In the world of gardening, you can definitely have too much of a good thing. A few years back, it was a plethora of green beans. A year or two further in the past and it was abundance of tomatoes. But here’s the thing about tomatoes and beans: in addition to being delicious fresh, they can be canned, blanched and frozen, pickled, dehydrated and otherwise stored for later use in a number of interesting and creative ways.
That’s not the case with cucumbers.
Late this spring, some damn fool gardening fairy whispered in my ear that one cucumber plant would not be enough. “The cucumber beetles always get them,” the fairy whispered. “You’ve been lucky to harvest a dozen. If you planted three cucumber plants, that would be nice. Then you’d have plenty.”
Stupid fairy. Stupid me. I listened. I planted three cuke seedlings. And here’s the even dumber thing: I planted three SLICING cucumber varieties. I didn’t even have the sense to plant some Kirbys for pickling. Nope, I planted three Straight Eights. And then, when one of them died back early on, I didn’t just shrug and say, “oh, well – that’s gardening” or even “wow, now I can plant a pickling variety.” I bought another slicing variety and planted it in the vacant spot. Can’t even remember now what kind, but it took hold like a champ.
I went off to the beach for a week in early July, leaving my garden to fend for itself. Most of the plants were fine; just kind of doing their thing at the usual pace, but the cuke vines were growing vigorously and were full of little babies when I left. When I came back, I had more than a dozen full-sized cukes ready to pick. So I picked ’em. My husband and I dined on beautiful fresh sliced cukes in lieu of tossed salad. I made tzatziki. I made cukes and onions with a vinegar dressing. Everything was delicious. But the cucumber plants were still producing, at the rate of a half-dozen every two days.
I started researching new recipes. I wondered if cukes could be cooked, and discovered that they can be sauteed. I enjoyed sauteed cucumbers for breakfast several times. A friend told me they can be stir-fried with chicken. John and I tried that one night and decided it wasn’t half bad – on the bland side, but comforting.
The cucumbers kept on coming. I ate a lot of cucumber sandwiches. I drank gallons of cucumber water. I made a jar of hot-sweet refrigerator pickles. I made two jars of freezer pickles. The tomatoes were beginning to bear fruit, but in spite of my barrier of fencing and deer netting, my neighborhood grey squirrels were making off with the the tomatoes before they even turned green. They strolled right past the cukes without giving them so much as a sniff. The cukes kept on coming. I gave away several dozen. My neighbors started to duck inside if they saw me headed their way with cukes in my hands.
Then I had a brain wave. Since so many vegetables can be dried, why not cucumbers? I got out my trusty dehydrator and got to work, peeling, seeding and slicing cukes. I sliced some thick, some thin, some into strips, some into half-moons. I used up all the cukes I had on hand, and actually went out and picked more. Some I salted, some I sprinkled with herbs, some I dipped in lime juice or vinegar before starting the dehydration process.
And you know – they weren’t half bad. It took approximately five hours at 135 degrees to dry them. The flavor was kind of bland, and while they were fairly crisp when they first came out of the dehydrator, the crispness faded after they’d been stored in plastic bags and the resulting chewiness wasn’t terribly appetizing. I chalked up the dehydrating as a failure, but at least I’d used up all the cukes in the house.
For a while. The vines kept producing. I made pickle relish. I made cucumber and apple chutney. I made cucumber juice: coarsely chop the cukes – peel, seeds and all – and whirl them in a blender until they’re pureed. Put a mesh colander over a bowl, line with cheesecloth, pour in the puree and let it drain – you can put a plate on top and weight that down to speed the process. After a couple of hours, gather up the cheesecloth into a bag and press and wring it until all the liquid is squeezed into the bowl. Discard the solids and use the juice to flavor water, seltzer, cocktails, etc. The juice is quite pretty – a light green – and freezes just dandy.
And still the cukes kept coming. I made more tzatziki. I ate more cucumber sandwiches. I drank cucumber water and seltzer flavored with cuke and lime juice until I couldn’t stand it any more. My cantaloupes started producing and damned if the squirrels didn’t go after those, too, but they continued to turn their little gray noses up at the cukes, even when I cut up a few and tossed them into the yard, hoping to entice them away from the tomatoes and ‘loupes. No good. I made a cuke, cantaloupe and lemon smoothie. It was only okay. In desperation I threw three whole cukes right into the freezer as an experiment. (I’ll check them out in the depths of winter and see what kinds of results I get.)
