Preserving the Summer

Preserving the Summer
Photo by Kate Thornberry

Having a food garden can be a lot of work – especially in the heat of summer – but it's rewarding in many ways, especially when I bring a basketful of ripe tomatoes, fresh basil, chiles, and cucumbers into the kitchen. We eat as much as we can right away, but inevitably some of the bounty has to be preserved. There are many things we do with our harvest, including standards we make every year, but I'm always looking for new recipes and ideas. Throughout the season, we make pesto. As soon as the basil starts to bloom we pick the tips off, discard the flowers, and wash and process the leaves with garlic, olive oil, and pine nuts (or almonds to make it more economical), and put the mixture in jars and ice cube trays. I use the pesto cubes to season sauces, veggies, or soups. I label them with dates and freeze them to use later, adding the Parmesan when they are thawed.

When birds beat us to the ripening tomatoes, we have to process the pecked fruit right away, so I stew them with garlic and onion in olive oil without adding any herbs or spices. That way I can use them in a variety of ways: blending with chiles for a Mexican sauce; adding basil, oregano, and thyme for pasta sauce; etc. The stewed tomatoes can be packed in glass jars and processed in a water bath, but freezing is a quick alternative. Eggplant is another no-fail garden item, and when it peaks, we have much more than we know what to do with. Fortunately, they are as versatile as they are prolific and can be preserved in many ways. I like slicing them about a quarter-inch thick and roasting them lightly in olive oil. I pack the slices in mason jars, layered with fresh basil, thyme, or oregano, and olive oil. They make a delicious addition to an antipasto plate, or they can be chopped and added to pasta sauces. I also like to make a Russian specialty known as "poor man's caviar" (see "Summer Canning Recipes"), which makes a great dip or spread, freezes well, and uses tomatoes and peppers from the garden, too.

Speaking of peppers, there's always an overflow of jalapeños, serranos, and other hot chiles, so I pickle them Mexican-style (escabeche) with carrots, onions, and other veggies, according to my mom's secret recipe: sherry vinegar, fresh thyme, oregano, bay leaves, whole allspice, peppercorns, and good-quality olive oil. This summer I received two Hungarian wax pepper plants from a friend, and to say they're prolific would be an understatement. To use them up, I came up with a relish recipe that is killer on hot dogs, and I imagine it would be equally delicious on a burger, muffaletta, or sandwich. I seeded the peppers, sliced them, and sautéed them in olive oil with minced onion; added cider vinegar, a pinch of sugar and salt, and a touch of water; and cooked until the liquid was mostly evaporated. This mixture keeps well in the fridge, but to store for long-term use, pack it in clean, hot glass jars and process in a water bath.

With the cucumbers, I prefer to make quick pickles we can eat fresh from the fridge. They're easy to make, stay crisp and crunchy, and are so good that they don't last more than a week anyway. They can be spiced up with hot chiles, or sweetened with a pinch of sugar and rice vinegar, which is less acidic. And since it looks like we'll have figs again this summer, I'm going to try pickling them in balsamic vinegar for something new and different.

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