Summer Days and School Days

School started this week in our area. Calvin started ninth grade this year – the dreaded and exciting high school. Though he has been in the same school district since kindergarten, and he has always started school this early in August, it still seems insanely early to me.

School, when the summer cicadas and katydids are still singing? School, when it is still blazing hot? Well, not this year, but I’m not complaining at all about the beautiful weather. School, when we are still eating summer produce in all its glory?

DSC_0053Though the school year is in full swing, and our activities feel like fall, I am hanging onto summer at least a few more weeks. The fall spices, pumpkins and apples can wait a while, as far as I’m concerned. Summer is still here and I’m hanging on to it – long days, garden vegetables, lemonade and all.

Summer cooking for me has involved a lot of zucchini this year, and not quite as many tomatoes as usual. It all comes down to what is doing well in the garden. We have had spotty success with tomatoes for the past few years, so this spring we decided to give the soil a rest from tomato plants and raise them in pots.

Well, that was a failure – we had a grand total of eight cherry tomatoes and one larger one. The plants just never took off in the pots, and the deer took care of most of the fruit we did get on the vines. To top off the season, a deer ate two of the plants down to stubs. I bagged the whole experiment in mid July. I am trying a second, fall crop of tomatoes, but in the garden this time, behind the lattice fence that was supposed to keep out the rabbits. It seems to be doing a fine job deterring the deer too.

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We have had good luck with zucchini this year, at least. I have one plant, count it, one. It currently is taking over the garden. We have had several huge zucchini that escaped our notice under the insanely huge leaves. One weighed three pounds and the other was over four. There really was nothing to do with those but shred them, since they were so big. They found their way into zucchini tots, lemon zucchini muffins and the freezer. We have had a lot of smaller zucchini too, using those on pizza, and in zucchini chips and zucchini planks.

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Calvin’s first week of school is just about over. I think it calls for a celebration, which in our house usually means something special from the kitchen. I wonder if he’d go for zucchini cake? Probably not. Guess it’s time to break out the chocolate.

Roasted Red Peppers

DSC_0038Maybe it’s because we had our first hard freeze last night, but I am thinking about the last preps for winter now. We will take out the last of the garden tomorrow and put it to bed for winter. And I am working hard to preserve the last of the garden produce – peppers, tomatoes and basil for us.

Roasted red bell peppers are one of my favorites. And red peppers can be mighty pricey, summer and winter. When I can get my hands on a reasonably priced supply I buy several, roast them and freeze them for later. When I got the precious pepper bounty a few weeks ago from my dad and his garden, I did exactly that. Now I have a nice stash in the freezer, waiting for me to make roasted red pepper soup or to add to tacos or quesadillas.

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What are you waiting for? Get thee to a farmers market and check for last minute deals on peppers. Now is the time to stock your freezer for the winter. Or, if garden season is long past in your area, watch for sales at the store and snap them up.

Download or print the recipe.

Roasted Red Peppers
From The Cook’s Life
Yield varies

Red bell peppers
Cooking spray or oil

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease a baking pan and set aside.

Cut down along the sides of each pepper to separate the flesh from the core, seeds and top. You will end up with 4-5 pieces from each pepper. Cut off any thick white ribs on the inside of the peppers. Place pepper pieces in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet, skin side up.

Roast for 25-30 minutes, or until the skins and edges are starting to blacken and the flesh is soft.

When cool enough to handle, remove the skins. Or leave them on, according to your preference.

Freeze in a single layer in a zip-top plastic bag. Thaw as needed.

Fall Garden’s Last Gasp

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Our fall weather is definitely here. And the garden knows it. We are down to one tomato plant and it isn’t producing much. The nights are just too chilly and the days aren’t warm enough to compensate. I do still have two basil plants and a robust crop of garlic.