And now, as we move into the final weeks of August, the cuke vines finally seem to be slowing down. I only got a half-dozen cukes in the past week, and some of them don’t look so hot. The plants themselves are turning kind of yellow-y and limp. I feel kind of limp myself – limp with gratitude.
Will I plant cucumbers next year? Probably. I do love a crisp, fresh cucumber. And some of the recipes I tried this year were pretty good. But I think I’ll just put in one vine next year – a Kirby or some other pickling variety. For now, the thought of eating one more cucumber ANYTHING makes me shudder.
I’m sorry to report that the vegetable garden this year has been almost a total bust.
Right after John and I got the garden planted, I had to go to Tennessee to help my mom get re-situated in her house after several months in rehab recovering from a broken hip. I was away from the garden the entire month of June, and when I got back it just didn’t look as vigorous as I’d hoped. It may have been the weather, which was cool and pleasant for the first part of the month and then soggy with rain in the second. It may have been that I wasn’t there to keep an eye out for stressed plants or bugs or whatever. More than likely, it was just the Will of the Garden Gods.
But I’m blaming the deer.
I’m accustomed to losing part of my garden to gray squirrels and chipmunks. There’s no way I can keep the little buggers out of my yard – I have oak trees, after all, and oak trees mean acorns, which scream “BUFFET!” to my rodent neighbors. But this was the first time I had to deal with deer.
We’ve had ’em in the yard this past fall – pretty things, but they kept eating the hosta and our baby fruit trees. Then we had a long spell of not seeing them, and I assumed they’d moved out of the neighborhood. Silly me. I first realized my error when the fifteen lovely Italian green bean plants I’d put in were about four inches tall. I had come home from my show on a moonlit night and had stood for some time looking at the plants, thinking it was time to stake them. The very next morning I walked out the back door and discovered all but five of them had been bitten off short, with a lovely clear deer hoofprint to show just who the defiler was.
They moved in on my tomatoes next, elbow to elbow with the squirrels and the chipmunks. Even my beloved birds got in on the act – I looked out my kitchen window one morning to see a Northern Flicker clinging to my Black Cherry, pecking one of the beautiful, just-short-of-ripe fruits. I scared it off and picked what I could (delicious – the bird had good taste), but it was a foreshadowing of things to come. I think I’ve gotten less than a dozen tomatoes off seven plants this year.
Every morning I’d come out to find plants uprooted, bitten off and broken. I had a brief rush of lovely little cucumbers and baby patty-pan squash, and several big spaghetti squash ripening on the vine, but then the deer moved in on those, knocking the fruit down and taking big bites before rejecting the rest. Then some kind of wilt carried off all three plants, and that was that.
The one bright spot in all this misery have been the collards. This was my first year planting collards, and I guess the deer don’t like them because they’ve left them alone, along with the brussels sprouts (which may change now that those plants are starting to put out buds). I finally got around to harvesting some collards a couple weeks ago. I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat them all, so I cast around on the interwebs for how to freeze ’em, and now I pass that on to you.
First, go out and pick your collards. You can just snap off the leaves and leave the plant in the ground; it’ll keep producing well into the fall (I have a friend who says he’s harvested collards he had to shake snow off of). Pick a LOT of leaves, because they cook down a lot. I probably got about a peck from my three plants without stripping them. Then you’ll want to give the leaves a good wash, because there WILL be dirt and outriders on them. I filled one of my sinks with cold water and gave the harvest a good soak, then ran each leaf under running water before stripping out the center stem.
Some people use a knife to cut out the stems; I don’t see the need. Just fold your leaf in half, grab the stem and strip it out, like so:
The process goes fast, and in no time you’ll have a pile of stems and another of leaves ready to process. I tossed the stems in the compost bin , then piled the leaves up on a cutting board and chopped them into biggish pieces – about palm-sized, because I like big pieces, but you can cut them as small as you like. Some people cut the leaves up after they’ve blanched them, but to each his/her own.
Set a big pot of salted water to boil. Make a place for your blanched greens to dry; I covered a couple of baking sheets with clean dish towels and then placed a layer of paper towels on top of that (to keep the greens from staining them). Have more paper towels ready to lay on top of the processed greens.
