We think of September as the start of fall, but it’s also one of the most active times all year in the garden – it seems like more crops are coming on (which means picking, canning, freezing, cooking and baking, and lots of eating!) this month than any time all summer. Of course, our wet spring this year may have contributed to a later harvest, too.
My favorite crop to harvest and eat is tomatoes – first come the cherry tomatoes (this huge bowl was the result of just one afternoon of picking!), including our favorite variety, Sun Gold. If I was to plant only one tomato plant, this would be it. When the larger tomatoes start coming on in force, I will make tomato sauce, using a fabulous recipe from a friend of mine. The great thing about this recipe is that you can use up all sorts of crops from your garden, and it really involves a minimum of work.
In a large roasting pan, drizzle olive oil all over the bottom to prevent sticking – then throw in anything from your garden that you’d like in your sauce. I use carrots, onions, zucchini, green peppers, garlic, oregano, thyme, basil, and a little bit of rosemary (I particularly like how the carrots give the sauce an orange-y “glow”).
You don’t need to cut, peel, or slice any of this, but do cut off stems or any parts you don’t want to end up in the sauce. Then on the top of all this, put your whole tomatoes – skins still on, but take out the cores (stems) first. Pack the tomatoes in there tightly – they should be in a single layer, close together with sides touching.
Over the top, rub olive oil over the tomatoes (this keeps them from burning) and drizzle balsamic vinegar and kosher salt. Then put the roasting pan in the oven at 400 degrees (convection if you have it) for 45-60 minutes. You’ll know when it’s done because the tomatoes will turn a lovely roasted brown on top, and your whole kitchen will smell like an Italian restaurant!
Dump the entire contents of the pan into a large pot on the stove, then use an immersion blender to get rid of all large pieces and chunks (you could also run it through a food processor in batches, but an immersion blender is simpler). Next, simmer the contents of the pot on low heat until you get it to the consistency you want. This will take several hours, at least; the longer you simmer it, the thicker the consistency will be, but of course as it cooks down, you are reducing the quantity. You can also add small cans of tomato paste to thicken.
When you get the consistency you like, you can freeze it in quart bags (this is the method I use) or can it in a hot water bath. The sauce is delicious almost anytime you need tomato sauce, spaghetti sauce, or a topping for any kind of pasta.
Every year my green bean crop is prolific – my biggest problem is getting them harvested on time, you really need to pick almost every other day, otherwise they grow so big, so fast that they become tough and inedible. Once they’re harvested, preserving them is easy:
*chop off ends and chop (or just snap by hand) into bite-sized pieces
*boil in a huge pot of hot water for only 1-2 minutes
*strain out of the pot and into a bowl (or sink) full of cold water and ice cubes
*pack into quart-sized or gallon-sized freezer bags and freeze
This is called blanching green beans, and it fills my freezer with dinner-sized portions ready to be steamed and eaten for dinner all winter. I use the same method for freezing broccoli.
What to do with all the zucchini? I pop them in the food processor as quickly as I pick them, shred them up and put the shredded zucchini in quart-sized freezer bags. I keep them in the freezer until I’m ready to make zucchini bread (or use in frittatas), then just pull a bag out of the freezer. My zucchini bread recipe is simple:
4 eggs, 1 1/2 cups brown sugar, 3/4 cup canola oil
3 cups flour, 1 1/2 tsp baking soda, 3/4 tsp baking powder, 3/4 tsp salt, 2 tsp cinnamon
2 cups grated zucchini, 1 cup chopped walnuts (optional), 1 tsp vanilla
Mix all ingredients together – turn into two greased 9-inch bread pans (fill only 2/3 full) – bake at 350 degrees for approx. 50 minutes. Yum – nothing like warm zucchini bread on a cool fall morning!
Because my peach trees steadfastly refuse to produce any useable peaches, I bought two boxes (15-20 pounds) of peaches at the local farmers market and, with my stepmom’s help, got them all canned yesterday. I find that canning peaches takes a lot of set-up, but is pretty simple once you get moving. I typically do batches several weekends in a row, so that it’s not overwhelming.
First – Put peaches in boiling water for one minute to loosen skins
Second – Rub off skins, cut in half and remove pits (using freestone peaches makes this step easier), place in a bowl of water with ascorbic acid to set color
Third – Place peach halves in jars (wide-mouthed makes this job a lot easier!) that have been washed and sterilized – use large pieces if possible, but cut into quarters if necessary to fill up all of the available space and leave no gaps or holes
Fourth – Pour syrup into jars (I make a light syrup of 8 cups water to 2 cups sugar, heated on the stove)
Fifth – Run a knife along the inside of the jar to settle the peaches and push out air bubbles, then pour in a little more syrup until the level of the liquid is just 1/4 inch below the jar top
Sixth – Wipe off the top edge of the jar so that it is clean and dry (this will ensure a good seal) – take jar lids (heated to make the sealant sticky) and washed/sterilized screw tops – place the lid firmly on the jar and hold it down while screwing on the top, so that moisture isn’t allowed to push up under the lid and prevent a good seal.
Seventh – Place the jars in a hot water bath for 25 minutes (if they are quart-sized) after the water comes to a rolling boil.
The hot water bath is the time-consuming part, since mine can hold only seven jars – twice I had a jar break during the hot water bath, I suspect that I had the heat turned up too high. My peaches likely wouldn’t win any prizes at the fair – you can see how much gap there is between the bottom and the peaches (which means I didn’t pack them in tightly enough) – I’ll try harder to get them better packed with less room for the peaches to float to the top next weekend.