Flash in the Pan
Summer Planting, Summer Preserving
You're not too late, or too early, to the food party
Spring is the season for planting, and fall is for harvesting and preserving. At least that is the conventional wisdom among those who partake in such pursuits. But these rules-of-thumb can oversimplify the matter and can get in the way of a DIY-food lifestyle led to the fullest.
It's not too late to plant yet. Nor is it too early to start putting away the harvest.
There is a little known, but important window in the weeks following the summer solstice during which time a fall garden is planted. This planting usually includes many of the same cool weather crops that were sown in early spring for an early harvest, like spinach, lettuce and radishes. As these original plantings go to seed in the long days, a new wave can now be planted that will sprint through the end of summer and cruise in the cool days of fall. Other short season plants can be sown as well, like broccoli or peas. Some fast growing herbs, like cilantro, can be sown every two weeks throughout the season.
Depending on your location and the crop in question, you might consider attempting to keep some plants alive through winter by covering them, building cold frames or both. Spinach, kale and mustard greens are good candidates for a wintergreens patch.
If you didn't leave much room for a fall garden, find space in the gaps left by the failures of spring or vacancies created as the season unfolds. Dig up the peas and lettuce patches, harvest the garlic, and replace them with fall plantings.
Sow into well-watered soil, and keep the seeds and sprouts very wet in the days that follow, as they grow into little plants. If you forget to water for a day too many in the summertime heat, they could fry.
As these original plantings go to seed in the long days, a new wave can now be planted that will sprint through the end of summer and cruise in the cool days of fall. Other short season plants can be sown as well, like broccoli or peas. Some fast growing herbs, like cilantro, can be sown every two weeks throughout the season.
Growing your food is a noble business. But depending on your motives and resources, preserving the harvest might be a more valuable use of your time. Farmers’ markets are my primary source of food to process, as it's fresh and local, and my garden isn't big enough. But you can play “Little House on the Prairie” with produce from the store too.
But the big misconception, even among insiders, is that we must wait until harvest season to start making our pickles, preserves and whatnot.
Waiting until fall can be a recipe for stress when the big harvest finally arrives, as the work of dealing with all of that bounty can be overwhelming.
Once you've canned salsa, applesauce, pickled peppers and grape juice in a single afternoon, just to create fridge space for the next load of harvest, you'll appreciate the concept of pacing yourself through the growing season and filling your pantry by baby steps. A little here and a little there whenever the opportunities present themselves will leave you in good shape by summer's end.
To this end, I've been doing small batches of pickles. It's partly a pantry-filling project, but I'm also doing research ahead of a big cucumber harvest I'm expecting from the garden. But the most important reason to pickle cucumbers now, rather than "harvest season," is so you don't have to mess with them when it's time to pickle peppers or make salsa.
There's a large population of Belarusians where I live, several of whom have stands at the farmers’ market. Their tables are essentially DIY kits for Eastern European-style pickles—just add vinegar. Their stands offer little more than cucumbers, dill and sometimes horseradish leaves (for crispier, tastier pickles). The cucumbers are grown in greenhouses as well as outdoors, and from the first day of the farmers’ market to the last, their tables look the same. With their help, my pantry is filling up.
One of these pickle-loving people even gave me a sample of her finished product. The jar included garlic flowers among the 3-inch cucumbers, dill and horseradish leaves. These were unsealed refrigerator pickles, little more than vegetables and spices placed in a mixture of salt, water and vinegar, and put in the fridge for a few days, without any heat processing.
The pickles had a very basic, boilerplate dill pickle flavor and vanished from the jar almost immediately. I replaced them with inch-thick rounds from a slicing cucumber and put the jar back in the fridge. About a week later, I ate the pickles again, and added cucumber yet again, along with some fresh garlic flowers. Such is the easily maintained, self-perpetuating cycle of fridge pickles. Replenish vinegar, salt, dill and garlic from time to time.
I've also put up a few jars of heat-sealed pickles, trying to mimic that simple, Belarusian dill pickle recipe.
I use grape leaves instead of horseradish leaves because that's what I have—either type of leaf will help keep the pickles crispier. I think cider vinegar tastes better than white, despite the fact that it darkens the brine, and thus the pickles.
Until I figure out exactly how I like my dills, here's a recipe for bread and butter pickles. It's from Stocking Up, an old-school source for canning recipes.