Just peachy

Life isn’t always just peachy, but on those rare occasions when life goes right, it’s important to celebrate.  Just so seasonal peaches.  The peach harvest isn’t always perfect, and indeed some years are so poor the peaches need to be scrapped altogether.  But when everything goes right, and the Spirits of Fruit bless us with an abundance of perfect peaches, it is our pleasure, nay, our obligation, to enjoy and preserve that gift so we can savor it long into the future.IMG_0787

Peaches are one of my favorite fruits.  Many a summer past I have looked longingly at what is on offer at my local supermarket in June, or even July, and imagine it might be tasty and delicious.  I imagine it’s sugary juice and perfectly ripe density as I bite into it.  I’ll pick up a peach and gently prod its unyielding flesh or bring it to my nose in hope of catching the sweet aroma of summer.  Foolishly, I may even be convinced to pay the outrageous sticker price for one or two with the notion that this time will be different, that these peaches were perhaps allowed to stay on the branch a little longer than most, or better yet were picked nearly ripe.  I’ll gently take the fruit home and set it on the counter to fulfill its natural destiny of becoming delicious.  When it’s stiffness finally yields under my thumb, it smells like actual peaches, and I deem it ripe enough to eat, I bite into its softness and feel tasteless mush coating my tongue like wallpaper paste.  Into the compost they go.  How did I get fooled again?

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The only good peaches are the ones you pick yourself, ripe from the tree.  And not always those.  Years past have given us hard nuggets that never ripen or worse, fall off the tree when they are the size of walnuts.  We’ve seen fruit with thick hairy skin and crunchy flesh, as well as wormy bland fruit that has the consistency of blueberries and leaves a slimy film on the tongue.  Timing and weather play important roles in a successful peach harvest, and only one of those things is within our control.  You make your own luck, my dad used to say.  God helps those who help themselves, my mom’s voice calls out from my past.  Every gardener knows those expressions are only partly true.  If nature won’t cooperate, and inclement weather strikes at in-opportune times, no amount of hard work can fix it.  A frost after the trees blossom will kill a harvest overnight.  Excessive heat, too much rain, blight, insects and many other things can ruin peaches.  But some things are within our prevue, and timing is essential.  Choosing which days to apply horticultural oils to protect the blossoms from egg laying insects, fertilizing the trees at the proper times, deciding when to thin the fruits; all these things can affect the harvest.  Once the fruits are established and ripening it is time to decide when to pick.

If you see a bunch of rotting peaches under the tree, you’re too late.

Start testing the fruit once one or two peaches have dropped on the ground.  If you are impatient, give the tree a gentle shake and see if any fruit falls off.  Once the first fruits drop the time is right to test the peaches for ripeness.  A gentle press with the thumb on the bottom flesh will give you an idea of the readiness of the peach.  If the flesh doesn’t yield, its not ripe.  When the bottom yields under the thumb, check the top of the peach near the branch.  This should just give under the finger.  If it is still firm-not ripe.  If it yields, give the peach a twist.  If it pops off-hurrah, it’s ripe. If the tree gives some resistance, perhaps it’s not ready to give up the fruit yet.  It’s telling you to wait another day.  Accept it.

There is only one reason to pick the peaches before they ripen on the tree and that is if the birds find them first.  Once the crows and their cronies get a taste of those lovely peaches, it’s all over.  They have an maddening way of pecking only the ripest part of the fruit, usually where the sun hits it, and leaving the harder unripe side intact.  They go from peach to peach and ruin each one, leaving the unprotected flesh open for fruit flies, ants and other pests to crawl in and spoil the fruit.  If you don’t want to share with your feathered friends I suggest that at the first sign of beak marks, you pick the fruit that’s unblemished and mostly ripe.  A few days on the counter, covered by cheesecloth to protect it, will eventually ripen the fruits.  Better yet, net the trees to protect from the birds.  IMG_0773

Once the fruits start to ripen on the tree, they come like a wave.  At first there are just a few ripe ones to tempt the appetite, eaten just rinsed in the sink, or grilled. As the days pass they ripen by the basket full, and soon the counter is covered with fruits in various stages of ripening, too many to eat each day.  Soon fresh peaches are a part of every meal, and the pies and kuchens and cobblers feel more like an obligation than a treat.   It’s time to put up the abundance so that when colder breezes blow, a mouthful of sweet deliciousness will recall to us the sun and warmth of humid August days.

