Friday, October 22, 2010

fruitful fall

according to the weatherman this weekend will be the first time boise’s had daytime highs below 60 since may 23, when the high was 59. still no freeze predicted, though. it blows my mind that i’m still picking tomatoes and beans and peppers in late october. i was certain everything would be withered and dead by now, but nothing is, except for one poor unfortunate zucchini plant that took the brunt of a mysterious miniature frost pocket:

it’s so random, nothing else was hit, not even the identical zucchini plant directly beside it. i went to a canning class at the library last week and a few other attendees were also gardeners--they said their tomatoes were already dead and gone. they were commiserating about it being a crappy tomato year and i had to bite my tongue. i sort of agree, spring sucked and i feel like my tomatoes were much later than they should’ve been, but i also feel like i have little right to complain at this point.

i’m running out of green tomatoes. i can’t believe it. there will be hardly any left to ripen inside or to use in exciting green tomato recipes, unless i pick them early. i’m considering liquidating the maters this evening before the weather turns chilly, even if it’s not going to freeze.

here are some helpful tips for predicting a frost, from the book “newspaper, pennies, cardboard & eggs for growing a better garden” by roger yepsen and the editors of “organic gardening”:

more detail and other tips can be found here. the book also recommends stringing christmas lights around your plants to heat them up a bit on cold nights. that would look so pretty. i’ve always wanted to string lights throughout my garden, but they’d get in the way of things. plus i imagine trying to extract them from overgrown plants could be a nightmare, and trying to cut the plants down first could make it even worse.

i harvested 4lbs of tomatoes on monday (10/11)...

6lbs plus an orange bell pepper on wednesday...

7.5lbs and a few beans on thursday...

4.5lbs saturday...

4.5lbs and some beans on tuesday...

and 2.5lbs on thursday. tomato total of 22lbs last week and 7lbs so far this week. it’s slowing down a bit now.

i’m going to try overwintering some tomato plants. i started a new seedling of “tiny tim” (a super-dwarf, determinate heirloom variety), and i hope that getting it off to a good start outside will help it grow healthy through the winter. it’s about to open its first flowers. i also took cuttings of a couple of my favorite cherry tomatoes that are now rooting (and setting fruit) in a vase full of kelp water.

delicious raspberries continue ripening.

monday before last i got spooked by a cool weather forecast--it was already nighttime when i heard the warning so i ran out with a flashlight and scissors and harvested all the basil i had left. i chopped up most of it and froze it into ice cubes, but i saved a few stems and put them in water for decoration/fresh use, and possibly for rooting so i can try to overwinter some.

ice cubes are a good option for preserving little portions of herbs that don’t dry well. i made borage ice cubes, and i think i might do some chives that way, too, although it would probably screw up their texture.

i waited too long to harvest my chocolate mint. i was lazy and let it go until much of it had already died back. i cut it down, pulled out a bunch of runners and dried the leaves for tea.

this tomato is a bit of a garden’s a yellow pear, but the neck was separated from the bulbous part by the blossom, so it was almost like a fused tomato stacked vertically instead of conjoined side-by-side. the pieces fell apart when i picked it.

i found a hand in the center of a big rainbow.

last week jason and i went out on a blackberry expedition, planning to hit a large patch i spotted months ago driving down chinden. we were equipped for some serious picking, outfitted in tough, scrubby clothes, ready to throw ourselves into the brambles and pluck our way out.

we brought enough containers to carry more berries than i could pick in a full day--i even attached a strap to a large soup pot and hung it around my neck for hands-free collecting. when we reached the patch we discovered it was on the other side of a creek. the creek runs along the foot of a steep hill so there’s no reason to have a bridge across, but we walked on anyway, hoping to find passage.

we walked to the back of a dead-end street that butted up against the creek and still saw no means to cross. i was standing there all defeated when i heard jason ask, “what are those?”—i looked where he was pointing and immediately screamed “ELDERBERRIES!”

three huge elderberry bushes, weighted down with fruit, but unfortunately, once again, on the opposite side of the stream. we reached feebly with our sticks--i brought a long metal pole with a hook on one end and a ski pole for j--and we were able to connect with a few of the closest branches and knock off whole bunches of berries, but we couldn’t catch them, even working as a team, and the stream’s strong current swept them quickly away (to the sound of much desperate cursing and laughter from our side of the water).

it became one of those moments where you just say “fuck it”--ditch your shoes, roll up your pants and wade in. it was a chilly afternoon and the water was freezing, but damn it to hell, we wanted those berries.

we loaded ourselves down with as much berry goodness as we could carry, still leaving plenty for birds and other creatures to feast on, although it really didn’t look like many critters had been taking advantage. spiders, though, lots of spiders. one of them crawled out of my bucket while it was in the back of my car--enormous, the body alone was probably an inch long, and so fat i could gently pick it up by the abdomen without any danger of bites. like holding a hermit crab by the shell.

