Friday, September 17, 2010

LATE SUMMER IN THE GARDEN

Most of the gardeners in our Community Garden in Springfield have already uprooted what was left of their plots over the past weekend. It's been a disappointment to see how many folks never tended their gardens at all over the summer. Knowing that this specific location was an experiment for this community, it’s a shame that more people didn’t do more once they planted.
 
Most disheartening were the plots that are full of tomato plants with their fruit just rotting on the vines. Overall, I think that since we had some major water issues early on, and since most of us were first time gardeners, when the going got difficult with the water situation, some just gave up.

Swiss chard and Bok Choy ready to eat
On the bright side, a few of us hearty souls are still doing pretty nicely. Now that the weather has turned cooler, our plot has new lettuce coming up and the cukes are finally doing something. I’m still plucking cherry tomatoes off the vines and some of the bigger tomatoes are finally ripening.

More swiss chard was able to be harvested last night and some baby bok choy also. The jalepeno peppers are doing very nicely and the Serrano plants are so full of fruit I have no idea what to do with them all – and these are HOT little buggers! One lonely butternut squash on the far vines sits with one or two zucchini trying to ripen. The broccoli and cauliflower got eaten by dear early on so those were a no show. The basil has been prolific and the parsley is still doing well. Our tomatoes didn't do nearly as well as we'd hoped (except for the little ones) and several other things we planted never even made it out of the ground.

Serranos ready to bust onto the scene
A mosey around what’s left of the garden last night finds that the folks on the far edge have some new crops coming on too. Onions are popping up, squash on a couple of vines and still a zucchini or two waiting to be plucked. The gardener next to us has already dug up his potato patch and most of the milder peppers are all picked. Overall it does seem that the harvest is winding down.

I've been pretty pleased with our little plot and it has been a learning experience, not only about growing these things, but what to do with them once they are ready to eat. Jan Becker told us it was all about the learning to see what worked and what didn't.

LESSONS LEARNED

Prety little yellow cherry tomatoes
ready for picking
One thing I learned is that even if you love fresh tomatoes as much as I do, you can only eat so many of them in one summer. Especially the little red, yellow and black cherry versions. Cathy eats them out of hand before even leaving the garden (as did I most days) and I kept them in a bowl on my desk to eat instead of candy. We cooked with them putting them in pasta sauces and as side salads, and even gave a few away.

And yet there were still more! I looked up recipes to preserve these little gems and although the Cherry Tomato Jam recipe I found looked intriguing, I decided that the best thing to do with the excess was to dry them in the dehydrator.  They end up looking much like rainbow versions of raisins.  They should be good in salads this winter and in soups once they're rehydrated.  I sprinkled a few in the processor bowl while making my pesto the other night and it lends a nice tomaato-y background to the basil.  
Little tomatoes of all colors
ready on the drying racks
 Contrary to the name - Sun-dried tomatoes do not require sunshine as one of their ingredients.  If you happen to have a dehydrator in the basement (like the one I bought a thousand years ago and forgot about) hook this up and use it.  If not, lay out the tomatoes on a cookie sheet and put them in your oven on it's lowest setting and leave them to dry.

I sliced the little tomatoes in half, layed them out on the rack and turned on the machine.  When you get up the next morning the house will smell like fresh tomatoes.  Do not blame me if you crave spaghetti sauce all day!  Take a look at what's happened - they need to be dry to the touch and leather-y - like a raisin or dried cranberry.  If they are at all damp when you put them in the pantry, they will mold and mildew and the whole batch will be trash.  Each machine will be different - but mine were done in about 24 hours with the ones on the bottom racks closer to the heating element being done first.  I simply rotate the racks and let them finish altogether. 

From fresh to dried - ready
for storage in the pantry
The larger tomatoes I sliced into thirds and salted before putting on the racks.  The salt helps to draw out the moisture as well as give them some added flavor.  These take longer on the racks since they are so large and have more moisture to begin with.  These I will be storing in smaller jars covered with olive oil and kept in the fridge.  Not only are the tomatoes delicious this way but the oil is fantastic also.

My favorite use for dried tomatoes is to use them to stuff chicken breasts with a mixture of the tomatoes, a little of the olive oil they're packed in, some goat cheese and pesto.  Brown the chicken and then transfer to the oven to complete the cooking process...YUM! 

Coincidentally, this week my Cooks Illustrated weekly email contained a link to several tasty looking recipes using sun-dried tomatoes.  Feel free to try any of these and then riff your own versions!


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