Category Archives: Recipes

Grow Eggplant this Year

With tomatoes and peppers ubiquitous in vegetable gardens, eggplants are often the nightshade left out. But even if your summers are on the cool side or the short side, you too can have homegrown eggplants. On our farm in central Virginia, shorter season varieties are often our best performing when summer is unusually cool or wet, and their faster-maturing fruits are the first to arrive at the table.

Southern Exposure sells four early-maturing eggplants: Applegreen (65 days, green-white skin), Early Black Egg (65 days, Japanese origin, deep-purple skin), Morden Midget (65 days, Canadian origin, deep-purple skin), and Ping Tung Long (62 days, Taiwanese origin, lavender skin).

I’m partial to long skinny eggplants (I like chopping them into thin half-moons), so Ping Tung Long is my favorite. I find that Asian varieties substitute well in Italian and European recipes. The lavender skins darken with cooking to a purple-tan color.

My current favorite eggplant recipe follows: a Sicilian Caponata. Caponata is vegan and gluten-free, and so full of flavor that no one will notice.

Sicilian Caponata

Adapted from David Lebovitz’s blog. Lebovitz requires deep-frying the eggplant in batches. This oven-roasted version cuts the oil somewhat, and is so much easier, and I think tastes just as good.

6 celery stalks
2 pounds eggplant (Italian or Asian types)
olive oil
salt
1 red onion, cut in half and thinly sliced (yellow or white will work but red is best)
1 cup green olives, pitted and chopped
1/4 cup capers, rinsed
1-1/2 cups tomato sauce (as a variation, make a quick, fresh sauce by simmering 3-4 diced Roma-type tomatoes in a small amount of water with salt to taste for 20-30 minutes.)
1/4 cup vinegar (red wine vinegar, white wine vinegar, or apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons honey (or to taste)
Chopped Italian (flat-leaf) parsley for garnish

Roast the Eggplant:
1. Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees F.
2. Trim the stems off the eggplants, halve lengthwise, and slice into 1/2-inch pieces (half-moons work well for long-types, otherwise 1/2 inch cubes).
3. Toss the eggplant pieces with 1/2 to 1 tsp salt and 1/4 to 1/2 cup olive oil (it will soak up quite a lot). Spread on a baking dish and cook for 30-45 minutes, until the eggplant pieces are soft (easily pierced with a fork) and the skins have begun to darken.

Assemble the Caponata
1. Boil a medium-size pot of water. Cut the celery stalks into 1/2-inch slices. Simmer the celery until just tender, around 7 minutes. Drain and immerse in cold water to stop the cooking.
2. In a large skillet or Dutch oven, heat 2-3 tablespoons olive oil on medium-high heat. Add the sliced onion and cook, stirring frequently until translucent, around 7 minutes. Add the drained celery, olives, capers, tomato sauce, vinegar, and honey and bring to a low boil.
3. Add the eggplant and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes, stirring gently.
4. Taste and add additional salt and vinegar as desired. Transfer to a large shallow serving bowl to cool.

Serving: Allow to cool before serving, or refrigerate and serve the next day (this gives the flavors time to meld). Garnish with the chopped parsley to serve. May also be served as bruschetta — spread on bread slices that have been spread with olive oil and oven-toasted.

Extend your pepper season and preserve peppers

Last night at about 11:30 Ken alerted me that the forecasted low for our area was 36 degrees, meaning that we could easily get a light frost.  At midnight the two of us headed out to our gardens with a flashlight to cover our pepper trials, two of our pepper seed crops, and our purple hyacinth bean seed crop with tarps and garden blankets that had been left next to the crops since the last time we had a risk of frost.

Pepper plants in our trial pepper patch. One of the tarps we used to cover the patch is behind the plants.

I also turned on a sprinkler to water our Keystone Resistant Giant pepper seed crop and our Riesentraube tomato seed crop overnight. Contrary to most people’s intuition, a sprinkler can protect plants from a few degrees of frost if it is turned on before the temperature gets below 32 degrees and not turned off until after it gets above 32 again.

A few pepper plants, as well as what remains of our basil, squash, gourds, and beans, were left unprotected, as were most of our remaining tomatoes.  This morning at 8:00 I took a quick walk to see what was dead and what was alive.  I was sad to find abundant evidence of frost in the garden, including that the leaves of our Joe’s Round pepper plants were stiff with ice where they hadn’t been covered.  Our basil was also stiff, and it’s even a little more tender than most frost-tender crops. However, when I checked them again around noon, I found most of those leaves quite alive!  I’m guessing this means that dew on leaves of even very frost-tender plants can freeze without necessarily harming the leaves themselves.  We’ll probably get another good seed harvest from each of our pepper seed crops, and then, around the time of our first killing frost, a big harvest of green peppers for eating. Green peppers don’t have mature enough seed to expect a good germination rate.

Peppers can be slow to come into production, but once they do, they bear prolifically. The fruits keep well on the plants, and in your root cellar or fridge. They are also easy to preserve… more on that below.  So, abundant fall pepper harvest are generally well worth the effort of covering the plants on the first few frosty nights.

