First Harvest of the Year

I’m happy to report that there are finally fruits and veggies in my garden that are ready to harvest! It’s been a very dry summer for the most part, and although I’ve been watering my garden religiously, I think it’s having an effect on the garden. However, over the last week or so we have had a storm almost every day, alternating with sunshine, and my plants have loved it.

My tiny cucumbers and zucchini have swelled up remarkably in the last week and a half! The largest of the cucumbers is about 7″ long (18cm) and is so thick that I can’t wrap my fingers entirely around it. The three cherry tomatoes (and now I’m sure that the self-seeded tomatoes were the little ones since they’re ripening at such a small size) were sweet and delicious straight off of the plant. I know the zucchini would have grown larger, but they’re more tender at a smaller size. Some of the absolutely enormous zucchini gifted by friends last year had a really tough skin that had to be peeled before it could be eaten. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I still ate every last squash, but the bigger they are, the harder the skin. (Also, the really big ones you have to scoop out in the middle like you would a pumpkin, because the seeds are quite tough too.) Also, I’ll admit that I wanted to get to the zucchini before the animals or bugs did. I know that it’s supposed to be one of the easiest things in the world to grow, but between insects and squirrels/chipmunks and just plain bad luck, I’ve only ever managed to grow a single zucchini before, and it was a tiny one barely worth harvesting.

I would be writing about the size of this first zucchini right now except for the fact that we ate it almost as soon as it was off of the vine. My husband fired up the barbecue yesterday and we had chicken thighs with the skin on, topped with a sprinkle of herbs (my usual sage, thyme, garlic powder, summer savoury, and sea salt; there would have been rosemary too, but I had run out). As a side dish, I sliced the yellow zucchini and threw it in our non-stick grilling bowl with a sprinkle of salt and a drizzle of olive oil. As it couldn’t possibly have been fresher, it was oh-so-tender and light-tasting. I didn’t even have to fight with the kids to get them to eat their vegetables, which is quite the feat at dinner time around here these days.

On the Vine

The garden is still growing strong! We haven’t had much rain lately (we keep watching the storm clouds frustratingly veer north of us), so I’ve had to do a lot of supplemental watering. This compared to last year, where it was so wet that I only watered the garden once all season — and even then it rained unexpectedly within 24 hours. But things are still growing well.

The main garden is still growing strong, although there aren’t any new fruits or veggies to report. The green tomatoes haven’t ripened up; I figure they’re still getting bigger before they change colour. The radish, potatoes, and eggplant are all flowering alongside the tomatoes, though, which bodes well.

The vines in the secondary garden are making a bid for freedom as they do every summer, though. The part of my yard that gets the most sun is right in the middle of the lawn, and the vines keep trying to take it over. While I encourage such enthusiastic growth, it does make it a bit difficult to mow, especially since a lot of the vines are hollow and easily snapped if you try to pick them up to mow underneath.

I am thrilled to see that my tiny cucumbers are growing strong! A lot of them are almost two inches long — which is almost big enough for pickling, right?

My squash is still tiny, but at least it’s recognizably squash-like.

And much to my delight, I appear to have the beginnings of some yellow zucchini!

No pumpkins yet, though, not that I’ve been able to spot. I may be outta luck this year on that score.

Fruits of My Labour

It’s that time of year when I start seeing the fruits of my labour (quite literally) in my garden. I always find this very exciting. You can plant as many seeds and seedlings as you want, take care of them as best you can, and sometimes they still don’t yield fruit. I can understand how this excitement can turn into outright dread if you farm for a living, but it’s a lot of fun when you garden for pleasure.

My self-seeded tomatoes are actually fruiting! I did have my doubts that they would produce anything at all. But I did start to see flowers a few weeks ago, and now there are some tiny rows of tomatoes growing. I wasn’t sure what kind of tomatoes these would be (since even when you buy them from a garden center, they can get the variety wrong), but these are definitely a cherry tomato of some sort. Since that was exactly what I wanted, I could not be happier. The next question is, what colour will they be?

Over in my long skinny garden by the fence, the large gourds aren’t showing much yet (although there are some promising bulges near the flowers), but the cucumbers are starting to bear fruit. They’re still in their tender young stage that I know is terribly tempting to rodents and earwigs alike, but I have hope that I may be able to make some home-grown pickles come fall.

