2 stoves, 2 bushels, 2 days, 52 jars of sauce

Last year, at the height of the holiday baking season, my oven stopped working. We bought a new stove and moved the old one to the garage.

This summer, my clever husband (with a little advice from his just-as-clever younger brother) modified an electrical outlet in the garage so I could plug in the old stove—which still has working burners.

Labour Day weekend, I bought two bushels of Roma tomatoes and spent two long days running up and down stairs from the kitchen, where I had as many as three large pots of tomato sauce cooking at any one time, to the garage, where I had two canners set up on my old stove.

I made two types of sauce: one with chopped onions, minced garlic, dried oregano, red chili flakes, black pepper, salt and sugar (inspired by this one from Bernardin); and a second with salt, sugar, minced garlic and a few fresh basil leaves.

The method was the same for both:
• Wash and chop tomatoes.
• Combine tomatoes and other ingredients in a large pot.
• Boil until thick. (At least a couple hours, depending on the tomatoes and the size of your pot.)
• Press sauce through a food mill to remove skins and seeds.
• Return sauce to pot, simmer until it reaches desired consistency.
• Ladle into hot, sterilized jars. Add lemon juice. (15 mL per 500 mL jar.)
• Process in water canner for 35 minutes.

At the end of two days, I had tomato splashes on every surface of my kitchen, sore calves and 52 jars of sauce lined up on a folding table in the garage. Beautiful.

I wish I had the photographic proof of this feat. But, as it was my first time canning tomato sauce, I felt I had to focus on the task at hand. And I had to move the sauce out of the garage, so David could set up his tablesaw to get started on the new hardwood floors. (Do we know how to spend week off or what?)

The top photograph shows a few jars I’ve used as decoration in my red-accented kitchen. (Storing all that sauce, along with dozens of jars of pickles, salsa, piquante sauce, relish, ketchup, plum sauce, apple butter, tomato jam, etc., requires a little creativity.)

The bottom photo was dinner on Wednesday: homemade sauce, along with some red peppers and hot Italian sausage meat, on spaghetti squash from the CSA.


Garden report 4: Post-holiday

Pickling cucumbers are flowering and fruiting.

For more than a decade, early July has meant a road trip for David and I.
An annual vacation requires a little strategic thinking when it comes to the edible garden. First, you need to find a neighbour, friend, housesitting service or local kid with an entrepreneurial spirit to do some watering.
Second, you want to plan your plantings so that you don’t miss the harvest.
For example, the garden at our old house included a sizable (and naturally, aggressively expanding) strawberry patch planted by the previous homeowners. Strawberry season in that part of Ontario usually lands in early July – which meant most of our crops were consumed by the birds. The friend who often watered our garden (and was instructed to please please pick and eat whatever was ready) during our absence was allergic to strawberries. At our current house, I planted blueberries and raspberries.
Third, you want to do some pre-holiday prep.

Freshly picked lettuce greens, ready for salad, sandwiches or even soup.

In the week leading up to this year’s vacation, we ate lettuce – in salads, sandwiches and even a fantastic soup (recipe to come, I promise) – nightly. The night we left, I picked, chopped and bagged for the freezer any suitable Swiss chard as well as the small amount of pak choi I was able to rescue from the beetles. I will use both is soups this winter.
I also weeded diligently, trimmed the last of the scapes from my garlic and ensured the tomatoes were supported by their spirals.

I am always amazed by the results of two weeks of summer sunshine on my garden. I came home (more than two weeks ago now) to tomato plants doubled in size and weighted down by (mostly still green) fruit, replenished Swiss chard and lettuce greens and jalapenos, beans and zucchini ready to pick and eat.

The start of the cherry tomato harvest.

Garden Report 3

I’ve let a little too much time pass between reports — but I got behind on the weeding and busy with spring chores and social engagements.
But, without further ado, here’s where we’re at.

Asparagus ferns.

The asparagus plot is doing nicely. Each crown sent up a few slender stalks that turned to wispy ferns. Its location at the east of our vegetable garden and back of our lot is perhaps a little less than perfect. Keeping the weed seeds that blow in from the no-man’s land behind our property from taking over is an ongoing challenge.

Pak choi.