Once the water’s at a brisk boil, drop in your greens, a handful at a time, then set a timer for three minutes. (Other greens take only two minutes, but collards are tougher and need that extra minute.) Once the three minutes are up, take the greens out of the boiling water and spread them on your drying surface. I used tongs for this, along with a flat mesh strainer to catch the smaller bits.
Cover the blanched greens with a layer of paper towels and pat them down to blot up the excess moisture. Leave them for a bit so the water will soak into the towels and the leaves will cool down. I let mine sit for about thirty minutes.
Once the leaves have cooled and the excess water absorbed into the towels (the leaves won’t be completely dry), put them into freezer bags, press the air out of the bags, seal, label and freeze. I got four quart-sized bags of blanched collards out of this harvest – enough for several servings, although I’m perfectly capable of eating the entire bag myself. I do love collards.
I love them so much that I kept back a handful of fresh greens to cook for a quick snack. I sauteed some garlic and a sprinkle of red pepper flakes in some olive oil, added a little chicken broth and brought it to a simmer, then put in the fresh greens and tossed them in the cooking liquid until they were limp, about four minutes. I put them in a bowl, hit it with a shot of vinegar and then enjoyed a bowlful.
Those deer don’t know what they’re missing.
For my second whirl with the Vatinet baking book, I wanted to try something a little more flavorful but not complicated (I wasn’t quite ready for the Kalamata or Beaujolais recipes just yet). I also wanted to try out my new couche, so I decided on a whole wheat recipe flavored with just a touch of honey, shaped into baguettes. This involved a certain amount of flipping back and forth between the recipe and the baguette-forming instructions, as well as some adjustments on my end to make up for my less than industrial kitchen. For example, Vatinet wants you to bake the baguettes on a big stone, but a big stone I hava no. What I did have was a brand spankin’ new Chicago Metallic baguette pan, so that was going to make its debut as my baking vessel of choice (I also have CM’s French bread pan – damn those Amazon “frequently bought together” deals).
The dough creation process was more or less the same as in making the boule. The big difference was the addition of whole wheat flour and that little touch of honey. My honey had crystalized, so it needed a brief nuke in the microwave and then time to cool before it could be used, so I reviewed recipe, kneading technique and proper baguette formation and assembled the ol’ mise en place while I waited.
Because of the whole wheat flour, the dough was a good bit stiffer and took a little longer to work this time, especially using Vatinet’s pinch-and-pull kneading method. The results were still very pleasing – this dough smells good. I popped it into its floured bowl and left it to rest. Once again, it didn’t rise as much as I thought it should (this could be because John and I keep our house on the cool side), but after an hour it had doubled, just barely, so I forged ahead.
Forming the baguettes was fun. First you form the dough into a rectangle (and Vatinet is very specific about how you do this, just as he is specific about every step in the baking process), then you use your fingers to create a kind of dog-bone shape, and then both hands come into play as you roll the dough longer, into the traditional baguette shape. I wished for a larger working surface, such as a big table, but I was NOT going to prep bread on the Stickley. The longest counter top in my little galley kitchen had to suffice. Then I put the two baguettes on the couche, lifting a couple of folds between the loaves. The couche was big enough to then cover both baguettes for the second rising.
(A note. Every time I try to type couche in this blog, I type douche instead. I don’t know what that says about me or my typing skills, but it’s making me giggle.)
The baguettes didn’t rise a whole lot, but then, they’re baguettes and compared to the boule recipe, use very little yeast. They looked adorable – so adorable that I spent time admiring them instead of taking their photo, once they had been panned and slashed with the trust razor blade. A photo of the brand spankin’ new baguette pan will have to suffice. Pretty, no? I wish you could have seen those baguettes cuddling in it, side by side. Adorable.
Since I didn’t want the baguettes to over-bake, I used my instant-read thermometer to test them for doneness. They baked very quickly and smelled spectacular when I took them out of the oven to cool. Well, in theory they were supposed to cool, but when I showed them to John he demanded hot bread, then and there. Vatinet does NOT want you to eat hot bread. He wants you to let it cool completely before you eat it. Well, in our house Vatinet was swiftly outvoted and John and I ate one entire baguette, hot, and it was DELICIOUS AND WE WOULD DO IT AGAIN. We had half of the second one with our dinner, cool, and it was delicious as well but not DELICIOUS.
