It’s the time of year again when waiting for tomatoes to ripen is a national pastime. And while tomatoes are definitely the highlight of many vegetable gardens, the amazing variety of nutritious vegetables that we can coax from a small plot of earth is what lures many of us outside to plant a garden season after season. It’s certainly a healthy addiction; tending a garden and eating the plants we grow promote our overall well-being. And when it comes to vegetables, more is definitely better in both servings and diversity. As we head towards summer and wait for that first tomato sandwich or caprese salad, here are some of my favorite ways to make the most of the upcoming harvest, from salvaging less-than-perfect produce to preserving excess.
Soup and Stock.
Soup doesn’t have to be hot, and stock doesn’t have to be made with meat. Gazpacho, a chilled summer soup from Spain, is a refreshing blend of common garden vegetables — tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and onions — flavored with herbs and vinegar, then garnished with crunchy croutons. When chopping vegetables for gazpacho or other dishes, save the trimmings to make a nourishing stock that can be used for pasta, grains, sauce, gravy and soups.
The process is simple and the results are low in sodium and preservatives. Just add coarsely chopped vegetables to a large pot, cover with water, toss in some aromatic herbs along with your favorite seasonings and simmer for at least thirty minutes and up to two hours. Taste along the way to be sure you like the flavor profile. Think of all the scraps from a vegetable and herb garden that can be turned into stock: leek greens, parsley and thyme stems, zucchini ends, fennel stalks, imperfect tomatoes, onion tops, overgrown green beans, corncobs, potato peels, even those skinny sweet-potato roots that fail to develop. It is fun to experiment with whatever you have in your garden. The one guideline I would offer is to avoid simmering stinky or bitter vegetables.
This stock-making process can be a brief infusion or a longer, deeper extraction. For decades, my father-in-law moistened his turkey stuffing with “celery water,” a few celery tops simmered in a cup of water for about 10 minutes. When I was growing up, my mother always simmered water for any kind of beans (even canned green beans) with a little bacon and pepper for about half-an-hour before adding the beans. Easy steps to boost flavor. To develop a richer stock, roast or sauté the vegetables in olive oil or bacon fat before simmering. A few mushrooms or a splash of soy sauce can be added towards the end of cooking to enhance the savory umami flavor. Strain excess stock into containers to freeze for winter meals. Date and label the containers, and be sure to leave extra space for the contents to expand during freezing.
Stuff, Wrap and Roll.
Halved peppers, tomatoes and zucchini are perfect receptacles for stuffing with seasoned rice combined with vegetables, meat or cheese. Wrap sautéed vegetables in a tortilla or a Swiss-chard leaf for a quick and easy meal; bulk it up with some beans or cooked grains. Roll up slender sticks of raw zucchini, peppers and cucumbers in thin, round rice paper, and serve with a spicy dipping sauce. The internet is bursting with recipes and photographs for inspiration and ideas.
Dehydrate and Pickle.
Pickling and drying are time-honored methods of preserving surplus garden vegetables for eating in the off-season. Dehydrators have come a long way, and today’s versions run quieter and occupy less space than those clunkers from the past. I’ve been very pleased with my round Presto dehydrator. Like most dehydrators, it comes with multiple trays that can be filled and stacked for efficient drying, but once I am done, the trays can be inverted and nested inside one another for space-saving storage. Peppers, tomatoes, okra and herbs are good candidates for drying. The prep is minimal — rinse, slice, arrange on trays and let the dehydrator do the work.
Cucumbers are especially popular for pickling, along with jalapenos, okra and green beans. A water bath is required for long-term storage, but if you are making only a few jars, you can skip the processing and store the filled jars in the refrigerator for a few weeks. To make really quick pickles, save the juice from a jar of supermarket pickles and pour it over your own sliced cucumbers. Marinate in the refrigerator a few days before eating. The same idea works with the juice from a jar of pickled jalapenos — just add fresh, sliced jalapenos to the jar and refrigerate.
Beans and Greens.
