Market Menu: August 12

Here are some things we’re looking forward to making with market and other local ingredients:

Breakfast Ideas:

by flickr user heymrleej

Creamy Breakfast Polenta – this gets its creaminess from tahini — which might sound a bit strange in a breakfast porridge, but give it a chance!
Pantry check: cornmeal, almond milk, water, salt, brown sugar or honey, tahini, cinnamon, cardamom, berries 

Amaranth, Quinoa, and Polenta Porridge – amaranth on its own doesn’t have a lot of flavor, but I really like the idea of adding the quinoa and polenta. Homemade multigrain cereal! I’m not aware of a local amaranth grower, but I’m pretty sure that Common Ground carries it in their bulk area.
Pantry check: amaranth, quinoa, polenta or cornmeal, water, milk, cinnamon, maple syrup, nuts or seeds  

Lunch Ideas:

Raw squash salad with radishes, manchego, and lemon vinaigrette
Pantry check: summer squash, shallot, radishes, garlic, honey, lemons, white wine vinegar, salt & pepper, olive oil, horseradish (optional), basil and mint, manchego cheese (or parmesan)

Roasted vegetables & hummus – as a dip or sandwich

Fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, olive oil & balsamic vinegar, a little green onion, lettuce if you have it.

Mediterranean Chopped Salad
Pantry check: olive oil, white wine vinegar, almonds, canned chick peas. Swap out veggies as desired – this recipe features sweet bell peppers, but carrots, fennel, or shaved zucchini would work well here, too. 

Come to think of it, is there any better time of year for any kind of chopped salad? Smitten Kitchen’s would make a great non-sad desk lunch, too.
Pantry check: olive oil, red wine vinegar, chick peas, salami. 

With all the fresh veggie options, its a great time of year for noodle salads. Martha Stewart has 17 ideas for you.

Dinner Ideas:

Penne with sweet summer vegetables, pine nuts, and herbs – the recipe calls for roasting all the vegetables, which is one option for reducing the time spent standing at the stove. You could roast ahead of time, even. Sub in whatever you have and love; it doesn’t need to be exactly this combination of vegetables.
Pantry check: cherry tomatoes, corn, summer squash, red onion, garlic, olive oil, penne (or other pasta), basil and oregano, salt and pepper, pine nuts

BBQ chicken with peach and feta slaw – this recipe calls for store-bought, pre-shredded broccoli slaw, but it’s gonna be that much better with the real deal. Use a food processor to turn your broccoli into slaw, or just slice very fine.
Pantry check: olive oil, sherry vinegar (or sub wine vinegar), your fave store-bought BBQ sauce. 

Grilled steak and endless options for summer-veggie sides:

Roasted green beans with Harissa

Pantry check: sliced almonds, Harissa paste

Grilled veggies
pantry check: fresh basil, olive oil, fresh garlic

Hummus heaped with tomatoes and cucumbers – and you don’t even have to make your own hummus (but if you want to, you can. And let us know if you peeled the chick peas!). Pantry check: sumac, za’atar (optional – both can be found at Common Ground in Bloomington), olive oil, fresh lemon, fresh herbs. 

Shakshuka works as a quick dinner, reheats as a great lunch, and is perfectly at home for breakfast, too. You don’t have to make it spicy – there are plenty of variations on this dish.
Pantry check: tomato paste, cumin seeds, caraway, paprika, eggs, honey, garlic, greens. 

 

Straightforward Preserving: Tomato Jam!

I know, you might be looking at that title all skeptically, thinking “I like tomatoes, sure, but JAM? What are you even talking about?” This might be one you have to just take on trust. Tomatoes make some amazing jam. It’s great on toast, but especially tasty along with eggs and/or sausage. I think it’s the closest you can come in mid-winter to the taste of a fresh, flavorful tomato picked right off the plant. It’s not savory, but it’s not as sweet as other jams, and definitely not as tart and fruity. And if it’s your first canning experience, the acidic content (tomato plus added lemon) makes it a safer one.

