Yesterday's harvest represents an average day at this time of year. Total insanity. Some years I can the fruits and vegetables around here like a mid-century farmhouse machine, but this year I feel more like a tweaked-out squirrel, frantically shoving nuts down a hole. In other words, I'm busier and I'm making smaller batches of everything.
In front you can see the day's pickings from my pyramid of romano bean vines. They're wider and flatter than your average bean, and also a lot more tender. I cut them into diamonds and then quick-poach or stir-fry them. The zucchini plants are still producing, as are the cucumbers, although lately the cucumbers have tasted strong and intensely vegetal. Due either to the recent dry weather we've been having or just the age of the vines, they lack the cucumber's usual refreshment.
The enormous bowl of grapes constitutes just half of those picked from a single vine. We pruned our grape vines pretty severely last fall to see if we could rid the plants of a stubborn fungus. I think it worked, but we saw no grapes from those this year. To think what I would have done if those vines had produced as well as this did one spins my head. Some day I will make wine, I suppose, but for today, I make a shelf's worth of grape juice and a bunch of grape fruit leather.
I cooked the grapes very briefly in a large pot, mashed them with a potato masher, ran them through my food mill and let the pulp drip its clear juice--which takes hours, by the way. And in the end, I had about a quart of pulp. I added more sugar, cooked it down further and started spreading it thinly on silpat-lined baking sheets for fruit leather. A bit of an art, this leather. Some recipes say you can spread it on greased cookie sheets (don't believe it) and not one of them that I consulted gave one whit of advice beyond "spread it thin." I learned from experience. Use a silpat (silicone pan liner) or at the very least greased parchment, and spread it to the thickness of about two quarters. To dry out to a leathery texture, bake it 6 hours in a 200 degree oven with an oven-safe prop wedged in the door to let the steam escape.
Last week I made my Great-Aunt Helen's fabulous freezer corn:
Most people blanch their cut corn kernels in boiling water before chilling and freezing, but Aunt Helen--the best fantasy storyteller of all the aunts and the hardest hugger I've ever known--had none of that: she just cut it from the cobs and mixed it with briny ice water before freezing. This is an amazing recipe. Come Thanksgiving you just heat it up and it pops in your mouth as if it were August-fresh. I swear it. And do as she says: rearrange your freezer so that you can lay the bags flat when you freeze them, or you'll be sorry later when you struggle with the lumpy frozen corn bags.
Aunt Helen's Freezer Corn
15 cups corn kernels
5 cups ice water
1/4 cup sugar
1/8 cup canning salt
Mix everything together and scoop into heavy plastic freezer bags. Freeze flat.
We plant three packages of cucumber seeds every summer and from the bulk of their yield I make as many quarts of my grandmother's fermented dills as I can--garlicky, fizzy, sour and addictive. I usually also can a small batch--6 pints or so--of bread and butter pickles. This year I also put up a gallon jar of refrigerator bread and butter pickles, the kind you don't process in a boiling water bath. As much as I don't like how this momentous jar hogs the top shelf of the fridge, I really hate the idea of buying pickles in the winter--not when I have 20 cucumber plants that pop out knobby pickling cukes fresh every single day. That refers to those I catch in time, at their adolescence, the perfect size for pickling; I pitch the jumbos toward a special spot over the fence. (Actually, I've never seen where they land. Someday I have to visit this cucumber cemetery.)
This year I added a pinch of curry to my bread-and-butter pickles. I like the yellow glow of the turmeric and also the jolt these pickles give my ham-and-butter sandwiches.
Refrigerator Bread-and-Butters with Curry
This recipe makes 1 1/2 quarts of pickles, or 3 pints
3 1/2 pounds pickling cucumbers
1/4 cup pickling salt
1/2 small spring onion or Vidalia onion (3 ounces)
1 cup water
3 cups white vinegar
1 cup sugar
4-inch-long piece ginger (2 ounces)
6 cloves garlic, peeled
1 spicy red chile (red jalepeno for milder, Serrano for spicier), stem removed
1/4 cup finely sliced cilantro stems
2 tablespoons yellow mustard seeds
Scrub the cucumbers to remove the spines. With a mandoline or a sharp knife, slice them 1/4-inch thick. Toss them in a large bowl with the pickling salt and leave to marinate for 30 minutes. Fill the bowl with cold water to rinse the cucumbers and drain well, blotting dry with a towel. Mix the cucumbers and onions.
Combine the water, vinegar, sugar, ginger, garlic, chile, cilantro stems and yellow mustard seeds and bring to a boil, whisking to dissolve the sugar. Pour over the cucumbers and onions and let cool.
Sterilize the pint jars, lids and caps. Fill the jars with cucumber pickles, cap and store in the refrigerator.
It was a killer year for the eggplant, too. I grow one or two varieties, both of them quick-growing for our short northern season. Here you have Ping Tung long in the front and Swallow in the back. I love to stovetop-smoke them and mix them with yogurt for babaghanous, marinate them with a soy and honey and grill them, saute them with tomatoes, sugar, chilies and fish sauce for a vietnamese side, or steam them and top with ground pork and chili bean paste . . . . there's nothing like my fresh garden eggplant, and I can't really make these dishes as successfully with winter's grocery store eggplant, so I've been smoking, peeling and cryovacking the pulp lately, as you can see above. When you're smoking eggplant, think of it as toasting a marshmallow: you want to lightly blister the skin but not really burn it.