Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Tomato Sauce

These are the tomato days of summer, the season of plenty.  Tomatoes, arranged by picking day and relative ripeness, have taken over the kitchen table.  Bags of recently harvested eggplant, okra, and peppers crowd the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator.  The basil is still trying to flower and needs to be trimmed back yet again.  I plan my schedule for the week around watering days, Thursdays and Sundays, and I start every other day with a trip into the garden with the cat (my supervisor), a pair of scissors, and a bowl for harvesting okra, eggplant, and tomatoes.

So why do I have a hard time enjoying this season of plenty?  Granted, watering is a chore in the drought and the daytime temperatures, by the time I get up, given my swing-shift schedule, are downright unpleasant.  But that's just the Texas summer.  The real challenge for me is that I experience the plenty not as abundance but as an extended to-do list: make pesto; eat more tomatoes; make baba ganoush; bake a pesto pizza, a margarita pizza, an eggplant pizza; make fresh salsa; make tomato soup; buy extra pasta, cheese, bread, and crackers; make an eggplant stir fry; figure out what to do with all that okra; make tomato sauce.

I put off making tomato sauce.  Not because it was difficult or less appealing, but because the tomatoes, picked slightly under-ripe to minimize splitting and bird and ant damage, and lined up on the kitchen table, seemed more able to wait than the eggplant and okra sitting in damp bags in the refrigerator.  So I pickled the okra, and baked and fried the eggplant, and made another batch of pesto, and, then, once the refrigerator wasn't so full, decided it was time to make fresh tomato sauce.

I started with several tomatoes, I'm guessing about two pounds.  These were the big tomatoes, as opposed to the grape and Porter tomatoes that I save for eating fresh, a mix fruit from JD's Special C-Tex Early Black, Old German, Sunmaster, and the one that I thought was a Celebrity that is actually making golden tomatoes.  (Note to self, it works better to write down the names at planting time than to rely on the labels staying in the ground.)  I skinned the tomatoes, chopped them, allowing some of the excess water drain away, and cooked them down in a pan where I had already fried onion and garlic in olive oil.  Once the tomato juices were reduced, I added fresh basil, salt, and black pepper.  It was a simple sauce, and the only real work of it was in de-skinning the tomatoes and trimming basil leaves from their stems.

But this simple tomato sauce had nothing to do with what I think of as "tomato sauce".  It wasn't dark red and it didn't have any of the citric acid bite of canned tomatoes.  It wasn't pastey or sugary or overly crowded with dry herbs.  Instead it was sweet and garlicky, minty in the way of fresh basil, and alive tasting.  The concentrate of summer.

Sitting at the table, surrounded by ripening tomatoes, eating fresh tomato sauce and Parmesan cheese over spaghetti, I had a moment of insight into Italian cooking and what tomato sauce originally was, back before it was a canned food.  I imagined an Italian woman, in the heat of summer, faced with basketfuls of ripening tomatoes and a hedge of basil that wouldn't stop flowering, deciding that the only way to deal with all those tomatoes was to cook them down into a sauce.  And that sauce would have been the basis of meals for the season, eaten over pasta, between bread and cheese, or chunky with added vegetables.  What a wonderful tasting season that would have been.  No wonder we try to capture it in a can.

Summer Tomato Sauce

2 pounds fresh, locally-grown tomatoes
2-4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped or thinly sliced
6-8 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
1 teaspoon salt
1-2 bunches fresh basil, stems removed, coursely chopped
fresh cracked black pepper

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.  If you're going to serve the sauce over pasta, this can be the pasta water.  Cut the top (where the stem attaches) out of the tomatoes.  Drop the tomatoes into the boiling water for about 30 seconds, or until the skin begins to peel.  Carefully remove the tomatoes from the boiling water.  Rinse the tomatoes under cold water and remove the skins.  Chop the tomatoes and set aside in a colander so that the excess water can drain from the tomatoes.

In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil.  Cook the onion over medium heat until it begins to brown, about ten minutes.  Add the garlic and cook, stirring frequently, for another couple of minutes, or until the sting of the garlic is mellowed.

Add the chopped tomatoes and salt and stir to combine.  The sauce will be watery at this point, but that is okay because cooking will reduce the sauce, concentrating all that fresh tomato goodness.  Simmer on medium-high heat for about 15 minutes, or until the liquid is reduced (but not boiled away) and the tomatoes are cooked down to the desired consistency.  Add the basil, stir well, and cook for another minute.  Season with black pepper to taste.

Serve over pasta or with toasted bread.  Top with Parmesan cheese.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Bug Refuge

I have a bug habitat in my garden.  I know that it's a common practice, or at least an advocated practice among organic gardeners, to provide a place for the bugs, both good and bad, in the garden in the hopes of keeping the unwelcome bugs in check.  But providing a bug refuge is not really something I meant to do so much as something I've happened into.

