Dealing With the Autumn Harvest

Yesterday I spent most of the day and well into the evening trying to use up some of the produce from my garden before it went bad. This time of year can be a real challenge when everything needs to be harvested, cleaned, prepared, and often canned or frozen all at once. And I haven’t even started dealing with my root vegetables, which are starting to pop out of the soil they’re getting so big!

I harvested the four pears that were growing on my tiny little pear tree. The three on the left were of one type, and the one on the right is another. The tree has four different kinds of pears grafted onto the main trunk, but I stupidly removed the labels and now I can’t remember what varieties there were. I’m pretty sure the odd one out on the right is a Bartlett, though. I considered trying to bake something with the pears, but my kids claimed them for their lunches.

My black sweet pepper plants only yielded one black pepper; unfortunately, the others all died or turned out to be green peppers. I really only grew these as an experiment anyway, since I’m not a huge pepper fan, so I gave them to my mother.

My apple tree is starting to drop its fruit; sadly, the poor tree suffers from a nasty case of apple scab despite my care, and a lot of the fruit aren’t good to eat. Apple scab itself is safe (although it’s ugly), but it does mean that the fruit often ends up cracked and rotting on the tree, or creates areas where it’s easier for pests to crawl inside. Even so, I have lots of apples to use up in recipes — this variety is very tart, so it’s best cooked.

I’m still harvesting a lot of tomatoes; although I feared frost a few weeks ago, this past week has been one of summer-like heat, so my tomatoes are actually still flowering! What fruit is on the vine is ripening nicely, so I may not have too many green tomatoes to deal with this year (even though I have a few great recipes for those too). Last night I made up another batch of Blender Salsa from page 92 of Preserving by the Pint: Quick Seasonal Canning for Small Spaces (Marisa McClellan, 2014), since my husband likes that version so much. The above photo was taken immediately after removing the jars from the hot water canner.

The basil plant in my mom’s garden needed to be cut back for the season, so she let me have all of the leaves in exchange for some of the pesto I made with them. Pesto is one of my favourite sauces to make because it’s so darned easy and can be made with so many leafy greens. I’ve made pesto before out of beet leaves, nasturtium leaves, and garlic scapes. The one that I made last night was the most common type: basil, garlic, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese.

Before I made the salsa and the pesto, I set aside two large tomatoes and a tablespoon of basil so that I could bake Fresh Tomato and Basil Loaf. The recipe is found on page 156 of Bread Machine: How to Prepare and Bake the Perfect Loaf (Jennie Shapter, 2002). This bread is started in the bread machine, which mixes, kneads, and proofs the dough. Then the dough is removed from the machine and additional ingredients are kneaded in by hand, the dough is left to rise in a loaf pan, and then the bread is baked in the oven. The addition of the tomatoes made this dough really sticky and unpleasant to knead, and I made an enormous mess, but it was totally worth it since this bread is delicious. I will definitely be using this recipe again.

Salsa & Cherries

Canning season is in full swing, with my garden producing enough ripe tomatoes for a good-sized batch of something every couple of days, and fruits and vegetables at the cheapest they’ve been all year at the farmer’s market and supermarket. Although most days are still quite warm, it cools down quite a bit after dark, so I’ve been taking advantage of the lowered temperatures to get some canning done in the evenings after the kids go to bed. Sometimes this doesn’t work out so well when a recipe unexpectedly refuses to thicken up and I end up getting to bed around two o’clock in the morning, but I’d take a late night over canning in the heat any day.


Mild tomato salsa, all ingredients from my garden except the onions.

In addition to trying to preserve family recipes, another reason I started this blog was to keep track of recipes I’d tried, which ones I liked, and any changes I’d make in the future. Last year I didn’t write any of this stuff down, and when it came to canning season again I had the hardest time remembering what recipes I used. Sure, some of them are quite distinct, but did I get them online? Did I find them in any of my copious number of cookbooks?