So I highly recommend A Passion for Bread to both the novice and experienced baker. I did find some of Vatinet’s methods a little too persnickety for a casual (and often irreverent) baker like me – I did not bother with a dough log, weighing the ingredients or tasting the dough for salt, for example – but I found his kneading method effective and will probably use it again. The banneton, couche (yep, did it again), Chicago Metallic pans and even the humble razor blade did their jobs well, so they were worth the not-much I paid for them and have been added to the plethora of specialized cooking implements in my already stuffed-to-the-rafters kitchen. I’m looking forward to trying more involved recipes, just as soon as that confluence of time, ingredients and inclination hits again.
I’ve been baking bread for more years than I care to count, usually with the help of my trusty edition of James Beard’s Beard on Bread. I was introduced to the book by my older sister Julie, who used it to create such delicacies as Monkey Bread, Sally Lunn Bread, Swedish Limpa and just plain ol’ homestyle. The book, with its delicate line drawings by Karl Stuecklen, has an intimate, “I’m-sharing-this-with-you-alone” tone that I’ve always enjoyed, and my copy bears the stains of a tried and true cookbook.
For Christmas, however, I received a new bread book: A Passion for Bread by Lionel Vatinet, an artisanal Master Baker based out of North Carolina. It’s an autographed copy obtained for me by my sister Margaret, who is President of the Board of Directors of Yates Mill Associates, which operates a fully-restored 18th century gristmill in Raleigh, NC. The connection? The mill provides cornmeal for Mr. Vatinet’s La Farm Bakery in Cary, NC.
Mr. Vatinet’s book is a beauty – a hefty tome lavishly illustrated with full-color photos. It made for mouth-watering holiday reading and I couldn’t wait to try some of the recipes, although I knew it would be some weeks before my schedule would allow me the leisure time to experiment. The delay gave me an excuse to buy some new bread-making gear as part of my foray into artisanal baking. Rubbing my hands with greedy glee, I went to Amazon and purchased a banneton, a couche and a couple of baking pans. (I stopped short of buying a special lame, contenting myself with a simple razor blade for scoring the dough.)
It was almost March before a confluence of time, inclination and ingredients found me in the kitchen with Vatinet’s book before me and my mise en place…well, in place. I opted to try Vatinet’s Country French Bread recipe first, which makes a single boule. I had my yeast and my flour and my salt and my big mixing bowl and my measuring implements and my digital-instant-read thermometer ready because by gum Mr. Vatinet’s instructions are mighty specific. I had already rebelled against one requirement – the creation of a dough log to mark down all measurements and times and temperatures involved with the baking process – but otherwise I was trying hard to stick with his methods, which are a lot more technical than Mr. Beard’s.
The biggest difference was in the mixing and kneading. Bread is mostly yeast, flour, salt and water. Vatinet cautions you against letting the yeast and salt even touch each other before the mixing process starts, whereas Beard couldn’t care less about such familiarity. Vatinet wants you to use your exquisitely cleaned hands for the mixing process (unless you’re using an electric mixer) whereas Beard advocates a wooden spoon. Following Vatinet’s instructions, I kept my salt and yeast strictly segregated until I plunged one hand into the mix while with the other, slowly added the warm water (82-84 degrees, thankyouverymuch). Vatinet wants you to turn the bowl steadily while mixing and pouring, and I wished very much for an instructional video on how to do this as it seems to require a third hand. Beard doesn’t seem to give a flip how you incorporate the ingredients.
Once the ingredients are incorporated, you turn the sticky mass out onto your work surface and start the kneading. This is where things get tricky. Beard advocates flour on the work surface and adding more flour as you knead, using the traditional fold-press-quarter-turn-and-repeat method. Vatinet wants you to use as little additional flour as possible, and his kneading method involves jabbing your index fingers and thumbs into the mix, pinching them together to form an OK sign, and then pressing the pinched dough up and into the middle of the dough mass. It was very sticky business at first. I was working on a plastic work surface which kept lifting up every time I worked the dough, so I had to holler for John to come take it away while I continued kneading on the kitchen counter (which, fortunately, I had scrupulously cleaned beforehand). I confess to some doubt about this method, but after several minutes of hard work (and it IS a lot harder than the old-fashioned kneading method), the dough began to come together in a very pleasing fashion.
