Archive for September, 2007

Seed Saving Simplified: Go for Tomatoes!

Saving seeds sounds great at first – who could argue with growing your own heirloom seeds instead of buying them? But when you take a look at what’s involved with saving things like squash and corn seeds you start seeing the beauty of capitalism. Even easy things like beans and lettuce require you to do your spring planting with fall seed harvest in mind.

But saving tomato seeds is different. Not only can beginning gardeners do it, people who don’t even HAVE gardens can do it, because the best tomatoes to eat are also the best source of seed.

It’s one stop shopping and how great is that? You can save the seeds from a single terrific tomato, no matter where you got it. In theory, at least, you could dig the seeds from a yummy tomato served in a restaurant and save THOSE. The seeds are simple to collect and process. And they last for years.

The only must-have is a tomato that is not a hybrid (read about why here) and that means we should all be very grateful that tomato names now have cachet. Instead of “tomatoes,” pure and simple, the farmer – and increasingly the restaurant – offers Brandywines, Jetstars, Black from Tula and who knows what-all. There are hundreds of ’em. Doesn’t matter. As long as you know the name you can – bless google – just look up “xyz seed. ” If it’s a hybrid that can’t be saved, “hybrid” will be part of the description,

The actual moral of this picture is do not get to the farmers market at 9:30 AM if official start time is 9:00.

I’m going to save seeds from a tomato – a big fat beautiful delicious tomato – I bought at the Rockland, Maine farmers market a couple of weeks ago. It’s called Hillbilly Potato Leaf, so I know that like many delicious heirlooms the plant will have broader, simpler leaves than common tomato plants.

Potato leafness is on the left. These were plucked from full grown plants, but even young seedlings look different enough so you can spot which is which.

Why that might be useful will be discussed presently. For right now, while there are still gazillions of wonderful tomatoes just waiting to be enjoyed – and saved! – here’s how

to save tomato seeds

1. Choose perfect, dead ripe tomatoes. The better they are of their kind, the better your chances of repeat greatness. And of course, the riper the fruit, the more ripe seeds it will contain.

2. Cut the tomatoes across the equator. Scrape the seeds into a glass jar. The surrounding gel will come along. No problem. *

Cross-cutting exposes the seeds so you can pry them out while taking the least amount of tomato flesh. Makes no difference with these little guys (Amy’s Sugar Gem, about the size of a golfball) but if you have big tomatoes with small seed cavities there’s no point in wasting the parts you could eat.

3. Ferment the seeds.**

3a) Add enough water to the jar to make soup out of the seeds and gel. Loosely cover the jar with cheesecloth or a piece of paper towel, so air can get through. Put the jar someplace warm ( not hot), out of the sun, preferably a place where odd smells won’t be noticed.

3b) Wait 2 to 4 days, during which the jar contents will bubble , a cap of revolting moldy goo will gradually form on top of the liquid and most of the seeds will sink. Those that remain afloat are no good.

3c) Lift and discard the cap. Fill the jar with room temperature water and gently swish the seeds around to wash them. Carefully pour off the water and debris, then put the seeds in a strainer and rinse under running water. Don’t press on them; they don’t need to be squeaky clean.

4. Spread the seeds on a paper plate (they stick to china and to paper towel) and let them dry out of the sun, stirring from time to time to expose all surfaces. When they’re dry enough to rattle, they’re ready to store. As long as they stay dry, cool and dark the container is up to you. An ordinary envelope labeled with variety and date will do, but a tightly-lidded jar is better. And if you want to reward yourself – or use the seeds as holiday gifts – there are all sorts of inexpensive supplies like resealable seed packets and moisture proof vials at Garden Medicinals and Culinaries.

* The gel around tomato seeds contains most of the acid that makes sweetness interesting. Recipe instructions that tell you to remove seeds from raw tomatoes should probably be ignored, but if you want to follow them be sure the recipe includes some other source of acidity.

**Many garden bloggers say they don’t bother to ferment tomato seeds and it isn’t absolutely essential, But it does 3 important things:
+ It removes the germination inhibitor that keeps the seeds from sprouting inside the tomato.
+ It gets rid of many seed-borne diseases
+ It separates good seeds from defective ones, vastly improving the quality of your stash.

