Kitchen Garden

First Year for San Marzano Tomatoes

Bowl of San Marzano tomatoes.

Now that I’ve grown San Marzano tomatoes, the challenge is what to do with them. I peeled and water bath canned the first couple of batches. That’s something: a lot of work for the yield. There have been fresh pasta sauces, salsa, and plain San Marzano tomato sauce. There is a lot to like about this variety of tomato and the exceptional flavor is just the beginning.

I didn’t know if my Iowa garden would grow Sam Marzanos as good as what is available from Italy in tin cans at local grocery stores. Canned tomatoes from the store are convenient. Mine are fresh and good enough to grow again next year. In our household, flavor wins over convenience almost every time.

I planted a row of twenty plants in ten cages on the west side of the tomato patch. It ensured there would be a substantial quantity and they would get adequate sunlight. That plan worked and there is lots of good-looking fruit through the season.

Where I landed for those not used fresh is straight forward: tomato sauce for canning or freezing.

My process to produce the sauce is one I developed over years. After washing and sorting the tomatoes, I core them, cut off bad spots and place them in a big stainless steel pan with a half cup of tomato juice or water. I bring them to a boil and then let them cook for two or three minutes until the skins are loosened. I turn off the burner and let them cool on the stove top for an hour or two.

Next, I scoop the parboiled tomatoes into my funnel and let them drain the tomato water. This takes an hour or so for most of it to seep out. Finally, I spoon the mixture into a blender and blend until as smooth as possible. Now we’re ready for use, canning or freezing.

A couple of notes:

No seasoning at this stage.

I no longer remove the skins in order to keep their nutritional value in the sauce. Blending chops the skins so they are hardly noticeable.

Well-ripened tomatoes produce the best flavor. If they come in from the garden and need ripening, it serves the goal of peak flavor to let them finish ripening on the counter.

The sauce is not really cooked. It is an ingredient for future dishes like pasta sauce and chili. San Marzanos benefit from a long, slow cooking process. That will come when I use the tomatoes in a dish.

Finally, I water bath can some jars of tomato sauce. In late summer an active kitchen garden is lacking refrigerator and freezer space. Having the tomato sauce in shelf-stable jars helps alleviate the space problem.

I will continue to process San Marzanos as a separate variety until they are gone. With the mix of canned wholes and sauce of this and other varieties we will be well on the way to year-round tomatoes in the kitchen.

It’s where we like to be.

Kitchen Garden

Apple Season 2022

Apples from the garden and from Wilson’s Orchard on Aug. 26, 2022.

We spotted an apple in our trees from the kitchen window. I investigated and four Earliblaze apples were ready to pick. A handful of Red Delicious need ripening. The scent of autumn is in the air.

I drove to Wilson’s Orchard and picked Ginger Gold, Burgundy, Sansa, and Red Gravenstein apples. Trees were loaded with fruit and no one else was picking. It was like paradise without the serpent.

Our apple buying is pretty regimented. In the eight years I worked at the orchard I learned where the apples live and the order in which they ripen. I usually skip most of the early season apples, although I planted a Zestar! tree at home for future early use. When Ginger Gold is ripe, It’s time to start traveling to the orchard and get my exercise walking up and down those hills. I mostly know where all the varieties grow.

My favorites are Burgundy, Crimson Crisp, Honeycrisp, Gold Rush, and the various Jonathan varieties. I also like Red and Golden delicious picked from a tree. Who can stomach the ones sold at the grocer? Although the orchard reduced the amount of trees in the u-pick section, plenty of varieties continue to grow there. It looks to be an excellent harvest this year.

There is no mistaking the rapid approach of autumn. The beginning of the apple harvest, along with the appearance of squash bugs, withering cucumber vines, and weeds getting overgrown are telling a story if we would but listen.

Despite this year’s challenges, the cycle of renewal and growth continued for another year.

Kitchen Garden

Acorn Season in Iowa

Bur Oak acorns forming.

The remaining two Bur Oak trees in the garden made an abundance of acorns this year. They are weighing down the branches so they almost touch the ground. Acorns are welcome nutrition for squirrels who took up residence in trees I planted after moving to Big Grove in 1993. These particular oak trees were planted from acorns harvested the year our daughter graduated high school and left home. There were three trees, one for each family member, but the August 2020 derecho took one of them out.

The plan is to remove one of the remaining two after the garden finishes this year. It will allow the final one to grow to maturity. By the time it does, I’ll likely be too old for much gardening yet I hope to be able to appreciate its native glory.