There are a lot of recipes out there if you google a little, but I really like this trio. The first time I made tomato jam, I split my tomato haul into three pots (because I couldn’t pick!), and made a small batch of all three recipes. After that, I’ve only ever made the sweet & spicy.

I make it pretty much as it’s written, using regular light brown sugar, cloves, cinnamon, red wine vinegar and lime juice. If you’re having trouble imagining sweet jam with the flavor of tomatoes, note that the fruit:sugar ratio is much lower on the sugar end than other fruit jams: 455g tomatoes to 45g sugar in this recipe, or 10:1 by weight.

The other sweet-but-not-too-sweet tomato preserves that I’ve really enjoyed is the New York Times recipe for preserved tomatoes with lemon. They call for small pear-shaped tomatoes, but anything smaller than a golf ball will work just fine. And I don’t bother with peeling them anymore – just check that the tomatoes you’re using don’t have particularly thick skins. With most small tomatoes, you won’t even notice them in the preserves. The NYT recipe is interesting in that it has you put the tomatoes, sugar, and lemon slices in a saucepan overnight — with no heat, just room temperature over time. The next day, you add the spices and gently cook until the tomatoes start to go clear. You can remove them and the lemons and boil the syrup that remains, so that it thickens a bit. But the idea is to leave the tomatoes intact (which is why smaller is better). If you want to keep them throughout the winter, sterilize the jars first (leave in boiling water for 15 minutes), then fill and process according to the recipe.

Canning/Processing:

“Processing” canned goods requires boiling the (nearly-full) jars, with 2-part lids (shown at right).

How full you fill your jars will depend on the food you’re canning (generally 1/8″ to 1/4″ from the top of the jar).

How long you boil the jars will also depend on the food you’re canning (10 minutes up to multiple hours).

When you’re canning acid foods (fruits, jams, and pickles, for the most part), boiling water and a large stock pot are sufficient. When you’re canning low-acid foods (vegetables and meats), you have to use a pressure cooker — a boiling water bath doesn’t get hot enough to destroy potentially harmful bacteria.

Our advice when canning is to always use a recipe that’s been tested, and follow the instructions in the USDA and Ball guides. 

You don’t have to process your jam if you’re just going to store it in the refrigerator, of course. Processing is necessary for safe room-temperature storage, which gives you more time to use it (and/or more flexibility to give your canned goods as gifts to friends). But you may find it makes sense to try a recipe first — keeping the results refrigerated — and make it again w/ the processing steps added in, if you like it enough to add those steps.

Resources:

The National Center for Home Food Preservation has many guides available online for free, in pdf. They’re the source for USDA standards and guidance on food safety.

The Ball Blue Book is magazine-sized, and available most places that keep a canning display (jars, lids, equipment) from Ball. For now, this means the larger stores; Common Ground and Green Top don’t carry jars and lids at this time.

Food in Jars is a blog devoted to canning and preserving, and they have a great Canning 101 page with resources for getting started.

Sadly, one of my favorite go-to blogs (Tigress in a Jam) for jam ideas seems to have been abandoned and taken over by advertising bots, but you can find images and recipes from the participants in her jam challenges over the years on her Flickr group.

Market Menu: July 29!

What to make when you have EVERYTHING available at the market? It’s almost hard to choose!!

Breakfasts:

I’m partial to toast and jam or steel-cut oats and peanut butter, but eggs are always a delicious breakfast option.

How to Poach an Egg, by a self-described terrible egg poacher – Smitten kitchen
Worth a read/try. I won’t swear by any method, as I am also a terrible egg poacher, but when you get it right, it’s so rewarding.

Muesli / Refrigerator Oats – Epicurious
I know this has been going around Pinterest for a while, but I can’t think of a better time of year to give it a try. No need to put anything on the stove, not even a pot of water. Check out the Ackermans at the market for local oats, and the Food Forest in Normal is bursting with berries that you can add as-is, or make into preserves.

Radish and Turnip Hash – The Kitchn
If you still have turnips taking up space in your produce drawer, (I do!), here’s a good and tasty way to use them up.

