and Other Ways of Preserving Your Bountiful Garden
Homemade herb-drying rack made from a stick and some yarn. From left to right: thyme, French tarragon, chocolate mint, and rosemary.
This year’s garden was a great success. One giant sunflower produced fifteen or twenty blossom/seed heads and provided the early autumn garden with a showy display. The straw bale gardens gave the tomato plants a much-needed boost of sunlight along with the nitrogen fertilizer and carbon from the straw, and we had plenty of Early Girl and heirloom tomatoes to slice for sandwiches, chop for salsa, and wedge for salads.
Black-eyed Susans are still blossoming out there along with the deepening pink of Autumn Joy sedum. Even the new female Winterberry is bejeweled with deep red berries!
I found my recipe in a 1980’s Betty Crocker Cookbook, but Mother Earth News Magazine has a good starter article right here online plus a heads-up about a book outlining small-batch pickle production (say THAT ten times fast).
An excess of tomatoes from my parents’ excellent garden up n’oth became hot, spicy pasta sauce. The process for the sauce is simple. Boil water in a big pot. Dump in the tomatoes and wait 30-40 seconds. Lift tomatoes out with slotted spoon and dump into cold water in the sink. After a minute or two, slip skins off tomatoes and cut into fourths. Throw into large slow cooker pot with onions, garlic, chopped veggies like zucchini, hot peppers, green pepper. Add salt, dried herbs or fresh herbs to taste. Add cooked meat if desired. Let it simmer for about seven hours. You can also add tomato paste to thicken it if you like. The sauce can be frozen in freezer bags or containers.
Perhaps the most successful of my garden experiments this years was the herb box. Along with the sunflower mentioned above, I planted fennel (see Grand Fennel-ly ), rosemary, and basil. In the front of one perennial bed, a French tarragon comes back and grows bigger every summer, and down at the end of the driveway beneath the forsythia bushes my friend Sandi kindly divided for me, a hardly little thyme comes back year after year after year.
This year, I decided, I would preserve a bit of these herbs to see me through a winter season of cooking. The basil were huge. I grew weepy just thinking about pulling them and throwing them on the compost as I’d babied them through the first rough month of transplant shock, daily watering, and Japanese beetles. One night seemed to be threateningly cold, and so, fearing frost, I gently pulled up the basil and placed each one its own plastic grocery bag. These I crammed into the mudroom until I could figure out when and what to do with them.
Friends, let me tell you, basil fresh from the garden has a powerful odor! Neighbor Debbie stopped by and thought the mudroom smelled like old shoes. Hmmm. Hopefully the basil doesn’t taste like dear daughter’s gym sneakers. I rather thought the mudroom smelled wicked “herbal” and prayed no-one dropped over and came to a wrong conclusion about my gardening activities. All legal, I promise!
A week or so later, those basil plants were still sitting in my mudroom and beginning to look a little wilty. The predicted frost never materialized, and I gritted my teeth wishing I’d left my herbs in the dirt until I figured out what to do with it.
I knew I had to come up with something and fast, or else the poor plants would end up on the compost pile after all. A mid-week visit to my good friend, Donna D, prompted me to share some garden tomatoes and a large sprig of the basil. Donna D, in turn, gave me a cube of her homemade basil pesto and–bless her soul–a recipe to go with it. Voila! I had the answer to my herbal error.
The recipe calls for using a food processor and blending ingredients very slowly and deliberately. I don’t own a food processor. I do, however, own a blender. After trying with no success to puree basil leaves, garlic cloves and walnut in the blender with no liquid, I gave up and dumped in the olive oil and grated Parmesan and turned the blender on to puree for about three minutes. Presto Pesto! was born.
The trick to keeping the pesto for future use is simple: ice-cube trays. Empty your ice-cubes into a plastic container in the freezer so your family doesn’t throw a hissy-fit when they are looking to cool down their apple cider/workout water-bottle/iced coffee/red-wine-that-really- shouldn’t-be-chilled-but-whatever. Wash the ice-cube trays and dry them. Pour prepared Presto Pesto into the trays. Cover with plastic wrap and freeze. When frozen, pop out of trays and store in zippered freezer bags (or leave in the trays if you have extras for actual ice-production).
The pesto can be thawed and used later. I made four batches of Presto Pesto! with my starting-to-wilt-and-wither basil plants, and these batches filled two ice-cube trays. I think it must be fairly economical as those little jars in the grocery store are quite expensive (local big-box supermarket has a 4.5 oz jar for $3.29.) I used only a portion of a bag of walnuts and one wedge of Parmesan cheese. Pesto does take a bit of olive oil, but it is cheaper if you buy it in those big cans unless you are a stickler for extra-extra virgin fancy stuff.
Following is friend Donna D’s recipe just as she gave it to me. But to make it Presto Pesto! simply ignore the persnickety instructions about careful and slow blending at just the right moment and just dump the whole thing together in the blender and let’r go.
1 1/2 c. basil leaves
2 cloves garlic
1/4 c. pine nuts or walnuts
3/4 c. thinly grated Parmesan cheese
3/4 c. olive oil
Puree first three ingredients in food processor until it forms a thick paste. Add the Parmesan cheese very slowly. Then add olive oil and mix until the consistency of creamed butter. Put a film of oil over top. Cover and refrigerate or freeze in ice-cube trays.
That’s it, Dear Reader! Whether you are preserving the garden by pickling, drying, canning or freezing, it is so much fun to go shopping in your own pantry during the winter months…Outside the Box.
Drop me a line and tell us about YOUR preserving projects this year. It’s always fun to hear someone else talk for a change.