Think of the time I could have saved had I just admitted last August that my broccoli was past its prime!
I’ve also learned to use extra produce as ingredients rather than freezing specific types alone. I like making up a big pot of vegetable soup or stew, using whatever extras are on hand. A slow cooker makes this even easier. Later, I can leave it as is, or “doctor” it with meat, pasta, etc . . . so many options exist! This method saves me time twice – once in the summer and again later in the year when I have a head start on dinner.
Invest in a food dehydrator. Tomatoes and peppers adapt exceptionally well to this method of preservation. Just slice and place on the dehydrator racks. Ours runs from the end of August through September. As tomatoes dry, put them in plastic bags and throw them into the freezer. Bring them back to life by covering them with boiling water for about 10 minutes. Pour off, add olive oil and maybe a little garlic and basil. These “sun-dried” tomatoes are wonderfully flavorful. They’re much less expensive than those found at specialty markets and they make great Christmas gifts.
Crush a few dried tomatoes and add to tomato sauces, soups, etc. Sweet and hot peppers dry perfectly. Hard to believe as it may be, the sweet peppers re-constitute wonderfully. Add them to sauces and stews during the winter months when fresh peppers top £1.99/lb. at the market.
Finally, put away fresh herbs while they’re abundant. There’s nothing like basil to bring back the scent of summer. Dipping bunches in boiling water first helps retain peak flavor.
Try chopping basil and sandwiching between layers of salt. After several weeks, the salt will absorb the basil’s flavor. Not only is this stuff great, it lasts and lasts!