Sunday, September 30, 2012

The End of the Zucchini

There's an old joke you sometimes hear from small-town gardeners about zucchini. They'll tell you about how quiet and safe their town is, and that they never even bother to lock their car doors... with one exception. During the peak of zucchini season, if you don't lock your doors, someone will sneak into your car and leave a bagful of giant zukes, just because they have so much they need to get rid of.

Our plants have mostly lived up to this stereotype, keeping us in more zucchini than we usually know what to do with. We've given a few extras to pretty much anyone we could think of that might like one, but without being brazen enough to leave them in unlocked cars, we've been fairly inundated ourselves. Despite the unceasing attacks from all manner of bugs, our zucchini plants kept trucking along and churning them out one after another. But whether it was due to those pests, or just the fact that it's nearly the end of the season, it was clear by this weekend that they were done.

It's almost hard to see the zucchini there, since they've gotten so wilted and overrun by weeds and grass, but you can spot a few leaves here and there. Since they clearly weren't going to be producing any more zucchini, we went ahead and pulled the plants out to compost them. By next year they should be providing nutrients to the next generation of zucchini and other plants.

In the meantime, though, we still had a ton of zucchini! It's a little tricky to preserve zucchini, so we've done our best to make the most of the zucchini season. So for fun, here's a quick review of some of our favorite ways to have the summer's most plentiful vegetable.

Before they become baseball bat-sized, one of the best ways to eat zucchini is simply sauteed on the stovetop or cooked on the grill. With a little bit of olive oil, salt/pepper/any other spices, and cooked until they're soft and just translucent, you've got a quick and easy veggie side dish. Or you can throw the sauteed zucchini into any other dish you might be cooking. We've put sauteed zucchini into pasta sauces, casseroles, stir fries and veggie enchilada filling.

When you don't want to to eat zucchini with every meal, it works well to disguise it by putting it into dessert! We've mentioned our zucchini bread in the past, which is a favorite in our household. We've also made very tasty chocolate zucchini cake, and have given some thought to trying zucchini brownies in the future. Baking with zucchini never uses up quite as much as you might hope it will, but it gives you a good excuse to eat sweets, since you're really having vegetables, right?

This was an interesting experiment, and it ended up being quite a success. Everyone's heard of baked potato boats, so why not zucchini boats? We made ours Italian-themed, stuffing them with a mixture of local Graziano's sausage and marinara sauce, with some shredded mozzarella on top. This was a good way to use up some slightly bigger zukes from the garden, since we started by scraping out all the seeds and guts. Then we roasted the boats in the oven until they felt soft with a fork. Alternatively, you could probably soften them in boiling water or a steamer, if you have one. This was pretty tasty - a bit like an eggplant parmigiana, but without the breading.

And our most recent creation - cheddar zucchini biscuits! This came from a recipe online, albeit with a few substitutions. They called for Bisquik, which was really easy to make on our own. We used this formula, though of course we substituted our home-rendered lard for the processed shortening. By the time we'd finished substituting and baking, we had delicious moist savory biscuits. We served these with a hearty split-pea soup for a delicious fall dinner. The zucchini gave them a really light texture, especially compared with the density you frequently find in biscuits. These were delicious and we definitely plan to make them again.

There have probably been a few other things we've done with zucchini so far this year, but those are some of the highlights. That said, we still have a ton of zucchini to use up! The plants may not be producing anymore, but when they were we sure weren't able to keep up. We used a first-in first-out system so all our remaining zukes are still pretty fresh. It wouldn't be a surprise if over the next few weeks we end up making each of these recipes another time over. But we like to try new things so there will probably also be some unique dishes that we haven't even come up with yet.

Got any ideas for us? What's your favorite way to enjoy zucchini?

Thursday, September 20, 2012

A Sauce of Our Own

One of the many perks of having a plot of fresh produce just outside your backdoor is how easy it is to cook simple, delicious meals. We both enjoy cooking, in pretty much all its forms. There are nights that we want to make something from a fancy recipe, and spend hours in the kitchen rolling roulades, whipping up demi glaces, and scads of other french-sounding culinary tasks. If we're in the right mood, that can make for a whole evening's entertainment. But other nights we just need a simple way to use some of our fresh garden produce.

