Season of the Tomatillo

photo 1(20)It hasn’t been a great year for tomatoes here at the farm. Or should I say, it hasn’t been a great year for me taking care of my tomatoes. I planted them out in a newly-established garden that promptly got choked with weeds (and I didn’t get around to staking them, either), and although the garden was fenced, it was also inside one of the paddocks the chickens frequent.

The chicken-tastrophe that is (was) my main tomato patch

The chicken-tastrophe that is (was) my main tomato patch

Those young pullets know how to fly, and they also know how to take advantage of the woodchuck holes in the fence that keep re-opening in new places after I fix the old ones. Pullets are almost like hogs the way they constantly test the fence. And, having been dumb enough to throw all the rotten tomatoes just over that fence to the waiting chickens, I should not have been surprised that eventually they decided to just help themselves to the bounty.

Eight feet tall...and no chickens in sight!

Eight feet tall…and no chickens in sight!

That’s alright—I still harvested plenty enough to do a few roasters full of smoked eggplant-and-tomato sauce, and a bit of salsa, too. And, I have a few choice varieties staked up nicely in the raised bed garden, as well as all the volunteers that made it through the first few rounds of weeding in the lower field garden. We’ve got plenty left for fresh eating, and to be honest, my appetite for canning is waning now that October is well underway. Somehow, I thought living up here in Minnesota might shorten the season, but climate change just keeps on keepin’ on. Soon, I’ll need new excuses not to go on preserving into November. Christmas canning? Oh. My. Lord.

Naked and ready for processing

Naked and ready for processing

But, even though they’re planted in that same garden, the tomatillos have fared much better. Apparently, the chickens aren’t aware of what goodness lies beneath that papery husk, and even though there’s only one row, those big, weedy plants have held their own with the other weeds to provide a real bounty.

The first time I grew tomatillos, I put in three or so plants in a little bed I’d newly broken out in front of a run-down rental house on Cottage Avenue in Vermillion, South Dakota. The house has since been torn down, but when I lived there, the goal of the gardens was part production and part hiding how beat-up the place was. I had morning glories twenty feet up the south side, and sunflowers more than half that height. It was a riot.

The old Cottage Avenue house and garden

The old Cottage Avenue house and garden

The tomatillo bed was right in front, and I remember when the mailman (always kind of annoyed at how the un-latchable storm door would whack him unexpectedly when the wind came up) asked me what the heck they were. At that point, I knew what they were, but I’d never done anything with them. Then came the harvest—these weird little green tomatoes inside a sticky, papery husk with a decidedly citrusy “twang.” But there was a Ball Blue Book recipe for salsa verde, and one night, my friend Matt and I decided to try it out—making a few small amendments as we went, as we’re both prone to do.

The result was seven half pints of a salsa so delicious that we declared it magical and ate it all up much faster than was reasonable. It had been much, much too long since I have grown them again. This was the year, and the variety was a big green one from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. They’re huge—some of them bigger than golf balls—and they’re juicy and tangy and I’m in love with them all over again. I’ve re-visited the salsa recipe (thankfully, I’ve still got the notes from my sooty old Blue Book edition that went through the house fire), and I’ve also made a chili verde sauce with tomatatillos, chiles, onions, garlic, and our own chicken stock that gets pressure-canned in quarts and stored for pouring over winter roasts in the crockpot.

The beginnings of a chili verde sauce

The beginnings of a chili verde sauce

Yesterday I pulled from the garden what might be the last fifteen or twenty pounds and did another batch of the chili verde sauce for canning tonight. There are more tomatillos out there, but the nighttime temperatures are dropping, and I’m not going to bet on the last of them sizing up and splitting their husks before the frost hits. And the chickens may develop a taste for them yet. The oven at 450 degrees knocked out the nighttime chill and sent a delicious scent wafting throughout the house.

Our own frozen chicken stock, melting into the pureed roasted vegetables

Our own frozen chicken stock, melting into the pureed roasted vegetables

I won’t claim that this is the last thing I’ll can this season, but it might be. The end is creeping ever closer, and the killing frost can’t be far away now. The projected low tonight is 36 degrees…though it looks like it’ll creep back up into the 40s and 50s the rest of the week.

We might not have as many cases of “red” this year, but the shelves of canned goods are still looking well-stocked in a festive shade of green.

Winding Down; Winding Up

It’s forty-five degrees this morning on our little patch of the prairie.