The garlic was a surprise – the plants are growing from the bulbs I missed when I harvested in early summer. We will let the bulbs grow over the winter, divide them in the spring and harvest them in early summer. This will be the first time I will be overwintering anything and I’m a little bit excited. Garden nerd alert.

While my garden is limping to the finish, my dad’s garden is flourishing. A couple of weeks ago, we had my parents over for dinner and they brought us a beautiful selection of eggplant and red bell peppers from their garden. I couldn’t resist taking few pictures. I took a shot of the biggest pepper in my hand, for scale. Dad said he brought me the largest pepper he had ever grown. I am honored. And there is absolutely no hidden sarcasm in that. I know how hard it is to battle the critters for the ripening peppers.

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I am having a good time using up the beautiful garden bounty. We sautéed the smaller eggplant for pasta. One of the big ones became what we call eggplant croutons – diced, tossed with egg and bread crumbs and baked until crispy. Perfect on top of pasta or just to eat hot out of the oven. The last big one is destined to be roasted and mixed with roasted garlic to make dip for bread. The peppers will all be roasted and frozen to wait for red pepper soup or to become part of tacos. Oh, the garden riches!

What are your favorite fall vegetables right now?

Fall Gardening

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Though you wouldn’t know it from the weather, fall is in full swing here in Missouri Despite temps in the 80s, fall is in the air – the humidity is down slightly, the sky is bluer and the days are shorter.

It has been a hard year for the garden, with wild temperature swings and periods of flooding rains followed by drought-like conditions. Drought really took over the past few months and it has been a struggle to give the plants enough water.

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One of our tomato plants in the garden died, and the other two are just limping along. The cherry tomato is still producing fruit, but not nearly as much as it was in the height of the season. And the one heirloom we tried this year, a Gypsy, has only one healthy section. It has a couple of ripening tomatoes on it and I’ll probably pull it out as soon as they are ready to pick. The cherry tomato will get a reprieve until we get frost, as long as it keeps producing. I might even run out with a sheet to protect it from our first few frosty nights. As long as it doesn’t get too cold at night, it should keep producing at least a few tomatoes until we get a hard freeze.

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We have one tomato plant in a pot next to the patio and it is going strong. Unfortunately we don’t like the fruit from that one as much – they are tiny, don’t taste like much and their skins tend to split when you pick them. I think I am going to harvest all of the red tomatoes from that one, stems and all, and roast them with the stems on. Then that plant will head to the yard waste bin.

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Our ten basil plants are down to two. Most of them were at the end of their short lives and were unable to take up enough water to keep their leaves from wilting. I managed to harvest enough for another batch of olive oil and basil pucks for the freezer before most of them wilted.

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We did have one surprise from our lackluster gardening season – a volunteer cantaloupe vine has taken over our compost bin. It came up in late August and we decided to see what was growing before we rooted it out. Until it set fruit, we weren’t sure what it was – though we suspected a zucchini or a cantaloupe. It was an exciting day when the fledgling fruit was big enough to identify as a cantaloupe. The other promising melons on the vine shriveled, or succumbed to the deer, but we have one cantaloupe ripening. We are supposed to get some cool nights next week, but I’m hoping we still have enough warm days for it to ripen soon.

Gardening season is winding down for me. Soon we’ll harvest everything and put the garden to bed for the winter, under a blanket of compost and shredded leaves. I hate to see the summer plants go, but it is almost time. I am already planning for my early spring garden. The circle of life continues, even in a suburban garden.

The Leaves of Summer

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We have narrowed down our successful summer gardening choices to tomatoes and basil. Eggplants were bitter, zucchini took up too much room and peppers were hit and miss. And we had to fight the critters to harvest any of those. We have some success with other crops in the spring and fall, but tomatoes and basil are it for us for the summer.

In case you aren’t an herb gardener, basil likes to be used. After you cut off stems, it sends out new shoots around the cut edges, making the plant bushier and more prolific. I have made a few batches of pesto this summer, and used a few leaves here and there as I needed them.