Our habaneros were planted late and were slow to start producing, but now they are bearing especially prolifically.

Other frost-tender crops also benefit from covering, including eggplants, tomatillosbeans, cucumbers, and both summer and winter squash.  If you have a cucumber patch that’s still going strong in the days before your first frost, cover for harvest season extension.  However, many crops are harder to cover due to their height.  Also, cold weather and short days slow many of them down a lot.

Preserving peppers is easy, and you have lots of options:

– They freeze well. Unlike most vegetables, they don’t even if need to be blanched (flash-cooked) first. Just cut them into strips or squares, bag them in freezer bags from your local grocery store, and pop them in the freezer.

– We’ve made a delicious roasted red pepper spread. It can also be frozen, and takes up less freezer space than unblended peppers. Just roast peppers and garlic in the oven at about 350 degrees until soft, then thoroughly blend with olive oil, red wine vinegar, salt, and black pepper.

– Some of my friends absolutely love pickled hot peppers.  Lacto-fermented jalapeños have come out especially well for us.  You can also use them as seasoning in other ferments like kim chee.

Sliced red bell peppers with whole green hot peppers and coriander, almost ready for lacto-fermentation

– Dehydration is also a great option, especially if freezer space is scarce. If you have an electric food dehydrator, put at about 135 degrees. If you live in a dry climate, you can dry peppers outside, or string small, thin-skinned ones – like Aji Dulce (mild), Cayenne (hot), or Habanero (very hot) together and hang them in your kitchen or pantry to dry. On our farm, we dry peppers and other vegetables in our convection oven, set to the lowest possible temperature (about 160 degrees, actually lower than the lowest listed temperature on the dial). Dehydrated veggetables are best stored in airtight containers such as mason jars with two-piece lids.

– Homemade hot sauce is a great option.  Canning recipes abound.  Or, if you’d prefer to store your hot sauce in the refrigerator, you can forgo the recipe entirely and experiment with the ingredients you happen to have on hand.

– Hot pepper jam is a favorite of many, and sweet pepper jam is a great option, too.  One of the best jams I’ve made was tomatillos with a touch of Jalapeño peppers, at the rate of about one deseeded pepper per pint.  If I hadn’t already known the hot peppers were in it, I wouldn’t have guessed.

Those tarps and garden blankets will likely come in handy again later in the fall and in the winter, for covering greens on very cold nights.  For more on what fall and winter crops survive down to what temperatures, see our Fall and Winter Gardening Quick Reference.

Winter Squash as Summer Squash

Your winter squash plants may be ready to provide you with a second vegetable you didn’t expect – summer squash.  Last year we cut up, stir-fried and ate a young, tender fruit from our friends’ seed crop of Seminole winter squash.  It was delicious, with an agreeable texture, and a rich, buttery taste.  Then we harvested several young squash from our winter squash variety trials, and they all tasted similarly great!  In fact, they tasted better than most summer squash do!  It can be a challenge to find the young squash under the large green leaves and sprawling vines; however, if you plan ahead, small-fruited varieties of squash can be trellised, making it easier to find the young fruits.

Young Seminole winter squash cooked as a summer squash

Growing regular summer squash can be easy, but in many parts of the Southeast, the plants are susceptible to squash vine borers, which can kill a previously healthy plant in a day.  Thus many gardeners and organic farmers get abundant harvests for a period of time, and then little or even nothing.  Luckily there are several ways of dealing with this problem.  However, at this point in the year, if you’ve neither planted successions, nor meticulously pulled vine borer larvae out with tweezers, you might or might not have a lot of summer squash plants left.

Four types of squash in the moschata species, harvested young and ready to be cooked as summer squash

Squash varieties fall into four main species – pepo, maxima, moschata, and argyosperma. Moschatas and argyospermas are resistant to squash vine borers. Pepos and maximas are susceptible.  Most summer squash are pepos, but many winter squash are moschatas.  One traditional summer squash, Tromboncino, is a moschata.  We list the species of each of our squash varieties just after the variety name.  You can also use edible gourds as a summer squash substitute.

The ways you can use a squash are endless, whether it’s mature or immature – and whether it’s a pepo or a moschata or another species.  You can stir-fry them with other vegetables, or by themselves.  You can deep-fry them or bake them.  You can turn them into soup.  You can stuff them.  You can grate them into a salad.  You can lacto-ferment them.  You can use them in sweet recipes  – use any of the immature ones like zucchini in zucchini bread, and use any of the mature ones like pumpkins in pumpkin pie.  You can cook the tender shoot tips as well as the fruits (though I found the long tendrils to be rather bitter and I would remove those next time).

Freshly harvested squash shoots
Squash shoots cooking with eggs

Perhaps around the time of frost you’ll find yourself harvesting a squash that’s too old to use quite like summer squash, and yet too young to cure and store like winter squash.  You can eat those too.  You’ll probably want to peel them first, and scoop out the seeds – the skin and seeds both generally get tough by intermediate stages of maturity.  Then, you can use them either in a winter squash recipe or in a summer squash recipe.