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.
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.