All the ways to preserve the harvest start with the same first steps.  Jammed, jarred, frozen, liquored, candied, dehydrated, or even salsa-fied , the peaches must first be relieved of their fuzzy skin.  This is done by blanching the peaches in boiled water for 1 minute, and then plunging the peaches into cold water.  One minute.  Time it.  Longer and the peaches will begin to cook and become mushy, and then your only choice is jam.  Less and the skins won’t slip off.  You can tell during this first step if your peaches are indeed perfectly ripe because if they are, the skins will slide off leaving smooth peachy flesh underneath.  If they are a bit under-ripe, the skin will peel off taking some of the flesh with it, and the peach will be nubby looking.  See the difference in the picture below.

 

Once they are blanched there are endless choices for using or saving them.  If I have too many to process and not enough time, my first choice is to freeze them sliced into quart bags.  This is fast and easy, and allows for more creative uses when I have more time to spare.  Take care to fill the bags only partway full or they won’t stack well in the freezer.  To minimize the mess, I roll the top of the bag over to fill it.  Freezing the peaches does not require the use of citric or ascorbic acid to protect the color, but if you might want to jar them at a later time I suggest using it prior to freezing.  When they thaw out the bright peach color will tend to brown slightly, and pretty jars lined in the pantry look so much better if the peaches have been rinsed in a bit of acid first.  I use Ball brand Fruit-Fresh.

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Canning is another way to keep them safe for months to come, but it does require more effort, and some specialized equipment.  While you don’t need a pressure cooker for canning peaches, it does shorten the processing time. I can my peaches in a very light syrup if they were allowed to ripen on the tree.  I want to taste peach, not sugar, when I open the jar.  IMG_0795

If you are not patient enough to grow your peach trees, or don’t have the space, don’t despair.   Take a trip to a pick-your-own orchard, find a farmers market, or as a last resort, buy some from your market when it is peach season in your area.  Ask the provenance of the fruit and if it is local, give it a try.  Smell is the best way to judge ripeness in market fruits.  If you can find good fruits, it’s wise to invest now for a payout later.  Buy a bushel. Winter peaches are worth it.

If you have an interesting way to preserve peaches, or a receipt to share, post it here.

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Which season is this, anyway?

IMG_1781I bought myself a new pair of galoshes.  I love that word, galoshes.  It brings to mind yellow rubber duckies and chubby kneed toddlers jumping in puddles.  Purple umbrellas, rain streaking down window panes, and good books.  So I have a new pair.  Sleek, navy blue and mid-calf, with a bright orange lining, they are my new favorite shoes.  Partly because I get to wear them every day, morning and evening, and sometimes in between.  They are made by a company called Hunter, the Rolls Royce of rubber boots.  The last pair I had were made by Hunter too, although I cheaped out and bought them slightly used on Ebay.  I got  what I paid for, by the way.  They must have been more than “slightly” used, because they only lasted a few seasons.  After a few weeks of doing my chores in wet socks this spring I broke down and bought a new pair directly from the company.  And not a moment too soon.  The pretty box lined in bright orange with the fancy Hunter logo gave me almost enough gratification to justify the price.  At least they are getting a good workout.  IMG_0747

It’s been a wet summer here in the northeast.  Wet and hot.  A wet summer following a cold late spring.  Following a weird winter.  But no one needs me to tell them that the weather is out of whack, all you have to do is look out the window, or better yet look at your garden.  I’ve got tomatoes splitting open on the vine before they ripen, peppers dropping all their leaves and huge eggplant bushes with no blooms on them.  My carrots are two inches tall and as fat as sausages, the watermelon, winter squash and pumpkins have no fruit at all, and the raspberries mold before I can pick them.  I have cabbage spitting open like hatching eggs and basil plants with leaves as brown and slimy as pond scum.  Things are composting before I can harvest them.  It’s wet.

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It’s in my nature, sadly, to point out the tragic and flawed first.  When someone comes for a tour of the garden, or is just walking through, I’ll delightedly complain about all the garden failures.  Maybe it’s my way of deflecting blame, as if I’m somehow responsible for the weather.  I need everyone to know that despite all my efforts, things are not perfect, and I recognize it.  I make them note the worst so they know that I know the flaws exist.  That I’m not proudly displaying what is obviously not the way it should be.  It’s a terrible way to behave, and not very self-serving.  Most times, not only would they not have recognized the not-perfectness of things, but it robs them of the desired delusion that things really are perfect, and just the way they should be.  They leave thinking either I’m a downer, or just not very good at what I do.  Or worse, they feel the need to reassure me, and make me feel better for my multitude of failures. Ridiculous.