Bronze fennel in the broccoli bed

Bronze fennel in the broccoli bed

Long underwear weather, and last evening’s rain coupled with the later morning light gives me not-enough-time to prepare for today’s expected-then-abandoned foray to the farmers market. I can’t even see to clean out my car of the various beverage containers, road food wrappers, gallons of water refills, and cases of canning jars both purchased and scored from a friend’s trunk during a chance meeting at the liquor store yesterday–after she and I had forgotten them on multiple trips to each other’s farms over the course of more than a month.

So many details to remember this time of year. When did we last put salt in the softener? How many days after the last pick-up will it take to get the trash cart back up from the end of the driveway? Who has looked in the mailbox in the past week?

These are all the regular chores of day to day living. But there is also, who can we find to scale the peaks and clean out the gutters? When will the outer door be re-framed so the snow doesn’t blow in? Another load of straw for the chickens’ winter bedding, and the gamble of leaving the ripening squash in the field for another week. The last of the onions need pulling (have needed pulling for a month now) from their vast bed of weeds, which also need pulling—and transporting with their full seed heads out of the growing space. The chickens are in the tomato garden again—the groundhog must have made another hole in the fence that needs repair.

Yes, there are onions under those weeds.

Yes, there are onions under those weeds.

The Meander approaches—that great Upper Minnesota River Valley art crawl that provides a big boost to the income of artists, cafes, grocery and gas providers all over the region. Three days of hosting hundreds of visitors to our farm, the preparation for which takes place over the course of months but really winds up in the last couple of weeks.

This year we have the new timber frame studio space to welcome people—a feeling of relief after last year’s set-up took over the entire lower floor of our home, reducing meals to an awkward few bites over the table/check-out area crammed against the wall to open up the “gallery” of the dining room. Easier just to snack on sister Ann’s cookies all weekend and drink too much coffee. I suppose that’s what we’ll do again this year, though excuses for that behavior won’t be as easy to come by.

At 6:30, light begins rising—enough to silhouette the farmstead trees and outline tassel-tips in the cornfield to the east. Venus still shines in the upper darkness, and a lone bat makes a last pass. No birdsong yet—except that Oskar is crowing in the coop, and Wilson, one of our “surprise” cockerels, is emulating with his adolescent cackle. The lower gardens hold deep shadows—protecting rabbits free to forage now that the cats have come in, eaten their kibble, and dozed off in the piles of unfolded laundry on the couch.

Wilson, our handsome Partridge Rock (surprise!) cockerel

Wilson, our handsome Partridge Rock (surprise!) cockerel

Canning is almost a daily affair now—all the food preservation equipment should probably just live upstairs until the gardens give out. The 18 quart roaster’s on the table in front of me; the food mill and pressure canner in boxes on a chair behind, and the boiling water bath is still on the stove-top after last night’s quadruple batch of salsa verde. The dehydrator hasn’t yet made its yearly appearance, but celery leaf is on the agenda (a two-part process, as the stalks get chopped and frozen), and the shell beans will need finishing after the season’s ample rains.

And then there’s the shelf-stable produce–onions, once pulled, need time on the sun porch table to cure—squash is likely to fill up the rest of the area where we ate when daylight was long enough for working late and supping at sunset. At least the garlic is dug, cleaned, cured, and put away—though bags of heads labeled and sorted for seed are waiting out there for re-planting in the next month.

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At 7:30 it’s finally light enough to let the chickens out. My toes feel frozen and I’ve resorted to my earflap cap, but they seem immune—even energized by the sudden drop in temperatures. That’s good—the coop is unheated, and it’ll be a lot colder than this come winter, even with their deep layer of straw. I’ll give their house a final cleaning-out (and my compost pile a top-dressing) before we start creating that heat-generating pack of manure and straw that gives them a little extra insulation against the extremes of the dark season. But not this morning—the early half of the day is prime laying time, and I’ve been scolded enough by perturbed hens to know I should just stay out until the sun shifts west. It’s their house; I’m just the cleaning crew.

Gratuitous earflap cap-sunflower selfie

Ridiculous gratuitous earflap cap-sunflower selfie

Since I’m not at the farmers market, and I’m not allowed in the chicken house, the morning will have to shift the other work. Will it be the twenty pounds of wild plums in the studio fridge, waiting to be turned into jam? Should I attempt the celery project? What about harvesting the squash or pulling the onions? A deep cleaning of the cold storage room would be useful progression.

Best to think on it a bit over breakfast, then take out the compost, wash the dishes, put salt in the softener, and finally bring the trash cart up from the road. I’m sure after all that I’ll figure out something useful to do with my time.

