Garden Fresh Goodies

What would summer be without all of the garden "goodies" and treats - tomatoes, green and red peppers, fresh lettuce, cucumbers and an array of herbs? Yummy! Are you a gardener with a green thumb who wants to make these goodies even last longer? I am!

I can remember being a little girl watching my grandfather tend to his garden. He had a deep love for growing his own vegetables and fruits. His planting did not start by buying already developed plants at the local nursery. No, it started way back in the Fall when he would dry the seeds from his fresh grown tomatoes and peppers (hot, medium, and mild), and cucumbers. He would plant them in small containers when they were dried to perfection. He'd care for them indoors all fall and winter, nurturing his seedlings along.

Grandpa would plant these seedlings in very rich soil. Everything was in balance: the soil, the water, and the fertilizer. With all of the care given these plants grew to the highest of heights and the bushiest of bushes. I think even the animals had a respect for the garden. Of course, they would nibble on the greens but never ruined a plant. Or, maybe that was the view I had as a small child. I was in awe of my grandpa. He would take me out to the garden and "teach" me all about the process. I will admit, he and I shared many a snack out in that garden unbeknownst to my grandmother. I'm sure she would have had some words with grandpa about letting me eat straight from the vine!

I can remember popping a cherry tomato, straight from the garden, into my mouth and feeling the juices explode? From there, I was hooked! I'm sure in today's world and the pesticides used in farming; this may not be the best idea, unless you are in the safety of your own garden. A good way to wash vegetables is to rinse them under warm tap water and run your hands over them to get off any loose soil. This washing technique is great for tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers but more care should be taken with the intricate vegetables like leaf lettuce, root veggies and herbs.,br>
I may not be a little girl walking through my grandpa's garden any more but I do have some great memories and have also started my own "garden of goodies" and recipes for prolonging their goodness as long as possible.

I moved into my own home about four years ago and found the soil behind the garage just waiting for plants to be planted. There was already celery, dill and mint growing wildly. I took control of my garden and, since it was MY first garden, planted everything that inspired me: corn, green beans, tomatoes in various styles, peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, onions, garlic and strawberries. Let me tell you, I was overwhelmed! I had more vegetables than I knew what to do with! So, guess what I did? I learned to preserve some fruits of my labor to use later in the year. I have three creations that I would like to share with you. The first two recipes use tomatoes as the base ingredient - obviously I had more tomatoes than I expected - cherry, grape, Roma, Early Girl, you name it!

The first recipe gives gazpacho a new twist. It's a hot or cold tomato dish and this is how it goes:
,br> 1. I started out with just a tablespoon of olive oil in the bottom of a large pot.
2. To this oil, I added some diced onion and garlic (It's not often I have "leftover" garlic from the garden but this recipe can make good use for any stray onions, garlic or green onions).
3. Cook these until translucent. Add fresh diced green pepper and simmer.
4. Add cubed tomatoes, zucchini and cucumbers and cook until heated. Don't cook too long, you still want the "crunch" of your garden goodies!
You can eat this mixture as it is. I find it especially good over freshly prepared pasta. But, you can also cool this "tomato soup" and eat it cold, either alone or over cold pasta. My friend likes to "soup" up this mixture with some warm French bread. With all the juices in this recipe, it makes for a nice sauce. Get Creative! It's not often you have so many fruits and vegetables at your fingertips. Tomatoes and other garden "goodies" have a limited lifetime.

Another way to keep garden leftovers at your fingertips is to make a basic freezer tomato sauce. It starts off quite similar to the tomato dish above.
1. Combine one or two tablespoons of olive oil, add some chopped onion, a slivered clove or two of garlic and cook until translucent.
2. Add cubed green pepper, zucchini and cook until tender.
3. Add peeled and diced tomatoes. To lose less flesh and make peeling easier, blanch the tomatoes. To blanch, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Carefully, place tomatoes in the boiling water and cook for two minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove tomatoes and place on a napkin or paper towel. Let cool. Now, you can handle the tomato and easily skin and dice them.
4. Simmer this sauce with herbs of your choice. I add a tablespoon of sugar to balance out the acidity, then add a little parsley, basil and oregano for flavor. Unfortunately, I have not yet expanded my herb garden so that I can use these herbs fresh-picked.
5. Let this sauce cool for about thirty minutes.
6. Then with a ladle, fill freezer jars until 3/4 full. Be sure to write the contents and date preserved.
This sauce can be used for just about anything. I use them for wintertime favorites like chili and spaghetti and also baked chicken with fresh tomato sauce and topped with Parmesan cheese. One of my favorite fall dishes is to use this tomato sauce over spaghetti squash. Spaghetti squash is a very nice fall squash especially here in Michigan, which can be cooked quickly. Cut squash in half and place flesh side down on a plate covered with a little water (to steam). Cook three minutes. Turn over, flesh side up and dab with butter, salt and pepper and continue to cook for seven minutes or until flesh, when scrapped with a fork, becomes "stringy" like spaghetti.
As you can see, this frozen tomato sauce helps you preserve your precious garden "goodies" and can be defrosted quickly to make a variety of meals. The tomatoes still taste fresh from the garden.

As I mentioned earlier, when I first started my garden, there was already mint growing. Mint grows wherever and whenever it chooses, so be careful and try to keep it contained. For the mint lovers out there, here's one last tip.

I've started working the fresh mint into a refreshing salad dressing. This is something you can make year-round but I have to admit I love using this dressing over my fresh picked summer tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.
1. Place three or four cloves of garlic in a bowl and "smash" them. The Mortor and Pestle works great for this!
2. Next add the juice of two fresh, medium-sized lemons..
3. Add a 1/4 cup of olive oil and a splash of water to slightly thin the mixture.
4. Mince three to four sprigs of mint and add to dressing mixture.
5. Whip up as smooth as possible. Remember, oil and water will not completely blend.
6. Quickly add to salad or over vegetables and toss. Taste and Enjoy!

Mint can also be dried. Pick the mint and place it on the newspaper in one layer. Sunshine will "dry" the mint if left for a couple of days. When it starts to shrivel, crunch the sprigs between your fingers and place in snack-sized Ziploc bags. These bags of mint can be frozen for up to one year. Keep a small bag on hand for day to day cooking.

I hope you have enjoyed the walk down into my garden of memories and my recipes. Though the world has changed since I was a little girl sneaking treats out of my grandpa's garden, I have learned and cherish the thrill of gardening and preserving these wonderful fruits and vegetables. I may not grow my plants from seed or "can" tomatoes like grandpa but I sure do enjoy the fruits of my labors and love to see how long I can make these wonders last. Happy Summer!

by: Michelle Karshneski