Zucchini handling

Zucchini bagged

What to do with too many zucchini or summer squash is a recurring topic on gardening websites, blogs and forums. In the years when I have a zucchini glut (which is not a given, there were years when the striped cucumber beetle wipes out all the plants) I find myself looking for new recipes that use a lot of zucchini – we are talking baskets and baskets full. Continue reading

Guard owl and green harissa

Guard owl

It is the nature of gardening that after you have solved one problem the next challenge already lurks around the corner. After we moved the elderberry patch to a new location with moister soil last fall, the bushes are thriving. They developed many blossoms, albeit unusually late in the season, and some of them are still flowering.

ElderberriesThe birds would be just as happy about the elderberries as I am so the next question was how to protect them. We looked into bird netting and quickly dismissed the idea as too involved and too expensive. Then I remembered the plastic owl we had not used in years. So up on a tall stick it went. To give it more weight and make it sway more in the wind, my husband filled it with insulation foam.

If the birds won’t get used to the sight of the owl by the time the elderberries ripen, I am slightly optimistic that we will have elderberries this year!

Green bell peppers are an unwanted by-product from my garden. I do not like them and they only land in my kitchen when a stem breaks off, or when I harvest all of them before the first frost, regardless of their color. I have not been very successful in ripening peppers in a brown paper bag or cardboard box; they always soften before turning orange or red.

Yes, I do not like green bell peppers but that does not mean I would ever dump them on the compost. I usually freeze them, hoping that I will eventually find a recipe that uses lots of green peppers. The only recipe I make on a regular basis is Black Bean Soup with Cilantro, however that is only one green pepper down. I have looked for recipes using lots of green peppers but they always ask for so many other ingredients I do not have at hand that making those recipes would defeat the purpose.

Cleaning out the freezer the other day left me with two large bags of green peppers from last year. They had to go, with minimum effort and other ingredients. I decided to try my hands on some sort of mild harissa, hoping for a miraculous green pepper metamorphosis. Worst thing that could happen would be to throw them out after all.

A few hours later I had three jars of a smooth tasty olive-green spread for sandwiches or crackers. A generous amount of ground coriander and caraway gives it a distinct “Tunisian” flavor. And I was able to use up some leftover jalapeños in the process, too!

Green harissa

I am not sure my late Tunisian grandmother would call this a harissa but she was a recycler herself so she would understand.

Green Harissa

2.5 pounds cored and seeded green bell peppers

12 garlic cloves, chopped

2 teaspoons ground coriander

2 teaspoons ground cumin

5 cored and seeded jalapeños, to taste

1 teaspoon chili powder

2 teaspoons salt

½ cup olive oil, more for covering

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Place all ingredients in a large cast-iron Dutch oven. Cook in the preheated oven for 2 to 3 hours until the liquid has been absorbed and the peppers are mushy, turning once in a while at the beginning, and more often towards the end.

3. Puree in the food processor or with a stick blender. Fill into sterilized jars with screw-top lids and pour a bit of olive oil on top. Keep refrigerated and use within 2 to 3 weeks.

Makes 2 to 3 medium jars

Black is beautiful

Lentil Bell Pepper Salad

One of the things I strongly dislike in cooking is removing the skins from roasted peppers. I always end up with chunks of peppers to which the skin sticks stubbornly. I tried roasting them over an open flame on the gas stovetop once; it was messy and rather unsuccessful so I went back to broiling them in the oven. Also, I do not like the idea of letting the peppers sweat in a zip plastic bag, like some recipes tell you. I try to avoid generating non-biodegradable waste whenever I can.

As I was browsing through the freezer last night thinking what I could bring to Phoebe’s Pure Food vegan/raw food potluck tonight, I knew I had to make something with bell peppers: the freezer is filled with them. So I made a veganized version of a lentil salad recipe a relative gave me many years ago.

After letting the peppers thaw slightly and pressing them flat, I broiled them until their skins were really charred.  I stood in front of the oven and fought against my instinct of rescuing the peppers, to which I had tended to all summer in the garden, from cremation. Then I stacked them in a plastic food storage container, which works great as a sweat box.

As for removing the skins, it was a cinch, they all came off beautifully. Now I can only hope the salad tastes as good as I feel about my newly overcome kitchen pet peeve.

Lentil Salad with Red Bell Peppers

1 cup brown or green lentils

1 teaspoon vegetable soup base

3 red bell peppers, halved, stems and seeds removed

3 tablespoons lemon-infused extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 garlic clove, passed through the garlic press

1 teaspoon ground cumin

¼ teaspoon chili powder

¼ teaspoon ground mustard

1 teaspoon salt, more to taste

Freshly milled black pepper

1. Rinse lentils and put them in a small saucepan. Dilute vegetable soup base in 3 cups water, add it to the lentils. Bring to a boil, then, reduce the heat and cook, covered, for 15 to 20 minutes. Towards the end, check for water and add a bit more if necessary. Do not overcook the lentils; they should still have some bite. Drain the lentils and rinse under cold water, drain again.