So, now that you’ve heard the worst, both practically and subconsciously, I’ll tell you the good news.  Onions the size of softballs.  Leeks that are three feet tall.  Abundant parsley, mint that is overflowing (isn’t it always) and cucumbers that just keep coming.  The garlic harvest was successful, fat white and purple heads drying on racks in the garage. The kohlrabi, while a bit tough on the outside, was none the less plump and crunchy.  And the summer squash.  Oh, the summer squash.  I’m reminded of Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal Vegetable Miracle where she informs her children that they lock the car doors in summer not to deter someone from stealing the car, but to prevent neighbors from dropping off  bags of calf sized zucchini on their back seat.   Lock your doors folks, it’s that kind of year.

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And I can’t forget the flowers. Almost everything was abundant, tall, vibrant and with enormous blooms.  My ‘Dinner Plate’ dahlias are actually the size of dinner plates.  It’s the best year I’ve seen for poppies, and the Sunflowers are 10 feet tall.  Of course the weeds are 10 feet tall too.  Some of the grasses growing in my flower beds have become ornamental.  I’m trying to go with it and resist loudly declaiming to whomever will listen that I didn’t plant it there, and I haven’t gotten around to pulling it out yet, and if it weren’t for all this blasted rain you wouldn’t notice it.

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I’ll let out a little secret.  We harvested about 6 gallons of honey from our two hives last week.  This is big news for all the folks to whom we give honey as a Christmas gift.  While a few of them no doubt have jars of honey stacked in the back of the pantry, I know for a fact the majority can’t wait for their Christmas bag of goodies from the Winter Pantry, the honey being the golden prize.  This years honey was pale, golden and sugary, redolent of clover blossoms, honeysuckle and apple.  Much different from previous years, when we’ve seen honey that has been almost molasses-like, dark amber and thick.  The weather makes a difference for the bees, too.

Not being a bee person didn’t stop me from helping this year.  Helping is a misnomer, really, but I was there, standing several yards away and trying to breathe deeply and radiate calm normality.  As if that’s my natural state.  Ha.  Only once did I do what I had promised myself not to; shreek, hop, and swat hysterically at my hair in an attempt to dislodge one furious lady trying in vain to defend her home.  Of course my husband, who is a bee person and for whom calm normality is a way of life, came to my rescue, and plucked the poor thing from my head before she could sting me and ruin both our lives.   He had repeatedly picked the angry things off his arms and neck without a peep, lifting out the heavily laden frames with calm aplomb.  Different nature, I guess.

And I must mention the fruit. The abundant rain and humid weather has certainly been a blessing for all the fruit setting plants.  Fat yellow plums are dripping off our diminutive trees and for some strange reason the birds haven’t yet discovered them.  Perhaps they are thrown off by the color?  It is wonderful to harvest so many unblemished fruits.   The downside being that they don’t spoil as fast, so I’m disinclined to make jam, or even to freeze them.  Sorry friends, no plum jam in the Christmas bag.   Instead they sit in big bowls on the counter and get gobbled down five at a time.  This time of year it’s not unlikely for me to make an entire meal of plums, blueberries and peaches while I stand at the counter dripping juice on myself.  Elegant.

 

Conclusion?  The weather is weird.  It’s different than last year, different than any other year before.  Science says it’s going to get weirder.  But nature will win out, in the end, I think.  And us gardeners, what can we do in the meantime?  We have to deal with what we get, acknowledge the bad and celebrate the good, and then go forth and try to be more responsible to the planet.  We plant and harvest and eat, we fail and succeed and mostly do the best we can.  It’s in our nature.

 

Time to Pick The Garlic

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I use a lot of garlic.  There is nothing like that fragrant allium for flavoring all kinds of dishes, from meats and pastas to vegetables of every sort.  Very easy to grow, it’s planted in the late fall and harvested in the summer.  Not bothered by pests, there is nothing much to it, really.  Unless, of course you forget all about it.  I had so much garlic from the previous year that I forgotten about the garlic patch until it made itself know to me by sprouting again last September as I was putting my garden to bed. Uh-oh.  September is not the time to harvest garlic.  So I left them.  They withered and died and sprouted again the next spring, but this time instead of single stalks from individual cloves, I had many many sprouts from whole heads of garlic. Bushes of garlic.  This year I determined to harvest them at the right time.  Plus I was out of garlic.  

