Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Gardeners' Holidays 2014: Harvest Home

The autumnal equinox arrived a bit late in 2014 (as commemorated by today's Google Doodle). While it's normally on the 20th or 21st of September, this year it didn't officially hit until 10:29 last night, according to this article in the Christian Science Monitor. The article goes on to talk about the ways in which different cultures around the world have marked the fall equinox, but it doesn't mention the English festival of Harvest Home or Ingathering, which honored the last day of the grain harvest. Participants celebrated by "singing, shouting, and decorating the village with boughs," as well as making a harvest doll from the last sheaf of grain as a totem to bring good rains for next year's crop.

Our garden doesn't include any grain to harvest, but there are plenty of other crops that are just at their peak. Every day Brian comes in with at least a couple of tomatoes fresh from the vine; so far we've had mostly Early Girls and Glaciers, but the Rutgers, Amish Pasta, and Cosmonaut Volkov are now starting to be more productive, so we'll most likely be picking more of those over the next few weeks. Around this time last year, we were drowning in Sun Golds, prompting me to decide that this year I would plant no more than two of them; however, this plan actually ended up backfiring, since neither of the seedlings we planted survived, so this year we have no Sun Golds at all. I guess next year we'll have to buy a fresh packet of the Sun Gold seeds, start several of them, and then plant the one or two healthiest seedlings, and maybe then we'll manage to get some of these little orange delights without being completely inundated with them.

As always at this time of year, we have lots of basil as well. After last year's experience trying to process a huge volume of basil all at once, I had planned to reduce the amount of space devoted to this crop as well, but Brian convinced me to go ahead and seed the full four squares, saying that as far as he's concerned, you can never have too much of this stuff. Which is all well and good, except that it means we're once again heading into fall with a huge thicket of basil that will need to be preserved before the frost hits, and we haven't even used up all the stuff we stored last year yet. (We haven't so much as started on the salt-preserved basil yet, which is why you haven't yet seen a post here on how well the three different preserving methods worked out.) So I think this year we'll have to be proactive about harvesting and processing the basil in small batches, rather than waiting until the first frost and trying to do it all at once. And considering how much of the stuff we have both in the garden and still in storage, I imagine some of our friends and relations will be getting homemade pesto for Christmas this year.

We're also finally starting to get a few little peppers on our pepper plants. Aside from one very productive jalapeño plant in our first year as gardeners, we've consistently had very bad luck growing peppers; no matter how early we start our seeds or what medium we plant them in, the seedlings invariably come out tiny and scraggly, not big and healthy like the ones you get from the plant sales. This year, only one of the peppers we started from seed (a Cubanelle) survived at all, and we ended up planting three banana peppers from the Rutgers plant sale to compensate. (I had hoped to have better luck with the Klari Baby Cheese peppers I ordered from Fedco, but they sent me a generic pimiento instead—grrr.) Next year, we've pretty much decided not to bother starting any peppers from seed at all; we'll just get out to the plant sales as early as possible so as to have a decent choice of pepper plants.

On the bright side, we do have a couple of new crops this year that we didn't have at this time last year. Our little patch of leeks has already yielded half a dozen small ones, and we also have lima beans for the very first time. While our second picking of beans continued to yield a fair number of the odd little shriveled ones, it also gave us about five more ounces of plump, healthy white ones, some of them still tinged with green. Apparently, by the way, our method of letting the pods dry before picking them isn't the standard way to harvest them; last week, on a trip to the farmers' market, we saw that one of the vendors was selling lima beans still in their fresh, bright green pods. A quick search turned up this page indicating that lima beans should indeed be harvested when the pods are "plump and firm"; if they dry out, the plant will stop producing, and the beans will be "tough and mealy." So I guess we'll know better going forward with the rest of this year's crop, as well as in future years.

In the meantime, however, we have about 13 ounces of beans that we did allow to get dry before harvesting, and we can't really let them go to waste. So I guess the best way to celebrate Harvest Home this year is with a batch of butter beans and cornbread, a meal that also pays homage to the holiday's origins as a festival celebrating the grain harvest. I'm currently soaking the beans in brine, as recommended in this video from America's Test Kitchen, in the hope that this will mitigate the "tough and mealy" quality. Then we'll cook them according to a recipe we originally found on Cooks.com. Unfortunately, it's not there now, but the gist of it is that the beans are cooked with bacon drippings, onion, and garlic, in a little bit of water until tender; then you make a sauce by sautéing scallions in butter, thickening it with flour, and stirring in a cup of the cooking liquid from the beans. Then you mix everything together and season with salt, pepper, and paprika. Serve it up with a pan of fresh-baked cornbread, which is just right for sopping up the sauce.

We normally prepare this recipe in the Crock Pot, since the beans just cook all day on low and have just enough liquid left that you can dump them right in with the sauce as soon as you've finished cooking the scallions. But today, the beans have to soak during the day rather than overnight, so I guess we'll just cook it up on the stove. And maybe the next time we make this recipe, we'll be using proper fresh-picked lima beans, and we won't have to soak them at all.

Incidentally, this meal is best prepared while singing the song "Cornbread and Butter Beans." Which I guess is appropriate, since singing is part of the traditional Harvest Home festivities as well.
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