Claire Xidis is harvesting her peppers. Most of the other summer stuff — tomatoes, okra, asparagus — already has been plucked from her five raised gardening beds.
“Peppers slow down in the extreme heat of August and then go strong and make hot peppers until the first freeze,” she said.
Xidis, who lives in the Windermere neighborhood of West Ashley, grows all kinds of peppers, and to stretch out their savory-sweet-spicy goodness over time, she makes sauces, she said.
She orders the little glass bottles in bulk online so she can fill them by the dozens and share with friends.
Now that’s a good way to make the bounty of her garden last.
Success can be daunting to a home gardener. If the summer crop is significant, and the family’s appetite limited, the gardener is left only with a couple of choices: eat tomatoes and zucchini everyday till your eyes cross under the curse of the goddess Demeter, or give a lot of the produce away.
Well, there’s a third choice for those adept with abundant use of sugar and salt, and for those with a large freezer. Many of your late-summer fruits and vegetables can be preserved, their lifespans of edibility extended artificially thanks to the special talents of those big-brained primates we call humans.
Take tomatoes, to start.
“Tomatoes are easy,” says Charleston’s grande dame de la cuisine Nathalie Dupree, who should know. “You can take all of your whole tomatoes and freeze them individually, then put all of them into a plastic bag in the freezer. Then when you have time, do your tomato sauces.”
Don’t freeze them all together, piled one on top of the other, because they’ll stick. Just arrange them on a level of the freezer, wait till they’re hard as a rock, then combine them in a bag for the long haul.
Collards? Cook them then freeze them, Dupree says.
Cauliflower? Separate the florets then freeze them.
Okra? Freeze them, but only if you plan to add them to a gumbo later (see below).
Field peas? Freeze them.
Root vegetables? Stick them in the fridge.
Bananas? Freeze them, if you want to use the fruit for smoothies later.
Avocados already pretty ripe? Smash them, put the puree in a sealed plastic bag and stick the bag in the fridge. Maybe squeeze a little lemon juice in there to help keep it fresh.
Now you know why Dupree has 14 large food cooling units in her house. OK, I’m exaggerating. She doesn’t have 14 large food cooling units in her house. But she does have a tiny refrigerator in her living room where she stores her diet Cokes, and an extra full-size refrigerator in the bathroom. Now you know.
When you’ve filled up your various freezers and nothing more can get squeezed in, it’s time to heat the pan and do some cooking, Dupree says.
Those apples? Slice them thin and mix them with sugar and cinnamon and nutmeg and a dash of lemon juice, lay the pieces in your pie dough, roll the extra dough over the top and cook.
Berries? Make a jam.
Cabbage? Pickle it.
Too many tomatoes to freeze? Render some of them into a sauce, then jar the sauce.
Kale? Why did you plant kale? Just throw it away, Dupree advises.
Stirring the very big pot
Let’s assume you’ve harvested some leafy greens (spinach, collards, chard — but not kale, please not kale), along with some root vegetables like carrots and turnips, and some okra, and some peppers, and some onions, and some celery.
Then do what Ben Moise does: Make a gumbo. A lot of gumbo. An enormous pot of gumbo. Divide it among a few dozen food storage containers and head over to Dupree’s house to borrow some freezer space.
A good gumbo depends almost entirely on a good roux, Moise insists. Here’s how he makes it:
“In a gumbo, the roux really is a big deal. I use bacon fat (½ cup) instead of cooking oil to mix with the flour (1½ cups). Add salt and pepper to taste. On a medium flame stir flour and fat until a rich peanut-butter brown. This takes a while. Keep stirring. Do not walk away from the pot. When the desired color is reached, add 1 tablespoon of tomato paste and stir until all is a rich mahogany color.”
So far so good?
“Then add chopped celery and a healthy pinch of cayenne pepper, onions, minced garlic, chopped bell peppers. Then slowly mix in chicken or beef broth, red wine, or pot liquor from cooking vegetables. This is a basic roux into which almost anything can be added: meat, seafood, chicken, duck, etc. I am certain that the cookbooks are replete with gumbo recipes, some may even be ‘healthy.’ ”
So you know, on the telephone, Moise also mentioned crab meat. So feel free to throw some of that in your very large pot.
Soaked, poached and stewed
Dierdre Schipani, Charleston’s doyenne of edibles, is the happy beneficiary of her neighbor’s Meyer lemons. They grow in such abundance that her neighbor can’t squeeze them fast enough, so she gives them to Schipani who in turn makes lemon preserves and — [writer pauses as images of the sun-drenched Amalfi coast flit through his mind’s eye] — limoncello, that most delectable of after-dinner liquors.
It’s really not that hard. Take the rinds, minus the pith, and soak them in strong alcohol, like 190-proof Everclear, for maybe four days in a cool, dark place. Then add sugar and cut with water and soon penserai all’Italia con un grande sorriso sul viso.
The problem with very good limoncello (and Meyer lemons do make good limoncello), is that it probably won’t last the winter.
When you run out, though, you can turn to your lemon preserves. These, Schipani says, are very useful. They can go in marinades, seasonings, dressings and sauces. And they’re terrific for Moroccan food.
Here’s what she does: Washes the lemons well, makes slits deep into the pulp, removes any visible seeds, then submerges the fruit in salt. After a while the salt removes the moisture.
To preserve other fruits such as blueberries or raspberries, add one part sugar to two parts fruit, and cook to release the pectin.
Apples, figs and pears all can become compotes. Just cook them in water with sugar and seasonings such as cinnamon, star anise, even fennel seeds, Schipani says.
And here’s a good tip: Keep a bunch of spoons in the freezer when cooking your fruit. When you think the cooking is done, stick one of those frozen spoons in the fruity goo, and “if you can run your finger down and ‘part the red sea’ you know you’ve gotten the pectin out.”
Probably you’ll be left with a mess of fruity bits after all these pectin-removing activities. Do not fear! Schipani has a solution.
“I have taken to cooking down the fruit remnants into purees and straining them,” she says. “Add to club soda or sparkling water to add a fresh fruit flavor; drizzle over ice cream or add to room temperature butter to put on waffles, pancakes, French toast.”
Time for the sauce
Xidis, though, isn’t thinking about the sweet stuff. She’s ready for the hot stuff.
Last weekend she put in her fall plants, happily acquired from Rita’s Roots on Wadmalaw Island, even as she eyed those Yellow Thai peppers dangling on the bush nearby. What will she do with those Yellow Thai peppers? Smoke ’em and sauce ’em.
“A big batch of peppers will make six or eight bottles of hot sauce,” she says. “They’re fun for gifts, fun to share with people, with pepper enthusiasts.”
But will they last the winter?