Archive for the ‘Fruits and Vegetables’ Category


Ready for winter

Last spring, I added a new raised bed to my vegetable area and filled it using the lasagna method. Despite not having a winter to percolate and meditate and otherwise breakdown, the soil in the garden was humus-rich and fertile. A trowel would easily sink 10 inches into the “dirt” in this bed. I grew some large (if slightly out of control) tomato plants in the bed, and I have a freezer full of the tomato sauce I made with the fruits. So, all in all, a success.

When I cleaned the bed up about two weeks ago, it was clear the lasagna had shrunk. This is to be expected. Lasagna gardening basically involves making compost in your vegetable bed. So, over the past few days, I’ve been layering on the fresh materials: slabs of sod taken out of the lawn, vegetable scraps, a thick layer of finished compost from my two compost piles, and on top, a layer of chopped leaves.  These will have several months to breakdown and renew the bed. I’m not sure what I will plant there next year, but it’s a long winter here, so I’ll have plenty of time to think about it.


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IMG_6694I have to admit that I feel like I have finally escaped after processing about 20 pounds of grapes from my neighbor’s vines. My neighbors were not able to do the harvest themselves this year, and I asked if I could step in, having enjoyed some of their fabulous grape jam last year. With their permission, I harvested about 20 pounds of grapes, about half of the Swenson and Concord grapes they have on the vines.

Harvesting grapes is a snap. Take a scissors with you and just snip the bunches off the vines. Then, clean the grapes, and start processing. That’s where the work gets more cumbersome. I made three kinds of grape preserves with the fruit. The first is a recipe taken from Jane Brody’s Good Food Gourmet for grape conserve. To make it, you have to skin the grapes, which sounds difficult, but actually involves only a tiny squeeze on the grape so the innards pop out.  However, it takes a lot of grapes to make even a few jars of conserve and, as Brody notes in her recipe, it’s a lot more fun with a group of people. My 17-year-old helped for awhile, but mostly I soldiered on through the grapes alone.

After that, I still had buckets of grapes left, so I cleaned what I had and dumped all the grapes in a big pot to loosen the skins and seeds. After about 15 minutes of cooking, I ran the mixture through a food mill and ended up with a thick, tart grape juice. (And, a pile of seeds and gunk, which went into the compost pile.) The next day, I took some of the juice, strained it again, and used 5 cups of juice for a traditional jelly recipe. The recipe is in any box of Sure-Jell pectin. While it’s a pretty sugary jelly, the fresh, tart grapes give it a bite that you don’t get from store-bought jelly.

The Final Product

The Final Product

I still had more juice, so the next day, I made an old-fashioned grape marmalade. This is a variation on a recipe I found on the web from an old — like 1800s — cookbook. I took 6 cups thick grape juice, 3 oranges (zested, peeled, and chopped), 3 cups of stewed apples (I’d recommend local Haralson apples microwaved about 5 minutes with some apple cider or water), and one cinnamon stick.  Bring this mixture to a boil and add 1.75 pounds of sugar. Stir until the sugar is dissolved and let it cook for a good half hour — maybe more. While it’s cooking, bring the hot water bath to a boil and clean and sterilize your canning jars and tops. (For instructions on canning, see the U of M’s site.) Then, remove the cinnamon stick, and pour the marmalade in the jars. I processed the jars 10 minutes in a boiling water bath to seal them up, though the original recipe recommends that cooks put paper over the jam and it will “keep for years.” I’m a little doubtful these grape delights will last that long here.

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IMG_6663The berries just keep on coming! Friday, my husband and I picked about 20 cups of raspberries from the canes in our backyard. That’s on top of several cups each of the past few days, some of which we’ve munched and some we’ve given to others. A basket sent to my mother led to a new recipe for using raspberries: Raspberry Syrup.

Here’s the method: Take about 3 cups of cleaned berries and put them in a saucepan with 1/2 cup of water and 2 cups of sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil, mashing the berries as you go. Once the mixture is boiling hard, let it cook for three minutes. While the mixture cooks, set up your straining operation. I used a colander lined with cheese cloth set over another saucepan. After the mixture has boiled, pour the syrup through the strainer. Gently push on it to extract as much juice as possible — this may take an hour or more to get all the goodness out — while leaving behind the seeds.  The resulting liquid may be thin, so put it on the heat again and let some of the water boil away. But don’t go too long or you will end up with raspberry jelly (which is not all bad). The syrup would be wonderful on pancakes, but I couldn’t wait and served it up over some ice cream.

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Berries lined up and ready for freezing.

This is shaping up to be a fantastic season for fall raspberries. I was busy with a variety of work-related activities during the latter part of last week and, consequently, was away from my little raspberry patch for about four days. When I went out to pick today, the berries were literally dripping off the canes. I picked about 12 cups of berries in a half hour.

