Aug. 30, 2015

Apples to Zucchini, Dwindling Days of Summer, and Wildfires


This has been one long, hot summer! Unlike some areas of the country, hot and dry is not typical for the Pacific Northwest. Apparently this year has been a record breaker. On the upside, people tell me their gardens are going "bonkers". Unfortunately for my garden, it limped through summer sipping from a tenuous well. Only now that we are having some rain is it beginning to look like a proper garden. However, I have had plenty of other produce to deal with as the fruit trees and berries gave up their bounty early this year. As Washingtonians rush to deal with a bountiful harvest, the pall of grey smoke fills the air. For days and days, my Skagit Valley home smelled more like the inside of a smoke house rather than the roses blooming in the yard. The largest wildfire in Washington State history is burning as I write.

Gardening at this latitude feels just a little manic. You have months to dream and plan next year's garden. The seed catalogs get loved over much like the Sears catalog did when I was a little kid. Typically, it is prudent to hold back the enthusiasm on those spring days, when it seems like a good idea to get out there and plant that garden. Waiting about a month after the first itch to plant is a good idea around this growing zone. There are the first exciting weeks of peering at your baby plants and feeling good that your garden is under way. Then BAM!!! ....produce! Don't get me wrong...I love replacing trucked in produce with beautiful gems that rode in to the house in your own little trug. Suddenly you are faced with concocting as many veg-centric dishes as possible. Home canners are caught between the desire to put up every last living piece of produce and wondering "who in the hell is going to eat all of this?". Clever gardeners find inventive ways of sharing their lovely produce like zucchini "drive-by" and "please take me home" boxes of cabbages, etc., like a box of kittens at the grocery store. So if you are one of these lucky people with a lot of produce to put to use, here are a couple ideas that I like to do.

Soup - Throw caution to the wind - Actually, throw it in the pot. When you have a ton of produce that needs using up, go ahead and make a hearty soup. Make a gigantic pot of soup!. Of course I eat a lot of the soup but this is a chance to get some soup in to the freezer for cozy winter meals. I like to leave the vegetables slightly al dente and then portion the cooled soup in to vacuum seal bags. Label the content with date and lay flat to freeze. Once they are frozen solid, you can store them standing up in a bin or stacked flat. I also like to make veggie broth / stock for making risottos, etc.

Relish - What to do with all that cabbage and zucchini???? Relish is the perfect answer. There is something magical that happens when you mix grated produce with onions, peppers, and pickling spices. Relish is almost as good when it's newly made as it does after curing for a couple of months. Then in the middle of winter, when you side dress your roast beef with a nice dollop of relish.... a little taste of summer....happiness.

Refrigerator Pickles - Very similar to the relish but chunkier. When I pull in all the little miscellaneous bits and bobs that come from the end of season garden, everything goes in to the pickle pot. It all goes in: radish, cuke, summer squash, beets, carrots, cauliflower, you name it. I put the trimmed veg in a gallon jar and cover with the hot pickling liquid of choice. Once it is cool the covered gallon jar lives in the fridge until all the pickled veg is gone. The juice is good to use in salad dressings.

Make ahead meals and desserts - Some people buy frozen pie at the grocery store. Why not shop in your own freezer. Make multiple fruit pies, bake one toeat now and freeze the the rest un-baked. Be sure to wrap well to keep air away from the crust and if you can find pastry boxes or someway to protect the fragile crust during stacking would be best. Put together a veggie main dish like ratatouille or a veggie lasagna - package and freeze uncooked. For best results, blanch your vegetables before assembly.

Experiment - Why not try something new every year? I am always going to do the stand-by favorites every year: tomato sauce, salsa, applesauce and jam. But every year I look forward to either thinking up some new jam flavor combination or searching out a new recipe for a chutney or condiment. Like I mentioned in a previous post, I made carrot catsup (ketchup)!

Walking the dog a couple of days ago, I became acutely aware of the fading summer. Apples and pears are ripe everywhere and leaves are beginning to fall from the trees. Personally, I am not sad to feel the waning days of summer. Fall is my favorite time of the year. I love the warm colors of the changing trees and ripening squashes in the field. There is something about the gathering time that is very comforting and homey to me. I may be born in the sign of the lion but I think there is a little squirrel in me too. Preparing the pantry and the woodshed for winter becomes a calling. Of course, as I prepare the garden for the winter, there is a little disbelief that it is already over and it will be MONTHS before I have a garden again. Of course the cooler, wetter weather is a sigh of relief for the firefighters who are attempting to contain the monster that has been marching it's way across the state.

I do realize that Washington is not unique in its plight of wildland fires. There are thousands of fires happening across the country right now. So many people are risking their lives and dedicating their time to fight these fires and offer support to the crews. Sadly, three dear lives were lost here in Washington and another man is in the hospital, still fighting for his life . Every year, thousands of paid and volunteer firefighters spend their summer fighting wildland and interface fires. Since this is a food blog and I have been a wildland firefighter, I thought I would share a little about how these people are fed. Imagine you are a caterer and you have to gear up two meals a day plus brown bag for maybe a few hundred people or so...on short notice! Fire camps can be set up in a variety of places, that may or may not have cooking facilities. Schools are great places because they are already equipped to cook for and feed a lot of people. One of the fire camps I was at, a number of years ago, was set up at a grade school. The "lunch ladies" came in from their vacations to make these meals (bless their hearts). Another option are outdoor kitchens that get set up and sometimes are staffed by honor prisoners and their guards. Once again, prison kitchen staff know how to put out a lot of food. There are large catering services that can contract to provide on-site food services and come self contained in semi-sized food trucks. Sometimes, grateful locals will break out spontaneous meals, treats, and refreshments, serving up any firefighter in their path. Not everyone gets hot meals though. Some crews may be far from the base camp and do end up living on MREs (military meals ready to eat). When I was young, my dad would be deployed for weeks at a time on forest fires. He would sometimes come home with remnants of his MREs hanging out in his back pack. I was fascinated by the baby hot sauce containers that came with many of the meals. My dad told me that firefighters taste buds could become so dulled by the constant exposure to smoke, that they would have to douse the meal with hot sauce just to taste something. I will say though, the MREs of the 70's were rather cardboard like on a good day anyway, LOL.

As these last golden days of summer melt in to the orange days of fall, please keep the firefighters, their support staff and the many, many people who have been affected by wildfire in your thoughts. People are stepping up in a variety of ways to help those who have been displaced and support the ongoing efforts. Closer to home, I see people helping their neighbors and communities by sharing their excess produce. Or neighbors who help an elderly neighbor by harvesting the produce from their orchards, that they can no longer physically manage. I hope each of you have a safe and productive fall while you mentally prepare for winter. Yes, it is coming (gulp!)