One More Tomato

I never want to see another tomato.

By never, of course, I mean not until next July, when I’ll be sneaking down to the garden several times a day to check on ripening progress of my early varieties. But next July is a long, long way off when you’re looking square in the face of a Minnesota winter.

Still more tomatoes in the back entryway-- I think I'll start using the other door.

Still more tomatoes in the back entryway– I think I’ll start using the other door.

It is my fault for having planted 75 plants of 26 varieties. I’ve culled a few seed packs of types that did not meet my particular standards, so I’m down to twenty-two or twenty-three already. That’d be a start if it wasn’t for my notorious lack of restraint when the seed catalogs come out, and the succulent varietal descriptions cause me to abandon all good sense.

With all the abundance in the tomato patch (and elsewhere in the gardens), we’ve had to get creative, and this year our creativity paid off with a new recipe we’ll be returning to season after season.

Makin' it smooooth with the food mill

Makin’ it smooooth with the food mill

I came home from the Big Stone Lake Farmers Market one Saturday a few weeks ago with fifty or sixty pounds of tomatoes and an equally ridiculous amount of eggplant—some from the market, and some I’d left behind as too ugly to go to town (I know: not a very nice thing to say about a vegetable I raised up from seed). I’d already roasted a few trays of eggplant for the freezer, and I was thinking I’d do the same with these (and then figure out something else with all those !@#$% tomatoes) when I remembered seeing a jar of tomato-based “smoky eggplant pasta sauce” at that upscale kitchen store outside of Waite Park. Hmmm.

John loves smoking meat. Why not try smoking some eggplant? He fired up his contraption, and I prepped the fruits—removing stems and ends and slicing them in half lengthwise, brushing them with just a hint of olive oil to prevent sticking. I pick eggplant when they are still young and tender, so there was no need to peel them.

While the eggplant hung out in the smoker, I processed the tomatoes into sauce and started cooking it down. Added a few onions and some garlic, and then the chopped, smoked eggplant when it was ready. Puréed the whole thing together, added some spices, and hurrah! A smooth, smoky, tomato-y deliciousness we couldn’t wait to eat on just about everything.


Simmer down...

Simmer down…

Here’s the recipe:
6-8 quarts tomato purée (already reduced by half or more)
3-4 cups chopped smoked eggplant
1 cup chopped onion
2-3 cloves crushed garlic
1-2 small hot peppers (seeds and all) minced

Simmer these ingredients together until all the vegetables are very soft. Then purée them all together in a blender or food processor (or put them through a food mill). Put them back on the stove to simmer some more (you want this sauce to end up thick and smooth).

Then add the following:
Bay leaf
¼-1/2 cup sugar (your taste)
1 TB salt
¼ tsp black pepper
1 TB cumin seed
1 tsp oregano leaf
½ tsp ground cinnamon
*optional—add one or two 6oz. cans of tomato paste if the sauce is too smoky and not enough “tomato forward.”

Simmer this (stirring often) until it reaches a lovely, smooth thickness (not paste–but definitely not watery), then taste to correct the seasonings. If it’s a little grainy-looking, you can purée again or use an immersion blender. Voila! You’re done (uh…well, except for processing or freezing).


Freeze or pressure process!

Freeze or pressure process!

The eggplant in our first batch sat in the smoker for a few hours, and it almost completely overpowered the sauce, so adding tomato paste worked well to bring the tomato flavor forward a bit. The second batch (where the eggplant was in the smoker for less than an hour) didn’t need the tomato paste. Obviously, the tomato flavor will be more pronounced if you cook your initial purée down more. I reduced the first batch of plain tomato sauce by about half before adding any other ingredients—the second batch was reduced even more—slow-simmering overnight in the roaster.

Once the sauce is done, you can either freeze it or process it in a pressure canner (take the bay leaf out). Please do not use a boiling water bath method for canning this recipe—there are too many low acid ingredients to make BWB method safe. If you don’t have a pressure canner (or are uncomfortable with using the one you have–you know who you are!), then tuck it in the freezer.

I processed pint jars for 30 minutes at 10lbs. pressure (that is, I processed as if it were plain eggplant), leaving ½” headroom in the jars. If you want to can in quarts, give it a bit more headroom (¾-1”) and process for 40 minutes at 10lbs pressure.

If you don’t have a smoker, you could try grilling the eggplant over low heat to get some of that good smoky flavor into the flesh–and into the sauce. Either way, smoky eggplant tomato sauce is something new (and awesome) to add to your “I never want to see another tomato” repertoire!