The Kitchen Garden
The Abundance Time
Get ready, here it comes
By Jan Leitschuh
This is the time for reaping. The farm stands, markets and well-diversified KGs (kitchen gardens) are brimming with vegetables, herbs, fruits and flowers.
Even the non-KG-ers may have a plethora of plump, ripe tomatoes on their pet potted plant. Or perhaps it’s sheaves of fresh basil from that small solo planting back in May.
Maybe the branches of that trio of landscaped rabbiteye blueberries are sagging to the ground with their sweet, nutritious payload. Or the farm stand sweet corn is so good you just want to save a batch for a Thanksgiving corn pudding or cornbread.
And then there’s the zucchini . . .
It’s the abundance time.
We’ve waited for it, tastebuds watering. Those first few pickings of garden-fresh produce were sublime. But the garden goods are coming thick and fast now. Soon, the kitchen counters will threaten to disappear under each day’s harvest.
What to do? What to do?
The focus right now is not on planting, with the possible exception of a later crop of bush beans, zucchini, fall tomatoes, cukes or summer squash. It’s best to pass on new plantings of sweet corn, eggplant, bell pepper or okra.
Instead, the wise kitchen gardener prepares for the overwhelming bounty of late July, when the plants pump out the produce faster than you can say “ratatouille.” So, how do you capture summer’s bounty to use on those chilly winter nights? Do you can, or are you apt to avoid steaming pots in July? Perhaps freezing, dehydration or oven-drying will be your go-to this year. Whatever method you choose, these days there are internet resources galore to help you do it right.
If you’ve never canned, it’s worth a venture into this time-honored method of food preservation. It’s a steamy summer process with its own set of paraphernalia, and one needs to set aside a morning to do it, but it offers a tangible and satisfactory result — and one that connects me, at least, to my mother, aunts and grandmothers. Sentiment and steam go hand-in-hand.
Basically, a heavy-duty canning jar is filled up with food, covered with a fitted lid and boiled for a specific time to kill potential pathogens. There’s nothing like dumping a jar of your homegrown stewed tomatoes into a batch of winter chili or opening up a quart of local July peaches for a holiday peach pie.
Jars and lids are in every supermarket this time of year. Canning kits are inexpensive and readily available and include a large pot, a jar rack, jar lifters, a wide-mouth funnel and a little magnet on a stick for picking up boiled lids and rims. My kit is over 20 years old.
If you plan to can low-acid tomatoes, beans, corn and other lower pH veggies, you need good resources and possibly a pressure cooker. Read up on how to prevent botulism spores and any other harmful organisms. Canning is not hard to do, but the process must be respected.
Jams and jellies are a good entree to canning. Jams make nice gifts, and allow for some creativity with added spices, liqueurs and flavorings. Think fig-habanero jam, blueberry Chambord or peach bourbon preserves.
How-to jam directions are very clear on the supermarket pectins that ensure the jam “sets” up. If making hot jams are not your thing on 90-plus degree days, some people freeze summer fruits to jam during cooler months when a warm kitchen is welcome. There are also easy, no-boil freezer jams. Recipes abound on the internet.
Freezing is perhaps the fastest and easiest way to preserve your harvest — if you have the space. You can also lock in nutrients from fresh produce by freezing at the peak of ripeness. Herbs, fruits and vegetables each have simple processes for preserving taste and texture when thawed.
Most fruits can be frozen raw. Blueberries and blackberries can be spread on a cookie sheet, frozen, then placed in labeled and dated heavy-duty freezer bags for winter snacking. (Spreading them out first for freezing prevents them from clumping.) Peaches can be frozen in a simple syrup, or puréed with some lemon juice to discourage discoloration, then frozen in ice cube trays for drinks or future smoothies. Don’t forget to make a few natural peach popsicles, while you’re at it.
Bell peppers and onions are easy — just chop, bag and freeze. Many vegetables freeze better if you blanch them first. Blanching involves a quick dip in boiling water to set the color and deactivate the natural enzymes that will further break down or discolor the food.
Transfer blanched veggies to an ice bath to stop the cooking. Drain and freeze in a single layer to prevent clumping, then bag, date and label. To prevent freezer burn, press out all the air, or use a straw to suck out extra air.
For sweet corn, you can freeze cobs whole but remove husk and silks first. Blanch cobs for four minutes then cool in an ice bath. Since bulky cobs take up space, you can slice the kernels off the cob when cool, then bag, date and label.
Blanch green and wax beans for three minutes. Zucchini and yellow squash slices are also three minutes. To remove the skins of peaches and tomatoes, blanch for 30 seconds or so, then put them into an ice bath. Tough tomato skins peel easier if you cut a small “x” at the bottom before plopping in hot water.
Cherry or grape tomatoes are easy to freeze. Pick out the green stem end and then freeze on trays like berries. Toss them atop winter casseroles.
Melons? Don’t keep them for long, but try a refreshing frozen granita or slushie of honeydew, lime and mint or one of cantaloupe, orange juice and Grand Marnier.
I’ve also dehydrated watermelon for hikes. Truly. You don’t end up with much but the chewy little slices are as sweet and flavorful as candy. Thin peach slices dehydrate well too. Purée with lemon and make fruit roll-ups for the kids.
Sun-dried plum tomatoes are my favorite. Slice in half, drizzle in olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Dry on a baking sheet in the oven at lowest heat until leathery. Freeze, or pack in oil and refrigerate. Use in pizzas, casseroles, salads, or eat as an intense, flavorful snack.
Herbs can be dried or frozen. Summer basil is probably the most popular herb to preserve for the winter. Whip up your favorite batch of pesto. I usually rinse off my basil then process it with a little good olive oil. Poured into ice cube trays, frozen, then bagged, I have a little burst of summer sunshine for any winter Italian dish, pasta or soup.
Drying is easy, just cut herbs before they flower. Strip the leaves from the stem and dry on a paper towel on a sunny table with good air circulation. Dump in a jar when absolutely crisp-dry. I dry catnip for the cat, fresh oregano and lemon thyme for seasoning, and my chocolate mint leaves for winter teas.
If you can’t eat and preserve it all, share your garden love with neighbors, friends or food banks. After all, it is the abundance time. PS
Jan Leitschuh is a local gardener, avid eater of fresh produce and co-founder of Sandhills Farm to Table.