Today’s post can be heard on the public radio show Crop to Cuisine, hosted by Dov Hirsch.
Crop experts are predicting an early fall this year, claiming they see signs of it in plant maturity, insect behavior, and tealeaves. I’m not sure what they’re noticing – it could be the squirrels busily storing acorns, ground beetles on the move, or annual plants setting seed – but in the garden, things are just getting started.
This is the time we’ve been waiting for – the point of all this gardening. As summer wanes and crops are ripening we find ourselves in the middle of harvest, wondering what possessed us to plant all of this stuff. Keeping up with it seems like a task for a modern superhero.
You go out to gather basil for pesto and end up bringing in enough tomatoes for sauce, a quick trip to check out the melons results in a panicked harvesting of cucumbers. The counters are covered in produce that needs attention – now.
The kitchen becomes a flurry of activity fast enough to frighten your family; they give you a wide berth so your chopping, sautéing, simmering and roasting doesn’t accidentally involve them. The freezer fills while shelves groan under the weight of canned beans, peaches, and fruit jams.
If you’re like me and work for a living, harvest isn’t so much relaxing as it is a frenzy, each spare moment spent preparing foods to last into winter.
The good news is that not everything needs cooking to preserve it. Winter squash sweet enough for savory fall soups improves from storing it a little while. When first picked, winter squash – butternuts, acorns, hubbards and spaghetti – is creamy and starchy, but if allowed to stand for a month or two, the starches convert into sugars, making the squash more delectable at thanksgiving than at harvest.
Store your squash in dry, cool conditions, and depending on the variety, it will keep one to six months.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac predicts September and October will be a bit warmer than normal. If true, this means the pride of summer – our tomatoes – will give us lingering delight into fall. But if not true, they won’t have enough time to ripen on the vine. Keep your eye on the forecast and when frost threatens to kill the crop, pluck your love apples from the plant and ripen them indoors, or store for later use.
Pink-blushed tomatoes ripen on the counter, but for long-term storage, green tomatoes can hold for months until you need them. Only mature green fruit stores well – those that are full-sized, glossy, light green to white with a whitish-looking ‘star’ on the blossom end.
Should your tomato begin to color at the blossom end, which is known as a ‘breaker’, it will continue to ripen quickly on your counter and taste close to vine ripened. Deep, dark green tomatoes are immature and should be used right away as fried green tomatoes, in relish, or stewed.
Prevent storage rot by harvesting tomatoes when plants are dry, avoiding fruit that is diseased or has insect damage. Sort them into groups that will ripen at the same speed – mature green, breakers, pinks and red. Clip stems short, wash gently and pat dry. Wrap the green tomatoes in newspaper and place one to two layers deep in a box. Keep in a cool, 55 to 60 degree room out of sunlight; and remember, refrigerators are too cold.
Keep blankets and other frost protection close to the garden as September passes – you’ll need to move them on and off the plants to protect them almost daily. When you cover your plants, make sure the blanket stretches all the way down to the ground; you don’t want a cold draft getting in to freeze your plants.