Friday, September 21, 2012

Happy Autumn Equinox!

Tomorrow, September 22, is the Autumn Equinox, and the weather has mercifully cooled down a bit. The accompanying photo depicts one of our favorite native plants for this season, smooth aster (Aster laevis). This is a cultivated variety named ‘Bluebird.’ Besides adding color, it attracts butterflies and bees.

For the backyard gardener, this time of year can be as busy as spring. Besides cleaning up spent plants and dealing with late summer’s abundance, you must also focus attention on the cool weather crops appropriate for the Tennessee Valley's “second spring.” From now until around Thanksgiving, you should be able to produce many of the same crops you’d grow in February, March and April.

Fast-maturing peas can be planted now, and you can transplant broccoli, cabbage and their relatives. If you did not start your own plants, you can easily find them at garden centers. Nurseries have responded to the surge in home food gardening by offering an increasingly good selection of transplants for fall planting. I have previously mentioned that late summer is also a good time for planting carrots, beets, leeks and turnips. There is still time to get them in the ground.

Greens Crops
We received over five inches of rain earlier this week, and our first planting of lettuce responded with rapid growth. We are starting more lettuce seeds in small pots tomorrow.

Deer Tongue – This is a loosehead heirloom from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. It did not do so well for uslast spring, so we are giving it a try as a fall crop.

Ashley – A frilly loosehead type with pink coloration on the leaves, it has performed well in the past as a fall and winter crop.

Lollo Rossa – A crinkly, deeply savoyed loosehead with dark red markings on the leaves, this one also has a delicious, succulent texture.

Spinach provides healthy greens all winter, so we will plant about 25 square feet of it. ‘Bloomsdale’ is the best variety we have tried, and is the one most widely grown in this area. You can pick individual leaves and keep harvesting one planting for months. Two other green crops to sow this week are arugula and corn salad. Both can be sown in succession every two weeks from now until the end of October. The Asian mustards, tatsoi and mizuna, offer additional options for fall planting, but we like to wait to plant them until the weather is really crisp, to minimize insect problems.

We will also sow chervil, which grows happily for us throughout the winter months, and here and there some cilantro seeds.

Preserving Summer Abundance
Besides all the garden chores, fall brings with it the need to preserve summer’s abundance. Many gardeners have piles of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers at this time of year. Did you know that you can freeze tomato-based foods like salsa and gazpacho? In recipes where the vegetables are chopped, texture is less of an issue, so freezing is an option. Also, the acid from tomatoes and citrus juices helps to preserve the summer-fresh flavors for a mid-winter treat.

A food processor will facilitate making either of these recipes, but you can also chop everything by hand. These recipes also lend themselves to the use of heirloom tomatoes, which may not give good results when canned. I developed the gazpacho recipe by experiment, and it subsequently occurred to me that salsa would work, too. I use 2-cup rigid plastic containers with wide mouth screw tops for freezing both these products. Either recipe can be easily multiplied. If you don’t own a kitchen scale, use the equivalent volume measures for the gazpacho base. As long as the ratios are maintained, the flavor will be great.

Frozen Salsa

1 cup chopped white onion
1 quart cored and chopped firm ripe tomatoes
1 cup chopped green or red bell peppers
¼ cup chopped seeded hot peppers, more or less, depending upon desired heat level
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ cup loosely packed chopped cilantro leaves and tender stems
juice of two lemons or three limes
 teaspoons salt

Place the onion in a heatproof strainer in the sink and pour 2-3 cups of boiling water over it. This step prevents the onion from becoming too strong during storage.

Combine the onion with the other ingredients and mix well. Chill until cold. Fill freezer containers to the mark, seal, label and freeze. To use, thaw overnight in the refrigerator and serve with chips.

Freezer Gazpacho Base

8 ounces ripe tomatoes, seeded and chopped
4 ounces cucumber, seeded and chopped
2 ounces bell pepper, seeded and chopped
¾ ounce red onion, minced
¼ ounce garlic, minced
1 ounce fresh mixed herbs, minced (basil, chervil, chives, parsley, tarragon)
A few grinds of freshly ground black pepper.
¼ teaspoon coarse sea salt
½ teaspoon sweet paprika
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Combine these ingredients in a large bowl and mix well. Chill until cold. Fill freezer containers to the mark, seal, label and freeze. To use, thaw overnight in the refrigerator. Combine the gazpacho base with enough tomato juice, chicken broth or a combination to achieve a consistency you like. Serve chilled, garnished with sour cream, croutons, and finely chopped fresh parsley.

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