Fresh Tomato Bruschetta

My garden has definitely reached the “overgrown” stage. I sent the girls in to pick some tomatoes, and, well…

I almost lost them!

Just the other day I got what I’d consider my first real harvest of tomatoes (the first three cherry tomatoes didn’t really count, volume-wise). I thought that it was high time to bushwhack into the furrows and pick all of the ripe fruit before it rotted and fell into the dirt.

With Thing 1 and Thing 2’s help, I harvested a number of cucumbers, a bowl of tomatoes of various colours, and a lone eggplant. I did, however, forget that there are thorns on the greens of some kinds of eggplants, and I almost threw it across the room when I pricked myself. Lesson learned.

For dinner that night I wasn’t terribly inspired: just a rotisserie chicken and a pre-made Ceasar salad from the grocery store. But I did make bruschetta with the freshly-picked tomatoes! It’s honestly one of the quickest dishes in my repertoire. Throw tomatoes, a clove of garlic, a dash of olive oil, basil, and some grated parmesan into the food processor. Blitz it for a few seconds until it’s chunky, spread it on some thick slices of nice French or Parisian bread, and pop it in the oven at 350°F until heated and browned. This time, I also added a slice of lactose-free Gouda to the top of each piece of bread (any hard cheese that melts well will do). It’s lovely! As a bonus, it’s a dish that can be made in a toaster oven, i.e. outside where it won’t heat up the house in the dog days of summer.

Algonquin Park Camping: Day 1

Last week I had the pleasure of camping with my family at the Achray Campground on Grand Lake in Algonquin Provincial Park. I’ve been camping most of my life (my first camping trip was when I was only a couple of weeks old, and apparently it was the only time I wasn’t colicky for quite some time), but somehow I’d never been to Algonquin Park, which is one of our most famous. At 7,653km², the park is larger than the entire province of Prince Edward Island (5,660 km²), and it was perhaps made the most famous for being the main inspiration for the Group of Seven. In fact, the Jack Pine Trail, which begins and ends in Achray, takes you to the location where Tom Thomson was inspired to paint The Jack Pine.

We arrived around 5:00pm the first night, despite every effort to get out earlier. We had originally planned to take my parents’ Sportspal canoe with us, but it really got to vibrating on the top of our car when we hit 100km/hr, despite having it tied down so tight that it actually dented the roof of the car. So before we even got across town we had to head back home and drop off the canoe, putting a bit of a kaibosh on that part of the plan. The Weather Network was predicting one heck of a thunderstorm that night, so we desperately wanted to arrive before it. Luckily we weren’t planning on hiking or canoeing to our campsite (we were just car camping), which shaved off some time. We checked in, got our tent put up…

And the kids’ tent put up…


(That’s the view of the lake from our campsite before the clouds rolled in, by the way.)

And the cook tent put up and dinner started, and then with a CRACK-BOOM! the skies opened up. I was so thankful that we managed to get a roof over our heads before the rain started, because there is very little that is more miserable than setting up in the rain. As it was, despite all our rain gear we were all drenched as soon as we stepped out from under cover, and the Coleman tent and the cook tent leaked despite bringing extra tarps to protect them… But at least we slept dry.

I cooked dinner that night on a combination of camp stoves. If the yellow one looks like an antique, well, it might very well be; it’s from the 1950’s at the very latest. My dad used to pick up old Coleman stoves at garage sales and Frankenstein them together until he had a stove for me, one for my brother, one for my mom and dad, and then I think even a few extras. He also painted mine yellow so I could tell it apart from everyone else’s (this was a bit of an issue back in Pathfinders when every camping group brought their own gear, and things could get mixed up). The little stove on the left is one that my husband used to use when he went canoe camping with his brother and father in the Algonquin interior, and it’s much newer and much more compact. Given how long it had been since either of us had fired up our respective stoves, I think it’s fantastic that they both still worked with no repairs needed. In retrospect, we should have tested them in advance of our trip… Just as we should have tested the waterproofing on our tents beforehand. Hindsight is 20/20.

Our first meal while camping was spaghetti. The sauce was canned, and I fried a package of lean ground beef the night before, so once we were on site it was more a matter of reheating than cooking. Even so, Thing 1 declared that it was the best spaghetti she’d ever eaten (although I think hunger and fresh air may have contributed to her opinion).

I would highly recommend pre-cooking any food that you can when camping, by the way. It saves so much time and mess. I mean, sure, if I’d been cooking over the fire I’d have loved to have the juices from the meat to work with, but we knew in advance that there was a total fire ban in place. No campfires, no sparklers, no propane lanterns, no charcoal barbecues, no candles. Nothing but portable stoves/barbecues with a control valve, and only that permitted I think because otherwise nobody would be able to cook their food. Fire is a huge part of camping, at least the way that I was brought up, but we had had so little rain and everything was so darned dry that it just wasn’t safe. As it turned out, there was actually a a small forest fire about 4km away from our campground — of which we were completely unaware until we returned home and checked out the Ontario Forest Fire Info Map.

According to The Weather Network, Over 800 wildfires have been recorded this season, far higher than last year’s 221 fires at this time of year, and well above the 10-year average of 458. Fires this year have consumed more than 180,000 hectares of the province.

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.

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.

Working on the Yard

I spent the majority of the last two days working on my back yard. First I put in the garden along the fence I’d been wanting for the last few years:

I’d had one there before, and I’m pretty sure the previous owners of the house had one too, since the soil was black and rich instead of being just clay, at least for the first few inches. I hadn’t done anything with that garden since the old fence started to fall down, but this year we have the new one up, so I don’t have to worry about either a pile of wood or contractors squashing my plants. I planted Jerusalem artichokes, pumpkins, Hubbard squash, butternut squash, cucumbers, zucchini, and asparagus, alongside the rather tiny rhubarb plant I planted years ago. I tried putting down landscaping fabric to prohibit the weed growth, but we’ll see how that goes.