Raspberries this fresh are delicate, so I froze about 8 cups of the berries. This is an easy operation: Rinse the berries lightly in water to dislodge any little bugs or what-not that may be on them, let them sit on a towel to dry, then arrange them on a tray and pop it in the freezer. (I put a sheet of wax paper on the tray to make the removal of the frozen berries extra easy.) A few hours later, put the berries in plastic bags and stash them for some winter day when fresh raspberries are $5 a cup in the store or $4.59 for a 2-cup bag frozen.  At that point, you can feel frugal and proud.

IMG_6620With some of the remaining raspberries, I decided to make a raspberry fool. I was introduced to fool several years ago when traveling in England for about three weeks with our two girls, then ages 12 and 8. To save money and reduce restaurant time with kids, we ate at least one picnic a day — and these frequently featured the two English dishes my daughters loved best: Fruit fool (packaged in yogurt-like cups) and a pop called Tango. Since then, I’ve made fool whenever we have an abundance of some juicy fruit, such berries or peaches. You can find a variety of recipes in cookbooks and online, but here’s how I do it.

Raspberry Fool

2 cups fresh or frozen raspberries, crushed

1/2 cup sugar

Juice and some of the zest from 1 lemon

1 cup plain yogurt (your choice on fat level)

1 cup whipping cream, whipped

Crush the berries. Then, add the sugar and lemon zest and juice and let it sit a few minutes to juice up. (With raspberries, you can strain the mixture to remove the seeds, if you’d like.) Once this is juicy, add the mixture to the yogurt and stir it until thoroughly combined. Whip the cream, and sweeten it, if you’d like. Gently fold the yogurt-berry mix into the cream. You can serve it with more berries or whatever garnish you’d like.

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IMG_6528Back in the day, I worked for a large agricultural supply cooperative in Minnesota, which sold seed to farmers. To say that the co-op’s seed guys were fixated on nitrogen fixation would be an understatement. Nitrogen fixing is the process by which certain legumes take nitrogen from the air (N2) and, with the help of bacteria, transform it to nitrogen plants can use (NH3). Farmers love this beneficial habit because they can plant corn (a huge nitrogen user) after soybeans (a nitrogen fixer) and not have to add as much fertilizer. The co-op’s seed guys had a special soybean seed that was a nitrogen fixing machine — but that’s another story.

Recently, a fellow gardener brought up the issue of whether green beans in Minnesota were in the ground long enough to fix nitrogen. I have always assumed so — but his comment got me wondering. This weekend I pulled up one of my bush bean plants to check and there they were — those warty little nobs on the root of the bean that signal nitrogen fixation. How much nitrogen is fixed depends on the soil, the bean, and a number of other factors that are beyond my pay grade. But it is a good idea to rotate beans into garden beds in which the soil may have been depleted by heavy nitrogen using plants, such as tomatoes. It’s also a good idea to simply cut the beat plant down to soil level at the end of the season, leaving the warty, nitrogen-rich roots in the soil to decompose.

Nitrogen fixing is one of the reasons many gardeners will plant a cover crop of legumes on new garden beds. The University of Minnesota has a good article about nitrogen fixation and another one on cover crops that you might want to read for additional information.

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IMG_6514If you had a chance to see the movie Julie and Julia, you know it’s full of images of fantastic food. But the scene that made me salivate was the one in which Julie Powell (played by former Chanhassen Dinner Theater actress Amy Adams) prepares bruschetta for her husband, and he devours it with messy gusto. With tomatoes finally coming in, it was time for some bruschetta.

I made the tomato topping first, dicing up three kinds of tomatoes and adding a couple of tablespoons each of chopped basil and parsley from the garden. To the veggies, I added a good shake of salt and pepper and two tablespoons of olive oil. This macerated in a bowl on the counter for 45 minutes or so. Then, I sauteed slices of Brick Oven baguettes in a combo of olive oil and a dab of butter (in deference to Julia Child) flavored slightly with garlic.  Normally, I would not fry the bread for bruschetta, but that’s the way the movie did it, so why not! At dinner, we piled the tomatoes on the bread. If you can set the bruschetta up a few minutes ahead of time to let the juices seep into the bread, it tastes even better.

I don’t usually review books or movies here, but Julie and Julia is a hoot. It’s based on two books, Powell’s book of the same title, which is entertaining in the way some memoirs are — you are glad to be reading about this person and not living with her — and Julia Child’s My Life in France, which is a heartfelt tribute to France and especially to Child’s husband, Paul.

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IMG_6218This is what I plucked from the vegetable garden this morning: a few raspberries (which I ate shortly after the photo was taken), two nice-looking cucumbers, a pile of herbs (green and purple basil and parsley) and a 6 cup container full of green and yellow beans. The beans taste wonderful, but we’re already getting beaned out, so tonight we will eat corn on the cob from the truck and I’ll blanch and freeze the beans. Today is one of those beautiful days, when I feel very grateful for our garden, good weather, my family, and a whole bunch of other things.

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