Putting Food By


(so you can eat locally all year long)

Upstairs: Food Historian Sandy Oliver keeps winter squash under the bed. Bottom of the linen closet is also good; just don’t forget they’re there.

Downstairs: An unheated basement ( 35 to 45 degrees) , a second refrigerator ( or the back of the one in the kitchen) is almost a root cellar. Things to keep in it from harvest to spring: Beets, Carrots, Cabbages, Onions, Wine, Beer, Cheese.

In a cool back bedroom or similar: Potatoes. They like to be cold, but not quite as cold as other roots.

In the pantry/ food cupboard:

Dried: Wild bolete mushrooms, wild or cultivated agaricus mushrooms, tomatoes, shell beans.
Canned: Applesauce, fruit spreads, ketchup, tomatoes, roasted tomatoes for instant sauce.

In the garden: lightly mulched Parsley and Kale will survive until a very hard freeze (@ 26 degrees); the more slowly it gets cold, the more cold they can take. Chard, Brussels sprouts and Broccoli raab aren’t quite as hardy but still can stand – indeed benefit from – repeated light freezes. Many gardening and country food books, including some of mine, suggest leaving beets and carrots in the ground under a heavy mulch and then harvesting as needed. It works fine if you don’t have voles.

In the freezer: Wild mushrooms (morel, chanterelle, sulfur shelf, blewit, hen of the woods) sautéed in enough butter to be a sauce for the pasta, baked potato, winter squash or other starch that is then dinner; Toasted almond pesto or other pesto to use like the mushrooms ; Berries; Whole tomatoes for soup and sauce; Full-meal soups like Minestrone and Corn chowder, Harvest Vegetable Stews like corn, squash and pepper/ tomato, pepper and onion/ snap and shell beans with summer squash. Chickens. Your quarter of a local lamb, pig or steer, divided into the cuts you’ve ordered. Make an inventory and keep it near the freezer!( along with a pen on a string for crossing off)

Harvest Minestrone

and a great deal else in a minute (famous last words). For now, the recipes for an omnium-gatherum vegetable soup and a freezer friendly pesto as promised to everyone at MaineFare!

Incipient minestrone, partly gathered from my garden but not all of it because I don’t grow kale, potatoes, shell beans or carrots.


This is a very general guideline; as long as you start with the flavored broth, include both starchy and delicate vegetables and use enough of them to make the soup hearty without turning it into stew, you’re in business.

Classic recipes include pasta or rice and I used to too. But now I don’t, because flexibility trumps the tiny gain in convenience you get from freezing the soup “complete.” There’s usually leftover cooked pasta or rice lying around in the fridge and when there isn’t we just use more good bread – French or Italian, generally – which IS always lying around and may be the most delicious choice anyway.

For about 12 main dish ( large ) servings:

1/3 pound lean salt pork or fatty bacon, cut in 1 inch chunks

3 large cloves garlic

½ loosely-piled cup flat-leaf parsley, leaves and tender stems

grated zest of 1 lemon

1 large onion, cut in small dice

3 quarts water – quality matters. Use filtered if your tap is chlorinated

3-4 cups root vegetables, cut in roughly ¾ inch chunks. Carrots and potatoes mostly, some parsnip and/or turnip if you like but not too much as both of these are rather aggressive.

2 cups fresh shell beans

½ cup celery in medium slices. Not thin. Not chunks.

2 cups firm summer squash, crookneck or small zucchini, cut in roughly ½ inch slices . Halve the squash the long way first if they’re more than about an inch thick.

1 ½ cups snap beans ( Romanos are lovely if you can find them) cut in 1 inch lengths.

3 cups ripe tomatoes, peeled and coarsely chopped

About 3 cups chopped kale or savoy cabbage

A good sized handful each chopped Italian parsley and basil

1. Chop pork, garlic and the half-cup parsley until it looks like hamburger – the processor is fastest ( if you don’t have to wash it by hand).

2. Put the olive oil in a heavy kettle over low heat, add the pork mixture and lemon rind and cook, stirring, until most of the pork fat is released. Add the onion and keep cooking until it is wilted and starting to turn gold.