Garlic should be picked when the stalks are still green but beginning to brown.  It’s not rocket science, but it does need to be done.  If you pick it too early, the paper is hard and difficult to peel, and the heads won’t be fully formed.  Too late and you risk the bulbs separating, the paper will be too thin and then they won’t store well.  July is a good time to do it.  Although it’s tempting to grab those sturdy stalks and yank, unless you loosen the ground first they will break and then you’ll be digging around with your trowel and risk damaging the bulb.  I dig a big scoop out of the dirt in front of the garlic, and then bend it toward the loosened earth until it comes free.  Because I had left mine so long in the ground and the bulbs had sprouted close together, most of the garlic was very small.  Perfect for a garlic braid!  I made sure to pick every one; the ones I get next year will be the ones I plant this fall!  

Garlic is excellent fresh, but it must be cured in order to keep.  This is best done out of the sun, in a cool, well ventilated area, and takes a few weeks until the papery stalks dry.  Leave the stalks on for this, and cut them only when you transfer the cured garlic to its storage area.  I keep mine in a basket in our cool basement.  Keep it away from moisture unless you want it to sprout in the basket.  

Last night we had beet greens braised with garlic cloves.  The fresh cloves are much milder than the cured.  It was really delicious and a good way to get in those healthy greens.  

SIMPLE GARLICY GREENS

1 large bunch of beet greens, or whatever hearty green you have to hand, collard, mustard, kale…

1 head of garlic, preferably fresh

1 cup of flavorful broth, vegetable, or chicken

 

Wash and chop the greens and add them to a large stock pot.  (add as much as will fit.  They cook down to nothing)  Peel and crush, not chop, the cloves of 1 head of garlic.  Add to the greens and pour the broth over.  Cover and simmer 20 min, longer for sturdier greens.  Enjoy!

 

To Pick or Not to Pick; Fried Green Tomatoes

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Everything in the garden has a season.  Most often just when we are entirely sick of one vegetable, another begins to ripen, giving us a change for a while until we are sick of that one too.  Some we never get tired of eating and they are gone all too soon, like peas and strawberries, but others come in hard and fast, in abundance, and we have to eat them, freeze them, pickle or jar them, or just give them away as fast as we can. Take green beans, for instance. We have been eating radishes, lettuces, kale and cucumbers for weeks now, and I have been watching the delicate purple flowers of the beans develop anxiously.  Haricot verts thinner than a cu-tip, lightly steamed and gobbled up with just a touch of salt are simply divine.   But in just a few days of picking I start to notice the ones I missed on the first few rounds are now the size of a pencil, and no longer bright green but dusky and even purplish.  I sweep through the bean patch, picking everything I see, and haul in about 3 gallons of beans.  Some we eat fresh. Some we pickle.  Some we freeze.  The next day….more beans.  Ugh!  But I know there is an end in sight, and I’ll be happy to use the ones I put up in soups and salads throughout the long months of winter.  Today, though, I’m sick of beans.

Not so tomatoes.  I could eat a fresh tomato every day of my life and be a happy person for it. Anyone who has had a tomato fresh out of someones garden, still warm from the afternoon sun, knows there is little resemblance to a store bought tomato.  The abundance of flavor, the fresh tangy sweetness and juicy texture;  It’s as good as a fresh peach, and each summer we wait and wait for the tomatoes to ripen.  We eat the best ones fresh with sea salt, or a bit of good balsamic vinegar glaze, and the rest, the ones marred by bugs, rot, or blemishes, go into the freezer.  We never seem to have enough to last throughout the winter, and each summer, as the beautiful fruits get larger and begin to ripen on the vine I wonder, Should I pick them yet?

The dilemma is this.  If I pick them green, they won’t get to ripen into the luscious red fruits that I love.  If I don’t pick them green, I won’t get to have fried green tomatoes.

Fried Green Tomatoes are traditionally thought to be deeply southern dish and one I had never tried until my (Italian) mother in law decided to grow a garden.  The recipe’s inclusion in cookbooks actually date back to the early 1830’s in the United States and are possibly of Jewish origin, first seen in the Midwest.  In any case they are prepared throughout the US and everyone who has tried them know they are well worth the effort.  In the end, I picked!

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FRIED GREEN TOMATOES

serves 4

4 Green hard tomatoes

1 egg

1/2 cup milk

approximately 1 1/2 cups breadcrumbs or cornmeal, seasoned with salt and pepper

Vegetable oil

Remoulade to serve

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Slice the tomatoes into 1/4 inch thick rounds, slicing off and discarding the top and bottoms (the breadcrumbs don’t stick to them) Mix the egg and milk together with a whisk.  Heat a cast iron skillet to medium heat and add about a 1/4 inch of oil.  Dip the tomatoes in the egg mixture and coat them with the breadcrumbs.  