I formed the dough into a ball, popped it into a lightly floured bowl (as opposed to the buttered bowl Beard likes, but then Beard is a big butter fan) and covered it loosely with plastic for an hour-long rise in a warm, draft-free spot. It didn’t rise a great deal – it barely doubled in bulk – but I moved on to part two: shaping the dough into a boule. This was actually kind of fun. Placing my hands in a v-shape, I rolled the ball toward me on the counter, putting pressure first on one side and then on the other. The dough smelled good and was nice to work with, and the method almost as therapeutic as old-fashioned kneading. Beard doesn’t do anything special with his boule formation – heck, he doesn’t even call it a boule.
Next came the dough’s second rise, in the fancy new banneton (to your right, over there). Isn’t that the prettiest thing? You have to dust the banneton with flour before you use it, making sure you get flour into all the crannies so the dough doesn’t stick. I dusted the dough’s exposed bottom with a little more flour, covered it lightly with plastic wrap, and then moved it back to its warm, draft-free spot to await its second rising. The really beautiful part of the banneton use comes after the second rising, when you turn the dough out onto a cornmeal-dusted surface (and yes, I used Yates Mill cornmeal because I Have A Connection). The top of the risen boule will be imprinted with the concentric rings of the banneton, which gives it that lovely artisanal look. Using your razor blade (or your lame, if you’re fancier than me), you can score the dough following those rings, or be more decorative and score across them. Vatinet says you should develop your own special scoring pattern, but I wasn’t feeling that arty yet.
The dough went into the oven on a preheated baking stone (I actually owned one of these already, from the days when I used to make pizza at home), and following Vatinet’s instructions, I popped a large metal bowl over stone and boule for the first ten minutes of baking (this has to do with creating a steamy environment for the first part of the bake). Vatinet recommended 25-30 additional minutes; in retrospect, my boule probably could have come out a little earlier, but I was trying to stick with the recipe. Here’s the finished product:
When the boule had cooled, John and I had a slice. I thought it was a bit on the chewy side, with the flavor just a trifle bland. Nevertheless, we devoured half the loaf with some good olive oil for dinner. Next time I will score it a bit more deeply, reduce the baking time a hair, and perhaps add some flavorings (I’m dying to try Vatinet’s recipes for Kalamata Olive bread and Beaujolais bread).
Next up: the Baguette!
For the big Fruit Experiment, I decided to start easy, with apples and bananas. I did more reading on the topic and realized I’d need some kind of anti-browning agent for the apples. I knew I could use lemon juice, and some recipes called for dipping the apple slices into a combination of honey and water, but I decided to use a powdered ascorbic acid mixture, which, I was assured by my online research, was readily available in supermarkets. Off I went to the local mega-grocery, only to discover that canning supplies, so plentiful two weeks ago, had been shunted aside to make way for Halloween candy and were nowhere to be found. I finally asked at the desk; a clerk was dispatched and turned up a few minutes later with what he assured me was the one and only jar of ascorbic acid mixture left in the store. With it, two bright yellow bananas and a pair of lovely organic Gala apples, I went back home and started the second experiment.
I read over the section on fruit dehydrating in my Nesco manual and then set to work. First order of business was to make the ascorbic acid dip for the apples; there was nothing in the manual about the proportion of water to acid mix in the manual, and indeed, nothing on the acid container itself, but I found the info online and wrote it on the jar so I’d always have it.
I made my anti-browning bath and set it aside, then peeled the apples. According to the Nesco’s manual, the optimum width for apple slices is 3/8 of an inch, hence the ruler. (Lest you think I am so anal that I measured each and every slice, let me assure you that the ruler was only to check the width of that first cut.) I sliced up the apples and tossed them into their little bath. While they had a little soak (about 5 minutes), I peeled and sliced the bananas. Two large bananas filled two racks; two large apples filled three racks, so the Nesco was at full capacity when I started it up.
The apples were done in roughly five hours; the bananas took an hour or two more. Because the pieces were so uniform, it was a little less painstaking than drying the tomatoes, which can vary widely in moisture content and shape. The dried fruit makes a fairly dull snack, though. All I did was dry them – I didn’t add any sweetening or seasoning or oil or anything – and while they were tasty enough, there’s a certain lingering chewiness to the dried fruit that is okay in small doses, but not conducive to cries of delight. I haven’t tried rehydrating them yet; I want to do more research into other drying recipes.
