I may be done with the garden, but the garden is not done with me.
Remaining edibles demand harvest and transformation into preserved states of being. The excess of greens compels a cleansing of both body and bank account. How long can I go without buying groceries?
I’m on “staycation” and I’m going off the grid. Yes, this is my idea of fun. You kick back in your bikini in some third world country flaunting your big American dollars; I’ll stay home and play Zombie Apocalypse. Thankfully, there will be no zombies except the ones in my husband’s fiction, and thankfully I already have some olive oil, pasta, wine and protein in the house. I admit I’m not going 100% off the grid, just feeling like it’s time for frugality and retreat. And retreat is my idea of Big Fun.
The edible garden refuses to admit the end of the growing season, so why should I? I’ve said before, I am not the one in charge around here. Seeds of lettuce and radishes decided to germinate a few weeks ago despite my neglect. Lots of carrots are still safely tucked into the ground waiting to be picked. Chard and kale look better than ever after a light frost. I’m regretting the decision to pull all the tomatoes out last week, although they ripened nicely in the house and cooked up well. I wonder how many more I could have grown if I had protected the plants instead of giving up on them?
On the topic of Too Many Tomatoes, I wish to strongly affirm there is no such thing. Home gardeners stress about too many tomatoes, their families complain about repetitive meals, and many gardening and recipe books have sections about what to do with all those extra tomatoes, especially if they are green or greenish. Well give me your “extra” tomatoes, because hallelujah I have discovered roasting.
I’ve made Italian sauces with roasted tomato, some with eggplant and basil, some with anchovies and savory, some with garlic and Merlot. I made an Indian sauce with tomato, coriander seed, akashiso and carrots. My pride and joy, however, is roasted green tomato salsa. Read on and you will never fret about green tomatoes again.
Use a giant non-stick roasting pan. Fill the bottom with chopped onions. Fill the rest up with chopped green tomatoes. (You can also us half-green and red tomatoes, but red equals sweetness and this dish is more about the smoke and heat, so I would save your fully red tomatoes for another dish where sweetness is needed.) Add a can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, chopped up. Use half the can if you are squeamish. Add cumin if you have some, but it is not essential. Some salt, some olive oil, and roast it at 425 degrees for a few hours until the consistency pleases you. You can leave it a little soupy, for slow cooking chicken or pork, or you can cook it into a paste for slathering burritos or dipping chips.
The beauty of roasting tomatoes is that you only need to chop them up: no blanching, no peeling, no seeding, no days of orange cuticles and hours of scalding liquids fogging up your glasses, no huge mess and inevitable tomato liquid pooling on the floor to mop up. Just chop, roast, and you’re done. Roasting breaks down the texture of the skins and seeds, and eliminates so much liquid that you can almost make a paste this way. One time I left the salsa too long, and it began burning (you should remember to stir it, by the way); I lost some quantity to the crusted edges, but the burned parts added a rich caramelized flavor that gives an incredibly savory taste like sun dried tomatoes. Next year I must grow my own peppers so I can make the whole thing from scratch.
Now that we have dispelled the myth of Too Many Tomatoes, let us also dispel the myth of Baby Vegetables. First and foremost, “baby carrots” in little bags at the store are not young carrots harvested while small and tender, they are mature carrots cut into small pieces. Some of the baby vegetables sold at the market or touted on posh restaurant menus may be honestly named, but unless they are grown and harvested locally, they are no more fresh and tender than old vegetables. I’m too lazy to research it, but I bet old vegetables have more nutrition. I know they have more flavor.
My old carrots and beets, instead of becoming woody as all the experts warn, became deeply flavorful when I neglected them. I’ve had some beets go woody before, but this year I planted only Detroit Dark Red (GO TIGERS!) and had no casualties. The last batch, started from seed in April, came out of the ground this week ugly but infinitely edible. Pickling beets is loads of fun if you want your kitchen to look like a slaughterhouse. It’s worth the mess because they last for months in the fridge, and unlike those limp, sad flavorless blobs from a can, they really jazz up a Greek salad like nobody’s business.
To peel and prepare the beets, boiling is easiest but roasting is recommended because the beets will lose less flavor from being cooked. This batch was boiled since the oven was already in use making salsa. Being old beets, they retained strong flavor despite boiling, and the taste was comparable to young beets which have been roasted. Chalk up another mark in favor of old vegetables.
Get an awesome jar, and layer sliced beets and sliced onions in it, and herbs if you like. (You got that the beets are cooked and peeled first, right? Okay, just making sure.) If you are making refrigerator pickles with cucumbers, obviously don’t cook the cucumbers, just layer them the same way, and try some hot chilies and peppercorns in the mix. Using an awesome jar is imperative, because you’ll be looking at it every time you open the fridge, and you want an easy lid to avoid brine splatter when you open it. My jars are made by Anchor Hocking, and the lids just lift right up.
Make the brine with apple cider vinegar, water, sugar, and salt warmed in a pan, adding more of one thing or the other to taste. You must taste your brine. You must. When it tastes tangy, pour it into the jar. Many other vinegars and spices may be used. You can make all sorts of pickled things with your garden dregs.
If you have accidentally grown a giant mutant cucumber, it may not pickle too well because the slices would be enormous and watery. My Armenian mutant turns out to be normal, actually a kind of muskmelon. Fully grown at two feet long and resembling a baseball bat, it tastes mostly of cucumber and slightly of cantaloupe, with a very high water content. It makes a wonderful salad with onion, pepper, dill, and few drops of leftover brine as a dressing. It’s also great in Thai spring rolls with a dressing of lime juice and zest, fish sauce, rice vinegar, and cilantro. The only problem with letting the Armenian cucumber ripen is the size. How much cucumber can two people eat?
Two weeks ago I mentally gave up gardening at the first sign of fall. I didn’t tell anyone, but I thought, maybe I won’t grow any food next year. Maybe it’s too much work. Maybe I should be doing something more important with my spare time. I know people who are activists, artists, successful professionals, real movers and shakers, wonderful creative people, and it’s a little embarrassing to be so enamored of humble chores in comparison to them. I imagine they must think I’m devolving. But if we could all live together in an intentional community, they could move and shake and create, and I could grow some delicious food. Anyone up for starting an autonomous collective?