I just got notice of a new follower to this blog, and though I’d let it lapse in favor of my other one, I got a hankering to write on the garden blog again. It’s the start of those golden days of late summer again–irresistible, to be savored and turned to various accounts–photography, art, and words, as well as memory. Anticipation/angst about the new school year gives a poignancy to these last days of weather- and choice-based living.
Last night we had the first rain in about forty days. Not much, but it washed away the wildfire haze that had been drifting from the interior of BC and the eastern part of Washington. “Look–real clouds,” I said to my husband when I got up. Normal yellow sun, a fresh breeze and blue sky. It looks like another dry spell is coming, and doubtless more smoke haze along with it.
I hung the berry bucket–a cutaway milk jug on a shoelace–around my neck, and went on my morning ritual to pick the various berries that have ripened since yesterday. Thornless blackberries (popped a few of these taste explosions into my mouth), one or two raspberries (the Stellar jays have beat me to most of these, a problem I am working on), and blueberries, protected by netting which has, after a few bold, terrifying forays involving our excitable Siberian husky, discouraged, if not eliminated, depredation by robins, jays, and juncos. As I squatted and contorted my limbs to avoid the netting structure, I wondered if the reason my blueberries ripen so gradually, as compared to those on commercial bushes, is because of the dappled shade and a generally less coddled existence that forces the stems to take turns to draw upon what they need to complete their work filling out and coloring the fruit. Works for me, since I can only use so many a day, especially while I have all these cucumbers and beans to deal with. Also, I’m content to pick some berries that aren’t quite ripe, for the tartness and variety of flavor. I find fully ripe blueberries rather bland, though others call that sweet.
Yesterday I spent the whole day canning. It was a perfect day–cool enough to stay comfortable in the kitchen, and the beginning of peak bean, tomato, and cucumber season. I went early to the produce market and got peaches–Fancy Lady–a name to remember, as they were the perfect combination of sweet and strong, bell peppers (I have some, but would rather eat them in a different form), and milk for the family’s lattes. I saw some lovely Italian plums by the box, but decided to get those next week for drying and freezing. I think they make better blueberry muffins than blueberries do–more flavor (though they have to be chopped; notice how the interior is just like that of blueberries). I have been missing the fruit of our increasingly ailing, badly located plum tree, which we cut down last year. I love dried plum quarters, which I pass off as dried slugs when I offer them to my students. I can get a pretty quick read on adventurousness that way. I plan to plant another tree when I can find the space. I have no use for most plum varieties–too bland–but Italian are worth the effort.
I located all my canning equipment, ran jars through the dishwasher, found a relish recipe, and started heating water in the big pot. I cut some dill and the rest of the ripe cucumbers, including the inevitable hidden ones whose growth got out of hand. Chopped the ingredients in the food processor and left the mass, mixed with Kosher salt, to leak out its moisture in the big crock. This is the first year I’ve done okay with dill–planting in succession and not expecting so much height before harvest helped. Mine looks nothing like the towering bundles I can get at the market, but at least there’s enough to get the pickles started, and dry some for winter.
While the relish sat, I pulled last week’s harvest of green beans out of the fridge and snapped off stems. The jars were ready, so I made even-length handfuls of beans and stuffed them into the pints, filling in with shorter segments. Heated up the brine meanwhile and put the right number of lids in boiling water to sterilize.
I used to get more intense about the order and timing of these tasks, thinking that everything had to be just so, and not wanting to waste any water or electricity. Now I try to tie it all together, but focus on the essentials. No need to rinse every single thing in boiling water, for example, or worry about the jars cooling while I’m packing. I also now use pots of boiling water for several purposes–the canner to dip clean but not recently sterilized jars or a funnel into, for example, and the hot water from the lids pot to top up the canner once the jars are in. I throw in extra tasks to take advantage of all the boiling water, if I have the energy.
Dilly bean jars were all packed with garlic, dill, mustard seeds and hot pepper, brine poured over, bubbles chased out, lids screwed on. Five pints used up all the nicest filet beans. While they boiled in the canner, I started skinning peaches in boiling water, then setting them in cold water with a little acetic acid powder. These would go in the quart jars, sharing the canner with some pureed tomato sauce I’d made previously and stored in the fridge.
Time to rinse and drain the relish. I wished the greens were a little more vivid in there, but it still looked pretty, with the red peppers and chunky texture. I mixed in the vinegar and spices, heated up the mixture and canned seven 12 oz jars, and set them to cool.
I looked at the large pot of last year’s raspberries thawing on the other counter. My feet were tired, but I decided to whip up some jam with my pectin leftovers. I did some quick calculations to see how many cups of berries would use the remaining five tablespoons of pectin, mixed up the result and made a bunch of jars small enough to prevent wasteful moldering due to infrequent use once opened (my kids say they love raspberry jam, but often can’t see it at the back of the fridge), and started cleaning up. The rest of the berries went into a cheesecloth-lined colander to drip for juice. I sealed the whole thing off with plastic wrap, in the ongoing battle to prevent fruit fly breeding, then took all my other peelings out to the compost pile.
I still had several bags of slicing cucumbers, and my two plants were just cranking them out. Besides the relish, another of our favorite preparations for cucumbers is Middle Eastern salad. I chop up peppers, onions, garlic, cucumbers, and lots of cilantro, and mix in feta and mozzarella (in the balls form), salt, pepper, lemon juice and olive oil. Even my husband will eat this, despite being a sworn enemy of cucumbers since his picking days (he never developed enmity with strawberries, however). I don’t like cucumbers or bell peppers plain, but this salad is nothing like. I sometimes add chopped tomatoes just before serving, since they don’t keep their texture well is allowed to sit. We all developed a taste for these flavor when we lived in Jerusalem a few years back.
Next I’ll make a day of preserving Italian plums and making dill pickles. I have to solicit free grape leaves in my neighborhood, as ours were removed when the fence was rebuilt and only a small sprout has returned. If I feel ambitious, I’ll do mushrooms too. I want to try traditional fermented pickles, but am not sure if this is the year. I’d like to have a porch for that, since there may be smells.