Next up was kale. I like kale chips (but for their tendency to leave tiny green bits clinging to one’s teeth, they’d be a perfect snack) and I’ve made them in the oven, so I was eager to try them out. I found a recipe that called for mixing a bunch of washed, dried and torn kale with two tablespoons of olive oil, half a teaspoon of sea salt and a quarter teaspoon of smoked paprika. It didn’t seem like a lot of seasoning for so much kale. The kale was done in about four hours and I was glad I’d resisted the urge to add more seasoning; some leaves were overly salty. I wasn’t really happy with the results of that recipe – the dried kale has a sort of dull, metallic tang and after storage, it lost some of its crispness. I used red kale for the recipe and am wondering if curly kale might be a better choice. I’m not ready to give up on kale in the dehydrator, but I’m definitely going to look for other recipes.
Yesterday I dehydrated a second batch of tomatoes, this time using only a little kosher salt, oregano and basil. The results were really nice: beautiful color and a nice, bright flavor. John is lobbying for me to try making jerky next, but I’m feeling a little less bold about that, as I know there are more steps involved and a greater possibility of food poisoning. There are still other fruits and vegetables to dry, as well as herbs; I planted a eucalyptus this summer and the plant is nearly five feet tall, so I may try drying that as well. I’ll keep you posted!
It’s been a banner year for tomatoes in my vegetable garden this year. I’ve made tomato sauce, tomato jam, tomato chutney and tomato soup, and still the tomatoes keep on coming. Even the squirrels and chipmunks seem to have reached the point of satiety and are no longer robbing me of my crop. At this writing (early October 2013) my remaining plants are producing about a half-dozen tomatoes a week.
Since I only have a small freezer, and since it’s just my husband and me to eat all this bounty (and he really only likes tomatoes as sauce), I was running out of ideas to use up and/or preserve so much goodness. As an experiment, I made a batch of oven-dried tomatoes, but while they tasted good, they turned somewhat brown and unattractive and I didn’t like running my oven all day long, either. I started to wonder about dehydrators.
I spent several days researching recipes and looking up reviews on various models, and eventually ordered a Nesco 600-watt dehydrator. According to Amazon, it would ship within a week, so I began to stow away tomatoes like a squirrel hoarding nuts. For some reason shipping occurred later than anticipated, so by the time the Nesco arrived, on a Friday afternoon, I had a refrigerator bin full of lovely ‘maters ready to go.
I tore into the box, eager to get going. Amused, John cautioned me to test the equipment first and retired to his basement workshop to tinker. I read the instructions carefully (pretty simple), assembled the dehydrator (even simpler) and set to work cutting up tomatoes. I had mostly Beefmasters, Lemon Boys and one or two Old Germans (an heirloom that produces lovely yellow and orange- striped beauties), and I quickly filled two of the dehydrator’s five racks with tomato slices about a quarter-inch thick. I gave each a shot of vegetable spray and a scattering of Penzey’s Sandwich Sprinkle, then stacked the racks into the unit and plugged it in.
The dehydrator let out a racheting whine that sounded like someone running a power saw. John hollered up from the basement: “Is that the dehydrator?” “Yes,” I yelled back. “Is something stuck in it?” “No, I don’t think so.” “Unplug it and bring it here.”
So I trotted the top of the unit (that’s where the heating coils and the fan live) down to the workshop. John examined it, and I guess he could tell from my expression how disappointed I was. “Some of the reviews said it was noisy, but that seems really excessive,” I said. “I guess I’ll have to send it back.” John said nothing, but he got out a screwdriver and began to take the top of the Nesco apart. “Something is rubbing in here,” he said, but the innards of the machine revealed only a little plastic fan and the heating coils. After examining everything, he determined that a piece of metal shielding the wiring was slightly bent, throwing everything out of true. “Bring down the rest of it,” he said, bending the metal back into place, and I brought down the base, the three empty racks and the two full ones. John eyeballed the prepped racks and shook his head. “I thought you were going to test it first,” he said. “This IS a test,” I answered. “Yellow tomatoes and red tomatoes.” (I really am a bit of a dullard at times.)