My greens – particularly the pak choi and to a lesser extent the Swiss chard – were hard hit by an invasion of flea beetles. I searched the web for eco-friendly solutions – one suggested planting pak choi as a diversion crop since it’s practically irresistible to the tiny jumping bug. But I want to eat it. So I used an old all-purpose standby – a mixture of onion, garlic, hot sauce, dish soap and water. It seems to me making a difference, but I’m afraid much of the pak choi could not be saved.

Early early girl tomato.

Everything else is growing like mad. All the seeds – carrots, parsnips, green beans, zucchini, summer squash, cucumber and pumpkins – have sprouted. The tomatoes are starting to bloom and I see a few green fruit on the early girls. Same goes for the Thai chile and jalapeno peppers. My garlic is just beginning to produce scapes.

As long as I can manage any further pest infestations and keep up with the watering the long, hot summer this is shaping up to be will require, it should be a good harvest.

Asparagus, Take 1

I had the best intentions of writing a series of posts on asparagus this spring — well in time to make the most of the season. But here we are several weeks (and many meals) into the local season without a mention of this favourite green vegetable.
Time to rectify that.

I planted my 19 (I ordered 18, but received one extra) crowns in deep trenches on April 25. I feared for a couple that I found overturned, roots exposed, by some sort of animal (neighbour’s dog, perhaps?) a few days later. But I tucked them back into the soil and today, they are all sporting one or two leggy spears. To encourage robust plants, asparagus should not be harvested the first year it is planted (and only sparingly the second year), so I cannot yet report on the taste. But I was thrilled to see the purple-green shoots poking through the soil at the east end of the garden.

Roasted asparagus.

Roasted Asparagus
Our favourite, simple yet delicious, way to eat fresh asparagus. This feeds two at our house — but it entirely depends on what else you are serving and how much you like asparagus.

1 bunch of asparagus
15 mL (1 tbsp) olive oil
sea salt
fresh ground pepper
juice of half a lemon
zest of half a lemon (optional)

Preheat oven – 350 to 400 F works. (I adjust depending on what else I may have in the oven for dinner.)
Wash and trim asparagus. Snap off the woody ends and save for soup. (Recipe to come.)
Toss with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and lemon zest if using.
Place in single layer on baking sheet.
Roast for 8 to 10 minutes until spears are bright green and still slightly firm.
Spritz with lemon juice. Serve.

1. Skip the lemon and salt. Add soy sauce to taste with the olive oil.
2. Skip the lemon and salt. Substitute melted butter for olive oil. Add soy sauce.
3. Add a couple cloves of finely minced garlic to the olive oil.
4. A couple minutes before the asparagus is done, sprinkle with finely grated Parmesan cheese. Return to oven for two minutes.

Garden report: Part 1

Tilling the vegetable garden.

Over the past two weeks, I planted my cold weather crops.
First, I had to harvest the last of last season’s parsnips, which we enjoyed tossed in olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted alongside some carrots.
On April 14, David rented a tiller from a local shop and, I say without hyperbole, it was the best $20 we ever spent. In two hours, he had tilled the entire garden, incorporating some of the decomposing leaves we applied in the fall into the soil (the rest went into the compost heap) and leaving lovely, loose dirt at least 30 centimetres deep, ready for planting.
I sowed seeds the next day: two rows of harris model parsnips, three rows of organic scarlet nantes carrots, two rows of organic rainbow swiss chard (with a bit of leftover standard green mixed in), a row of pak choi and a row of baby leaf blend organic lettuce. The greens are already sprouting.

Red and green lettuce is beginning to sprout.

In my herb garden, I sowed some curly parsley seeds I harvested off a second year plant (parsley is biennial) last fall.
I also dug trenches in anticipation of the giant jersey asparagus roots I ordered from Vesey’s. Growing this vegetable is an exercise in patience; I’m not expecting a real harvest until 2014. But I could not resist the appeal of a perennial edible that is ready to eat in May.

Young leeks.

April 21, during at an impromptu stop at Joe’s Market for some local honey, I bought three small pots of leeks and a large rosemary plant. This year, I may keep the rosemary in a pot and bring it in during the winter. But a row of leeks was planted in a shallow trench the next day. (The whites of leeks are created by covering the bottoms with soil as they grow.) I love leeks in soups, grain dishes and pastas (including David’s favourite mac ‘n’ cheese, which also features pancetta, gruyere and blue cheese). After reading in Lois Hole’s Favourite Vegetables that you can dig them up whole (with a shovel or two of soil) and store them in a box somewhere cool like the garage to eat all winter, I knew I had to give growing them a try.
Yesterday (April 24), the asparagus crowns arrived in the mail. I planted them in my pre-dug trenches this evening.