The beans I’m referring to here are butterbeans and Southern peas. They come up in my garden every year without much coaxing, often reseeding from the previous season. These legumes are so easy to grow, so humble and so Southern that they belong in every Texan’s garden. Aside from the fact that they grow well in hot weather, I love the versatility of harvesting them at different stages. The immature beans can be shelled and eaten fresh, they can be frozen, or the pods can be left to dry on the vine and then shelled and stored for months. And cooking them is a cinch — they require very little preparation and, as they simmer, they create a rich potlikker that is nourishing and delicious. Believe me, a meal made from dried crowder peas or butterbeans, dished up with a slice of hot, buttered cornbread in the middle of winter is a real treat and will garner all kinds of compliments. Serve with a side of simmered collard greens (from your fall garden, of course) for a down-home taste of Texas terroir.
As summer approaches and cool-weather greens peter out in the heat, Malabar spinach, leafy amaranth, sorrel and sweet-potato leaves step in to fill the gap. In their raw form, the flavor of these summer greens can taste a bit pungent, but you can’t go wrong adding a handful of leaves to sloppy joes, lasagna, enchiladas, quiche, stir-fries, soups, casseroles or a pot of beans. The greens cook down, much like spinach leaves, and most people never even realize these dishes have been “enhanced” with something they would likely never eat raw.
Prolific and Versatile Okra.
Tough enough to withstand a Texas summer, okra is a productive hot-weather plant and always a favorite in my garden. In the kitchen it is versatile beyond frying and stewing. We eat it grilled, sautéed, oven-roasted and pickled. I mix thin slices into cornmeal pancakes, muffins and fritters; and add chopped pods to soup, gumbo or a pot of beans. No one enjoys eating fibrous okra, so when pods are a little past their prime, it’s time to skip the pod and go for the seeds. I’ll slice the pod lengthwise, scrape out the seeds and sauté them with vegetables for a tender pop of unmistakable okra flavor.
But I don’t stop there. Overgrown pods can still be salvaged. After removing the seeds, I cut the pods into wide strips, dehydrate until brittle and store in a glass jar. At this point they are no longer edible, but they do provide a hint of okra flavor and a bit of thickening power.
I add a few dried strips, much like a bay leaf, to a pot of soup or stew during cooking, then fish them out at the end. Finally, after they have given their all, the dried pod strips go into the compost pile.
Okra combines well with butterbeans or with Southern peas. I like to cook them up in a tasty soup and freeze in small portions to eat on a cold, wintry night. That home-grown taste of summer warms me up in the middle of winter and reminds me why I love vegetable gardening.
Vegetables are consumed in many forms around the world, and the internet provides us with a community of global cooks and recipes at our fingertips. Borrow from other cultures and be open to new flavors and preparation methods. And always consider sharing your harvest with friends, neighbors and those in need. Some neighborhood food banks are able to accept fresh produce to incorporate into hot meals or food boxes. Check with agencies and churches in your area to be sure you know their guidelines. tg
A few years back, Bruce and I had the pleasure of visiting Greg Grant’s homestead in Arcadia. During our visit, he shared a jar of his mother’s homemade dill pickles, which were delicious. It came as no surprise when I discovered that his mother’s recipe for dill pickles was almost identical to that of my long-time friend and garden mentor Mary Stewart. You know it’s gonna be good when two amazing cooks — who don’t even know each other — use the same recipe! The only difference is that Mary’s recipe uses white vinegar and pickling salt, while Greg’s mom uses cider vinegar and rock salt. This is the recipe that Mary gave me years ago. It is also good for making pickled okra — just replace cucumbers with okra pods of a uniform size.
Small whole cucumbers
2 cups vinegar
1/3 cup pickling salt
4 cups water
8 heads fresh dill
8 cloves of garlic
4 hot peppers
4 grape leaves (use if available; they contribute to crispness)
Start with clean, sterilized quart jars. Bring vinegar, water and salt to a boil. Meanwhile, place one hot pepper, one clove garlic, one head of dill and one grape leaf in each quart jar. Pack closely with cucumbers and add another head of dill and garlic clove. Fill jars with boiling pickling solution, leaving 1/2-inch headspace at top of jar. Wipe rim and seal with lid. Process in boiling water for 10 minutes. Remove from water bath and let cool. Yield: 4 quarts
By Patty G. Leander, B.S.
Advanced Master Gardener — Vegetables