Miriam's Garden: Winding it up but not before capturing some final, beautiful bits

In my garden, it is time to close out a pretty good season. Not great, but pretty good, and with lots of flavor. We've had three light, early frosts, which remind us that growing is about done. It's time to clean up the garden.

Today we pulled out the remaining tomatoes and the basil. But we haven't quite yet said goodbye to the zinnias and the white-petaled chamomile flowers and the tall crimson spikes of the red hummingbird sage and pineapple sage. We can still pick a bouquet of these, filling out the bunch with sprays of pink and white seashell cosmos to bring outside colors into the house.

Where's the Heat?

Chiles with no heat? I was convinced that chile varieties are being bred milder to appeal to a broader population. But I needed some verification. According to a spokesperson at Johnny's Selected seeds, the trend is to breed hotter, spicier peppers. "Hotter ones are more in demand."

Our mild chile pepper problem might have been due to this summer's drought. Water stress and inconsistent watering will affect how fruit sets during pollination, as well as the size, color and shape of the chile pepper. And, I assume, the heat and flavor profile. The spokesperson also felt our clay soil might also be lacking in phosphorus and recommended a soil test, done by our local extension office.

I'm not totally convinced that some chiles are not bred to have be less spicy, but certainly the weather played a big role. Next year, I'm starting my peppers by seed.

It's time to sprinkle the empty beds with rye grass cover crop and hope for more rain so the seed germinates. Shelter the tender new things with row cover on chilly nights so we can enjoy our lettuce and chard for a few weeks longer. And most importantly, deal with the last-of-the-season vegetables

The other week, when the weather predicted a freeze (didn't happen), I picked all the long, sweet, green peppers from the garden. They were supposed to be 'Corno del Toro' peppers, but I think they were mislabeled, because they never looked like bull's horns. I suspect they were 'Giant Marconi' peppers. They also did not ripen to a bright red, which is the way I prefer my peppers.

If they had turned red, I would have used them to make Executive White House Chef Cris Comerford's sweet pickled peppers (with cucumbers and onions, too), the recipe for which is below. I'm tickled (and pickled!) to share this recipe. When I toured the White House Kitchen Garden in September, I asked Chef Comerford what she was planning for the bushes of gorgeous red bells. She said she likes to make sweet pickled peppers, and offered to share her family recipe. Because I had only green peppers, I used, instead, organic red bell peppers from Whole Foods.

Everyone on our hill is facing the season's end, and trying to preserve it in some way. My neighbor Frank made a tall, open-ended plastic tent in his garden to protect his tomatoes, but he's picked most of his peppers. He always grows bushels of peppers, mostly zesty hot ones. This year's crop was pretty tame, without much kick. I grew jalapenos, and they were fat and green but like many of Frank's peppers, they had no heat at all. I think they're breeding out the spiciness, which is a shame.

At a broad table outside his house, Frank had spread a thick layer of light yellow and shiny, dark green peppers. He'd already strung some peppers on threads and they hung from the edges of the porch roof, drying in the soft breeze. He likes to can his hot peppers with sugar and vinegar and a little ketchup, and they're delicious. You never know how spicy a jar is going to be.

I've been putting up stuff, too. Batches of red and yellow tomato jam were simmering in my kitchen. I also made a huge pot of pasta sauce, full of my homegrown peppers, onions, garlic and basil.

That done, I turned my attention to the green tomatoes. I'd picked almost everything: the fat green ones that might have turned red; little round ones that were to turn yellow; the large, creamy-green scalloped ones that were about to become bright orange; and the egg-shaped ones, 'Black Prince,' this year's garden star, that develop purple-hued skins and a deeply flavorful interior. I used them all, as they were. Green or attempting to ripen and turn another color.

With the green tomatoes, I made a sweet jam, which tastes a bit like tangerines, or maybe peaches, and a more savory one, which would be luscious with a pork roast. That recipe came from a special friend, my colleague Gretchen McKay. She got the recipe from her friend and neighbor Josephine Coletti, who is a great cook.

As I write this, the colors are heading to past-peak but the yellows and oranges are like flames against the blue-blue sky. My husband, David, has been capturing and preserving the season, too. With pastels and paints, paper and canvas. Sunday, when we walked up the hill, the trees were magnificent. This time of year goes so quickly. He got out his easel and his pastels and began to draw.

Later, he showed me the vivid hillside pastel of blues and pinks, yellow and purple. "Vincent Van Glow," said David. "I went wild."

I've been honored to share my garden and write this column for yet another season. Thank you for reading and commenting. I hope to be growing again next year, right here. But right now, we're going for another walk.

Josephine Coletti's Green Tomato Jam

PG tested

From Italy via Pittsburgh! This special recipe comes from the PG's Gretchen McKay's good neighbor, Josephine Coletti. Josephine hails from the small town of Opi, in Italy's Abbruzo region. Serve it with roasted meats or as a condiment with cheese. It's not canned, so keep it in the fridge. I doubled the recipe, but you could easily cut it in half.