I haven’t used much basil over the past few weeks, so the plants were getting out of control. I decided to do one big harvest and build up my freezer basil stash. I took my kitchen shears out to the garden and started cutting bunches of basil, throwing them behind me into a pile. When it was time to haul it all to the house it took two trips to get it all.

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After it took me almost half an hour to wash and de-stem the basil, I realized I needed to pick the quickest preserving method possible. I really wanted a way to preserve the fresh basil flavor for the winter. I didn’t need to make pesto for that, so I decided to chop all the basil in the food processor with a little olive oil.

I dolloped the bright green, concentrated basil puree onto parchment lined cookie sheets and froze it until solid. Then I peeled off the frozen basil patties and tossed them in a ziplock bag to keep for the winter.

Now I have ready-to-use basil pucks ready to throw into pasta sauces and soups. Or I can thaw one or two to spread on pizza dough or mix with mayonnaise to add a little zip to sandwiches.

A few more days and the basil will have enough new shoots for another harvest. I think I’ll go check on it again.

The Fruits of Summer

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This year’s tomato harvest started with a trickle of red fruit – one cherry tomato every few days. And that was if I could beat the deer to them. I can’t tell you how many tomatoes I picked that had one dainty bite out of the side. We have a small family of a doe and her two fawns that have adopted our neighborhood. They are so comfortable that they relax in the shade of the trees in the afternoons. Bucolic suburbs, anyone?

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We haven’t seen the deer as much lately. I guess our neighbors have tastier offerings in their yards. Fine with me. We finally have had a couple of substantial tomato harvests. I actually had to get a bowl the other day, instead of holding the red bounty in my hands. In fact, I had to get two bowls and they were both overflowing. I spent a little time gloating over the piles of red lusciousness before taking them inside.

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As often is the case we didn’t deal with the harvest right away. I was stumped over the best way to use our many, many cherry tomatoes. They are nuggets of summer tomato tastiness, but they do have a high ratio of skins and seeds to flesh, which makes them slightly problematic in sauce.

After two days of sliced tomatoes and quick sautéed pasta sauces, and after I noticed the first fruit fly, I had to do something. We had more tomatoes ripening every day. I settled on roasting as the most efficient method to deal with the bowls of red guilt that were covering my countertops.

I usually remove the skins after roasting, but I couldn’t see taking the time to peel all of the melting globs of cherry tomatoes. And then I would lose the caramelized, roasted skins, with all of their rich flavor. I decided to chuck the whole lot into the food processor, peels and all. It pureed into a thick, bright red sauce with dark flecks of toasted peels. I am already dreaming of pulling those bags of summer sunshine out of the freezer on a cold, dark December day.

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What is your favorite way to use vine-ripened, picked at the peak of freshness, summer tomatoes?

Tomato Anticipation

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Celebrate with me – I have tomatoes in the garden that are bigger than peas! The first day I noticed them they weren’t even that big, but they doubled in size in a day, and they continue to grow. Our goal for ripe tomatoes is usually the Fourth of July, and we might just make it this year, even with our screwy, hot then cold spring.

I am so looking forward to cooking with garden tomatoes, and eating them on sandwiches. This is from a person who went from hating even the smell of raw tomatoes when she was a kid, to thinking they smelled pretty good but still hesitating to eat them, to looking forward to the first BLT or grilled cheese and tomato sandwich of the summer. Not to mention bruschetta with chopped tomatoes, pasta with olive oil marinated tomatoes, pizza with sliced tomatoes, roasted tomato pasta sauce, pizza sauce and veggie sauté featuring tomatoes. I guess I am a true tomato convert.

There is such excitement when we get the first tomato from our own plants. It isn’t always the tastiest tomato, but it is the first one. And following close on its heels will be loads of tangy, yet sweet, warm from the sun garden tomatoes. Maybe I should buy some bacon so we’ll be ready.

What is your favorite summer vegetable or fruit?