This has particularly been the case recently, as our planned canning tomatoes have come in bit by bit rather than in one giant harvest. It seems we never have enough at one time to can up, yet if we try to wait for more to ripen, the first few will start to go bad.  So why not make up a batch of garden-fresh tomato sauce, not to save, but to eat right away? A tasty sauce, inspired by this find on the internet - roasted tomato sauce from the "Sweet Pea Chef" blog.

We started with two pounds of our sauce tomatoes, romas and a variety called agro. Both of these tend to be meatier than a regular slicing tomato, so you don't end up with a bunch of watery goosh when you cook them. We opted to use some of our older ones as well, just cutting off any parts that looked or felt a bit past their prime. These we cut in half, and placed into sprayed baking dishes, along with a roughly chopped onion, several cloves of smashed garlic, and a couple cut-up carrots (they were small ones). As an added bonus, every single one of those ingredients was grown by us in our own backyard!

We drizzled the pans with a hearty amount of olive oil, then salted, peppered, and threw them into a 350 degree oven for about an hour and fifteen minutes. Hey, we said it was simple; we never said anything about quick! After an hour, the house began to fill with the aromas of roasting tomatoes, and by time we pulled them out, some of the veggies were just starting to blacken a bit and caramelize, like this.

Now you have to resist eating the lovely roasted tomatoes on their own - remember, we want a sauce here. And this is another time where an odd little kitchen tool really comes in handy. Sure, you could blend up the vegetables and probably get a good, smooth sauce. But if you use a food mill, it will separate the slightly tough skins from the now-softened meat of the tomatoes. No tomato skins getting stuck in your teeth, they all get caught in the top of the food mill! Either way, the whole pan's worth - tomatoes, onions, garlic, and carrots - all get pureed through the food mill.

Those skins at the top sure don't look too appetizing, so they go to the compost bin, while we go on to making this into a meal. The sauce is yummy enough on its own that you could use it with noodles if you wanted a basic spaghetti marinara. We wanted to fill it out more into a full meal, so we added a couple cut-up links of chicken sausage, plus some chopped zucchini that we just sauteed in olive oil. Put all that together on top of some spaghetti noodles, grate some parmesan cheese and sprinkle on some fresh basil, and that's a hearty dinner.

Spaghetti with red sauce is never going to earn any Michelin stars or make it into a fancy French cookbook. But it's delicious comfort food, and sometimes it's just what you feel like. We've long felt that food doesn't need to be fancy as long as it's made from quality ingredients. This is a perfect example. We know that the tomatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, zucchini and herbs are grown in a manner we agree with, because we grew them. And short of making our own sausage (eww) or making our own pasta (time consuming), this is about as close to an entirely homegrown meal as you can get. We may have taken some inspiration from a recipe we found online, but this really was a meal we grew ourselves. Not just from farm to fork, we took this from seed to sauce!

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Our Long Overdue August Harvest Update

Wow, this is embarrassing! September is almost half over, and we still haven't updated our harvest totals for the month of August. We can only milk the excuse that we're exhausted from grape picking for so long, and a week and half later is probably long enough. But not to fear, we have still been keeping track, just on our kitchen whiteboard rather than the blog.

In case you can't read Greg's fine penmanship chicken scratch, here are the numbers from August:

0.7 ounces of Anaheim peppers
1.6 ounces of red peppers
1.7 ounces of strawberries
2.2 ounces of "Nebraska Wedding" slicing tomatoes
5.0 ounces of Poblano peppers
1 pound, 3.4 ounces of carrots
2 pounds, 6.3 ounces of cherry tomatoes
6 pounds, 7.1 ounces of "Early and Often" slicing tomatoes
7 pounds, 3.3 ounces of Roma tomatoes
25 pounds, 4.9 ounces of zucchini

and 20 eggs!