Lunches:

I found these at the grocery store last week while shopping for lunches and snacks for my office while absolutely HANGRY.

I was intrigued! Veggies I hadn’t thought to put together, chopped and raw, with just a small packet of salsa and some cheese, and you microwave them to soften and mix. They weren’t bad! But there’s no reason I can’t make these at home, since they involve no pre-cooking at all.

 

My version of the southwest nourish bowls is below. This made 7 portions, and I plan to add some chicken to them for lunches.

Ingredients:
1 sweet potato, diced
1 kohlrabi, diced
1/2 yellow onion, diced
1 bunch kale, chopped medium-fine
1 medium zucchini, chopped
1 jar (about 2 c.) corn & black bean salsa

You could also add egg or meat or tvp, for more protein (I brought some cheese to add to this one).

 

Other easy, packable lunches include:

Smashed Chickpea Salad – from ‘wichcraft, via Smitten Kitchen
Great on toasted bread, but untoasted would also work in a pinch, especially if you have something crusty like a baguette.

Hummus with Tomato and Cucumber – Smitten Kitchen
If you’re in the market for some pita bread to go with the hummus (and the dip below), check out local baker Chad Sanders’ pita at the Garlic Press or the Downtown Bloomington market — delicious!!

Smoky Eggplant dip – from David Liebovitz, via Smitten Kitchen
I like to do the eggplant on the grill, whole but with slots cut in the outside to stuff whole cloves of garlic into. Throw it on the grill after your meal has cooked, but before you turn the gas off. Leave it while you’re eating, just check on it before you reach for that second bratwurst. When it’s all wrinkly like this, blackened in a few areas, you’ll know it’s done. Set aside until it’s cool. Really — don’t try to handle it until at least after dessert and you’ve played a couple board games or watched a good movie. Scoop out the insides, and proceed with the recipe as written. I feel pretty confident you’ll thank me for the grill+garlic tip. It’s that good — and a totally different way to enjoy eggplant.

Add grilled chicken to any or all of the above, and you have a pretty flavorful lunchbox!

 

Dinners:

I’ve been making a lot of zoodles lately. Well, they’re almost zoodles… but really just thin-sliced zucchini, since I don’t own a spiralizer. Just saute them in a pan with some olive oil and pesto or tomato sauce (or even just some small tomatoes!) until they’re softened, then add some parmesan cheese on top when serving. Cook them like vegetables, but flavor-wise, treat them like pasta. Very tasty, one-pot, and not too time-consuming.

There’s another zucchini-reliant dish I’ve been meaning to try for literally YEARS. I don’t know why I keep putting it off, but as soon as I get my hands on more squash, I’m making New Mexico-style Calabacitas. It’s a summer squash-corn saute with a little tomato, green chiles, cream and cheese. It’s mostly veg; the recipe above calls for 2# of squash and 2 c. of corn, and just 2 T butter, 1/4 c. half and half, and 1 c. grated cheese (both of which are optional).

With all the giant heirloom tomatoes available now, I’m planning to try this caprese quinoa casserole from Delish very soon. It makes use of lots of tomatoes and basil, garlic and shallots, and only takes a few more ingredients (quinoa, mozzarella, and balsamic vinegar). I grew up on cheeseburger pies, and I like that this is a sort of refined version of that. Though now I’m thinking about cheeseburger pie, and if you want to try it, here’s one from Chowhound that looks easy; and one from Food.com that looks like what my mom made (though we used shelf-stable pie crust sticks, which maybe don’t exist anymore? I haven’t seen them in ages). With all the local beef available here, and the broad customizability of this recipe, I should put these recipes into more of a regular rotation, I think!

Market Menu: July 15!

Can you believe it’s mid-July already? So many weeks of the market, it’s hard to keep track without having a calendar handy. So we’re switching to dates in the title instead of week numbers.