I cut back the apple tree, although it’s still pretty huge, all in all. There were a bunch of dead limbs and I ended up losing almost a whole one of the major subsections closest to the house. I really hope that whatever killed those branches doesn’t spread to the rest of the tree, though. One of the reasons I got a deck (instead of a patio like originally planned) is to accommodate the apple tree’s roots. It would really suck if the tree then ended up dying. Also, I just plain old love that tree, especially every second year when it blooms.

In my main veggie garden, I’m happy to report that the potatoes are starting to sprout — alongside a bunch of tiny weeds. I only just weeded that bed, I’m a little annoyed that the weeds are already returning. Hopefully the plants I actually want will grow tall soon and start choking out the plants I don’t.

A friend of mine gave me a black tomato plant to add to my cherry tomatoes, and I’m curious to see how the fruit turns out.

My pear tree is flourishing, despite still being shorter than me. I might get twice last year’s harvest, so… Ten fruits, maybe? I always like how pears grow up while they’re tiny, but then the weight of them drags them down to hang how you’d normally expect over time.

I also had to mow the grass, at which point I discovered that apparently I have wild strawberries growing in my front lawn, which surprised the heck out of me. I don’t care much about my lawn so long as it is green — grass, clover, strawberries, it’s all okay by me, so long as it’s not thistles, which are painful to step on. After a quick Google, I discovered that wild strawberries are perfectly safe to eat, especially if you know that the ground they grow on is pesticide- and herbicide-free, which mine definitely is. They’re not really big enough to make much of a crop, but they are definitely more flavorful than the commercially-grown variety.

I finished the day with a barbecue dinner for my family, my parents, my brother, and his friend. I made salmon on the smoker barbecue — not burned, just a little ashy — with a glaze of maple syrup and a sprinkle of salt. My mom brought over her famous potato salad with bacon, and I grilled up some zucchini and steamed asparagus. I also made some rice to serve on the side, at my kids’ request. All in all, it was a lovely meal, and I’d eat it again in a heartbeat.

Mushroom-Free Loco Moco

I’m still trying to get back into cooking proper meals, instead of fast food or whatever I can throw together in a pinch as I was during con crunch. Tonight I made Loco Moco, but my own version which basically uses ground beef instead of hamburger patties, but keeps the rest of the recipe more or less the same. I just find that it’s easier to eat that way — and, more importantly, that my kids make less of a mess if they don’t have to cut up the burger.

My brother-in-law was over for dinner, and he vehemently abhors mushrooms, so I had to make further changes to Guy Fieri’s recipe in order to make it palatable to everyone. Basically, I just skipped the mushrooms, and it was all good (if not as flavourful). I also wanted to make it a bit healthier by adding more veggies in the form of additional tomatoes and stalks of asparagus — it’s much easier to persuade my kids to eat their greens if they’re covered in sauce of some sort.

The Last of the Summer Tomatoes

I feel like I’ve spent all of my time over the last few weeks canning. One thing in my garden will become ripe all at the same time, meaning that I have to either eat or can it all (generally a combination of both) before it goes bad. Most of the food that I grow will go bad faster than I can eat it, with the exception of my potatoes and shallots, which have a great shelf life if kept in a cool, dark place.


Tomatoes in the sink being washed.

The biggest issue for about a week was my tomatoes, because we were starting to get the occasional frost at night. It was only a light frost and the damage was primarily to the plant’s inedible leaves, but here those light frosts are a warning of deeply freezing night temperatures coming soon, so they must not be ignored. I pulled out all of my tomato plants and picked every single fruit, whether they were ripe or not. Actually, most of what was left was green, but I didn’t mind too much since I have lots of dishes that work well with green tomatoes.

I separated the ripe tomatoes from the green ones, and made my last batch of homegrown Blender Salsa until next year. (The recipe can be found on page 92 of Preserving by the Pint: Quick Seasonal Canning for Small Spaces (Marisa McClellan, 2014).) I also included tomatoes from a friend’s garden in this batch, but I still only ended up with about two litres of the end product.

I thawed some of the rhubarb from earlier in the season, and I cooked up about 1.5L of Tomato-Rhubarb Chutney (page 132, You Can Can: A Guide to Canning, Preserving, and Pickling from Better Homes and Gardens (2010)). This chutney was a big hit with my in-laws last year, so I knew I had to make some more.

I really hope that I got the recipe right for this last one, because I made almost five litres of it. I got a huge number of compliments last time I made Green Tomato Chutney, and many requests that I make more. I would have done so immediately, but it calls for green tomatoes and they’re really only available at a very specific time of year. Imported or hothouse tomatoes are never sold green around here. The thing is, the last time I made this preserve was before I started recording my cooking in this blog, and I didn’t write down what book the recipe came from. (I can’t tell you how useful this blog has been for keeping track of what I made, when, with what recipe, and with what changes. The fact that it’s searchable has made my life so much easier.)

This year, when trying to recreate my success, I realized that I own five different preserving cookbooks with five slightly different versions of this recipe — and that’s without going into any of my “big fat cookbooks that tell you everything about everything”, as they call them in the I Hate to Cook Book. At any rate, I think I found the correct recipe, since it’s the only one in my library that calls for golden raisins, and I distinctly remember putting golden raisins in the last batch. The Green Tomato Chutney recipe that I used can be found on page 208 of The Canadian Living Complete Preserving Book (2012). I have my fingers crossed that I remembered correctly and that it will be enjoyed as much as the previous batch!