This is kind of a good rebound on several fronts, especially the tomatoes. Last month we were complaining about the various maladies they had, and while those have continued to be an annoyance, we've been able to harvest lots of nice tomatoes. We still throw some into the compost bin for blossom end rot or splitting or bug attacks, but we've also been able to make our own salsa, spaghetti sauce, BLTs and salads without having to buy any tomatoes. The only bummer at this point is that we haven't quite had enough (especially all at one time) to can any tomato products - salsas and sauces -  for this winter. But that just means we've been busy enjoying the fruits of our labor while they're in season.

In other news, we've acquired a handy new gardening tool! Or actually, it's more of a blogging tool. You may have noticed that while we love to add photos to our posts, the quality of the shots usually isn't the greatest. And as all amateur photographers know, the best way to get better pictures is to buy an expensive camera! Just kidding. But yeah, we did go buy a new, more expensive camera.

This one, a Panasonic Lumix FZ47. Now, real photo experts will immediately notice this isn't a true SLR, but it is still a huge step up from the pocket point-and-shoot we had before. It's called a bridge camera, which is a good "inbetweener" for novices like us. Greg took a photo class way back in high school, and wanted to try out a camera that offered full manual control, which these do. Now, obviously it's going to take a lot of education and experimentation to figure out how to use those settings to get good photos, but we'll see if we can't make this blog a bit prettier by doing so.

As a start, here's a picture from the first day of messing around with the new toy, a portrait of official farm cat lay-around-the-house-and-do-nothing cat Velma. She contributes absolutely nothing to the urban farm, but hey, she looks good doing it.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Wrath of Grapes

It's Labor Day weekend in America! A holiday that is usually filled with people taking part in their favorite summer traditions before fall really sets in. There are backyard barbecues, landscaping projects, and final dips in the swimming pool happening all around. But thanks to an abnormally warm summer, this pair of urban farmers spent the weekend taking part in a quintessential autumn experience. And that experience involved quite a bit more "labor" than either one of us could have imagined.

Stacia's mother has quite the farming streak of her own, and her latest endeavor is tending a one acre vineyard in the picturesque hills of northeast Iowa, not far from the town where Stacia grew up. She has been spending her summer caring for the vines and it was time for the harvest.

The vines were heavy with clusters of brilliant, purple fruit. After weeks of sampling the flavor and testing the sugar content of the grapes, she gathered up her family, friends, and neighbors to spend part of their weekend among the vines. Naturally, we couldn't let her down, so we grabbed our pruning shears and work gloves, and hit the road.

Neither one of us had much experience with grapes before, but the instructions seemed pretty simple.  Grab a ripe cluster of grapes, snip it off of the vine, place it in a bucket, and repeat. We settled in to a spot with lots of ripe fruit and started picking.

It sure didn't take long to realize that this was going to be hard work! The vines are tall, so we spent a lot of time with our necks and arms stretched upward. The sugary fruit was swarming with bees who loved their sweet flavor as much as we did. Each row seemed to stretch on and on, and when a row was finished, there was always another one to begin. Even on an overcast day, we quickly worked up a sweat.

Harvesting grapes is a task that hasn't changed much over the years. The grapes will burst if they are handled too roughly, so mechanical picking equipment is no substitute for a pair of hard working hands. Our hands were busy over the course of the weekend, and by time we were all done, our crew had taken 5,000 pounds of grapes from the vines.  A figure like that really puts our backyard harvests into perspective!

Spending time working in the vineyard got us hot, tired, sweaty and achy, but it also gave us a new appreciation for all the hard work that goes into crafting a bottle of wine. We'd worked ourselves to the absolute brink of exhaustion working a single acre, and we didn't even harvest everything we could have. If we'd had the energy to stick around, we could have picked lots more. But it was really all we could do to haul ourselves back to town for some rest as the grapes were hauled down the road to be turned into wine.

As we sit back at home to compose this post, we're enjoying a lovely glass of last season's red wine that is easy to sip, but took quite the effort to make. If we're fortunate enough to get some wine made from this year's crop, it will probably taste even better knowing that we contributed our part into that effort.