I visited the farmer’s market in the adorable town of Port Townsend, WA last weekend, and there were some noticeable differences in available produce: cooler-weather crops like fava beans and radishes (since it’s still in the 50s-70s there!), and a large variety of currants. Market day was a “hot” one, which meant upper 70s, possibly low 80s in the sun. Dry as can be, though, which was a nice contrast to our current weather of 90+ F and 90+ humidity! The currants were lovely, and I might have been tempted to grab some and make a quick pot of jam, except that I knew there were currants waiting in the Refuge Food Forest here in Normal!

 

Back in Bloomington-Normal, our extended heat through July-August means several things for your weekly local farm and garden haul:

  • chickens may slow down or stop laying for a bit when it’s this hot, so you may have to ration those eggs!
  • cilantro and basil in your gardens will likely bolt, sending out seed heads that you can save and replant, or let nature do its thing and replant them for you.
  • lettuces are going to bolt as well; without a hoop house to keep the temperatures low, farmers can’t grow lettuce in this kind of heat. Give it some time, and you can replant in the fall.
  • provided they get sufficient water, your tomatoes are going to be happy and ripe!
  • chile peppers of all varieties are going to start coming with a fury! they love the heat, and give it right back to you in flavor 🙂

In addition to the Saturday morning market, you can also find local produce at Common Ground in downtown Bloomington, and Green Top Grocery just east of downtown on Washington Street. And just this week, Browns’ Produce opened their farmstand on Brown Street just off of West Market — be sure to stop by!

This Week’s Menu:

I’m feeling like salads day and night right now, and other things that are FAST and require little tending on the stove. Here are a few of my favorites:

Slightly Savory Granola – an unusual granola recipe from the NY Times, made with olive oil! It’s a tad addictive, especially with yogurt. I used to buy Traderspoint Creamery yogurt in Indianapolis, but haven’t found a new local favorite yet — recommendations always welcome!

Lemony Zucchini Goat Cheese Pizza – From Smitten Kitchen, and a perfect way to use those ever-growing zucchini, and the amazing chevre from Prairie Fruits Farm

Beet Salad w/ Plums and Goat Cheese – From Bon Appetit. Peaches would be just as delicious, of course.

Summer Pasta with Olives, Roasted Peppers and Capers – Also from Bon Appetit. It’s a warm dish, but it honestly is just as good served cold as a pasta salad.

Eggy Polenta w/ Mushrooms – From The Kitchn, and a great way to incorporate local grain (corn — I know, not technically a grain) and mushrooms AND eggs! I’d be inclined to use those gorgeous duck eggs I’ve been seeing lately at the market… they’d be delicious!

Chicken Meatballs and Polenta – There are a number of different variations on this recipe; I like chicken instead of turkey, and kale makes a nice addition at the end to plate with the dish.

Spicy Coleslaw w/ Cumin-Lime Dressing – Bobby Flay’s NOT-creamy coleslaw is hot and delicious!

Cumin-Scented Black Rice and Quinoa – This recipe from Bon Appetit takes a little time to cook (the grains cook separately), but once made, it’s easy to reheat and enjoy through the week. You can add chunks of sweet potato, some greens and a little tahini dressing, and you’ve got a quick meal.

Is it gazpacho season yet? Are you drowning in tomatoes? If not yet, I’ll put this here for later. I generally make Mollie Katzen’s version, which is full of veg and herbs, but I’ve also posted the NY Times version above. Regardless of which recipe you use, make sure to let it rest in the fridge for a few hours before serving; the flavors take a little time to develop.

Putting Up, Putting Away, Saving for Later: Freezer Edition

Now that summer is REALLY here, you might start to feel a bit overwhelmed by all this fresh produce, and concerned about your ability to use it right away?

This post is all about freezing some of that harvest for later — whether that’s next week, next month, or mid-winter. Freezing is one of the easiest ways to save fresh produce, and requires the least amount of equipment.

I use my Food Saver vacuum/sealing machine quite often in late summer and fall, but you can effectively pack produce for the freezer without a machine. Simply buy the bags intended for sealing machines, use a tea towel and an iron to seal the bags (cotton setting), carefully pressing the extra air out first with your hand or a small pillow. Be sure to put the towel between the bag and your iron, or risk having the plastic stick to your iron!