It took an hour to harvest tomatoes yesterday. There were two and a half gallons of San Marzanos, a milk jug full of mixed cherry tomatoes, and a bushel of slicers. Today’s plan is to clean them all, remove the imperfect ones to make tomato sauce, and organize what’s left for optimum storage and use in the next couple of days. Tomatoes planted under the oak trees are looking better, so there will be a harvest of plums and Amish paste for canning. This season is running late across the garden.

While I reached into tomato cages to take fruit from the vines I thought about next year. I plan to continue the trellis system for cherry tomatoes and plant two additional long rows, one of mixed slicers and one of San Marzanos, Granaderos, and Amish Paste. The trellis will be longer, as we are using more cherries in the kitchen. It needs to be more sturdy so I may invest in t-posts for the upright supports and place them closer together. They will be flanked by the other two rows, which in turn will be flanked by bell peppers on one side and a mix of eggplant and hot peppers on the other. That would allow focus on that particular garden patch at the same time of year. One can tell fall is not far away by this contemplation of next year.

Where the garlic will go this fall is not decided. This year’s crop continues to cure in the garage and the heads used have been healthy and tasty. I planted 100 head last fall and it produced plenty for the kitchen. Almost every seed planted yielded a head. When the curing process is finished, I’ll save the best heads for seed. This garlic originated on Susan Jutz’ farm and has been planted year after year for a very long time. It has good characteristics and stores well.

Soon I will mow the harvested garlic patch and use the plot to store grass clippings. With the recent rain, the yard grass is long and will make plenty for storage. I also need to tear down the failed onion patch and prepare it to store fencing. I need a sunny afternoon for this work.

We move through the gardening season so quickly any more. In late August, the work continues to be about tomatoes, peppers, greens, celery, and eggplant. Cucumbers and zucchini are about done. I hope to plant lettuce before the week is done. Acorns forming on oak trees are the sign I had better get going.

Kitchen Garden

Donating Potatoes

The rest of the potato harvest. It was a good crop.

In August there is plenty of extra garden produce for donations to the local food pantry. Potatoes are popular and I could easily have donated this whole bin. They all would have been taken. Potatoes are elemental.

After a period of rodents eating potatoes while they were still in the ground, I decided to plant in containers. That solved the problem. When I think of the future, I should plant six instead of four containers so I have more to donate. What we have will serve us until they are gone before the end of the year.

We cook potatoes in four primary ways: roasting; grated to make hash browns; as an ingredient in soup; and boiling. All of the smallest ones are used for soup. Every once in a while I use boiled potatoes to make potato salad. Whatever I make with potatoes gets eaten up because they are especially good.

I used to leave the containers buried and replant in the same location each season, using a little composted chicken or turkey manure as fertilizer. This year, I moved them and used soil from the two composters. The production was robust. Given the small amount of time and care it takes to grow potatoes, it is well worth it to have a fresh, great-tasting vegetable. Digging up the containers and harvesting potatoes has become a milestone in the garden season.

The food bank is a nice option to get what I produce into the hands of people who need it. The garden is at the point there are too many cucumbers, tomatoes, zucchini, and bell peppers. There will never be too many potatoes. It’s hard to believe a few years ago we didn’t have a food bank. It has become a vital part of the community in which we live.

Kitchen Garden

Long June Days

Wildflowers on the state park trail June 7, 2022.

We have been blessed with some perfect June days. Temperatures have been moderate and when it rained, it was the gentle kind that nourishes everything it touches. We can’t get enough of these long, beautiful days.

The garden is producing an amazing amount of greens: arugula, spinach, chard, collards, kale, mustard, turnip, lettuce and others. The season is only just beginning.

I’m halfway through the garlic scape harvest. Everything planted the last few weeks has taken and the greenhouse is emptying. There is weeding to do, a lot of it. At the same time there is a brief caesura. I can breathe.

We need these long, June days.

Kitchen Garden

Spring Seasoning

Herbs, spices, seeds, and flavorings arranged on the counter.

When the world seems to be falling apart on a path toward chaos, then oblivion, we draw into family. My spouse and I set a meeting to go through herbs, spices, flavorings, extracts, sweeteners and seeds. That’s right! We put it on our calendars and everything. I baked a vegan rhubarb-applesauce cake before we began and that helped us along.

We both use the kitchen and things had gotten out of control. We were determined to remedy that. It turned into a two-day project during which we learned something about ourselves.

There were so many items tucked away in multiple places, just collecting them in one place was a major project. A few found their way from Indiana to Iowa in 1993 when we moved to Big Grove. Others migrated from our child’s kitchen in Colorado ten years ago. I had two shelves in the pantry where I crammed jars and bottles since I built the shelves. Over the stove, in the cupboard, in the turnabout, stuff was everywhere. We truly had no idea what we had in case a recipe called for something.