We reassembled the stack and turned the dehydrator on. It whirred breathily, like a box fan – a rather pleasant sound. I took everything back upstairs, filled the other three racks, set the temperature on the unit for 135 degrees and plugged it in. I set a kitchen timer for 30 minutes and went off to do something else. When the timer buzzed, I reversed the order of the racks in the unit, set the timer for an hour and left the Nesco to do its thing.
I knew it was going to take anywhere from 6-12 hours to dehydrate the tomatoes completely. Every hour or so I’d unplug the Nesco and rearrange the racks, so they all got a turn being nearest the fan and heat. By bedtime, the tomatoes smelled wonderful, but most of them were still moist to the touch – which meant they still had a ways to go. A few of the smaller slices were nearly dry, though, and I sacrificed them to the God of Testing – delicious. I’m not comfortable running appliances through the night, so I turned the Nesco off and put the racks in the refrigerator for the night.
John had to leave quite early the next morning and was gone by the time I rolled out of bed, but when I went into the kitchen to make my morning tea I discovered that he’d gotten the racks out of the refrigerator and started the Nesco for me. Within two hours about half of the tomatoes were dry; I took those out, set them aside and continued the dehydration process with the remainder. One or two of the newly dried tomatoes had moist patches, so I ate them. Did I mention that they were delicious? Dried tomatoes have a wonderful tang, and the little bit of seasoning made them even more delightful. Every time I checked on the dehydrator, I’d have myself a little taste. It’s a wonder any of them made it into storage, but eventually I had a sandwich-sized baggie full of yummy treats. They were really pretty, too – none of the browning I’d experienced with the oven-dried version.
I still had plenty of tomatoes, so I decided to slice up another batch. By the time John came home, they were nearly done, and I was quite smug about my accomplishment and was already planning Phase Two of the Great Dehydrator Experiment: fruit.
There is usually at least one week in the tomato-growing season in which reticent plants, chock full of hard green fruit, will suddenly decide that they’ve dallied long enough. When that happens, you’re overwhelmed – nay, inundated – with ripe fruit, and you’d better decide what to do with it quick.
What you see on the left is what happened when my nine tomato plants pulled this trick on me. I have four Roma plants and one each of Lemon Boy, Beefsteak, Brandywine, Old German and Sweet 100s Cherry. The cherry tomatoes aren’t represented in the photo, as I usually devour them as an amuse-bouche while I’m working in the garden.
Now, I don’t like to refrigerate my tomatoes, and I didn’t have room in the chiller for all this bounty, anyway. So I decided to devote a Sunday afternoon and evening to converting the raw tomatoes into delicious home-grown, home-cooked comestibles.
I decided to start with tomato sauce. I make fresh tomato sauce a lot; there’s really nothing to it. You wash the tomatoes, pick off any visible stems, throw them in a big stockpot with some peeled garlic cloves, fresh herbs (I grow my own basil, oregano and parsley) and some olive oil, cover the pot and let them stew down. Give them the occasional stir and poke, to break up any stubborn fruit. Nope, I don’t seed or core them; the next step takes care of that. And no, I don’t add peppers or onions or any of that. I wait to salt until I’ve reduced the sauce – the last step in the cooking process.
While the sauce tomatoes were stewing down, I got out my food mill. It is, shall we say, primitive, but it does the job and it has no moving parts to break. Its legs straddle my big high-sided mixing bowl nicely, and there’s something contemplative about rolling the wooden pestle around the strainer, sieving the hot cooked tomato mix into the bowl. It doesn’t take any great strength or agility to use – you just roll the pestle around and around. The tough tomato skins, leafy greens and all but the tiniest seeds are trapped in the mill, while all the flavored tomato juices and pulpy goodness go into your bowl. And cleaning everything is a snap – nothing to disassemble, no tricky areas to wash. I oil the pestle once in a while, but that’s about as complex as it gets.
I let the tomato mix bubble away, occasionally fishing out a piece of garlic to press against the pot side with the back of a spoon. (I don’t mill the mix until the garlic has gone mushy.) Meanwhile, I contemplated the Lemon Boy tomatoes. For a single plant, the Lemon Boy has been extraordinarily productive, but I didn’t really want to its yellow fruit into my tomato sauce – I figured they’d make the sauce lighter in color than I like. Instead, I decided to use it in two new recipes: tomato chutney and tomato jam.
