Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Best of 2011 and Sqash Pasta (or fancy Mac & Cheese)

The 2012 gardening season is upon us. Half a week at 80 degrees (in March) was only the exclamation point on the most mild and dry winter I can remember in New England and I've been here since 1983. Without feet of snow, there promises no mud season. With warm temperatures so early, the promise of early peas, lettuce, spinach acts as the great motivator to get outside and get digging. The sunroom is full of starts: tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, broccoli and all its brassica relatives, storage onions, leeks and shallots. You can hear my little squeals all over the house as I find the first true leaves on the tomatoes and peppers. These are exciting times.

The report from the greenhouse is no less squeal inspiring (yes, I know I should have had a hyphen there, but after the boy took an enormous leap from table to couch where the computer was precariously resting and itself took a leap onto the floor, we're feeling lucky that it is only a cracked screen and a missing hyphen.) Alas, I digress. Where was I? The greenhouse. Awe inspiring. Yes. We've been harvesting spinach for a month. We ate winter carrots for in January and February that were out of this world. Lettuce is just around the corner. And we've had fresh chard all winter after I, last minute before the frost, transferred five or six plants into this warmer climate. Ahhhh!

All this looking ahead and making plans reminded me to reflect on what was successful last year and I wanted to share a few of these with you as you look to your gardens or plan your trips to farmers markets in thoughts of (sorry for bursting your bubble) next winter which may not be so forgiving. And what better way to share? A top ten list. . .

Heidi's 2011 Top Ten Super Easy Ways to Preserve the Harvest for Winter, Eat More Sustainably, More Deliciously and More Cheaply!!

10. Jam. Strawberries, Raspberries, Blueberries, Peaches, Gooseberries, sugar and some pectin and you have a winter's worth of PB&Js, thumbprint cookies, fruit bars, you name it. I used half a jar of raspberry jelly and frozen peaches (see #5) to make killer filling for turnovers a few weeks ago. Commercial jam has more sugar than fruit and is super expensive. You can make your own with much less sugar, especially if you use Universal Pectin instead of Surejell.

9. Zucchini Muffins. That's double chocolate zucchini muffins. The recipe is on this very blog back in 2009. But come on, if you garden and you grow zucchini, there is a point when you are inundated. If you don't grow your own, you can get them from farmers who are themselves inundated for next to nothing from mid July on to the end of the summer. I make double batches of muffins every two or three weeks until the zucchinis are gone (sometimes that's when the snow if falling). There's nothing like a muffin and a cup of tea on a snowy day. I can offer the kids these nutritious goodies all winter long. I also make blueberry crumb cake, apple cake and pumpkin muffins for the freezer stacked next to the zucchini muffins. A little variety.

8. Greens. For us that means chard and spinach, but for you that might mean kale, collards. It all works the same. I chop it and saute it in olive oil and then put it in baggies in the freezer. It comes out tasting just like it did when it went in! We use it in all kinds of soups (white bean and chard is a favorite!!), in enchiladas, quiche or frittata. Well worth the effort.

7. Pickles. Not just cucumbers either. Mixed veggie pickles are our favorite, with cauliflower, carrots, beans, peppers, onions and yes, cukes too. I put it in a sweet tumeric brine and it is incredible. The veggies are crunchy and tangy and sweet. Did I already say there're incredible? We also pickle beets and corn (corn relish with peppers and onions). We eat all of these all winter on salads, as a snack, as a side dish. And pickling is not as hard as you think. Just google some recipes and go to town.

6. Canning Blueberry Pie Filling. What is better than a blueberry pie in July? A "fresh" blueberry pie in February!!! We pick loads of blueberries at the height of the season. Most of them get frozen or eaten fresh. But I make sure to make one pick a pie pick. I make a huge batch of pie filling (where you sweeten it, add lemon zest and thicken it) and after making a fresh pie, I can 4 quarts and 4 pints. That's 4 pies worth for the winter. Just make a crust, fill it with a jar or two of filling and you're all set. I also just used one of the pints for turnovers and they were out of this world. You can do the same thing with peach pie filling or apple pie filling too.

5. Freezing peaches, strawberries. In years past I bought a ton of frozen fruit for the winter. But why? It never tastes that great. Not like local fruit you've picked at the height of the season and frozen. Not like the peaches that drip juices all over your arms and onto the floor. It is worth the mopping for these tasty treats all winter. And SOOOOOOO much cheaper than buying organic fruit from far away, fresh or frozen. And so easy. Strawberries, you just cut off the "greenies" as we call them and pop them in a bag. Peaches (or nectarines) you peal, slice. I put them in a huge bowl and fill the bags once the bowl is full of fruit. It cuts down on the mess of filling the bags when your hands are so juicy and you don't get as much juice in with the fruit. The juice in the bottom of the bowl, we drink or use in a smoothie afterwards. And speaking of smoothies, I make them all winter long with these delicious treats, a little apple juice and my new find, Chia Seeds! If you want to read about Chia Seeds, treat yourself to Christopher McDougall's Born to Run, a fascinating and fun read. I get the peaches by the bushel at the orchard. I tell them I want jam peaches and they sell them for next to nothing. They are usually super ripe (which is why they are in the jam box), but besides that, they are perfect. I cull through the bushels and put the perfect and not as ripe ones in the fridge for eating, then process the rest.