2. Place the peppers on a cutting board and press them down with your hands to flatten, trying not to break their skins. Place them on a jellyroll pan under the broiler and broil until the skin is charred and forms blisters. Turn the pan around if necessary to ensure even broiling. Place the peppers in a food storage container with a lid and let them sweat for 10 to 15 minutes. When they are cool enough to handle, remove the skins. Chop the peppers coarsely.

3. In a small bowl, whisk the olive oil with the lemon juice, garlic, spices, 1 teaspoon salt, and pepper.  Toss the lentils with the peppers, then, add the dressing and toss again. Season with salt and pepper and refrigerate until serving.

Makes 6 servings 

Dumping ground for green peppers

The weather forecast of the first patchy frost tonight drove me out of bed early to bring in the last of the tender crops, peppers and basil.

There are not too many peppers left on the plants but they are big this year. I weighed an especially large one they other day: almost 14.5 ounces (405 grams).

To ripen green peppers it is usually recommended to place them in a paper bag with an apple, which gives off ethylene and should help turning the peppers red. Yet I have found that the apple does not do much to speed up the process. Most of the peppers turn soft before turning red.

Green bell peppers are my least favorite of all peppers but there is one recipe for which I need them, that’s why I always freeze some. My husband and I once ate a black bean soup with cilantro at a local restaurant and both liked it so much that I tried to recreate it at home. It has become my standard recipe for black bean soup.

Black Bean Soup with Cilantro

This soup is made with dried black beans that need to be soaked beforehand. I do not recommend using canned beans, not only because I am a make-from-scratch proponent – the beans need to absorb the flavors as they cook.

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion

½ celery stalk, diced

½ carrot, diced

1 large green bell pepper, seeded and diced

2 bay leaves

2 teaspoons chopped fresh rosemary, or 1 teaspoon dried

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1½ cups black beans, soaked for 8 hours or overnight

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 small bunch fresh cilantro, leaves only

Salt

½ cup dry sherry

Heavy cream or milk (optional)

1. Heat the olive oil in a large pot. Add the onion and cook until translucent, then add all the vegetables and the herbs. Cook about 8 minutes until the vegetables soften, stirring. Add the tomato paste and stirring until mixed in well. Drain the beans and add them with 5 cups water.

2. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and cover. Simmer covered for 1 hour, stirring once in a while. Add salt and cook for another 30 minutes.

3. Remove the bay leaves. Coarsely chop the cilantro leaves and add them to the soup. Puree the soup with a stick blender, or in small batches in a blender. Bring back to a simmer and add the sherry. If the soup is too thick, add water. Salt to taste and stir in few tablespoons heavy cream if desired.

Makes 6 servings

Pepper plenty

It is as if the peppers are trying to make up for the poor zucchini and cucumber harvest this year. As always, I start cutting off all bell pepper blossoms in early August so the plants put their energy into the peppers that are already there, and I don’t end up with oodles of tiny green peppers at the onset of frost in October.

A bumper crop of bell peppers is not a problem – I freeze them and use them all winter long for various dishes and my Red Pepper Spread. But what to do with all those jalapeños from one single plant? After I used them for salsa, and froze and dried some (they are not turning red as expected), I was running out of ideas, especially since my husband does not like hot foods. Then I found a fabulous recipe for Bread and Butter Jalapeños. After I tried the first bite I instantly regretted that I had only made half the recipe. They were gone in a few days. I even ate some straight out of the jar, something I usually never do. Now I am collecting all the jalapeños for canning a large batch.

Yesterday I felt a slight disappointment rising when there was only a handful of jalapeños, and was reassured seeing plenty of more growing. Interesting how one great recipe can make you change your perspective.

Green legacy

Pepper spreadMy father-in-law, who passed away this month, used to tell me about his beginnings in gardening: two tomato plants and a cucumber in a Victory Garden at the end of World War I. Children, especially those of struggling immigrants, did surely not receive any pocket money in those days, so the dime he received as a prize for the tomatoes must have been quite special for a nine-year-old.

He also told me that two of the most difficult things he had to do in his life was closing his medical practice upon retiring, and taking down his garden when he was no longer able to physically do the work.

I never saw my father-in-law’s garden, as it had disappeared years before I first met him.  I only saw photos of it, yet I could tell that the area that is now just lawn must have once delivered a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables.

We talked gardening often, he sitting at his usual place at the end of the long kitchen table with a view of the back yard where his garden used to be. I remember him laughing out loud and shaking his head over and over again when I told him I had planted almost two dozens of tomato plants. “What the heck will you do with so many tomatoes?” he asked. My answer, “Soup, sauce, freeze them whole so I don’t have to ever buy canned tomatoes,” did not quite seem to convince him. However, after we brought along a few bags of homemade frozen cream of tomato soup in the midst of winter, he did not question the number of my tomato plants again.

These past few weeks have not been easy, and I have even wondered whether I would have the oomph to plant a garden this year. But then I remembered how my father-in-law told me that he always had some sort of a garden and was growing something, no matter where he lived, and no matter what difficult times he was going through. When we buried him, we buried his rusty shovel with him. Thinking about this, I feel that I simply must plant a garden this year to continue in his spirit.