This year’s harvest has already begun, albeit very slowly, with herbs: A few chives in a lemon chive mayo for a piece of grilled pickerel; several sprigs of thyme in a potato onion soup; lots of cilantro (self-seeded) to balance the pickled onions in fish tacos.
To my surprise, a lone kale plant survived the winter and should soon have sprouted enough leaves to add to a vegetable soup.

Vegetable garden top five

March is an important month for my vegetable garden.
I gather my thoughts and the notes I’ve written in the margins of my agenda and scraps of paper, consult my books and magazines for folded corners and marked pages, go over last year’s plantings with an eye to crop rotation, make a few rough sketches and order my seeds.

My vegetable garden after the final plantings last May.

I buy organic whenever I can. Veseys is a reliable source of quality plants and seeds, and is continually expanding its organic selection. I’ve also had good luck with Hawthorn in Palmerston, Ontario and am trying Cubits’ dinosaur kale for the first time this season.
I try something new almost every year and will share my final selections for 2012 in a later post. But first, here are my top picks for any Ontario vegetable garden.

When it comes to taste, there is nothing on your grocery store shelf at any time of the year that can compare to a sun-warmed tomato fresh from your own garden.
At a minimum, plant one beefsteak variety – for tomato sandwiches, caprese salads and just plain eating with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. If you have space and the inclination, add a couple more beefsteaks (for variation in taste, size and harvest time), a cherry/grape or two for salads and snacking and a paste tomato for sauce.

Bush beans
As I’ve noted before, one package of bush beans seeds can provide bountiful harvests for as long as you care to garden. I don’t bother with soaking, just poke the dried beans into the soil, water and wait for them to grow. Bush beans don’t require staking. The more you pick, the more beans your plants will produce. Leave a few pods to dry on the plants for next year’s harvest.

Swiss chard
Rainbow is my go-to variety — as much for the colour as the taste. The stems vary in hue from deep red to white, with shades of pink, orange and yellow in between. In a good season (like 2011), you can begin harvesting within six or eight weeks of planting (cut leaves, leaving about 2 cm of stem) and continue right up until the first hard frost.

If you’ve only ever eaten the grown-for-shipping-not-for-flavour carrots from the grocery store, you’re probably not in a rush to plant your own. But I would urge you to give scarlet nantes a try. Cylindrical roots that grow 15 to 20 cm long, with a bright orange colour, smooth, thin skin and a sweet crunch. I plant them fairly thickly and lazily, thin to 4 cm, then again by harvesting some as baby carrots and allowing the rest to grow to full maturity.

The promise of digging vegetables out of the garden in January or March makes these a regular in my garden. Harvest after a good frost or two for a sweeter flavour. Fresh seeds are a must for success with this root vegetable, so choose a reputable supplier.

Stranded parsnips

Stranded parsnips, just waiting to be harvested and eaten.

Whenever talk turns to vegetable gardening (more often than you might think), I am always quick to praise the parsnip. It’s easy to grow (as long as your seeds are fresh), it’s much cheaper than buying it at the grocery store, it tastes great (particularly roasted) and you can harvest it all winter long.
Name one other vegetable that offers all that.
Parsnips are a favourite in our garden and on our table. Their taste sweetens with a frost or two and there is something so uplifting about being able to dig a vegetable out of the garden in mid-January, cook and eat it.
The strange weather – little snow, balmy stretches with rain followed by cold snaps – in southern Ontario has foiled our plans this year.
I went out yesterday afternoon to dig a few parsnips to roast with some carrots and turnips (the latter harvested from our garden in the summer and frozen) and serve alongside the garlic-crusted sirloin tip roast I had planned for dinner.
The ground, with its skim coat of snow, was as hard as cement.
I couldn’t even pull out the fork we keep to mark the rows (although David did later). A shovel just chipped away little bits of dirt.
I guess we’ll have to wait (and not too long if the weather forecasters are to be believed) for a warm spell before we can rescue our poor stranded parsnips and enjoy them for dinner.