The tomato chutney recipe I used is from a BBC website, which entailed a certain amount of converting British measures to American, but that’s what the interwebs are for, right? Here’s my translation, along with my tweaks:
HOMEMADE TOMATO CHUTNEY
2 cups red onions, finely sliced (I just used regular ol’ cooking onions)
2.5 pounds of tomatoes (I used Lemon Boys)
4 garlic cloves, sliced
1 red chili, peeled and chopped – optional (I like hot chutney so I used half of one of my Hot Sweet peppers – you can see it lurking in the lower right corner of the first photo in the blog. I did not peel it; I seeded it and cut it into small narrow strips)
1.5 inch piece of ginger, peeled and chopped
2 cups brown sugar (I used light brown)
5 oz red wine vinegar (because I was using yellow tomatoes, I substituted champagne vinegar)
5 cardamom pods
1/2 tsp paprika
Tip all ingredients into a large heavy-based pan and bring to a gentle simmer, stirring frequently. Simmer for one hour, then bring to a gentle boil so that the mixture turns dark, jammy and shiny. Place into sterilized jars and allow to cool before covering. Will keep for six weeks.
The chutney had a strong vinegar smell as it cooked down, but eventually that backed off and it mostly smelled like onions cooking – not unpleasant at all. While it cooked, I milled my first batch of tomato sauce and set it aside to cool for a bit, then got ready for the second batch of sauce. I washed the mill, the stockpot, my big chef’s knife and my cutting board, ran out into a light rain to pick my fresh herbs (which made me feel like a romance heroine, for some reason), peeled another round of garlic and got the big stockpot going again. Then I eyeballed my recipe for tomato jam, which came from noshmyway.com. Since the tomatoes had to be peeled, I got out my second-biggest stockpot, filled it halfway with water and while that came to a boil, I cut a shallow X into the stem-end of each tomato. A 30-second plunge in the boiling water made the skins come away nice and easy.
GOLDEN YELLOW TOMATO JAM
1 pound golden yellow tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup turbinado sugar (once again, I used light brown)
1 tbsp. fresh lime juice
1/2 tbsp. candied ginger, minced
1/8 tsp. ground cloves
1/8 tsp. sweet paprika
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp. salt
Combine all ingredients in a heavy medium saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring often. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until mixture has consistency of thick jam, about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. Watch carefully so the jam doesn’t burn. Remove from heat, cool and refrigerate. Will keep for two weeks. Makes approximately one cup of jam.
I got the jam going, rinsed out the second-biggest stockpot and started reducing the first batch of sauce in that. It’s rare that I have all four burners of my elderly Tappan stove going at once, but this was one of those times:
Everything smelled yummy and I realized that I had worked through the dinner hour, so I made myself a snack with a little reserved Beefsteak tomato. Martin’s potato roll, a slather of low-fat mayo, a little Penzey’s sandwich sprinkle, and I was good to go.
The chutney was just about finished so I had a little taste of it. It was flavorful, but a little lacking in punch, so I added a pinch of red pepper flakes during the final reducing boil. I let it cool a bit, tasted again and added a touch more red pepper. It’s pretty good; next time I would definitely increase the raw pepper and maybe include some of the seeds, and I might also add some golden raisins, just for the look of it and some additional depth of flavor. The recipe says nothing about fishing the cardamom pods out when the cooking is done, but I did. I got about a cup and a half of chutney out of the recipe.
I milled the second batch of tomato sauce, combined it with the first batch in the big stockpot to continue the reducing process and started to clean up the kitchen. By the time I was finished, the jam was just about done. I gave it a taste and danced around the kitchen making yummy sounds – it was that good. I had enough Lemon Boys left to make a second batch, so I got that going and then hovered over the sauce as it reduced. I tasted and tested, gradually adding salt. When it was flavored and thick enough for my liking, I pronounced it done and put it aside to cool. The finished chutney went into the refrigerator in a chubby mason jar. I got about a gallon of tomato sauce from my efforts, and that was decanted into three different containers and went into the freezer. The jam was separated into two containers: one for the freezer, one for the refrigerator. I bet that jam will be nice with Brie, or maybe cream cheese and crackers.
So that was my big tomato day. I don’t know if that’s going to be the Big Harvest for the season; it’s early yet, and lord knows what the late summer will bring. But it felt good to get so much cooked and stowed away for later eating.