EatDrinkShopCook: Making the most of the harvest's bounty
If I don't see another head of cabbage until St. Patrick's Day, I'll be happy. It seems that every summer, there's one vegetable that just won't stop coming around. For me, last summer it was eggplant. I must have gone through three giant containers of breadcrumbs while making eggplant parmesan. This year, cabbage kept appearing in my weekly farm box. There are certainly hundreds of variations of coleslaw, and I did my part in trying many of them out, but enough's enough.
This time of year can be difficult for food lovers. You get ecstatic over the idea of fresh vegetables, but then when they start ripening in full force, it's all too easy to become paralyzed by the abundance. Without fail, I yearn for a slice of fresh, sun-warmed tomato in the middle of January. But when August finally rolls around and tomato season hits, I start to panic. The piles of tomatoes on my kitchen counter seem to stare me down and invoke a sort of "harvest guilt." I know I can't be the only one who feels this way.
So this year, I decided to plan ahead just a little bit. I wasn't going to go crazy and start canning everything in sight, but I did want to stay somewhat ahead of the game.
"Preserving food is now being called an art when just a few decades ago it was a way of life," said Lori Cochran-Dougall, director of the Westport Farmers Market. "Freezing, canning, drying are all ways to preserve this season's harvest for you to enjoy when the temperatures turn cold and we once again long for the green of summer."
Al Popp of Easton's Sport Hill Farm said that this year everything has been doing well except the watermelon. "We try to encourage people to extend their season by preserving food," he said. "You can make sauce, and cut corn off the cob and freeze it."
Freezing is definitely the easiest method of preservation I've used so far. Last year, I had the foresight to shuck a bunch of corn and freeze the kernels to use in late-winter corn chowders. This year, I shredded mounds of zucchini, which I'll use for muffins and quick breads. The basil growing on my deck, which I actually managed to keep alive and healthy this year, has been frozen into olive oil ice cubes, which I'll toss into Italian dishes in the winter.
As for the tomatoes, I decided to try something completely different and took a stab at making my own ketchup. Why not, right? I figured it had to be better than all the corn syrup-laden varieties out there. Unfortunately, my experiment wasn't as successful as I'd hoped. The tomatoes were watery to begin with, so the ketchup lacked consistency. It was pretty thin, actually, so instead, I used it as a vegetable soup base. It wasn't half bad.
A few weeks ago, I spoke with Sherri Brooks Vinton, author of "Put `Em Up: A Comprehensive Home Preserving Guide for the Creative Cook," and her passion for preserving made me want to give it a try. I'll admit, I've always been too afraid to try canning for fear of botulism.
But once she explained it all to me -- and impressed upon me that you simply need to follow directions -- I summoned the courage to give it a try. Three trips to Target (one for jars, another for more salt and another for the right-sized jars), two hours in the kitchen and one big bag of cucumbers from the farm resulted in ten jars of dill pickle spears. I wouldn't say it was super easy, but with more practice, I can certainly see how one can get into a real groove with it. Getting over that fear of taking one wrong step and poisoning your family is the hardest part.
"Some wise words were recently shared with me," said Cochran-Dougall. " `Do what you feel comfortable with.' Small batches of things are easy to deal with and provide a good introduction to canning. Want a fun night out? Canning with a group of friends can be a blast. Grab your jars, tomatoes, canning needs and wine, and you are off to having a fun evening with friends that result in a delicious treat."
Of course, you can always just go for it and eat only what you've got, like Barbara Kingsolver did in her book, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: Our Year of Seasonal Eating." Tomatoes can be transformed into sauce, ketchup, salsa, tomato paste, BLTs, Caprese salad and even homemade Bloody Marys.
Cucumbers are great in salads, but you can also make tea sandwiches, pickles and homemade relish. Allow cucumber slices to soak in a pitcher of water and you've got a refreshing summer drink.
Too many berries? Make jam, pies, ice cream, fruit vinegar or homemade flavored vodka.
With a little creativity, and some planning, there are countless ways to take full advantage of the harvest without feeling any guilt. Had I been thinking, I would've taken all of that cabbage and made sauerkraut. I could've been all set for Oktoberfest.