Apple lovers give them a big squeeze

Tiny little sprouts are trying to grow in my garden. In my late-season garden. Wildfire lettuce mix, two kinds of beets, a new batch of Ruby Red chard, white turnips, flat-leaf spinach and ruffled Lollo Rossa lettuce. All planted where the cucumbers once were.

Maybe planted in an abundance of optimism. The too-high heat and too-little rain have discouraged growth. I'll need to replant some seeds. Then, perhaps, we'll get another more generous rain and stuff will really take off. I don't know if there's enough season left now for beets, but lettuce and other greens should have ample time for growing.

My dream was to recreate the late garden of last year. It was so lush and full we had to keep it wrapped up with floating row cover so bunnies and groundhogs didn't dine on our Harkurei turnips, baby beets, little round carrots, mixed lettuces, mizuna, kale and microgreens.

Since last year was also the Year of the Blight, it's a bit surprising that I have fond memories. But every garden season brings something wonderful and last year's late garden was phenomenal.

Each night for our dinner salad, David or I would tromp out to the garden with salad spinner and scissors, lift the row cover and build a salad right there.

From this year, I'll remember the early garden's amazing onions, especially the deep-purple cipolline, a flattened, sweet, Italian onion. One is just about enough for a salad.

Also, I'll remember the bushels of cool, crispy cukes -- five kinds -- and the rogue cantaloupe that grew up among them. The stubborn, lovely wax beans that kept on producing, even though the plant was dry and brittle. The mild, tender, baby cabbages, especially the pointed-head Caraflex ones. That feathery green forest of dill. And the tomatoes, with their sweet juiciness and the promise that they would keep on forever.

The recent unrelenting heat and drought seemed to have quashed that promise, as tomato plants drooped and struggled. Now that we've had a spit of rain and the weather has cooled they look a little perkier. Still, the peak is way over.

It has been an interesting year, offering a little bit of every kind of weather and a taste of the seasons, sometimes all in one week. All after a winter I will never forget. The snow. A road sign down from us reads "No Winter Maintenance." For nine long days, we had no electricity. For the second year in a row, we watched the Super Bowl on the radio.

This year, if the electricity goes out, the first thing we'll rescue from the freezer is that jug of apple cider, made the other weekend from this year's apple abundance. To quote my up-the-hill neighbor, it has been a phenomenal fruit year. Trees that haven't borne apples, peaches, pears, cherries or plums in years (or forever) were loaded with fruit. We think it's due to the winter snow and the lack of a late, sneaky frost. It's been magical, nearly overwhelming.

Take a walk along our lane sampling the apples from different trees, finding the one with just the right hit of acid and sweet and crunch. This is what the deer have been doing, distracting them, so far, from our garden. This is what our three dogs would like to do, but apples, which they crave, provide negative digestive effects. And this is what the small tribe of strong young folks from Pittsburgh did the other weekend, collecting apples from the trees for an apple "squeezing."

In our up-the-hill neighbor's shed is an old apple press. It takes two people, one on either side, to crank it, requiring strong young arms. They made about 40 gallons of cider that day. Then dinner outdoors, the kids set loose, running about, throwing balls, dogs sniffing out new arrivals, while adults spiked their cider with bourbon.

Later, upon leaving, some came down to check out my garden. New friends, Susanna Meyer and her husband, Neil Stauffer, live in the city, but both are involved in agriculture. Neil runs Penn's Corner Farm Alliance, hooking up farmers and restaurants and coordinating a community-supported agriculture program. Susanna works for Grow Pittsburgh, an organization that teaches urbanites how to grow food. She's also the co-author, along with her mother, Mary Clemens Meyer, of a new preserving book, "Saving the Seasons." (See the story in this section by Virginia Phillips.)

The couple, expecting their first child around Thanksgiving, had lots of good garden know-how. Neil spotted a tomato hornworm destroying a Jimmy Nardello pepper. Susanna explained how to overwinter my rhubarb: Don't trim the stems; simply leave it to die back (information I've never found in any gardening book). Neil also identified my egg-shaped, purple-green-hued tomatoes. These late-ripening, crisp-tart beauties were grown from seeds given to me by Alla, a Russian woman who is a super gardener. She works as a manicurist in New York City.

Alla didn't know the name of her tomatoes but the women in the nail spa where she worked praised them. I suggested they might be Black Krim, a tomato that originated in Russia. Neil knew right away that they were Black Prince, as Black Krim is larger, more shapely. I hope to be able to tell Alla this.

The light is different these days, lower in the sky and clearer. Today the clouds changed from deep, dramatic charcoal to fluffy white. The hills have a touch of fall in them, looking, uncannily, like one of my husband's pastel landscapes.

Already, I'm planning my garden for next year. Thinking about what I want to grow. Hoping for another amazing year.

Apple and Pear Crumble with Walnuts and Oats

PG tested

All summer, instead of pies, I've been making crisps and crumbles from whatever fruit is in season. Cherries and blueberries were early favorites, but apples remain my mainstay. I love the combination of apple and pear, but you can make this with one or the other, depending on what's on your trees or at the market. I also like to add about 1/4 cup of golden or dark raisins soaked in 2 tablespoons Meyer's rum. Taste the fruit mixture, making sure it's got enough lemon juice and sugar.

For the crumble
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • Pinch salt
  • 5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut up
  • 3/4 cup walnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped
  • 1/3 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
For the filling
  • About 2 pounds tart apples and firm-ripe pears, or any combination, peeled, cored and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices (7 to 8 cups)
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons granulated sugar
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Set out a 9-by-9-inch (or a little larger) glass baking dish. (The dish I used was 9 1/2 inches square and 2 inches deep.)

In food processor, put flour, brown sugar, cinnamon and salt; process to blend. Add butter; pulse until mixture forms coarse crumbs. Add walnuts and oats; pulse just until ingredients are mixed, not chopped.

Put apples and pears in baking dish. Mix with cinnamon and granulated sugar and lemon juice to taste, depending on tartness or sweetness of fruit. Crumble walnut-oat mixture on top.

Bake 30 to 40 minutes, until fruit is tender, juices start to bubble and topping is lightly browned. Cool a bit before serving.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

-- Miriam Rubin

Greek Village Salad

PG tested

My Greek friend Nancy Backas prepared this salad for us one night. She and her husband, Terry Feingold, were making their annual summer trek from Chicago. They're caterers and love to go "shopping" in my garden, especially during tomato season. Good, creamy feta is a key ingredient here. Nancy added a little lemon juice to her dressing but said it wasn't an authentic Greek touch.

  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons red wine vinegar (or to taste)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 1/2 to 2 pounds large ripe tomatoes, cut into large chunks
  • 1 medium cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced (about 1 1/2 cups)
  • 1/3 cup thinly sliced red onion
  • 6 to 8 calamata olives, pits removed
  • 3/4 cup coarsely crumbled feta cheese
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano

In small bowl, mix oil and vinegar, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste. In large wide bowl or high-sided platter, arrange tomatoes, cucumber and red onion. Scatter olives over. Spoon dressing over salad and sprinkle feta on top. Crush oregano with your fingers, sprinkling it over feta. Let stand a few minutes before serving.

Makes 4 servings.

-- Nancy Backas

Miriam Rubin writes from Greene County: .


Hot Topic