The salsa above is a case in point. I mean, salsa is extremely popular and easy to make. Every canning book has at least one salsa recipe. So I figured that this year what I’d do is make a small batch from each of the recipes that interested me, and pick the one I liked best for next year. The photo above is Smoky Tomato Salsa, from page 255 of Put ‘Em Up! Fruit (Sherri Brooks Vinton, 2013). This was a pretty decent salsa, although it didn’t turn out as smoky as the writeup suggested. Perhaps I will try chipotle powder instead of smoked Spanish paprika next time. Additionally, the recipe was really, really watery, and I had to boil it down for quite some time to get my preferred consistency. This was totally my fault because I used whole cherry tomatoes instead of peeled, seeded and diced tomatoes as specified in the recipe. Last year I peeled all of those tiny tomatoes and it was so tedious that I decided never again. Because I had to boil it down, this concentrated the vinegar and the sugar a little too much for my liking. I think that next time if I use cherry tomatoes I will just elimiate the sugar altogether (cherry tomatoes are much sweeter than regular-sized ones anyway). I would also cut down the vinegar to half a cup (8 Tbsp). The yield of this recipe was three to four 500mL jars of salsa, which should still make the mixture acidic enough to be safe for hot-water canning. (Lemon juice and vinegar have a similar PH, and Pat Crocker’s Preserving recommends adding 1 Tbsp bottled lemon juice to a 500mL jar, and even halving the vinegar makes it 2+ Tbsp per jar.)


Amaretto cherries.

Another recipe that I tried this year is Amaretto Black Cherries from page 126 of Preserving: The Canning and Freezing Guide for All Seasons (Pat Crocker, 2011). I overfilled a few of the jars and had to remove some of the syrup-coated cherries before sealing, and I was very impressed by the flavour. I can only imagine what they’ll taste like after soaking in the syrup for a couple of months. They’re like a tipsy maraschino cherry. When I was a kid and we bought cheap fruit salad preserved in syrup, I would always save the cherries for last because they were my favourite part. In addition to eating these cherries straight out of the jar or as a dessert topping, Preserving also includes a recipe for Amaretto Clafoutis with burnt Almonds on page 128. I will definitely have to try making this dish once the cold weather hits.

Breakfast Visitor

Breakfast at the cottage this week (well, more like brunch) consisted of pancakes with fresh fruit. The pancakes weren’t from scratch; when traveling and cooking, commercial mixes mean that you have to bring along about half as many bulky containers. My favourite pancake mix since childhood is Aunt Jemima Complete Buttermilk Pancake — the kind where you just add water. We used to use this mix all the time when my family went camping when I was a kid, so the flavour and texture are very homey to me.

The fruit mix was grapes, apples, oranges, strawberries, and there might have been a peach there too. Of course, we had to serve it with real maple syrup. That’s Canadian cottaging/camping for you: the pancakes may be an instant mix, but the syrup has to be real.

We also had a visitor for breakfast this morning. A great blue heron stopped on the cottage’s dock, which we could see from the dining room. This large wading bird fished off of the dock calmly for a few minutes, courteously allowing me enough time to grab my camera and change my lens to a telephoto so I could snap a few pictures.

Patience exhausted (or possibly just not finding any fish nearby), the heron took off to make its rounds of the lake to hunt its own breakfast.

Beginning to Harvest the Garden

I spent some time in the garden yesterday, weeding and harvesting a little bit, but mostly tying up my tomato plants, which have escaped the raised bed and are trying to take over the lawn. Mosquitoes love the shade under these plants, so every time I go out there, I end up with a new handful of bites at the very least. Even so, it was totally worth it because I was happy to discover lots of fruits and veggies that were either growing large and healthy, or that were already ripe and ready for harvesting.

The pears are doing well, although they’re still hard as rocks and not nearly ready to harvest. My research indicates that they should be ready to be picked from August to October in this climate — and mine seem likely to be ripe later in the season.