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Fry the tomatoes in a single layer, flipping once when the breadcrumbs turn nicely brown.  Drain on paper towels and keep in a warm oven.  Serve with a remoulade of your choice.  I made mine from mayonnaise, catsup, lemon juice and tabasco. Enjoy!

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Berry Season

Summer’s heat is upon us, with temperatures climbing towards the 90’s, and with the heat comes the season of the berry. Blueberries and black raspberries are the first out of the gate in early July, changing almost overnight from pale green and rose to deep blue and black, respectively.

Wild black raspberries are one of my favorite summer treats. Of all the things I forage for in the wild, these luscious gems are a truly one of my favorites. Sweet yet tart, they are best eaten right away, or as soon as you can get them home and into a bowl of cream. They are very delicate and don’t hold up well to storage, unless you plan to freeze them. If you intend to make anything other than jam with the frozen ones, it’s best to freeze them in a single layer on a sheet. Otherwise they will end up as juice in a bag.

Picking black raspberries is no picnic, as they say, and this is one treat you have to work for. They mostly grow along hedgerows and by the sides of dirt roads, and are often laced with stinging nettle and Multi-flora rose brambles, neither of which feels good on bare skin. They like shade and the first ones to ripen are often under other plants. Plan your berry picking foray to include boots and long pants, as well as a wide brimmed hat to protect against the ever present gnats. A long sleeved shirt and some bug repellent go a long way toward making it a pleasant experience. Berries ripen over time, so if you want any quantity for jam or jelly, plan on picking every two days while they are in season.

Picking fresh blueberries is somewhat easier, especially if you have a well tended patch, as we do. I was just in the nick of time in getting mine covered against the birds this summer, as the day after I put up the netting they began to turn blue. Experience has taught me that the berries I deem to be “almost ripe” are perfectly edible to the host of birds hovering just over my shoulder waiting for me to leave. We have lost entire crops of the succulent morsels by waiting one too many days to put up the nets. The protective tent only helps so much though; almost every day I shoo out a hungry fellow that has managed to find a hole or sneak under.

Blueberries are very easy to maintain. They don’t require spraying and are not bothered by pests. They need little pruning and seem to winter well. We have not had any problems with the deer eating them. Harvest seems to depend more on the weather than any other factor and this year they are ripening early. Ours have grown slowly over time, but are abundant producers and we average about 5 gallons a year from 10 bushes. Pie, and more pie, is our first choice for stored berries, especially in the winter months. They freeze well, but I can’t tell you how long they keep because they don’t last long!

Berries are one of natures super-foods, and wild berries even more so. Packed with antioxidants, vitamins and fiber, they not only taste delicious but are really good for you. Everyone should save a spot in their garden for a blueberry bush or two, and if you don’t have a garden, try growing them in pots. It’s well worth the effort, for your taste buds as well as your health.

The Season of Bounty

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It’s that time of the year when a quick evening browse around the garden with a cocktail yields a colorful basket of produce.  For a little while this early summer, I could get away with gathering into my upturned shirt, but with the warmer days and rainy afternoons, the harvest has begun in earnest, and I try to remember to bring out a basket along with my drink.  Garlic and green onions, early tomatoes, blueberries and strawberries, carrots, early beets, peas and peppers are all coming in by the handful.  I always try to balance my desire for fresh produce with the realization that if I leave it a while longer, it will grow bigger, but there is nothing like the taste of sweet baby carrots and tender beets steamed with a bat of butter on a steamy summer evening.  My favorite dish of the early summer is, of course, a simple salad of fresh newly picked veggies.  The thinly sliced Peruvian white habanero adds a super kick to this tasty dinner.Image

I am surprised to see the blueberries ripen so early this year, as I usually think of late July as blueberry season, but I predicted this to be the year of the berry, and it seems I have called it right.  Even the tangy and delectable wild black raspberries in the hedgerow are beginning to ripen early, and I got a sticky purple handful this morning for my trouble.  Unfortunately, as they grown amongst the nettles, I also got a prickly wrist.

On another note, for those of you who read “the Doctor is in”  I’m happy to report that my pepper plants are all thriving.  Many of them lost all their dark green foliage to the cold snap we had in May, but the smaller, lighter green leaves are beginning to thicken out the plants, and on many there are the first blooms.  Some did better than others and are already fruiting, hence the spicy salad, but most peppers like the heat, and will produce best from late July into early September.  During this pepper heyday, you will find me in the kitchen, gloves on, chopping peppers for hot sauces and salsas as fast as I can.