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 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!