The tomatoes on the possibly-beefsteak tomato plant (the one that was supposed to be a cherry tomato plant) aren’t ripe yet, but the fruits have almost doubled in size. I have a feeling that spaghetti sauce may be in their future.

My sweet bell peppers are growing well and look like they’ll end up being pretty sizable. This variety is supposed to yield a black (really very dark purple) pepper, so these obviously aren’t ready yet. Well, that’s if they were labeled correctly; I don’t really trust the labels 100% any more.

My pea vines are still yielding nicely, although with being at the cottage off and on, I ended up letting a bunch of pods dry out on the vine. Oops. That’s good for seed saving, I guess, but not what I was trying to do.

Unlike their sweet cousins, my hot peppers are starting to ripen beautifully. The red banana peppers and the green jalapeno peppers are destined for hot sauce once I’ve picked them all, so I wash and freeze the early-ripening ones until I can use them. Freezing peppers makes them mushy upon thawing, but that’s not really an issue when they’re just going to be blended smooth in a sauce anyway.

Last but not least, my cherry tomato plants have started ripening! I believe that what’s coming up at the moment are Pink Ladies, Sweet Millions, and generic yellow cherry tomatoes. I have a personal fondness for the yellow ones, but the Pink Ladies have come up really sweet this year, and I just can’t stop snacking on them. My husband, too, is a huge fan of cherry tomatoes of all varieties, and will go through a large bowl of them when vegging in the evening after the kids have finally been put to bed.

The Country Garden

I’m a city girl, but I’ve been in and out of farmland since childhood. Ottawa’s a pretty small city, and it is surrounded by (and encompasses) a great deal of agricultural property. You’d be hard pressed to find anywhere in town that is more than a 45-minute drive from planted fields (traffic aside, of course).


Sign at the farm at 1900 Kerr Line, Foresters Falls, Ontario

Once you get out of the city proper, you start seeing lots of signs like the one above for home-based businesses selling produce and goods that were grown, raised, or made on the property. However, there has been a sharp decline in the number of little sheds that I saw as a child at the end of just about every farm lane. I don’t know what has changed that caused them to become unused; did they become unprofitable to staff? If the booths were unmanned and ran on the honour system, was there just too much theft to make them profitable? Too much spoilage? Was it caused by the change over years in how farms are being run (increasingly, one large farm produces only a few select things and brings everything else in based on the profits, versus the older model of many smaller farms that fed their residents first and then sold the excess, if there was one)? Is it just because there are fewer people living on farms overall, as machines replace manual labour? Or is it because as the larger farms buy up their neighbours’ land, they leave the homes on the property to sit empty? A combination of all of the above, possibly in addition to factors I know nothing about?


Roadside sign for The Country Garden.


The Country Garden’s main area.

However, there are still a few roadside booths going strong. The Country Garden on Queen’s Line is the best example of a successful booth that I know of. The farm itself appears to be tended with a great deal of care. The grass is mowed up to the road, the fruit trees are neatly trimmed, there are flowers planted at the base of all the signs and hanging baskets wherever they’ll fit, the dirt road is without major potholes. And the food, oh the food… I make a point of stopping there every time we’re in that neck of the woods, and I’ve been going for almost ten years now.

The Country Garden is unmanned unless it is being stocked, and hence it runs on the honour system. There is some security in the shape of a lock box and a security camera. This seems to work out well for them overall, although there have been hiccups. Inside the shed there is a board with photos of people who have stolen from the Garden before, along with pictures and a written request for people to help in identifying the thieves. I don’t have a lot of patience with thieves in general, but I think it’s pretty despicable to steal from a small business like that.

The shelves on the outside of the main booth (shed?) are stocked up every day with fresh-picked produce from the farm (which I believe is run by the Martin family). This time of year there is a plenitude of tomatoes, peas, garlic, potatoes, lettuce, and green onions. Of course, this varies by season; I’ve been by in the fall when there are literal trailer-loads of squash for sale.


Inside the shed/booth.


Of course I had to buy a blueberry pie.