j felt he had the resources to handle only one bag of berries, representing less than a third of our haul, so i took the bulk of them. right away i got to washing, destemming, freezing and drying as many as i could.

there are so many interesting elderberry resources online. first i thought of making elderberry wine (awesome article/recipe from winemaker magazine found here), but that’s a bit more involved a project than i can take on right now. i also thought of jams and jellies, but i’m too busy to can lately. pontack is a cool, exotic idea but it sounds like it’s mostly paired with meat (especially kidney, liver and wild game, for which i know of no vegan equivalents), so i don’t know what i’d do with it. jason said he was going to make elderberry syrup, so i looked up a recipe and it sounded totally manageable, tasty and versatile.

the recipe calls for two pounds of fruit (probably five or six good-sized bunches’ worth, if you don’t have a scale). i would suggest a lot of modifications to this recipe. first, less water--rather than four cups i would use enough to just barely cover the berries in the pot. that way it’s easy to adjust the recipe to however many berries you want to use...just add sweetener to taste.

for this batch i added cinnamon sticks to the cooking pot at all times. jason was talking about trying a bunch of different flavorings like ginger and lemon, and maybe using other types of sweetener, like raw local honey added at the end after cooling it down. i used plain organic/vegan sugar, but agave nectar could be a good thing to try next time.

i ended up cooking down the syrup for much longer than the recipe’s 15 minutes--almost an hour until it reached the right consistency (i tested using the freezer method for jams and jellies). adding less water would help reduce cook time. the recipe is non-specific about how much fresh lemon juice to use, so i juiced half a lemon and that was fine.

the recipe implies that straining the liquid after running through the food mill is optional, but i disagree. i strained it twice to get rid of all the seeds. in fact if you don’t have a food mill i think a strainer alone would be adequate for this job.

the recipe yielded a large bottle of delicious and beautiful syrup. it’s wonderful stirred into vanilla soygurt. i plan to make elderberry pancakes to pour it on, and maybe i’ll try using it as a sweetener for herbal tisanes. it didn’t work well for italian soda--too thick.

i’ve been spending too much time cooking lately. the other day i made a loaf of banana quickbread, a pot of tomato sauce and a batch of dressing with savory spices, honeycrisp apple, raisins and dried cherries. the house smelled like thanksgiving had sex with christmas.

this banana bread is addictive. there were multiple times when i tried to eat just one little slice--i can usually limit myself pretty easily with rich baked goods--but it wasn’t happening, the pringles effect took hold. i can’t decide if i should write out a recipe so i can make it again or try to forget the recipe so i can’t.

andy’s been such a cuddly little heat-seeking blanket-hound lately. i love it when i’m curled up on the couch under a blanket with my legs to the side and he jumps up, climbs over and carves out a little nest for himself behind my knees.


GoneferalinID said...

Wonderful post. My computer crashed and I'm on Kyle's. Elderberries are amazing, I just discovered them a few years ago. My comment is all over the place apparently. We still have green tomatoes and new blossoms. K's mom told us that if we cut the vines with the green tomatoes and store them in the garage, they'll ripen with time. It's too soggy for that this weekend, but we'll try to get them this week.

Emily said...

sorry about your computer, that's so awful. i've heard that if you pull up the tomato plants and hang them upside down in the garage they ripen well that way, but that would take a lot of space. if you're cutting off just the vines with tomatoes they might benefit from the warmer temperatures inside the house. i picked some green tomatoes a few days ago, they've just been sitting on the counter and they started ripening right away. i guess it depends how close they are to being ripe.

Seglare said...

Your pictures - and tomatoes! - look amazing, as always. :) After several nights of covering them, we just harvested the last of our pumpkins/squashes, and now the only plants still growing (or just surviving?) here are some greens such as kale, collards, parsley, and some root vegetables (ground artichokes, potatoes, carrots..). As a Christmas person, I love the idea of stringing christmas lights around the plants to prevent freezing - though I'm not sure how practical it is. :) When it comes to growing vegetables, I really wish I did live a bit further south!

For the last, I have to say I loved the pictures of Andy. It's funny because I have an almost identical picture of my old dog cuddling under a fleece blanket! As a Labrador, he survived well during the winter and really loved playing in the snow; but as he got older, he started to get cold easily, and liked to sleep covered in warm blankets in front of the fireplace. ;)

Emily said...

thank you selgare! those are some good hardy plants you have going, i bet they'll keep growing for quite a while. last year my parsley made it through until the very coldest of winter, and i have a friend who couldn't kill her kale no matter what.

andy is a huge fan of the fireplace, too. at my parent's cabin they have a wood stove, and he sleeps so damn close to that thing you can almost smell him cooking.

Andrea said...

So much to take in — I'm at a loss for words. You've had a spectacular tomato harvest. Love the elderberries.