Tuesday, September 30, 2008

A Bounty of Peppers

For several years now, red bell peppers have been an important crop for my garden. There has been a vogue for purple, yellow, and even "chocolate" peppers, but to me, a ripe pepper can be any color as long as it is red. We eat them fresh, but I've learned to roast and peel them for freezing or pickling, so I've dedicated a noticeable fraction of the garden to them.

This has also entailed a search for the best variety. This year I tried three. From left to right: Crispy (Burpee), Maxibelle (Burpee), and Karma (Park). Note that "Crispy" and "Maxibelle" are both the yield on one day from one row of 5 plants; "Karma" is the yield from two rows. I keep on growing Karma because the fruits are big, blocky, and thick-walled. But they take a long time to grow and ripen. I've noticed in the past that I was picking red fruit from Crispy before any coloring on Karma at all. This year I tried for a third choice with Maxibelle. But contrary to the name, the fruit is no bigger than Crispy's, and the yield appears inferior. (Since these were photographed, the plants have now borne a new crop of red fruit ready to pick.) So the answer to the Desert Island question is apparently Crispy. Still, I'll probably continue to plant Karma. The fruit really is more impressive than this photograph shows.

Then the real punishment: an afternoon and early evening spent cutting, roasting (broiling) till the skin blisters, and peeling. The resulting slabs of pepper essence can be used in salads or cooking and I'll now be freezing them in small portions to use all winter. From the fruit shown above, I prepared 3 1/2 pounds of finished peppers.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


The late Clifford Simak wrote many science fiction novels in which the protagonist lived a quiet life in the rural backwater of some distant future world, often sitting on his porch, fishing, and of course tending his garden. One of the concepts I thought particularly intriguing was that one such garden included a "steak plant" right next to the potatoes and carrots - a plant that produced little steaks hanging from its branches instead of fruit. Obviously genetic engineering was well developed by that time. How nice not to be involved with caging and butchering animals, but simply to go out into the garden and pick a nice steak to go with your vegetables of an evening. (Simak used folksy phrases like "of an evening" a lot.)

Well, we are almost there. Eggplant satisfies a lot of that part of our appetites that yearns for solid meat-type food along with all the greens and starches. It is a staple of many vegetarian dishes and extends others that contain meat. I've been planting the variety "Neon", from Cook's Garden, for several years, after experimenting with other varieties. It has a firm nonbitter flesh and remains at a high quality in the garden for a long time (when it becomes seedy, it obligingly turns a lighter, duller color). While most recipes for eggplant call for salting and pressing to rid it of a bitter flavor, this is never necessary for Neon. I find that my husband, who usually expects meat as a part of dinner, will tolerate the occasional meatless dinner made with eggplant.

We used to visit an Italian restaurant in San Diego (Capriccio) where the Eggplant Parmigiana was so good that we skipped the similar Veal Parmigiana. Unlike most recipes for this dish, the poor eggplant was not breaded, fried, and baked with layers of sauce and cheese, but rather served up straight with the sauce on the side. The result was remarkably meatlike.

Eggplant Parmigiana à la Capriccio

Slice a large fresh peeled eggplant into disks about 1/2 inch thick. If eggplant is not overmature, it should not require salting and pressing and doing so will ruin the character of the dish. Dip the freshly cut slices into flour (they will be very thinly coated), then into a mixture of egg and milk (about 3/4 c milk, beat the egg into it). Then press the eggplant slice into a seasoned bread crumb mixture (try oregano, dash of garlic salt, and paprika). Sauté in olive oil until browned on both sides. Place on cooking sheet and arrange a slice of mozzarella on top. Bake the slices briefly until the mozzarella is puffy. Serve with any good Italian sauce on the side, such as a marinara, basil-tomato-onion-garlic, or a roasted red pepper sauce as shown here.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Summer squash is a rewarding and easy vegetable to grow. The tiny tender fruit come along reliably once the plant reaches a decent size. Apart from a long-ago problem with borers and the occasional fruit rot in really moist conditions (Aspergillus, I think), I've experienced few pest problems. Those first succulent fruit are so tasty, just steamed or lightly sautéed. This year I grew two varieties, Magda, a kousa-type squash from Park Seed, and Supersett, a yellow crook-neck from Renee's Garden. (I consider zucchini to be bitter and overrated.) I was so late getting started that I just direct-seeded into warm garden soil rather than starting plants early in peat pots. Even so, the plants were generous. We had both squashes, sometimes one at a time and sometimes as a mixture. I like to cook slices with just a little butter and some fresh dill, and steam them in my grandmother's old chicken fryer. Magda has a subtle fresh flavor and Supersett is sweeter, with a bonus for cooking them till they are slightly caramelized but not scorched.

After a while we get a little more jaded and I start making squash gratin. This has various versions. I cut and steam the squash briefly before placing in a baking dish, usually with onions sautéed in butter, and perhaps some red or green pepper. Then either I make a white sauce (best with a little grind of nutmeg) or just drizzle some cream straight over the fruit after salting and peppering. Add a generous sprinkling of gruyère or Swiss cheese, and bake till bubbling and a light brown on top. I used to add buttered bread crumbs but this makes a heavy dish. If made with a large quantity of squash and a white sauce enriched with cream, the dish freezes well.

Eventually the squash stay in the produce drawer longer and longer as the season progresses and the generosity of the vines begins to overwhelm the menu. Even with various innovative ways to slip them into mixed vegetable dishes and soups, the delight of the early summer has become the albatross of the refrigerator.

Finally I go to the garden and find the dreaded Submarine. These are a known terror. Gardeners offer them to their friends and leave them on porches. Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Mineral) admits to locking her door to keep from having them left in her kitchen. About this time of year (late August to September), newspaper food columns begin to feature recipes for zucchini bread and offer chirpy suggestions like "scoop out the seeds and stuff". But after years of guilty efforts to use this bounty, my advice is — Compost. The goodness of the earth will be enhanced next year and you will still have the courage to plant squash again in the spring.

By now the Squash Monster is in full cry, with a new Submarine, it seems, every time I go to the garden. At least this year I didn't grow Renee's "Trombetta di Albenga" squash - a horrifyingly prolific long-necked squash that is at least a foot long even in youth. I would advise growing this squash only if you have (a.) a family of 10 to feed; or (b.) a distant relative has come to stay, rent-free, for the duration. Squash soup, squash casserole, baked stuffed squash, squash bread and squash omelettes should take care of that problem.