Wednesday, November 24, 2010

First Freeze -- Last Fruits

Last night, during an all-too-short interval between a day at work and a night-time event, I found myself out in the garden with a flashlight, stripping the remaining tomatoes, eggplant, and trombetta squash off their respective plants. Freezing temperatures were predicted.

After covering the little potted Meyer lemon and bidding a fond farewell to the basil and nasturtiums, I dashed off to store the last fruits of the summer season in the garage and the kitchen. Clipped branches of tomatoes were hung in the garage, dangling above the one huge, pale beige trombetta that had managed to transition into a winter squash. The eggplant, loose tomatoes, and still-green trombettas went into the house.

This morning I went out to check on the carnage. The basil had turned black overnight, so the expected killing frost had occurred as foretold. The drooping nasturtiums were still green, as were the tomatoes, eggplant, and squash, but they all had lost their will to live, cells burst open by shards of ice that formed inside.

Meanwhile, the spinach, kale, and broccoli were standing tall: "Ah, a bit of frost -- just the refreshing pick-up we were craving."

Sunday, November 21, 2010

November is the Month of Greening

In many respects November in our little corner of the cosmos behaves as a proper fall/winter month should. Days get shorter, nights get longer, cold winds and rain blow falling leaves through chill air.

But at the same time a whole other narrative unfolds. In a Mediterranean climate like ours there are really only two seasons: wet and dry. The dry season runs through what is traditionally known as spring, summer, and early fall: May through October. The wet season runs more or less from late fall to early spring: November through April.

When the first rains fall, announcing the shift from dry season to wet, the parched brown earth responds immediately with tiny shafts of new green growth pushing up through dead thatch. Out in the countryside dusty hillsides take on a pale greenish blush and gradually get covered with luminescent carpets of gaudy green.

In our backyard there are newly fallen leaves layering the ground and vigorous seedlings sprouting beside them.

Our backyard "meadow" changes -- with some help, consisting mainly of removing the dead debris -- from a stand of dried up Queen Anne's Lace, wild fennel, and mallow to a quasi-lawn: the only time of year we have what could remotely be called a lawn.

The winter garden surges: spinach, kale, lettuce, peas, broccoli, chard, leeks. The paths start filling up with lush volunteers: arugula, lettuce, kale, yard chard galore, along with the usual roster of weeds. Alongside the flourishing winter growth, the summer garden languishes as the plants turn limp and yellowed: tomatoes, peppers, summer squash, eggplants, basil.

I'm always reminded of the lines from Bob Dylan (It's Alright Ma): "He who is not busy being born, is busy dying."

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Insanely Great Pasta Sauce

It was the continuous supply of eggplant that led to B.'s latest culinary breakthrough. Even though the season is just about over (after all, it's November!), the memory lingers on and will provide inspiration for next spring's planting decisions.

Two plants of Hansel eggplant and two of Fairy Tale produced gorgeous platefuls of glossy purple fruit that sat around on the dining room table, just asking to be made into something wonderful.

It wasn't the best season ever for tomatoes but there were still enough on hand (Early Girl, Black Trifele, Sun Gold, Yellow Pear) to fill their own plates and provide their own entrancing palette of color.

Since they were meant to be together -- like moonlight and music -- it was only a matter of time before they ended up simmering together in the same pan with some olive oil and crushed garlic. The little Fairy Tail teardrops didn't even need peeling, they were so tender. They disappeared completely into the sauce. The Hansels were peeled and sliced up and cooked until soft along with the tomatoes.

Sometimes B. would blanch the tomatoes first to get the skins off, and sometimes just quarter them and set them in the pan, skins and all. Pictured above is a skins-on batch. Whole basil leaves, just picked, were added towards the end of the cooking time.

Voila! A sauce that is so utterly simple yet subtle and rich with the tang of fresh tomatoes and the smokey undercurrent of eggplant, so silky it coats the noodles with flavor that lingers in the mouth and in the mind.

Another approach that draws out of the savor of the eggplant even more is to roast them whole for an hour in the oven. Just cut off the tops and prick them with a fork, coat lightly with olive oil and set them on an oiled baking sheet. Take them out when soft and collapsing into themselves, slit them open and squeeze out the yummy paste.

The eggplant is then combined with oven-roasted tomatoes. These were cooked for half an hour in an iron skillet with a layer of olive oil and some crushed garlic. When done, set the skillet on the top of the stove, add the eggplant paste and simmer gently until the mixture forms a sauce.

The roasting method produces a smoother sauce because all of the eggplant disappears into the magical meld of mouth-watering goodness.

Whatever route you take to get there, it's an insanely good pasta sauce.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Easy Refrigerator Pickles

As of early October we had a goodly pile of lemon cucumbers in the refrigerator, the last survivors after our one very prolific plant had succumbed to mildew and been removed. For months we had been eating the cukes fresh and giving them away. We were tired of them and so were our neighbors.

I had never made pickles out of anything but it seemed worth a try if it didn't take too much time. As usual, a little internet sleuthing yielded some good suggestions.

The recipe I ended up following was compiled from several sources. It had to be easy and not sweet -- no sugar. Mostly it had to be easy.

The cucumbers sliced up nicely into six cups worth. To this was added some chopped cilantro and some chopped green onion.

I brought to a boil two cups of vinegar, plus spices (1 tablespoon each of celery seed, mustard seed, and turmeric) and pickling salt (2 tablespoons), and let it cook for a minute or two.

However, this ended up being way too little liquid to fill the seven pint jars I had crammed the cucumber slices into. Perhaps I hadn't packed in the cucumbers tightly enough, or perhaps removing sugar from the recipe reduced the volume of the mixture. Anyway, I just boiled up four more cups of vinegar with more spices and salt and hoped for the best.

The filled jars were allowed to cool down and then put into the refrigerator where they will stay until all used up. Supposedly they will keep for months, but we won't get a chance to test that out since we are going through them pretty fast.

They are crunchy, spicy, and delicious, although a bit strong for eating more than one or two out of hand. (Next year, I will try diluting the vinegar mixture with water or packing the jars better.)

We've been enjoying them in salads, cut up into small pieces, or, best of all, as a garnish for veggie burgers along with garden tomatoes and lettuce.

Mmmmmm. And so easy. Even with the mistakes, making the pickles took not much more than an hour.