 

What to Freeze?
Some things freeze well, others less so. In general, you have to plan for a loss of texture: vegetables will be less crisp (if at all), fruit will get a bit soft. But if you’re going to cook your items after freezing, you’ll hardly notice the difference. So consider freezing things that you’ll use later to make jam, pie, soup, or stir-fries.

How to Freeze?
Vegetables require blanching first, to slow breakdown. This chart provides a great overview of techniques and times. Make sure to get your fruit or veg dry before freezing, and arrange in a single layer on a cookie sheet or plate (once frozen, seal in bags or other containers). I’ve skimped on this single-layer step before, when I plan on making jam with berries within a few weeks — to no ill effect.

Fruits:

  • Berries freeze very well. Trim off stems, wash and sort through, picking out any that aren’t ripe or are rotted or otherwise not great. You can spread them on a tray in the freezer and bag later, or just bag. When ready to use, just put out on the counter for a few hours. If you’re making jam or pies, top the berries with the sugar you’ll be using in the recipe. It’ll soak in while the berries are thawing.
  • Peaches and Plums do well, but be sure to wash and trim off any bruised spots first, and cut in half and remove the pit.
  • Similarly with apples, clean and trim as necessary first. If you have one of those old-fashioned looking hand-crank peeler/corer/slicers, they’re excellent for getting apples ready for applesauce or pies later.

Vegetables:

  • If you like to make stock for soup, you can freeze the trimmings from your vegetables until you’re ready to make the stock. Just add to a plastic bag over time.
  • Onions, celery and peppers don’t freeze particularly well, but I’ve washed and chopped them up and frozen for use within a month or two. Drying is better for preserving their flavor, though.
  • Broccoli, green beans, and brussels sprouts can all be frozen after washing and trimming, and cutting to whatever size you’ll want to cook them in.

Fresh Herbs:

  • hardier/woodier herbs:  freeze in ice cubes (rosemary, thyme, tarragon)
  • more delicate herbs: freeze in olive oil as a paste (basil, cilantro, also garlic scapes!) Put in food processor with olive oil and garlic, salt & pepper — no cheese or nuts, though; add those after thawing, if desired. Put the paste into silicone ice cube trays and freeze, then remove and seal in freezer bag.

Prepping meals:

  • burritos – super-easy! Get all your ingredients together, make individual burritos, wrap with parchment and store in plastic bags.
  • breakfast burrito bowls – similar to above; scrambled eggs, cooked sausage, salsa, cheese, etc. all work well!
  • bread (sliced) – thaw on the counter or in the fridge for several hours before trying to use, unless toasting right away
  • quickbreads & muffins – thaw on the counter or in the fridge for several hours, or thaw and warm in the oven at low temp
  • soups (keep it EASY — saute or roast your favorite veggie, add aromatics, add broth, stick blend, freeze in freezer bags

Prepping Ingredients for Easier Meals Later:

  • Mirepoix (chopped carrots, celery, and onions) – you’ll lose the crunch, but it’s very handy for a stormy day when you don’t want to leave the house to stock up.
  • Eggs – did you know that you could freeze eggs, either whole or separately as whites and yolks?!  If you find yourself with extra whites after making a custard, or extra yolks after making macarons, follow the instructions from the American Egg Board for freezing. Just be sure to label the whites, if you’re freezing them individually. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pulled a small jar out of the freezer, thinking it was egg whites, and it turned out to be lemon juice!
  • Grains like wheat berries, farro and rice freeze quite well after cooking. They can be really useful to have on hand for cooking during a busy work week, if you cook and freeze in portions before hand.
  • Marinara – this is one of my favorite things about fall; make up a giant batch of marinara, freeze in 2 c. portions in freezer bags, and stock that freezer! You’ll never buy jarred marinara again!

What else have you frozen (and thawed) successfully? We’d love to hear from you!