3. Add the water and bring to a boil. Put in the root vegetables and shell beans, adjust the heat so the liquid just simmers and cook until the vegetables are about half done – no longer crisp but still somewhat tooth-resistant, 15 to 20 minutes.

4. Add celery, squash, snap beans and tomatoes and cook until the roots are tender and the snap beans are al dente, about 20 minutes more.

5. Now the kale and cooking until it’s tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Add the herbs. Let them wilt, then taste and adjust the salt.

6. Serve with pesto – your own, pistachio (scroll down to find it) or Toasted Almond (below), a better choice for freezing. Freshly grated Parmesan is traditional but if you have good local hard cheese why not experiment? You can also skip the cheese entirely or switch it 180 for an entirely new taste treat. Sprinkle some small chunks of young mozzarella over the hot soup as soon as you ladle it into the bowls. It should be somewhere between soft and melted when everyone starts eating.

Note: this produces a soup that’s just barely done, on the theory that it is going to be frozen, which softens things, then reheated, which softens them some more. If you’re planning to eat it right away, cook until the kale is almost falling apart before you add the herbs.


As usual, quantities are just guidelines. Even more than usual, actually, given the difficulty of measuring fresh leaves and the enormous variability of fresh herbs. The goal is to have a fairly even mixture of almond and parsley flavors, with a strong accent of basil and a mild accent of garlic.

To make lots of this for freezing, make multiple batches; the processor heats up the pesto if you ask it to grind too much. The multiples go very fast since you don’t have to wash the processor between them.

For a scant cup, about 8 servings depending on what you’re doing with it:

1/3 cup toasted almonds. (see note about skins)

2 medium sized cloves of garlic – use large if it’s hardneck.

1/3 cup olive oil

2 loosely packed cups chopped Italian parsley, leaves and tender stems.

1 loosely packed cup basil leaves

2 or 3 leaves of sorrel or a squeeze of lemon

pinch of salt

1. Put almonds and garlic in a processor and grind, scraping down the sides from time to time, until you have fine meal. Add about a third of the oil and a teaspoon of water and grind again until you have a paste – it won’t be smooth, but it will be cohesive.

2. Add the herbs (lemon juice) and salt and about a tablespoon of water. Grind to puree. Add the remaining oil and puree again. The pesto should have the texture of thick mayonnaise. If it’s still too solid, add water in very small amounts until it’s right. The more water you add, the more beautiful the color will be. Try not to get too carried away.

Note: The most delicious way to make this is to toast the almonds in their skins; dump them into boiling water; simmer for about 3 minutes, then leave them in the hot water while you work with small batches at a time, pinching the skins off. The boiling not only loosens the skins but also softens the nuts so they grind to a smoother paste. This is not fast work.

In theory, you could buy blanched almonds, toast them, then just give them a brief swim to soften, but blanched almonds – including those hotsy totsy Marcona almonds – don’t taste as good as almonds in the skins. Must be something about the industrial blanching process. I just use the toasted almonds and leave it at that. (If you soften the almonds in their skins and then try to grind them without peeling, the skins don’t grind smoothly with the nuts).

End Of Summer Squash

Don’t panic. It’s only summer we’re coming to the end of. Even here in the far Northeast there’s still at least a month of delicious Romanesco zucchini, pale-skinned Middle Eastern cousa and the buttery old fashioned yellow crookneck that’s now almost exclusively a home garden delight.
At first glance, this may seem like no big deal. Zucchini and straight necked yellow squash are year-round supermarket staples, and most winter versions of these vegetables are – unlike winter tomatoes – edible. But they are also edible as in “ eat your vegetables” rather than edible as in “oh YUM! How do you make this thing?

(Squash Tortilla. See below.)

Long about now you may be thinking you’ve totally had it with zucchini, even absolutely perfect zucchini, and that if you find under the leaves or are given by an evil friend one more dark green baseball bat, you will subsist henceforth on potato chips.

But stay! There are two things to consider:

1) There’s no point in trying to stay ahead by harvesting the babies. Tiny squash with the blossoms still attached don’t taste like much of anything no matter how fresh they are.

The one on the left is about 1 day from perfect; the flower is just opening and has not yet been pollinated. The one on the right – I really have seen them this size in stores – is ridiculous. It would also be ridiculous if it were a crookneck or Cousa. The potential for flavor is there, but flavor itself is not.