We set no firm time-line for disposition. If the item was unique, or we hadn’t used it in a while, we were more likely to keep it for potential use. There were a number of containers with no expiration date. There were also those I grew in the garden or foraged. We tended to dispose of bottles with a best by date of 2009 or earlier when it had one. The oldest was dated 2002. It was not an absolute rule. What mattered more was the aroma of each bottle gauged against future use. At the end of the first day, I had a five-gallon bucket full of discarded herbs, spices and flavorings for compost. The compost pile will be fragrant in a different way for a while.

This seemed like a bigger project than it should have been yet it is only the beginning of downsizing the number of possessions in our household. The project created many different interactions between us and the end result was positive. Practice makes perfect, they say.

Organization might help us maintain a grip on what’s in the pantry so our meals can be better for the knowledge. It was a positive way to spend an afternoon. There is plenty of negativity away from our little enclave. We were able to avoid it for a while. The fresh cake helped.

Kitchen Garden

2022 Garlic Transition

Last garlic bulb.

The last bulb of garlic from the 2021 garden is ready to use. By the time we consume it, scapes from the new crop will be available. This is where a gardener wants to be.

Since I began following the garlic-growing practices of my farmer friends, it has been an unmitigated success. Using seed from the farm, I grew my own seed for the following year crops with plenty for the kitchen. I also increased the size of the garlic patch this year. The plants looks healthy and should be ready to harvest in July.

I cut all the scapes to encourage the bulbs to grow large. Scapes serve as a replacement for garlic until the harvest.

Next steps in the cycle are to clear off the table in the garage and convert it into a drying rack later this month. Garlic is an important vegetable in a kitchen garden. Once one learns how to cultivate it, it is clear sailing to great culinary dishes.

Living in Society

Slowing Down

Apple blossoms.

Sandy is the spark plug of our community, especially when it comes to services for senior citizens, yet more than that. We met Saturday morning at a political event at the public library. A primary election is coming up on June 7 and there is stuff to discuss.

I asked Sandy about donating garden produce to the food bank again this year. She said the food bank would welcome the contributions and local donations were an important part of providing fresh food to people who need it. “I’m trying to slow down,” she said, explaining that some younger people were now taking donations on Mondays. Sandy turned 87 last September so there is nothing to say about her slowing down, other than she earned it. No one can replace what she has done for the community. We are grateful for any time with her.

For dinner I pulled something from the freezer and noticed the item was not hard, as it should be. The thermometer registered 50 degrees, precipitating “oh noes!” I spent an hour emptying everything into five-gallon buckets for composting. A lot of work went into preserving the food. Such is life: eventually our efforts become compost.

The two apple trees planted in 2020 are in bloom. That means a few apples, we hope. When one plants trees it is hard to avoid a long-term perspective. If there are apples, we’ll enjoy them.

Home Life

Unexpected Spring Break

Red beans and rice, Midwestern-style.

Home alone, I made a spicy dish for dinner: red beans and rice. There is no recipe, yet it was everything to which decades of kitchen and garden work led me. Supper was life, as good as it gets. The process of anticipation, planning, and pulling items from the freezer, ice box and pantry culminated in deliciousness. The meal was why we pay attention to flavor rather than the names of dishes or ingredients.

I didn’t know I needed spring break, yet here we are. The combination of my spouse helping her sister move to a new home, 45 mile per hour winds and cold temperatures for two days, and a form of isolated winter exhaustion led me here. Break will continue until I see my doctor later this week. I already have my blood test results and the key numbers improved from six months ago. I noted Earth Hour last night and feel rested and ready to get into the garden and yard. The winds subsided overnight.

Saturday I spent five hours participating in the county Democratic convention via Zoom. I don’t like virtual events, yet they are efficient. I’d rather be talking to political friends and acquaintances in person. The upside of a virtual convention is when it is over, there is no need to use an automobile to get home. A couple of notes.

1984 was my first Johnson County Democratic convention. Most people were nice, although I was frustrated with the process. The county convention revisited decisions made at the precinct caucuses and walked away from what voters said they wanted in favor of special interests. That burned me on politics for a while. Since then we spent six years in Indiana. When we returned to Iowa, I was not active in politics for ten years, until 2004. The virtual event was reasonably organized, yet kinda sucked. What’s a person to do? An old Polish proverb applies, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.”

Age is not treating some of my long-term cohorts well, at least from the images presented on Zoom. There are a number of new people, likely more than half. I’d rather step back from organized politics. I volunteered to be a delegate to the district and state conventions to make sure enough people were available to fill 74 slots. The district convention is at a nearby high school across the lakes. When it was time to ratify the slate, all slots weren’t filled. People don’t seem that engaged in politics this year, even if they should be. That may be bias created by the virtual format, yet I’m seeing the same thing in every segment of local culture.