 

For the Love of a Local Tomato

I’ve been known to slice up a tomato from my garden or the market, sprinkle with sugar, and eat them like the fruit they are (botanically speaking). Or, I might splash them with a little olive oil and balsamic, tear up a gob of mozzarella cheese, and maybe some basil if the garden is cooperating (that is, not sending the basil bolting into spikes of seed heads). Or if I have quite a quantity and fear that they’ll break down before we can finish them, I’ll toss them in the blender with a little vinegar and seasonings, and call it gazpacho. However you slice it, though, the local tomato is revered around my house.

Why is it that these tomatoes taste so completely different from the tomatoes at the grocery store? Even the ones sold as “vine-ripened” still don’t taste anything like these “real” tomatoes that come from a nearby garden or farm.

Well, you might be surprised to learn that they’re not really the same tomatoes at all. The dozens upon dozens of varieties of tomato plants grown in the U.S. commercially (commercially for eating fresh, that is, as opposed to processing) are all hybrids, selected and bred for the qualities that the commercial growers prize, such as yield and size and hardiness for transport, and meant to grow in that particular zone and soil. The varieties you have in your garden and at your farmer’s market may include some hybrids, but their proximity to the point of sale (you!) means they can also include heirloom (non-hybrid) varieties that have been handed down generation after generation, bred and maintained for flavor, rather than transport.

Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa is a non-profit dedicated to preserving heirloom seeds. You can order seeds from their website or catalog, just like from other seed companies, but it’s a small portion of all that they have saved and have available to their members. They have a charitable mission: to preserve, research, and share heirloom vegetable and plant seeds.

Did you know that you can save seeds from heirloom varieties of tomatoes (and many other vegetables), and plant those seeds in the spring? Starting plants from seed adds a fair bit of work to your garden planting process, but when you find a variety you treasure, you’ll appreciate being able to replant each year without buying more seed. Look for a post later this summer on how to harvest and save tomato and other seeds!

Back to those tomatoes.
Depending on where in the U.S. that you live, you could theoretically find “local” tomatoes any month of the year. Tomatoes are grown in California and Florida nearly year-round (taking a break only when the upper half of the country can grow their own). If you add in the hydroponic/greenhouse/factory production, you could literally find a “local” tomato anywhere, at any time. But this kind of “local” isn’t quite what we’re talking about here at Legit Local.

These are NOT aunt stephie’s tomatoes.

The small town in Michigan where I grew up is now producing tomatoes year-round in greenhouse complexes that are stunningly futuristic-looking.  But, to quote my young nephew, “these are NOT aunt stephie’s tomatoes.”

Why not?
(count the number of times they say “local” in that article above, by the way).

For starters, the company is not local to Michigan, or even the U.S.: they’re based in Canada, with greenhouses all over North America. While they’re providing local jobs and adding to the property tax base, they’re not a local business. The profits go to Canada, not back to the community. Corporate has no relationship with the land (since they’re not actually farming on it), and no reason to make their operation sustainable. If things don’t work out — if the labor force dries up, the taxes increase, the cost of treating the water increases — they simply pick up and move to another small town eager for a large employer to take on land that’s sitting idle.

 

More than that, the varieties are still being selected and grown for optimal transport and presentation in the supermarket, and flavor is sacrificed. I’ve tried these tomatoes, and honestly I don’t taste any difference between them and the other supermarket varieties of cherry tomato.

Farmscape, an LA-area urban farm group, recently measured the sugar content of various local (to them) and commercially-grown tomatoes. Using a refractometer, a small kaleidoscope-looking device (if you’re a beer brewer, you may have one of these in your kit; give it a try!), they found sugar content in the farmer’s market and garden tomatoes much higher than those in the grocery store: 5.0 – 9.0 Brix units, as opposed to 4.0, respectively. See this video for more info on sugar content. Or this piece from Scientific American on the science of delicious tomatoes.