It started with the basil.  Basil is relentless in its drive to flower and, of course, flowering is exactly what I don't want it to do, because flowering will rob the leaves of sugar, making the leaves that I want to harvest bitter.  So every few days I trim away flowering buds, making the basil plants bushier with each trimming, doubling the number of branches that can bloom every time I trim the plants.  Which in turn doubles the number of leaves in each potential harvest, though the leaves are smaller.  We're living in the basil-rich season, eating the leaves in salads and on pizza and with pasta, with a batch of pesto always at the ready in the fridge, but, much as I enjoy this season and look forward to it through the winter and spring, there will come a point where the basil plants and I will grow weary of this race and I will simply let them flower.  It seems like the decent thing to do for the plants after a season of thwarting their continuous, heroic attempts to flower.

What I've found, as I've allowed summer-weary basil plants to flower, is that there is another reason to let the plants keep their garden space for weeks after their harvest window is over: the bees adore the flowers.  And I like supporting the bees, especially in the heat of the summer.

The summer is not the only tough season for the bees.  A few months ago, just after the late-season freezes but before the spring wildflowers began, the bees were desperate for food.  So when the cilantro bolted, transforming itself from a neat, leafy row of herbs into a dense, tall hedge of feathery leaves, I left it in place for the bees.  It looked a bit out of place, a wall of greenery at the front of the garden, prompting Lee to ask, What is that tall stuff?, but was quickly covered in white inflorescences.  And just as quickly covered in bees.  So I allowed the cilantro to keep its garden space for weeks after it had bolted even though I really needed that space to plant this summer's basil.  Eventually a wind- and rainstorm knocked over the hedge of cilantro, turning it into enough of an eyesore, right there by the front sidewalk, that I had no guilt about removing it to the compost pile.  The bees buzzed around me as I pulled the plants – they certainly didn't care whether the plants were lying on their sides.

With the cilantro gone, the garden looked empty.  The okra and beans were still just rows of seedlings and the eggplant and basil were new transplants, small and far from each other.  In the back corner, though, the fennel and sorrel remained.  I tried to harvest some of the fennel for its bulbs but, because of the freeze or maybe because I waited too long, most of the fennel plants had started to bolt, turning their base bulbs knuckly and tough.  I tried cooking a few of the bulbs that hadn't yet produced flowering stalks, sliced thin and cooked forever in butter and white wine, but, though delicious, the fennel was still so fibrous that chewing it lasted indefinitely.  So I left the remaining fennel plants to bloom, telling myself, The fennel is for the bees.

Now the fennel is flowering and over six feet tall, nearly as tall as the front roof of the house.  The yellow, umbrella-shaped inflorescences bob in the hot winds of this June, high above the feathery green foliage, giving the plants a surreal look.  What are those Dr. Seuss looking plants?, one neighbor asked.  The bees are not confused.  The bees love the flowers, as do flies and butterflies and many types of wasps.  Huge, colorful wasps.  And the aphids – I noticed a couple of weeks ago that many of the fennel inflorescences have been overtaken by aphids.  I was tempted to remove those clusters of flowers, in fact, my neater, tider, things-in-their-place self would have loved to bag up the aphid-covered parts for yard-waste pickup.  Then I remembered that the fennel was for the bugs and decided to leave the aphids alone, even though the sight of them, in numbers, makes my arms itch as I brush past the fennel flowers.

An interesting thing happened when I left the aphids alone.  The ladybugs showed up.  First, just a few ladybugs, followed by a few ladybug larvae.  Now it's a ladybug orgy out there, with ladybugs breeding and ladybugs eating and ladybug larvae dangling from the undersides of aphid-covered umbels.  The aphid situation is no better, in fact, the aphids now cover even more of the flowering fennel.  Still, I'm happy to be breeding ladybugs in the heat of the summer. 

And it's possible that the bug refuge is helping my other plants.  At the same time that I noticed the beginnings of aphid infestation on the fennel, I also noticed that ants were farming aphids on some of the okra plants growing across the path.  I washed those aphids off but expected them to return in force, but they haven't.  The okra continues to grow and flower and make okra pods that have to be harvested every day so they don't become ginormous, and as I'm out there every day in the sticky, scratchy plants, I haven't noticed much aphid activity.

I'm not sure how long the fennel will last, or if I will come to regret allowing the aphid population to grow without the check of the garden hose and some strategic trimming.  But I am convinced that having flowers, especially the big, messy flowering stalks of carrot-family herbs like cilantro and fennel, in the garden attracts pollinating insects.  I also find myself wondering where the ladybugs will live next, after the fennel goes to seed, because I'm liking this practice of leaving a few of last season's plants to flower amidst this season's vegetables.  For the bees.