Saturday, August 11, 2012

How to Preserve Okra (and other news)

We’re well into the harvest season now, and August has brought more temperate weather to our corner of NY. This has been great news for the heirloom tomatoes, as they have begun to flower again and are producing tons of new fruit with very little blossom end rot. Just last week I gave the garden its last helping of Tomato Tone for the season, and the okra responded by growing about 6 inches in just a few days. I guess someone was hungry!
View of the garden
 Speaking of okra, in one of my last posts, I wrote about the trouble with it so far: that it produced 4-5 pods at a time on a fairly regular basis, which although dependable is too little to use for much other than eating raw. Okra is one of my favorite plants in the garden. It looks cool, the flowers are pretty, it is extremely easy to grow, it’s pretty disease resistant, and it produces fairly regularly. And, of course, we love to eat it! The only issue has been that by the time we get 10-12 pods, the first few have become soft in the refrigerator, so it’s a mix of perfect and subpar. It really doesn’t keep very long in the fridge, and eating it raw isn’t really the reason I planted it.
Green okra

Red okra
Luckily, we’ve found a good solution to preserve the okra until there is a decent amount ready to use. Like many fruits and vegetables, okra freezes well. It has the additional benefit of not needing to be blanched first. In fact, blanching it tends to bring out the starch in the seeds, making it a slimy mess. Trust me, skip that step and just freeze it raw.

Begin by slicing the okra (just keep the slices about the same thickness so they freeze and cook consistently). Then, prepare it for the deep freeze. The key here is to freeze the okra the same way you would freeze fresh berries, by laying the slices flat on a sheet tray and placing them in the freezer until stiff. This results in a quick freeze, and it also keeps the slices from being crushed. That’s why this works so well for fresh berries (or anything else that is delicate and prone to crushing).

Sliced and ready for the freezer
Once the slices are frozen you can transfer them to a sealed bag for long-term storage. We like to slice the okra first, since we normally sauté it with some olive oil and herbs when we eat it for dinner. It’s also a good preparation for soups and gumbo. I’m not sure how it would freeze whole, but I don’t see much benefit in that unless you plan on cooking the pods whole.

Every few days there are 3-4 new pods ready, so I simply repeat the process and continue freezing in small batches, adding to the existing bag of frozen okra. The key to keep okra producing is to make sure to pick the pods as soon as they are ready, as they can go from 4-5 inches to 7 or 8 inches (and very tough and woody) in a day or so. I’ve noticed that as soon as I pick the plants clean of any decent sized pods they tend to flower again and produce even more heavily.

The peppers are loaded with fruit!
This fall, I look forward to a meal of homemade gumbo using this okra, accompanied by a nice glass of Sam Adams Octoberfest! Until then, we continue to enjoy the tastes of summer, which are in full swing now as the heirlooms are producing as many tomatoes as we can eat (look for a post on that very soon!)

Until next time, happy gardening!

Friday, August 3, 2012

A Midsummer Night's Update

Summer has been busier than I expected, and it’s been a while since my last post. I’m not the only one who has been busy; the garden has also been busily churning out goodies for us over the past two weeks.

Sweet 100 Tomato
Cherry tomatoes are really up and running now, as there are dozens of them ready each day. We’ve had a few large tomatoes, but those were mostly from the first set that had some blossom end rot. Oddly enough, it seems like blossom end rot makes them ripen faster, even when they are slightly underdeveloped in terms of size. Still, I just slice off the bottom and a solid 2/3 to ¾ of the tomato is fine to use (and delicious). Now we have several perfectly blemish-free tomatoes that are almost ripe as well. I have had a little cracking and some more blossom end rot here and there, but overall that problem seems to have worked itself out in most of the newer fruit.

One brandywine and 2 green zebras.... top and bottom view
 The star of the garden this year, hands down, has been the eggplant. This is my first time ever growing eggplant, and I can tell you that I’ve never been happier with any crop yet. Of course, I must mention that I am eggplant lover, which is good because those stocky little plants just keep pumping out delicious, perfectly-sized fruits at a crazy pace given their size (they are only about 2 feet tall). 

It's called black beauty for a reason!
 I saw one black beauty (your typical “grocery store” purple eggplant) starting and figured it might get 6 inches or so and then stop growing. Wow was I wrong! It became a behemoth 1 pound, 12 ounce fruit that was as tender and flavorful as any eggplant I have ever tasted. For comparison, the round white weighed in at around 10 ounces, and the long purple was 4 ounces. This past weekend we made a nice pan of eggplant parmesan using one black beauty, one round white, and one long purple eggplant. I called it the eggplant parm trio! It was every bit as delicious as it sounds. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the eggplant but this trumps even my wildest expectations for it.

Top: Eggplant parm fixings!     Bottom: lemon and bread loaf for scale to show fruit size
So far we’ve harvested 7 eggplants between all the varieties, and there are easily another 20 ready to harvest or close to it, with tons of flowers and budding fruit as well! While the heat and blaring sun have caused the tomatoes and bell peppers some stress (thus the blossom end rot) the eggplant are all extremely healthy and amazing productive! Keep in mind this is planting them at the rate of 2 plants per 7 gallon square pot as well (which is more crowded than recommended). The only real drawback (and it isn’t really one for those of us who love eggplant) is finding uses for that much eggplant.

Black beauty and round white eggplants

Eggplant collage
Another star has been the okra. I can’t keep up with it! The only issue is that there are a handful of pods every few days, and there are only so many things you can do with a handful of okra pods at a time. I love to eat them raw (something that many non-okra fans cringe at the thought of) as well as sauté them up to have with lunch or for a snack. I also toss them in an omelet from time to time. If there is a plant that loves the heat as much as the eggplant seems to, it’s the okra. Not only does it look cool, but the flowers are pretty and it just keeps producing and growing. It is easily one of my perennial favorites in the garden.

Okra flowers and pods (red okra on left, green on right)
The bell peppers have been somewhat frustrating, as I keep getting blossom end rot on them as soon as they start getting a decent size. I have just been harvesting them and chopping out the bad spot (which leaves most of the pepper fine to use) but I really want some ripe bell peppers! Hopefully the largest ones will turn color soon. Even still, the ones I’ve harvested are tasty, just a bit smaller and greener than I envisioned when I planted them.

Black krim getting ripe!
Finally, be sure to check out the harvest tally on the link above! The crops are rolling in!

Until next time, happy gardening!