2. You will not easily tire of zucchini if it’s Romanesco, aka Costata Romanesco, a uniquely firm and nutty variety. This one does taste good when it’s quite small and, even more astonishing, the not-seedy part will still be worth eating when the thing’s the size of your forearm.

The one in the middle looks suspiciously robust, and as a general rule it’s wise to avoid any summer squash (or eggplant) so mature it has matte rather than shiny skin. But Romanesco, sold by Johnny’s and by Renee’s, among others, is the exception.

Plus it’s deeply ribbed ( usually) so the slices have beautifully scalloped edges. It’s not yet common at farmstands and greenmarkets, but it’s showing up more and more often as growers and customers alike discover its virtues.

Squash Tortilla


This has nothing to do with tacos. It’s named for the famous Spanish dish of potatoes, eggs and olive oil; and although it’s made somewhat similarly the main reason I’m calling it a tortilla is that I was scared if I called it a squash cake you’d expect it to be sweet.

It’s not. It’s essence of toothsome squash, with a soft pale green or gold-flecked center and deeply olive oil browned crust, equally good hot and cold, as an appetizer, side dish or main course. And making it is simplicity itself, assuming you have a processor with a shredding attachment and that you allow enough time (at least an hour) for the squash to sit there and drain.

For a 9 or 10 inch tortilla: 4 main dish, 6 side dish or 8 tapa servings :

3 – 4 lbs. summer squash: zucchini, Middle-East , crookneck or pattypan in any combination. Use the larger amount if squash are large; they shrink more in preparation.

1 medium onion

2 heaping tablespoons of salt (fear not, it comes back out)

3 extra large eggs or 4 smaller ones

about ¼ cup of flour

olive oil

1. If the squash is large, cut it in quarters and slice out the seedy soft center material. Otherwise just make it small enough to go through the feed tube. Shred about half of it, then shred the onion, then shred the rest. Put all the shredded material in a large bowl.

Old ironstone washbowls are ideal for mixing large quantities. They’re a much better shape than most mixing bowls, which are too narrow and deep.

2. Add the salt and mix thoroughly – your hands are the best tool for this. Put the squash in a colander over the sink or or a bowl, fit a non-reactive bowl or pan on top and weight it with something like a 5 pound sack of flour. Leave it for an hour or so, during which vast quantities of liquid will come out, reducing the squash volume by 1/3 to ½, depending.

3. Rinse the drained squash with cold running water, press out excess liquid with your palm, then repeat the weighted drain routine for 5 or 10 minutes. If you’re cooking this for someone you want to impress with your world-class cooking skills, turn the shreds into a towel and squeeze out even more moisture. Otherwise don’t bother.

4. Beat the eggs just until loosened in a large bowl, then stir in the squash. Add enough flour to turn the mixture into something the texture of cake batter, very soft and loose but with no free liquid. Pause between additions to let the flour swell, the less you use the better but if you don’t use enough the bottom crust won’t be crisp.

5. Put a heavy 9 or 10 inch skillet over medium heat and add a generous layer of olive oil. How generous is up to you but there has to be more than a slick and this would actually be good deep fried, so it’s hard to use too much.

6. When the oil just starts to smoke, turn in the squash and smooth the top. Cook until the edges start to draw in and if you lift an edge with a spatula you can see things are pretty brown at the bottom. This should take about 10 minutes.

7. Turn on the broiler, put the skillet 3 (or so ) inches under it and broil until the cake top is flecked with brown, about 5 minutes more.

8. Loosen the cake with a wide spatula. Put a large plate over the pan and – holding both firmly with protected hands – flip the tortilla out. That’s it. You could garnish it with sprigs of basil or bouquets of cherry tomatoes or whatever. Or not.

Looking Ahead
: There aren’t many vegetables worth freezing plain as ingredients for later use; but if you get a good buy on good summer squash or have a bumper crop, preparing it through step 3 and then freezing it sets you up for making the tortilla (or individual squash pancakes) with lightening speed, even in the dead of winter. Double bag the shreds so the onion aroma doesn’t spread itself around and expect to drain out even more liquid after the mixture thaws.