True, farmer’s market tomatoes look like they’re more expensive than those in the grocery store. Around here, grocery store prices for tomatoes are around $1.50-$2.00/lb, where you’re likely to pay $3-4/lb from a local grower. But first, consider whether those grocery store tomatoes are certified organic. My local grocery is selling organic campari tomatoes for $2.69-$4/lb, so right away the gap between those prices shrinks to very little. Then, if you’re planning on doing any canning or sauce-making with your tomatoes, farmers will often sell you a box of “seconds,” the ones that don’t look quite as nice, or might have a bruise or other spot that you need to cut out, for a lower price per pound. On balance, it’s not that much of a difference in price — but a world of difference in flavor and in the value of knowing who’s growing your food.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Research on tomato varieties

Seed Savers’ Exchange – keeping heirloom varieties going for generations

Heirloom vs. (not) – what’s it all about?

Growing your own

Saving your own seed – heirloom-only

But what about the TASTE?

Types of tomatoes: Slicing or paste; determinate or indeterminate

 

 

Growing your own.

I don’t think I’d ever grown a vegetable until I got an apartment in Hamden, CT in 2003. Growing up, my grandmother kept a garden (my Gram, of Gram’s Freezer full of Strawberry Freezer Jam), and I think we kept a garden at home sometimes, but I don’t really remember growing anything. I’d tried to grow sunflowers outside the window of my courtyard apartment in Columbus, OH, but the squirrels dug ‘em all up, and that was utterly deflating. I moved to New Haven, CT in 2000, and got myself on the waiting list for a community garden plot. The gardeners there mostly planted flowers, I think, but I wanted to grow vegetables. I waited, and waited to get off the wait list. When I moved up the road to Hamden, my apartment had the cutest little corner balcony, and I got this idea in my head that I could grow some tomatoes out there. So I bought a big plastic pot, some potting soil, and a couple of cherry tomato plants. And waited. And they GREW! And made TOMATOES! The first time I tasted one right off the plant, I think my mouth puckered, it was so sweet and tart and fresh. Had I had fresh tomatoes right off the plant before? I don’t know, but this one I was going to remember. I moved to Urbana, Illinois just a couple of years later (right about the time my name came off the wait list for a plot in Connecticut!), and it only took a year to run into someone who was looking for another person to share her community garden plot. It was a huge plot, about 30’ square, and she was growing everything from arugula to zucchini. (see what I did there?). I had no idea then, but that meeting and the experience of growing food in that plot, caring for it and tasting it, getting sweaty bringing in compost and hauling out weeds, getting bitten by noseeums and stung by nettles, but knowing that you grew it?  All that is exactly what led me to where I am today.

 

 

Saving your own seed – heirloom-only

One of the best things about heirloom varieties of tomatoes (and most anything) is that you can save the seeds from the plants you like, and plant them again next year. Some types of vegetables are harder to save seeds from than others; carrots are a biennial, for instance, and it takes a whole year of letting greens grow and flowers form, to get seeds. You have to sacrifice the carrot to the earth, to get the seeds. But tomatoes! Tomatoes are so eager to get planted again that they’ll pop up in our garden plots completely of their own volition each spring. Those rogue tomatoes that fall off the vine (or get pulled off by squirrels) end up “donating” their seeds to the earth, and many of those end up germinating in the spring. But saving the seeds from your favorite heirloom tomatoes and keeping them indoors over the winter, to start the following spring, is pretty easy too, albeit somewhat messy.

 