Inside the shed (booth?) are shelves lined with preserves, some of which come directly from the farm and others from Horst Homebaking (another local business, which is run by Noreen Horst at 74 Government Road (Foresters Falls, Ontario)). All of the preserves I’ve bough from The Country Garden have been bursting with flavour and not over-sweet, which is exactly how I like them. There is also a fridge that is re-stocked daily with eggs, fresh-baked pies and tarts that would make Dean Winchester weep, pepperettes, and sausages. The freezer is regularly refilled with cuts of beef and homemade ice cream bars.

There are photos on display of the family working on the farm; by their garb I would guess they are Mennonites, but I am not 100% sure. Most of what I know about Mennonites is based on the food I have bought from their booths at farmers’ markets — which has invariably been delicious.

Occasionally there are crafts for sale, like the above ride-on toy digger.

And there are often ornamental plants and hanging plants on offer as well.

If The Country Garden is still running for another ten years, as I hope it will be, I plan on buying fresh local produce and goods from them for all of that time. They don’t exactly have a web presence, but I can tell you that they’re open seasonally Monday through Saturday. They only take cash and, as you’ll have to deposit your payment in the lock box, you’ll need exact change. The Country Garden is located at 3024 Queens Line (Foresters Falls, Ontario), just down from the intersection of Queen’s Line and Acres Road, and close to Queen’s Line United Church (currently not in use). I highly recommend stopping by if you’re in the area. You won’t regret it. Come early if you can, as their stock can run low later in the day.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Butter Recipe

One of my favourite things in the world to can is fruit butters, which are basically fruit that has been cooked, blended, and then boiled down to reduce the moisture content until the end result is smooth and spreadable. Simmering off the water increases both the flavour and the acidity, so fruit butters need less sweetening for taste or for preservation purposes. Fruit butters are a simple, wholesome kind of preserve that historically, in Canada, was a common way to make fruits last the winter. These days, they are made and eaten all year long, although most home canning happens in the summer and early fall when fruits are freshest and at their most plentiful.

Contrary to what the name may indicate, fruit butters actually don’t usually contain any dairy products, although some recipes call for a dollop of butter to prevent frothing (which I usually forgo and instead skim the froth). They are generally vegetarian and can be made vegan through proper sourcing of ingredients — as I’ve previously mentioned, some varieties of sugar use bone char as part of the filter process, so if that’s important to you, you’ll have to do your homework when choosing a brand to buy.


Strawberry-rhubarb butter will last up to a year when properly canned.

Fruit butters have easily as many uses as jams or jellies, including (but not limited to):

– a spread on bread, toast, or biscuits;
– a filling in donuts, cookies, muffins, croissants, turnovers, and tarts;
– a topping for ice cream;
– a mix-in for yogurt;
– a topping for pancakes or crepes;
– mixed with cream cheese to make a quick dip for fresh fruit or crackers; or
– an ingredient in fruit butter bread (apple being the most common)

Strawberry-rhubarb butter is the latest fruit butter I’ve made, and I’ve found that it perfectly encapsulates the tastes of late spring/early summer. Since the ingredients cook down, it’s a great way to use up rhubarb — especially if you’re searching for ways to use the stalks from an over-producing plant! I prefer to cook it in a combination of the microwave and the crock pot, because both are less prone to burning than cooking on the stove. The quickest way to ruin a batch of fruit butter is to scald it; you’ll never get rid of that burnt taste. If you choose to cook on the stove, you will have to watch your ingredients like a hawk, stir constantly, and adjust your cooking times. For these reasons, if you have a microwave and a crock pot, I highly recommend using them.


Strawberry-rhubarb butter on Dad’s biscuits.

