Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Gardeners' Holidays 2015: Harvest Home

As you can see from today's Google Doodle, this is the official first day of fall, marking the end of a very long, hot, dry summer. Sadly, all this heat hasn't agreed very well with our garden. In previous years, we've had lots of tomatoes by the time fall rolled around, but this year, we have only a scant few handfuls. These are varieties that have produced well in the past, so I'm guessing the weather is to blame. We've watered the garden diligently all summer, but perhaps we just didn't give it enough extra water to make up for the lack of rainfall.

We do have plenty of basil, and the pepper plants we bought at the Rutgers plant sales this spring are producing better than any of the ones we've tried starting from seed (though the peppers are still green, for the most part). But there's only one crop in the garden that's truly producing an impressive yield...and it's one we didn't actually intend to plant.

A bit of background here: about five years ago, a volunteer butternut squash vine popped up next to our compost bin. It grew vigorously, sprawling out until it more or less took over the whole side yard, so you had to sort of tiptoe around it to move from front yard to back, which was a major hassle...but it also produced vigorously, giving us about a dozen good-sized, flavorful squash. However, the volunteer plants we've had in the side yard since then have been far less productive and every bit as cumbersome, so I finally declared a moratorium: no more volunteer plants. They just weren't worth the trouble.

However, when a volunteer popped up this spring next to the bin that looked just like another butternut squash plant, Brian just couldn't bring himself to pull it out. Memories of that big butternut squash vine persuaded him that this interloper could earn its keep, and I reluctantly gave in.

Unfortunately, the vine in question turned out not to be a butternut squash at all. Instead, the squash on it were Jack-be-Littles, those little gourds that look like miniature pumpkins but apparently are more closely related to acorn squash. I habitually buy a few of these each fall as decorations, leaving them up from the start of October through Thanksgiving Day. By that time, they're not looking a bit squirrel-gnawed and not really fit to eat, so they just go into the compost bin. And apparently, some of the seeds from last year's gourds survived and turned into this whopping vine, laden with tiny pumpkinettes.

Nor is this the only volunteer Jack-be-Little plant in our yard. We have one in the garden as well, which we also mistook for a butternut squash and decided not to uproot. By the time we'd realized our mistake, it had already made itself at home, nestling in alongside the adjacent pepper plant so that it was almost impossible to remove without damaging its neighbor.

So we now have absolutely loads of these little gourdlings, and we have to figure out what to do with them. I've done a bit of research and found that, although they're used mostly for decoration, they are actually quite edible. Martha Stewart has a recipe on her site for Candied Jack-be-Little Pumpkins, which looks tasty, but also extremely elaborate. (Any recipe that contains "Make the pots de creme" as a separate step is just too complicated for me.) But this recipe from Pumpkin Nook is a lot simpler: just scoop them out, bake them, and stuff them with the filling of your choice. Our little Easy Vegetarian Dishes cookbook has a recipe for Peppers Stuffed with Cinnamon Bulgur, and I think that savory-sweet mixture would work pretty well stuffed into a Jack-be-Little as well.

So, given that we have so many of these little suckers, I'm sure we'll be trying that recipe at one point, and possibly a bunch of variants as well. But in the meantime, I'm celebrating Harvest Home by using the Jack-be-Littles in my usual way: as fall decorations. I harvested the four biggest, plumpest gourds I could reach, putting one on each step of the front stoop (instead of being limited to the top three steps as I usually am, since the gourds are three for $2 at the farmers' market, and I don't want to buy six of them). It's a little earlier than I usually put them out, but I think it makes an appropriate welcome for autumn, whether the weather is cooperating or not.
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