Assuming you were inspired by last week’s post on creating a kitchen garden, you may soon find yourself overrun with fresh fruit and veg in your own backyard. Cooking from your garden requires a different way of meal planning than you may be used to. And there is actually a “correct” way to harvest that bounty in order to maximize flavor and nutrition. This week, I’m here to talk you through the best ways to harvest, enjoy, and put up the (literal) fruits of your labor.
Practice Tough Love: Thin Your Seedlings
If you’re using seeds, some of your vegetables will require thinning–removing some of the seeds that have sprouted in order to make room for the others to grow properly. It’s always hard to cut down a perfectly healthy plant, but if you try to grow them all you’ll end up with stunted plants prone to disease and pests. The best method of thinning is to use a sharp pair of small scissors to clip the seedlings you’re removing right at the soil line. This way you won’t disturb the roots of the ones you want to keep.
Some thinnings, like the beets pictured below, you can eat. I like herb seedlings tossed into salads or salsas; greens are excellent sauteed or in salads. Instead of thinking of it as a “waste” of a perfectly good plant, think of it as an early harvest!
The More You Pick, the More You Get
Contrary to many principles of human consumption, the more you take from your veggie patch, the more prolific it will become. Many vegetables and fruits require regular, daily picking in order to keep them producing. A plant has one, solitary purpose on its mind: to reproduce. And once it feels it has accomplished this, it will stop producing fruit and die. So in order to keep your plants producing for as long as possible, you must keep your veggies under the impression that they have not yet completed their goal. A few popular plants that require almost daily harvesting: herbs (remove any flowers, since that’s where the seeds are; the flowers are a lovely addition to salads!), summer squash, tomatoes (the indeterminate varieties require regular picking, determinates will set their fruit all at once), beans, peas, and most berries.
Pick Early, and Pick Small
Early in the morning is the best time for harvesting. Your plants have been resting all night in the cool shade and flavor is at its peak. I like to wander through my garden at the start of the day, picking whatever is ripe. In the summer, I plan my meals around what’s in the garden. This may be backwards from the way you’re used to meal planning (picking out a recipe and buying the ingredients) and it might take some getting used to.
Another thing that may require some adjustment for you is the size of your produce. You can wait until your cucumbers get as big as the ones you buy at the store, but they will be dry and bitter by the time you pick them. For the most part, the veggies and fruit that you grow in the garden are not meant to get as large as their supermarket counterparts (which are bred to be large and look beautiful). Be sure to pick your harvest when your produce is smaller than what you’re used to. You’ll be rewarded with flavor that surpasses anything you’ve ever bought at the store.
Use it Right Away
Whether you’re eating it fresh, or putting it up for the winter, you’ll want to use your veg right away for maximum flavor and nutrition. There are a few exceptions, but most vegetables begin converting their sugars into starches as soon as you’ve picked them, which means that flavor starts going downhill immediately. If I just can’t use it right away, I put it in a cool, dry place. For some things, this is the fridge. For other things, it’s a box in the basement. But in practically all cases, I don’t wash my produce until I use it. Moisture on your fruit and veg will only hasten its decline. The only things I wash before storing are root vegetables.
There are a variety of methods of putting food by for the winter months. I’ve tried just about all of them and have particular techniques that I favor for certain items. Your preferences may vary from mine, but here is what I generally end up doing:
- Root cellaring: some fruits, winter squash, certain tomato varieties, root vegetables, onion and garlic
- Canning: some berries and tomatoes used in sauces and jams
- Freezing: herbs, tomatoes, fruit, summer squash, green beans, leafy greens
- Fermenting: cabbage and brassicas
- Dehydrating: tomatoes and some fruits
Of course, the best way to make good use of your harvest is to cook it up into something delicious. I recently found The Kitchen Garden Cookbook in our library. DK Publishing is so generous that they not only sent a copy for my kitchen, they also sent one for yours. If you find yourself with a counter overrun with zucchini or tomatoes or basil (or all of them!) and not knowing what to do with them, this is the book you need to get you cooking.
Along with the book are three informational brochures on other DK books that might be helpful for your kitchen garden. The cookbook itself has over 200 simple and tasty recipes (many with lovely photos) that make good use of your fresh veg. The book is arranged seasonally by vegetables and you can cook your way from asparagus in the spring to parsnips in the winter. Along with the recipes are growing, harvesting, and storing tips for each vegetable. And sprinkled among the recipes are pages with tips and techniques for various preservation methods: making jams, drying herbs, making flavored vinegars and oils, braiding onions and garlic….it’s all here. I wish I’d had this cookbook years ago when I was first getting started in the garden!
DK gave me permission to share a recipe with all of you. Since I just planted my peas last weekend and am anticipating my pea harvest, I thought I’d share this recipe for Pea Soup with Mint Gremolata. I can’t wait for the first harvest of peas so that I can make a huge batch of this soup. I love that it makes use of the pods as well as the peas, which saves me a lot of prep work! And it takes advantage of the spring herbs that are going full force at the same time as the pea harvest. If you have a bumper crop of peas, I’m betting that this soup would freeze pretty well.
Growing peas is a pleasure, but discarding the pods can seem a waste. Here pods as well as peas can be used to make this vibrant spring soup. A cheats’ version could use frozen peas.
Source: The Kitchen Garden Cookbook, edited by Caroline Bretherton
Course: Soup and Chili
Prep Time: 10 Min
Cook Time: 35 Min
Total Time: 45 Min
- 1 onion finely chopped
- 2 Tbs butter
- 1 potato coarsely chopped
- 1 lb. peas in their pods coarsely cut up
- 5 cups chicken or vegetable stock
- 1 tsp superfine sugar
- 1 spring of fresh mint
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- a little half-and-half to serve
- 2 Tbs parsley finely chopped
- 2 Tbs fresh mint finely chopped
- 2 tsp lemon zest finely grated
- 1 garlic clove finely chopped
- Cook the onion gently in the butter for 7-10 minutes, stirring until soft. Add the remaining soup ingredients, except the half-and-half. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, partially cover, and simmer gently for 20 minutes, or until the peas and potato are very soft. Discard the mint.
- Working in batches if necessary, puree the soup in a blender or food processor. Pass through a sieve to remove the pods and pea skins. Taste and adjust the seasoning. To serve, either reheat or chill.
- Meanwhile, thoroughly mix together the gremolata ingredients. Ladle the soup into bowls. Before serving add a swirl of half-and-half and sprinkle with a little of the gremolata.
This giveaway has ended.
Congratulations Heather on winning this excellent resource from DK Publishing!