Friday, September 28, 2012

When Artists Cook


Harvest season always fills me with ________________________ .  How would you fill in that blank?
. . .

Hi everyone, Bethann Merkle here, I’ve been mulling this over for the past month or so, as the garden peaks, the farmers markets flood with produce, and I write and rewrite the list of things to preserve for the winter.  At about the same time, my husband has been conducting the annual check/re-arrangement in the deep freeze and regular freezers.  

[We recently stood peering into the deep freeze, delighted at the discovery of some special bits that had escaped cooking earlier in the year.  And let me tell you, special bits aren’t always very glamorous or gourmet - we were particularly pleased to find a couple of hidden packages of venison burger, the only burger left in the house.]

This incident is a good indicator of a personal truism - I tend to get a little ahead of myself when it comes to harvesting and preserving.  By that I mean, there’s no limit for me.  It’s never enough.  As long as there is a nook or cranny in the house that is reasonably stable in temperature, and not exposed to much light, I am interested in filling it with food that will keep through, or at least into, the winter.
  What this means, at least this year, is that there are piles and piles of garlic drying in the basement - on shelves where we usually store our camping gear and my sewing machine.  It also means that we stop at roadside stands, on the rare luxurious trip outside the city, and purchase produce in bulk. Capital B - B.U.L.K!  Think ~80 pounds of peaches, so ripe they dripped down your chin when you looked at them.  Picture 120+ pounds of tomatoes, and about 30 pounds of peppers, and at least that much in u-picked raspberries. 
Everything gets frozen, dehydrated, or canned.  Freezing is my personal favorite because it is quick and simple, and we deal with a lot of the peppers, berries and tomatoes that way. However, our freezers are busting at the seams, and we aren’t halfway through the harvest yet.  As in most years, we have again resorted to canning - a cheap but time-consuming way to get a great facial.  

Already, we have rows upon rows of jars filled with brightly colored spicy pickled peppers (oh, boy, do I love making pickles!), crimson tomato sauce, and sunshiney peaches.  Our shelves are slightly, almost imperceptibly bowed under the weight of jars - a happy problem to have.  As my honey never ceases to remind me, we probably don’t need much more jam to make it through this winter, unless we start giving it away to every person we know by their first name.  But that never stopped a girl, at least in my case.  We made some of those peaches into golden ambrosia (a.k.a., jam), along with almost all the raspberries.  And last night, we experimented with something brand new - homegrown, hand-picked, homemade grape jam!  

Our backyard is lined in vines, but last year (our first year in this apartment), they produced a piddly handful of grapes.  This year, though, they’re making up for it in bushels!  We picked about 20 pounds last night, stuffed ourselves full of them, and then tested this recipe (from Local Kitchen). Let’s just say Welch’s ain’t got nuthin’ on homemade jam!  Wowza!

Having such a hands-on relationship with my food is one of my absolute favorite things about the mayhem that is harvest season.  The kitchen is aswarm with fruit flies, which one cheeky friend describes as “indicators of abundance,” and the occasional stow-away earwig always shows up in the least expected corner.  But, even when I’m busy picking snails out of the beet greens, or scrubbing tomato splatters off of...well, everywhere, this is still about as real as it gets.

When I can plant the seeds, water them, weed around them, and then pull them out of the dirt with other organisms still clinging to them, I know those plants intimately.  When I rinse them, chop and simmer them, pour them through a funnel, and plunge the jars containing them into steamy water, I am taking as direct a role in my local (and internal) ecosystem as I can.  Mind you, the BULK aspects of preservation don’t come out of our garden (yet), but they do come from farmers we know a little better every year.  They grown in the similar soil to what we cultivate, flourishing under the same weather systems.

For the next year, friends and family will gather ‘round tables to honor the life which is supporting ours.  Some of them ask for canning tips, or even a session with us so they can learn how.  When I can catch my breath, I scribble a little something into my sketchbooks to capture it all. Because even shelves loaded to groaning and freezers stuffed to the brim will be emptied as we celebrate the bounty, the flavor, and the labor of another harvest. 


Thanks for checking in xx