Strawberry-Rhubarb Butter
Yields seven 250mL jars

Wash and chop until you have:
1Kg (about 8 cups) rhubarb, any variety
Place the rhubarb into a microwave-safe casserole dish with:
1/2 cup water
Cover and microwave in 3-minute increments, stirring every time you check for doneness, until the rhubarb are falling apart (approximately 15 minutes). Set rhubarb aside.
Repeat this process, cooking each fruit separately, with:
1.2Kg (about 8 cups) strawberries + 1/2 cup water
1Kg (about 8 cups) apples (any variety) + 1/2 cup water
While apples are cooking, put the rhubarb and its cooking liquid into a blender and blend until smooth. Pour rhubarb puree into crock pot. Repeat puree step with strawberries and their cooking liquid, and when they are cooked, the apples and their liquid.
To the crock pot add:
400g sugar (about 1 3/4 cups)
Stir until all elements are well combined.
Set crock pot on high and cook until resulting butter is a little bit thinner than the desired final product (fruit butter will thicken slightly as it cools). This usually takes between 24 and 48 hours. Cooking more than 48 hours is not recommended as the butter will develop a burned taste. If fruit has not thickened enough after 48 hours, finish the thickening process on the stove top, stirring regularly to prevent scalding.
Fill 250mL jars leaving 6mm head space. Process in a hot water canning bath for 30 minutes after the water returns to a boil. This fruit butter will last up to a year when processed. Alternately, the butter may simply be refrigerated for up to three weeks, or frozen (leaving additional head space for expansion) for up to six months.

Blossoms

Now that I live in a house with a proper yard, I’ve decided to try to grow some of my own food. I don’t think it saves me any money (especially the first few years, with all the set-up and trial and error), but I am proud of the food that I grow, and I know it’s as fresh as can be. I’ve never been one for taking care of purely ornamental plants, but I wish I’d started at least with basic herb pots years earlier — those things are very difficult to kill, and the fresh flavour is unparalleled.

One of the things I’m cultivating, since I do have the room and I do like shade, is fruit trees. Until a few days ago they were all in bloom, hopefully meaning that I’ll have a decent fruit yield this year. I know that flowers don’t mean that I’ll necessarily get any edible fruit, but without blossoms I definitely won’t get anything.


Pear tree.

The first tree to bloom was my pear tree, which I planted only three years ago — and this was the first time there were any flowers! It’s what I like to call my “mutant tree”, because it’s actually four kinds of pear grafted onto a single tree (it used to be five, but one branch died). Only two of the four main branches bloomed this year, but who knows if the maturity rate of all of the kinds of pears is the same? The rest of the branches are still alive, at any rate. I didn’t do the right kind of research before I planted this tree, because the blossoms do not smell very nice — which is apparently pretty common. Ah well, they don’t flower for very long, and it will be a number of years before there are enough blossoms to perfume the air; the tree is still shorter than me. The odor also isn’t very intense, since right now I have to stick my nose almost touching to smell anything at all.


Plum tree.

I was thrilled that my plum tree flowered as well; I only planted it early last year, and it didn’t flower then — and then Japanese beetles ate all of the leaves. I honestly didn’t think the poor tree would survive the winter. We shall see if the beetles return this year! They’re not quite in season yet. I would be happy if I never saw another one, to be honest. They are persistent pests that can decimate a garden, although the only plant they were interested in that I planted last year was my plum tree.


Apple tree.

The tree that I was least surprised to see flower this year was my apple tree. It came with the house, and it was probably planted about thirty years ago, when the neighborhood was new. I’m not entirely sure what kind of apple tree it is; the fruit is yellow-green when ripe, and ripens late into September, much later than a lot of the farmed apples around here. This indicates to me that it’s some kind of wild apple crossbreed (there are lots of those), or possibly a (or partly a) Russian Antonovka tree. It also seems to flower only every second year, and this is a boom year.


Apple tree.

This tree was very unhealthy when we first moved in. There were lots of dead branches, the apples all had apple scab… But I’ve trimmed back the dead wood, and (hopefully) taken care of the root of the apple scab. Last time this tree bloomed, it produced hundreds of pounds of fruit. It’s even healthier now, so I expect the yield will be even greater — especially if the sheer number of flowers is any indication.