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
  • Large pinch crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 pounds green tomatoes, cored and cut into 1/2-inch chunks (about 6 cups)
  • 2 cups granulated sugar, plus extra, if needed
  • 2 cups cider vinegar
  • Sea salt or kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

In large, heavy skillet, warm oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring often, until tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in crushed red pepper and cook 1 minute more.

Add green tomatoes (with seeds and juices), sugar, vinegar and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to boil, stirring to dissolve sugar. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer briskly, stirring often, until thick and jam-like, 30 to 45 minutes.

Remove from heat and stir in parsley. Season with pepper and more salt, if desired. You may want to add a little more sugar for balance. Spoon into jars or other containers, cool, cover and keep refrigerated.

Makes 31/3 cups.

-- Josephine Coletti, Ben Avon

Soft Green Tomato Jam

PG tested

A magical recipe, transforming green tomatoes into a heavenly, fruity, sweet jam. The recipe is from the Puglia region of Italy, collected in a book by Lynne Rosetto Kasper, of radio's "The Splendid Table." Test the jam's doneness with a candy thermometer. Ms. Kasper cautions against cooking it too long less "the flavors flatten." If you don't have a candy thermometer, chill a small plate in the freezer and spoon some jam on it; the jam should stay fairly thick without running much. This keeps about 2 weeks in the refrigerator or about 6 months in the freezer. Serve like any fruit jam, on toast or with Greek yogurt or on a pound cake. Ms. Kasper likes it on polenta.

  • 2 pounds green tomatoes, cored and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (6 cups)
  • 1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
  • 2 medium lemons, preferably organic
  • Sea salt or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 3-inch cinnamon stick, broken

In glass or china bowl, toss tomatoes (with juices and seeds) and sugar. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature 24 hours.

Scrape tomatoes and juices into large, heavy saucepan. Scrub lemons; grate zest and add to tomatoes. With sharp knife, remove all white pith from lemons, cutting through to the fruit. Cut fruit into small pieces, removing seeds. Stir into tomatoes with pinch of salt and big pinch pepper and cinnamon stick.

Bring to boil over high heat. Reduce heat so jam is simmering briskly. Simmer 30 to 40 minutes, stirring often, until candy thermometer inserted in jam registers 210 degrees or jam has thickened and mostly jelled and remains mostly firm when spooned onto chilled plate. Scrape into bowl and cool. Spoon into jars or containers, cover and refrigerate or freeze.

Makes about 2 1/2 cups.

-- Adapted from "The Italian Country Table: Home Cooking from Italy's Farmhouse Kitchens" by Lynne Rosetto Kasper (Scribner, 1999)

Chef Cris Comerford's Sweet Pepper Bread-and-Butter Pickles

PG tested

Chef Comerford credits this recipe to her mother. "She didn't go to culinary school, but her knife skills are incredible -- she would make pretty little julienne cuts using a regular kitchen knife. I have to rely on my mandoline to get the same precision she had."

The raw vegetables are tightly packed into clean, hot jars, but don't push down too much or you could break the jar. After processing, the vegetables will float to the top. Once the jars have sat undisturbed, turn them over a few times to push the vegetables below the brine. Check with a canning guide for procedures. Use fresh, firm, unwaxed produce.

  • 6 whole peeled garlic cloves
  • 5 cups granulated sugar
  • 3 cups cider vinegar
  • 1/2 cup kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons mustard seeds
  • 1 tablespoon ground turmeric
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons celery seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon whole cloves

About 11 cups assorted, sliced pickling vegetables: I used 7 medium red bell peppers, cut into 1/2-inch strips (6 to 7 cups), 1 1/2 slender hothouse cucumbers, cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices (about 3 cups), and 4 small sweet onions, sliced into thin rings (about 2 cups)

Have ready a boiling-water canner with a rack filled with boiling water. Wash 5 to 6 pint jars, or 2 to 3 quart jars and keep in hot water or the dishwasher. Have new, washed lids in very hot water, according to directions. Also have ready clean bands.

In large saucepan, stir together garlic cloves, sugar, vinegar, salt, mustard seeds, turmeric, celery seeds and cloves. Bring to boil over high heat, making sure sugar has dissolved. Cover to keep warm.

Mix vegetables and pack tightly into jars. Fill jars with brine, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Run a rubber spatula inside jar 2 or 3 times to release air bubbles. Clean jar rim and threads; seal with lids and adjust bands. Place in boiling-water canner and process 30 minutes, beginning timing after water returns to full boil. Turn off heat; remove canner lid. Let stand 5 minutes. Remove jars from canner to newspaper or towel. Let stand undisturbed 24 hours. Chill before eating.

Makes 5 to 6 pint jars.

-- White House Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford

Miriam Rubin: mmmrubin@gmail.com. First Published October 25, 2012 4:00 AM


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