First, find yourself a delicious tomato. A delicious HEIRLOOM tomato. It’s not that hybrid seeds won’t germinate; it’s that they don’t “breed true”. The tomato fruit may be like its parent (the seed), or it may be nothing like it. That’s one downside of hybrids. So find yourself that heirloom tomato. Now smoosh it. Seriously, smoosh it in a cup or a bowl. Probably smoosh a few of them. Now leave that cup or bowl of smooshed tomato somewhere outside for a while. Let it get super funky. It’ll get a sort of slimy skin on the top – that’s good. What you’re doing is letting the tomato break down the coating on the seed. If you don’t, it’ll never germinate in the spring. And from what I read, this is the best way, to just let the tomato and time do all the work. After about a week, the really messy part comes in: you need to get those seeds out, but only the seeds. A colander works pretty well for washing the seeds off, picking out the bits of tomato skin and gunk that remain. Once you just have the relatively clean seeds, spread them out on a screen or paper towel to dry. Once they’re completely dry, you can package them in a plastic baggie or (ideally) a wax/glassine envelope. It’s not that the plastic is bad, but if there’s any moisture in there, it’ll get sealed in, and your seeds will probably rot. If you’re starting tomatoes from seed, you’ll want to get them started indoors, and early. About 6(?) weeks before your last frost date (check the site). You can start them in little peat pots, or newspaper pots, or anything with rich, well-draining soil. You’ll need to keep the seeds and especially the little seedlings warm, and provide them with plenty of light. If you have a south-facing window where it isn’t too cold, that will be ideal. If not, you may need to invest in some lights. You’ll want the lights close to the seedlings when they’re small; if the light is too far away, the little seedling will stretch like crazy to reach the light, and you’ll end up with a leggy plant that can’t sustain itself. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had gorgeous little seedlings fail just as they get a few inches tall. If you’re going to plant the seeds in the ground (which you could do, if your summer is long enough), you’ll want to test the seeds first. Get a little piece of paper towel and wet it, place a few seeds on it, and put it in a small plastic baggie. Put it in a warm place (I like to put all the test baggies in a cake pan and put it on top of the cable box, but you do you. Wait a few weeks, and then open them up and see if there’s any growth. For what it’s worth, the tomato seeds I’ve saved by merely smooshing and smearing them on a paper towel have never germinated well for me. Letting them get slimy and then separating them is much more reliable.

I Can Grill That?

Last week I found out that one could grill green beans. My first thought was, “don’t they fall between the grates?” (HAHAHA.) (No, really, that really was my first thought.) It turns out that beans do very nicely with a bit of char – you can use a grill basket or heavy duty aluminum foil. But it made me wonder: what other vegetables can I grill? Here is a short list of recipes with veggies that you’re sure to see at the market this week.

Corn. (Corn!) Everyone’s favorite. If you make this, you can also make this. And this. (Trust me, elote is going to be your new obsession.) Grilled corn is beautiful with grilled sweet peppers, too.

So…PEPPERS. Are you a fan of jalapeño poppers? Well, here you go. (No need to go out for this anymore – make it at home with truly excellent, local peppers.) And if you’re a fan of spicy dishes, try a grilled jalapeño potato salad. 

Squashes and zucchini are a popular choice, and you can add any range of flavor profiles – even just a bit of sea salt. Here is one with basil (definitely in season!), and it’s also great with mint. Oh heck – here’s one more. It’s just all so good.

Eggplant is another veggie that loves the heat. This recipe might just make an eggplant lover out of a skeptic (I know you’re out there!). I love that this dish has an easy, flavorful yogurt sauce. Looks fancy; very easy.

Panzanella (bread and vegetable salad): another summer classic.

Fruit! Grilled peaches can pair with a main course as a side, shine in a salad, or as a super-easy dessert.

Lettuce! (Yes, lettuce!) Romaine lettuce, in particular, holds up just fine to a hot grill.  (At the market, you might try another variety – ask a farmer which varieties are sturdy like Romaine.) Lots of flavor options with this, too.

And while we are on the subject of lettuce, we should consider how salads don’t just come in the cold and raw variety (or even include lettuce, of course). Great salads often combine both hot and cold elements, cooked (or grilled) and raw ingredients, salty/sweet/crunchy, etc. It’s all about having a combination of flavors and textures – and using local, fresh veggies means that the flavor is going to be just that much better (and will need very little dressing up!). Check out this grilled corn and nectarine salad (you could easily sub peaches).

Lastly…BEER CAN CABBAGE. (Seriously!) Why let the chickens have all the fun? (And you can grill cabbage without a beer can, too.)

We are in the heyday of summer vegetables. I can’t stop smiling. You, too?

Happy summer, and enjoy.