4. Freezing blueberries. You may be asking why I made this a separate category from #5. It is because frozen blueberries are that important. If you can't get to the strawberries and the peaches, okay. But by all means, get to the blueberries. You won't regret it. Not only are they great in smoothies and on yogurt, but you can just eat them. Completely frozen, mostly frozen, a little frozen or thawed. We have fruity dessert after dinner and my kids eat bowls of these things. I do too. When we have game night, I put out a big bowl of blueberries and a big bowl of popcorn. Around here there are lots of high bush farms where the berries are easy to pick and the season is long. We are nowhere near as fanatical as a lot of people I know around here, but we probably pick about 60 pounds for the freezer, the jar and for fresh eating (and that's in addition to the 20 high bush plants we have in our own garden.)

3. Eggplant. I just cannot bring myself to buy eggplant from far away. That used to be a problem because in this house of Italian folk, eggplant parmesan is a bigtime favorite. For the last five years or more, though, I've been freezing either the parmesan completely made or the eggplant that has been breaded and, here's the most awesome part, BAKED! A friend turned me on to baking the eggplant instead of frying it and it is way way way better. You use a fraction of the oil, it is not greasy and when you freeze it, the pieces do not stick together, so that when they are thawed, all the breading gets all over the place. These pieces stay in tact through the whole process. My new favorite is to make rollatini with the frozen eggplant. Same as parmesan only you roll a bit of filling in each piece and then put sauce on top. One layer in the pan. Quicker to make, quicker to bake. Do this. You will not be sorry. And eggplant is plentiful and delicious at farmers markets in August and September.

2. Freezing corn. If you do nothing else, I'd recommend freezing corn. It can't be easier. You just shuck the corn, cut it off the cob into a big bowl and then put however much you'd like in bags and freeze. No blanching, nothing. I keep talking about versatility, but corn is even more versatile than most anything else. We eat it half thawed and raw as a snack. I put it in soups, in Mexican dishes, in chili. I make a mean corn chowder with it. It goes in pot pies and on the plate as a veggie. I freeze five dozen ears and we still have about six gallon bags as of this writing on the eve of April. We'll get nearly to corn season with this amount. If you are one of those doubting Thomas types (as I certainly have been known to be), try a dozen or two dozen ears and I'll bet you increase your order the following year. Well, when I said it can't be easier I sort of forgot the taste testing of many ears until we eat the absolute sweetest, most amazing corn of the season. Then I run back to whichever farm or farmer I got that corn from and bargain for a deal on a lot of corn. They are always happy to give a break and I've got the best corn going. You CANNOT buy this stuff in a bag from a store!!!!!

1. Canning Tomatoes. This was the first and most important thing I learned to can 25 years ago (I'm leaning on my cane as I write). Frank's grandmother taught me and his mother tweaked my process by sharing her own. Today I don't do it quite like either of them, but I do the quantity they did, about 150 quarts per year. Why so much? For starters I am a total tomato snob. Admitted. I will not buy a can of tomatoes (let alone an already made sauce!!!) I haven't in more than 20 years and I'm not starting now. But also because we do love Italian food. I almost always have a sauce in the fridge and we eat pizza one night a week, not to mention all the soups and stews and other yummies that need tomatoes. Cans of stewed tomatoes, it has come to light, are lined with scary chemicals. Even organic tomatoes in cans have traces of chemicals you do not want to eat. And once you've canned your own from local, fresh tomatoes, you'll know that the taste of your own compared to that of the can is like comparing apples to rocks. There is no comparison. Many farmers give great deals on canning tomatoes bought by the bushel. The year we had blight and lost our tomato crop, we went to a farm stand in Milford, NH. They had a call list. When they had bushels of canning tomatoes, they'd call. You had 24 hours to call back and reserve and another 3 or 4 days to get up there and pick them up. Their canning tomatoes had hardly a blemish. Well worth the drive. Again, I've already blogged about canning tomatoes, so you can refer to my previous entry for a step by step. It is not hard and well worth the effort.

So there ya go. A top ten of preserving. I mentioned nothing about all the veggies we store without preserving: garlic, onions, potatoes and squash. Even if you don't grow any of these, with the exception of garlic, which is super expensive at farmers markets for some unknown reason, you can stock up on the rest at farm stands in September and they can last the better part of the winter just on the shelf. My recipe today (and I'm a little surprised I didn't write about this early on) is a favorite in my family. My kids call it fancy Mac & Cheese. Hope you love it as much as we do.

Pasta with Squash and Marscapone Sauce

One Large Butternut or Acorn or Delicata Squash (or 2 small to medium)
3 or 4 large garlic cloves
1 Large shallot
Olive Oil for sauteeing
Salt, pepper, nutmeg
1 to 2 cups veggie broth
One tub marscapone
1/4 cup romano cheese, finely grated (more for sprinkling at the table)
1 pound orreciette pasta

Put your pasta water on to boil when you start the process.
Peel and seed the squash and cut it into 1/2 inch cubes. Mince garlic cloves and shallot.
Heat oil in a skillet, then add squash, garlic and shallot, salt, pepper and a pinch of nutmeg. Saute for 2 to 3 minutes, then add just enough broth to cover the bottom of the pan. Cover and continue cooking on medium. Stir every few minutes, adding more broth as needed to keep things going. (You can add the pasta at any time.) After 10 minutes or so, test if the squash is soft with a potato masher. If it is, mash the squash. You aren't trying to get a fine puree, a little texture is fine. Then stir in the marscapone and the romano. Test the seasonings. Add salt or pepper if needed. Cook for another 2 or 3 minutes, then turn off the heat.
Once the pasta is ready, drain and combine with the sauce. Sprinkle extra romano on top to taste. Voila!!