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Giant gourds and other Fall garden booty

A Swiss chard flower arrangement surrounding a giant hubbard squash. Photo: Nichole Schmitt

Last week, my dear neighbor left a giant Hubbard squash on my doorstep. He grows far more produce than his family can eat. The neighborhood enjoys all his excess tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, and, of course, squash. My own garden supplies us with much of our fresh food throughout summer, but I can always use more. But, when we came home and saw that ghostly green giant on our porch, my family gasped, “What are we supposed to do with THAT thing?”

I’ll tell you what we’re going to do with that thing! Pumpkin recipes! So far, every pumpkin recipe that I’ve tried with squash has turned out excellent. This particular gourd was so large that it took two ovens and four large roasting pans to cook it. I blended the thick, orange pulp in my Vitamix. From there it became pumpkin cream cheese bars, pumpkin pie, pumpkin curry soup, and pumpkin gnocchi with sage butter sauce.

Let me tell you – we love harvest season! Sounds of boiling, blanching and blending greet you at my door. Step into a house filled with the aroma of baking and spices. Visit in August or September, and you may be asked to sample Thai chili sauce, heirloom tomato salsa, plum rosemary jelly, or my own blend of herbal tea served alongside lavender biscotti.

So many home-grown goodies supplement our pantry that I can feed a family of seven on a budget of $700 per month for groceries. In other words, we spend one hundred dollars per person, per month. That’s about three and a half dollars per person, per day. Granted, some of us eat at restaurants now and then. Also, grandma and uncle purchase the (*ahem*) “junk food”, which I do not sanction, nor do I account for that in the food budget. We are not poverty stricken. It’s just that we don’t need to spend any more than that. You see, I operate the garden and kitchen the way my female forebearers have done for centuries. Ancient methods are proven and timeless.

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My spring-time garden is designed around the recipes and meals that we most enjoy. Between April and June, my garden is organized and attractive. But once July comes, I won’t weed anymore – I’m too busy harvesting, cooking and preserving.  Yes, in August, the garden becomes a jungle in which a small child may get lost. However, if the food is flowing into the house, what do a few weeds matter?

As our large freezer began to fill up, I thought, “How else can I preserve all this stuff?” The answer: My dehydrator oven! I have preserved about three 1-gallon bags of dried soup mix, courtesy of my garden and the neighborhood zucchinis. One bag joined us for a back-pack-camping trip in August. Just two cups of the mix fed six campers. Yes, it’s vegan, but it’s filling. Ever heard of “eggplant bacon”? You slice up the eggplant into 1/8th inch disks, coat them with garlic powder, cumin, salt, and smoked paprika, then dehydrate them overnight. In the morning – voila – you have bacon chips! Toss them into a bag with other dried veggies like onions and kale, dried mushrooms, a cup or so of French-cut green lentils, powdered veggie broth and some Italian herbs. To cook it up, you’ll need 3 times as much water as soup mix. Some of the liquid can be red wine. (Yum!) Boil for at least 20 minutes. Top with grated parmesan and serve – by the campfire – along with the rest of that wine!

It’s now October and I am still harvesting things from the garden. Have you ever had spanakopita made with Swiss chard instead of spinach? It’s quite good. No spinach crop of mine has ever been successful. It either bolts (goes directly to seed) or produces tiny leaves that aren’t worth harvesting. The Swiss chard, however, grows large and vigorous, and gives fresh greens for eight months of the year. Yes – that’s right – 8 months. As November wraps up, I harvest the remaining leaves, freeze them, and add them to stews, casseroles, and savory pies for the rest of winter.

Speaking of savory dishes, my herbs that survive deep into fall include sage, rosemary, winter savory, lavender, lemon grass, thyme, and chives. If you enjoy cooking with fresh herbs, you know how expensive they can be. But, imagine buying one plant for a couple of dollars and then using it for years. In summer when the plants are bulging with life, I dehydrate the excess to use throughout winter when the plants go rather dormant. Any meal can be elevated to a gourmet status with herbs from your garden. I also bake scones, shortbread cookies, and biscuits infused with my herbs. Additionally, we enjoy home-grown tea made from mint, hyssop, lavender, borage and chamomile. I love my herb patch!

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As I write this, I am drinking a kale smoothie with raspberries from the freezer. Talk about fiber! The Russian kale can actually survive a little snow. I usually keep harvesting it through December and even January. Last year, it did give up the fight in February, however, when we had that deep freeze. But we were ready to plant again by March.

Imagine making this salad in December: Shredded kale with chunks of apple, celery, dried cranberries, red onion, red pepper. Coat with this sauce: One soft pear in the blender with ½ teaspoon anise or fennel seed and equal parts balsamic vinegar, olive oil, and pomegranate nectar. Sweeten the dressing (if you so desire) with agave nectar or honey. Top the salad with crumbled goat cheese, candied pecans and pumpkin seeds. The pear in the dressing provides a thickness that clings to the kale making it nice and saucy. The anise or fennel gives a licorice undertone to the rich, zingy pomegranate nectar. The sweet components are balanced with some bite from the onions. And the goat cheese offers softness to contrast all the crunch. Are you salivating for my favorite December salad?

Yes, it is possible to operate a year-round garden here in the Pacific Northwest. It’s a topic that I love to discuss and write about. Check back next month for more tips and recipes. Meanwhile, with my debut article, I leave you with a recipe for Chard Spanakopita. Cheers!

Swiss Chard Spanakopita
(An adaptation from a NY Times Cooking recipe) 

  • 2 to 2 1/2 lb Swiss Chard (When fresh, this amount fills a brown-paper grocery bag almost full.)
  • 2 TBsp olive oil
  • 1 1/2 cup onion, chopped
  • 1 Tsp minced garlic
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh herbs (l used winter savory, parsley, thyme, oregano, and basil.)
  • 4 ounces feta cheese
  • Pine nuts for garnish

Crust: Either 12 sheets phyllo pastry, or prepare a pie crust for top and bottom of pie. If using phyllo, you’ll need about 2TBsp olive oil for brushing. I found that phyllo tasted great, initially, when the pie was fresh. But it did not refrigerate and reheat well. Next time I will use a regular pastry crust.

  1. Wash, stem, and chop the Swiss chard. (Some people like to chop the steps and saute them with the onions.) I had so much chard that I left out the stems. I used them later in the juicer.
  2. Saute the onion and garlic in oil for about three minutes. Use a stock pot with tall sides.
  3. Add the chard. The volume of chard, at first, will fill the pot. But it cooks down quickly. You might have to add the chard in batches. You should end up with just enough to fill a pie plate.
  4. Add the herbs towards the end of cooking down the chard.
  5. In a separate, large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs. (Scoop out a TBsp or so of the eggs for brushing pastry crust later, if using regular pastry crust.)
  6. Add the sauteed chard to the eggs and toss. 
  7. Crumble in the feta, season with salt and pepper. Toss to gently blend.
  8. Line a pie plate with 5 or 6 layers of phyllo sheets, brushing between each with oil (or melted butter). Curl the edges under themselves. Or, if using pastry crust, line the pie dish with pastry dough.
  9. Fill the crust with the chard mixture.
  10. Top with 5 or 6 layers of phyllo (layered with oil). And curl the edges underneath the bottom crust. Or top with pastry crust and make crimped edges – then brush with egg. Make a few slashes in the top for steam to escape.
  11. Bake 40 to 50 minutes in a preheated oven at 357 degrees F.
  12. Serve hot, warm, or room temp. Serve with pine nuts as garnish (and more feta!).

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