There were ten platform amendments submitted at the convention. The platform is irrelevant, mostly because Democratic candidates for office don’t support every plank, even if they acknowledge a platform exists. Why does the county party spend time on it? The answer, I guess, is it is a way of life for party members who want a shared experience in articulating their beliefs. As a writer, I get plenty of that from elsewhere. As long as we keep the platform’s irrelevance to formal policy in mind, and don’t expect candidates to fully support it, let platformers platform.

I’m preparing to write about my senior year in college when I lived in a small house on Gilbert Court in Iowa City. Artist Pat Dooley rented it from a local businessman and managed the many residents who came and went during that six month period. It was a small, decrepit three-bedroom structure built on a stone foundation. According to Google maps, it has now been demolished.

Dooley was part of a group of writers and artists loosely referred to as “Actualists.” He did the cover art for The Actualist Anthology edited by Morty Sklar and Darrell Gray. Gray overnighted with us for a brief period before leaving Iowa for California. Many Actualists visited our house at Dooley’s invitation, where we socialized in the common room. Alan and Cinda Kornblum, Jim Mulac, Dave Morice, Sheila Heldenbrand, John Sjoberg and Steve Toth stopped by more than once, as best I can recall.

By 1974, I finished required coursework for a major in English and needed to fill out the total number of required hours. My coursework during that final undergraduate semester included French conversation, separate classes in ancient and modern art, Harry Oster’s American Folk Literature, and early modern philosophy. I hadn’t prepared for a career during university, although the Oscar Mayer Company, for whom I worked two summers, called to offer me a job as a foreman in the Davenport meat packing plant. I declined.

There are a couple of additional days before I must get to work in earnest. Spring break, while unexpected, is not over.

Kitchen Garden

2022 Gardening Season

Spring burn pile, March 16, 2022.

Gardening season begins with a spring burn pile. Usually there are plenty of branches from winter tree pruning and windfalls. As elements return to the soil, our hope in the sustainability of life is renewed.

I lit this year’s burn pile with a single match applied to shredded paper. When I went to bed, embers were smoldering. The next day warmth radiated from the ashes even though a light rain had fallen. When the fire depletes its fuel, I’ll rake the ashes evenly over the soil and turn them into it.

I’m ready to garden.

How should I write about the garden this year? What terms should I use? What phraseology is best? What goals do I have for readers, and for myself? What is the lexicon of gardening?

This year I adopted a spreadsheet to track my seed planting, so no need to record that here. There are eight trays of seedlings started in the house. Once the weather breaks, I’ll set up the greenhouse. It is becoming routine. This is a year for recycling everything I can: ground cover, row cover, stakes and fencing. I’m seeking to optimize the gardening space to grow more food we’ll use. Over the last ten years certain plots have become predictable: garlic, tomatoes, greens, and squash. Same way with crops: there are a couple dozen we favor.

There was a sense of discovery in posts I previously wrote. I have come to know most of the crops that grow here, so discovery is mostly over. While being an adherent to a process of continuous improvement, I’m at a level where experiments are each of limited scope. For example, I’m trying San Marzano tomatoes to be used for canning this year. To detail such efforts seems a bit boring both to write and to read.

In college I read British romantics: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Blake, Keats, Byron, and the Shelleys. I understand the depopulation of the British countryside and increase in industrial activity in cities. Boring! I keep their books yet I don’t see returning to them any time soon. I seek to engender no romantic fantasy about gardening.

Growing a garden is an economic engine. Whatever I can grow at home is something I don’t have to buy from others. Perhaps the biggest money-saver is vegetable broth made diverse greens. Broth is expensive to buy and cheap to make. The quality of homemade is hard to beat. Once I’ve written about my vegetable broth, though, what else is there to say?

The idea of a kitchen garden needs further exploitation this year. Integrating what I grow and preserve with what we use is an important feature of the process. How many jars of pickles will we need? Not as many as I have been canning. Are we better to make sauerkraut or should we manage excess cabbage in the refrigerator, using it fresh? Based on the amount of old jars of kraut on the shelf, we don’t need to make much of it. Do I need to plant more fruit trees? At my age, whatever I plant won’t be productive soon enough to do much good. There is plenty to be done in a kitchen garden. I’m not sure how much people want to hear about it.

Each day, I walkabout the yard to review daily progress and consider the garden plots and how they should be planted. That process lives in the present and no amount of writing can render it otherwise. I’m not sure I want to write it down. What I know is the brush has been burned. As soon as the weather breaks, I should dig up rows for early planting. Just getting it done is satisfaction enough.