Mystery Plants

Victoria Day long weekend (more commonly known as May Two-Four) is this coming weekend, which is usually the time when most people in this neck of the woods start plating their garden for summer. Mine isn’t quite ready to be planted yet. The one along the fence line needs cleaning out, added soil, and sheep manure fertilizer; the one near the house may be partially dug up so as to do some work on the foundation. Even if that wasn’t the case, I’ll be at Russell Flea all day Saturday and I’m hoping to hit the Rockland Community Garage Sale on Monday. (Yes, Monday — apparently they hold it on the holiday Monday every year.) So I wouldn’t have much time to garden this weekend in any case. I’ll try to get as much possible done next week instead.

Since I wasn’t sure how much of my garden I was going to be able to plant this year, I didn’t bother starting plants indoors for a change. Once I know how many I’ll need, I’ll just buy seedlings from a local nursery. However, I do have a few items sunning themselves on my window shelves. One of the gifts that I got from Thing 2 for Mother’s Day this year was a cute little bee plant pot made from a recycled aluminum can. When I received it, it was filled with soil and, I was assured, a few seeds.

And the seeds have sprouted! I am probably way too excited about this, but plant gifts from children often aren’t in the best shape by the time they arrive home, so their survival was not assured. I have no idea what kind of plant this will end up being, so I don’t know how much to water it or if it’s a sun or shade plant, so… Fingers crossed?

(And yes, I know that my photo is kind of hazy, like a femme fatale in an old film noir movie. I’m not sure if the lens/mirrors need cleaning or if there is something wrong with my camera/lens since I kind of dropped it on Saturday at the con. I have to give it a good once-over; I’m really hoping it’s just dirty!)

The Last of the Canning — Maybe

It looks like I have finally made it through my not-inconsiderable list of foods that I wanted to put up for the winter. I mean, I still have two pumpkins left to roast, but the puree is just going in the freezer, which doesn’t take nearly as long as hot water bath canning or pressure canning. If I don’t have to lug my canning rigs and bunches of jars out of the basement, it doesn’t count.

The last two things to put up were parsley jelly and hot sauce, both of which contained produce grown in my garden. I brought a big pot of parsley in with the first major cold snap about a month ago, and I kept it alive until I could chop it up for the jelly. The peppers for the hot sauce were brought in as they ripened, and then were frozen. This isn’t the greatest solution if you want your peppers crisp, but if you’re just going to run them through a blender or food processor, it doesn’t really matter. This way I was able to cook up a whole season’s peppers at once, instead of using them up individually as they became ripe.

I was curious to try the parsley jelly (from page 298 of Preserving: The Canning and Freezing Guide for All Seasons by Pat Crocker (2011)), since I’d never heard of it before. Mint jelly, sure, but not parsley. Apparently it’s and English thing? This jelly can also be made with sage, thyme, or basil, in addition to the mint that I’m familiar with. Sadly, as good as it looks, the jelly didn’t set despite following the instructions to the letter. That’s why I added a “maybe” to this post title. I mean, I could just give up and chuck the unset jelly, or I could try to re-cook it. I’ve used this technique in the past and it has worked out well. But I am so incredibly busy with the Christmas season at the moment that I might just give up and try again another time.

My hot sauce, however, turned out wonderfully. Since it’s a puree, it’s not like I have to worry about the set. I base my hot sauce on the Essential Habanero Hot Sauce from Genius Kitchen. I got great reviews on the sauce last year. Although the heat of the sauce varies because every summer I grow slightly different peppers, I’m pretty sure that this year’s is at least as hot as last year’s because even just the vapours from cooking it completely cleared my sinuses. Let’s hope the people I am giving it to for Christmas like it as much!

Pear & Honey Jam Recipe

As I wrote about before, I had a lot of cooking pears that needed to be used up recently. All of this excess meant that I had a chance to experiment with making a jam of my own devising. Pears are a naturally acidic fruit, which makes them perfect for hot-water-bath canning with a bit of sugar. It took me a couple of tries to get this recipe right, since since I didn’t want to use like ten cups of sugar (with would generally produce and easily firm set), since I wanted to taste the fruit and the spices more than the sweetness. In the end, I had something that I am quite proud of. Next year, when pears come into season, I think that I will make this the main pear jam (although I did really like the Spiced Pear Jam with Pineapple found on page 935 of the Joy of Cooking (2006 edition, Rombauer & Becker), or on the app). Maybe next year I’ll have a yield of more than four pears off of my baby pear tree, and I’ll be able to make more things from fruit I’ve grown myself!

