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.
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.