After several bags of frozen bell peppers and jalapeños have reproachfully looked at me every time I opened the freezer, I finally made a batch of red pepper spread today. I never bother to remove the skins, those are all healthy fibers. After cooking the peppers slowly in the oven and pureeing them, the spread is so smooth it is almost impossible to tell the peppers have not been skinned. The spread tastes a bit like Harissa but it is much milder. For a hotter version, just add more jalapeños. Starting with two pounds of seeded peppers sounds like a lot but they shrink considerably.

Pepper spread before pureeingRed Pepper Spread

6 to 7 large red bell peppers, seeded (about 2 pounds)

2 jalapeños

1/3 cup olive oil

6 small garlic cloves (3-4 fat ones)

Salt

Extra-virgin olive oil

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

2. Coarsely chop the peppers. Seed the jalapeños and chop finely. Chop the garlic.

3. Mix all ingredients except for the salt and put in in a large ovenproof dish with a lid, ideally a cast-iron casserole or Dutch oven.

4. Cover and cook for 1 hour, then remove the lid and continue cooking until the peppers are very soft and look almost melted. Stir and scrape down the sides once in a while with a rubber spatula.

5. Remove from the oven and cool. Puree very finely and salt to taste.

6. Fill the spread in a glass jar and pour a little bit of extra-virgin olive oil on top to prevent the spread from drying out. Refrigerate and use within a month.

Makes 1 jar

Breaking the rules for paella

For kids, three months of summer vacation can be quite boring if you live in an isolated location in the country and cannot just walk down the street to hang out with friends. To keep our son busy (and preserve our sanity), a few summers ago my husband commissioned him to do a few short videos. One of the videos he made was about high-fructose corn syrup. Our son discovered that we are an almost HFCS-free household. When he searched our pantry and fridge for props, the only product containing HFCS he found was a bottle of mustard.

MSG is another blacklisted ingredient. It is not difficult to avoid HFCS and MSG when you cook mainly with fresh or frozen ingredients and make as much as possible from scratch. Yet I must admit that I deviate from my own rules once in a while for convenience or taste, or both.

For paella, for example, I use yellow rice mix, aka Spanish rice, which sometimes contains MSG. When I cannot find brands that are MSG-free, I remove about half of the heavy seasoning from the uncooked mix by placing it in a colander and shaking it a few times over the sink. The remaining amount of MSG is minimal. MSG usually gives me terrible migraines but I have never felt a thing after eating this paella.

This recipe is adapted from Paella, Fast and Easy in Mark Bittman’s The Minimalist Cooks at Home. I doubt whether Mr. Bittman would agree with my using yellow rice mix from the package but since I adhere to most of what he advocates so passionately, I hope he would let this one slip.Most of the vegetables for the paella – peas, greens beans, and bell peppers – come from my garden, fresh during season, frozen in the winter. When I made the paella yesterday I did not have peas, as the supply of peas from the garden is already gone. We were also out of carrots; unaware of my dinner plans, my husband fed the last carrot to our dog, whose favorite treat is carrots.

To make up for the missing peas and carrots, I doubled the amount of bell peppers and green beans. And, instead of chicken broth, which I normally use for liquid, I used homemade turkey broth from our Thanksgiving turkey, also coming from the depth of our freezer. This recipe offers lots of flexibility in terms of ingredients.

One little trick: my son does not like peppers so I omit them in half of the paella and place a piece of triple-folded aluminum foil across the pan. After the paella is cooked, that barrier can be removed very easily.

Paella

4 cups chicken broth

1 cup fresh or frozen green beans

1 red bell pepper

1 carrot

1 onion

1 swordfish steak (about 6 ounces)

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups yellow rice mix (Spanish rice), some of the seasoning removed as described above

1 cup fresh or frozen peas

½ pound uncooked shelled and deveined medium-size shrimp (41-50 count)

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

2. Heat the chicken broth in a saucepan.

3. Cut or break the green beans into bite-size pieces. Cut the pepper in half, remove the seeds, and cut into ½-inch pieces. Peel the carrot and cut into ¼-inch cubes. Halve the onion and slice very thinly. Cut the swordfish into ½-inch cubes.

4. Heat the oil in a large cast-iron skillet. Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes over medium heat until translucent, stirring often.

5. Add the rice mix and stir to coat. Cook for 2 minutes until it turns glossy. Add the hot broth and stir (stand back, it will steam when you add the broth).

6. Add the shrimp, fish, and vegetables, distributing them somewhat evenly. Bring to the boil, then carefully transfer the pan to the preheated oven. Cook for 25 to 30 minutes, until the rice is cooked through and the broth is absorbed. If during the cooking some of the vegetables start to poke out, gently push them back into the liquid so they won’t dry out. Do not stir.

7. Remove the paella from the oven and let stand for 5 minutes before serving.

Makes 6 to 8 servings