String beans, curried green tomatoes, jam.
In a summer which has been so marked with rain (I learned on NPR yesterday that this is the wettest summer on record since we began measuring rain count in this region back in 1827; the rainfall this year is twice what is normal) a day like this most recent Shabbat -- blue skies and sunshine -- feels like an actual honest-to-God miracle.
The wet season hasn't been easy on the farmers who run Caretaker Farm. A potato blight (the same one famous for destroying Ireland's crop during the great potato famine) has decimated our potatoes, and another blight has taken the tomatoes. (For more on that, here's the NYTimes: Late Blight Fungus Threatens Tomato Crop. Some of the potatoes were harvested early despite their tininess; the tomatoes were harvested green and the vines which had been so lovingly nurtured from seed, transplanted, staked, weeded by hand were cut down. Lettuces too seem to be suffering from lack of sun, so we only brought home a single small head, alongside a bag of loose baby lettuce leaves.
But even so, our farm share bag was groaning: with corn, green and purple peppers, carrots, kohlrabi, bright-stemmed chard. Plus there were out-of-bag goodies, too. It's the time of year when we're invited to go down to the fields and pull up green bean plants and strip them of their bounty -- a bit earlier than usual, I think, again because of the rains -- so we went down to the muddy fields and picked a few bags of green beans, chatting with friends in the rows. And because the chalkboard said "Ask us about cucumbers for pickling," we did, and we came home with a burlap bag containing the equivalent of a five-gallon bucket of beautiful nubbly cukes. They have the most amazing fragrance -- it's too subtle for me to notice if I only have one or two, but when I plunge my hands into the burlap bag and breathe deeply I am overwhelmed by one of the scents of August in the Berkshires.
We spent the rest of the weekend putting up some of our incredible bounty. Ethan made a handful of amazing salads from that list of 101 simple salads for the season; we'll eat them all week, which will be especially useful when we return from his surgery in Boston midweek. Meanwhile, I worked on putting things up for the longer term.
I had four projects: spicy fermented cucumber pickles, a smaller batch of fermented cucumber pickles flavored with Lapsang Souchong tea, a batch of vinegared string beans with herbs, and a batch of curried green tomato slices (all recipes from our pickling Bible, The Joy of Pickling -- now apparently available in a new edition. We tinker with her recipes a bit -- we use cider vinegar rather than white wine vinegar for the string beans, and have taken to adding a chipotle pepper to each jar -- but on the whole the book is fantastic.) I mixed up a batch of homemade pickling spice, picked grape leaves in our back yard (to help the fermented pickles retain crispness), peeled a few heads of garlic, set the green tomato slices to rest overnight under a spoonful of scattered kosher salt (to draw out their water), trimmed green beans to fit in pint and quart jars.
As an afterthought, since we were already going to be running the canner all weekend, we decided to thaw out the six cups of hulled and crushed strawberries which we froze during our brief strawberry season in June, and to make a batch of sugarfree jam to match the batch of sugared jam that I made back when the berries were fresh from the soil.
Lacto-fermentation at work.
As one recipe gave way to the next, the house filled with an amazing array of aromas: the scent of the spices I shredded and crushed for the homemade pickling spice, the spicy-sweet-sour brine for the pickled tomato slices (cider vinegar flavored with curry powder, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon and a bit of brown sugar), the amazing scent of real strawberries which have never known a refrigerator or packing crate. As I write this, the two fermented pickles are beginning their journey toward sourness -- the big batch of spicy pickles in a plastic crock, weighted down so they don't come into contact with air; the smaller batch of tea pickles in a two-quart jar with a brine bag sealing the jar's mouth -- and everything else is either cooling, or resting in its new home on our baker's rack where we store our home-canned goods.
The weekend's net yield? Four pints and two quarts of chipotle string beans, four pints of curried green tomato slices, six jars of sugarfree strawberry jam, and a two-quart jar and large crock of cucumbers which will slowly turn olive-green as the process of lacto-fermentation works its magic. In two or three weeks when they're fully sour, I'll probably slice most of them and can them in a boiling-water bath so we can enjoy them through the winter... though we might reserve a few as refrigerator pickles to enjoy now! (I can't wait to try the pickles steeping in tea.)
I didn't grow up canning or preserving food, and neither did Ethan. But it's become one of our favorite summer pastimes. There's something incredibly satisfying about taking gorgeous local produce -- often things we've picked from the ground ourselves -- and turning it into rows of gleaming bright jars which adorn our breakfast nook all year. Every time we open one, it's like opening a time capsule: a pint-jar of June, or July or August to sustain us both physically and emotionally during the long snowy winter which is always ahead.
Putting up the harvest feels virtuous on a practical level, which allows both of us to satisfy our tendencies toward productivity in a way which feels weekend-appropriate (since it involves not gazing soulfully into our computer screens)... but it also has an impact on a spiritual level. I love picking string beans in Caretaker's familiar fields, knowing intimately every step of the process they'll undergo -- from the field to a bag to our sink to last year's jars, re-sterilized and ready to go -- all the way until we crack open a jar at Rosh Hashanah and serve cold spicy string beans to our gathered families as a prelude to the meal. When we go to the Farm, when we pick and preserve, it's easy to remember to be grateful for the place we live and the bounty it yields.