Pear & Honey Jam
Yields six 250mL (1 cup) jars

Prepare and sterilize six 250mL (1 cup) jars (or twelve 125mL (1/2 cup) jars) and matching lids as per manufacturer instructions. Keep jars and lids warm until it is time to fill them.
In a Maslin pan or other non-reactive, heavy-bottomed pot, combine:
1.5 Kg (3.3 lbs) ripe/slightly overripe pears, peeled, cored, and roughly chopped
350 mL (1.5 cups) honey*
700 mL (3 cups) sugar
60 mL (1/4 cup) lemon juice
2.5mL (1/2 tsp) ground allspice
5 mL (1 tsp) ground cinnamon
2.5mL (1/2 tsp) ground cloves
2.5mL (1/2 tsp) ground nutmeg
2.5mL (1/2 tsp) ground ginger
Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly to prevent burning. Boil for 10 minutes. Remove from the heat. Run the mixture through a blender or food processor until it reaches a smooth consistency, being extremely careful as the ingredients will be very, very hot. Return the mixture to the pot and bring it back to a boil.
Add:
one 85 mL (2.9 oz) package of liquid pectin
Bring mixture back to a boil. Stir constantly as mixture boil hard for an additional minute.
Ladle the jam into the prepared jars, leaving a 5mm head space. Wipe jar rims with a clean, damp cloth or paper towel. Top jars with lids and screw metal rings into place until fingertip tight. Place jars on top of a canning rack inside a boiling water canner, being sure that none of them touch the sides of the pot or each other. Jars should be covered by at least 2.5cm (1″) of water, so add hot water if necessary. Bring to a rolling boil and process for 15 minutes, starting your timer once the water is boiling.
Remove jars from canner and place them on a cooling rack, not touching each other. Let them rest for 24 hours before touching. Label if desired. Jams may take up to 48 hours to set, so do not open them until this time has passed.
This jam may be kept in a cool, dark area for up to one year.

*It’s really not worth it to use unpasteurized honey here, since all the additional benefits are lost when the honey is cooked.

Winter is Coming

Although I am much better, my kids are still fighting their colds. Last night I decided to go the more traditional route, dinner-wise, in an attempt to help them get well. I don’t know that it actually helped, but it didn’t hurt at any rate, and it was pretty tasty.

I made up a batch of chicken noodle soup based roughly on the recipe on page 125 of the Joy of Cooking (2006 edition, Rombauer & Becker). I added carrots and rosemary mostly because it’s what I happened to have around the house. I served the soup alongside fresh-baked Poppy Seed Loaf (page 138, Bread Machine: How to Prepare and Bake the Perfect Loaf (Jennie Shapter, 2002)) with avocado slices on top. Unlike me, the rest of the family ate their bread with butter and scooped the avocado out of the skins directly with a little bit of salad dressing on top.

Last night ended up involving a lot more food prep than just supper, though. The forecast called for the temperature to drop precipitously overnight to a low of -10°C (14°F) with a windchill of -20°C (-4°F). I had left a few frost-hardy plants in the garden after the main harvest, but I knew that cold this intense would kill them. So I had to bring in two good-sized bunches of celery, which I washed and trimmed the leaves off of, then put in a jug of water in the fridge for use over the next week or so.

I had a whole mess of Swiss chard to bring in — believe it or not, this was all from only two bunches!

I washed it all, then chopped the stems into bite-sized pieces, which I bagged to freeze in single-use packages over the winter in soups, stews, stir-fries and casseroles. The leaves don’t freeze nearly so well, so they’re still drying off in my sink while I figure out what to do with that much chard. A friend suggested a soup, but I don’t have a recipe yet.

My uncarved Halloween pumpkins had to come inside; freezing isn’t terribly hard on them as a general rule, especially if you’re just going to cook them, but a frozen-solid gourd is really difficult to prepare. Heck, it would take an axe or a sledgehammer just to get through it!

I also brought in the last of my summer herbs so they didn’t get frostbitten (along with half a case of Coke that I’d been cooling outdoors since the Halloween party; cool fall temperatures mean that the outdoors makes a great refrigerator for non-perishables). There are two pots of lavender, one of mint, one of rosemary, and one of parsley. Some of them I will eventually dry, others I will preserve (I have an interesting recipe for parsley jelly I want to try). They’d survive just fine in the house all winter, but the pots are quite large and take up my whole patio window. I think I will just plant new herbs in the spring and not deal with the hassle.