Caponata – Queen of Condiments

Caponata that's been canned and processed in a pressure canner.

Caponata that’s been canned and processed in a pressure canner.

There’s that magical moment during the gardening season when the eggplants, onions, celery, peppers and tomatoes are ready for harvesting all at the same time and that’s the time to make Caponata, the exquisite Sicilian concoction that enlivens the palate with the rich flavors of late summer vegetables and the ‘agrodolce’ sparkle of vinegar, olives, capers and herbs.  Most of the ingredients come from my garden, however, this queen of condiments cannot be prepared without copious amounts of good olive oil, and, of course, the capers and olives. The real skill here is time, lots and lots of time. The dice of the eggplant must be  1/2″ to 3/4″. The eggplant must be salted and left to weep its water content for a few hours, and then wrung tightly in a towel to squeeze out every last drop of moisture. (It’s best to have two people do this), and when it’s fried, it must be evenly brown. Not burnt, not just golden, but BROWN.  The celery and peppers ( not all recipes include peppers) must be fried till they are almost brown. The onions must be brown, not golden, not wilted, BROWN. The tomatoes must be peeled and rid of their seeds. The whole process takes many hours, 6 at the minimum. The olive oil must be top quality, the capers and olives as well. The vinegar, well,  after all this work, why not use a good quality balsamic vinegar? I hedge my bets, using our own apple cider vinegar to ensure adequate acid when preparing the tomato sauce component, and then finish it off with a large dose of rich balsamic vinegar for flavor and color. Salt? A dear friend brought back some wonderful Sel de Guerantes which adds another layer of richness, but any old salt will do (you might not even need it since the eggplant’s been salted).

We preserve our Caponata by processing it in a pressure canner (25 minutes at 5 lbs. pressure), as this is really the only guaranteed safe way to preserve it.  (You could try the boiling water bath method but this is not recommended. If you decide to risk this, I suggest you double the amount of vinegar to ensure a higher acidity level).

Recipe. I follow the late Leslie Land’s recipe, which I’ve linked below. I alter the recipe somewhat by adding a dash of cinnamon, green bell peppers and sometimes raisins.

If you try making this let me know how it turns out. Cheers.

Planning the Kitchen Garden

Planning a garden is similar to planning an addition or a room to your home. You ask yourself the same questions: what will it be used for, how will it be used, how do you want it to serve you? There are as many different kinds of Kitchen Gardens as there are people and,so, I’ve prepared a list of the different directions a kitchen garden can take, hoping that it may serve as a guide for folks who may be planning their gardens for the first time, or for those who are thinking about expanding their gardening horizons. These are ‘thumbnails’ of the different types of gardens that one might think about. Subsequent posts will address each garden type in detail.

  • The Weekend Garden: Folks with weekend homes often look for a simple, low maintenance garden that doesn’t require daily visits to care for. Good candidates for this sort of garden include a concise list of short and long crop varieties. If I were living in the city and visiting my place in the country on weekends I’d want tomatoes, peppers, maybe corn, some salad greens, some perennial herbs, some root vegetables, like carrots, parsnips and turnips. I would avoid things that need regular attention, like cole crops and certain curcurbits.
  • The Summer Garden: This type of garden focuses on crops that produce well in the heat of the summer. This includes summer squashes, beans, peppers, eggplants, some cole crops; kohlrabi, cauliflower, broccoli, and then, basil, tomatoes,asian greens, potatoes, and collards.
  • The Family Garden: This is a garden that everyone in the family commits to. It will produce salad greens, radishes, squashes, beans, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, swiss chard, spinach, kale, collards, tomatoes, potatoes, and corn.
  • The Heritage Garden: Those who are interested in ensuring a diversity in our seed supply and open-pollinated plant varieties, as well as preserving heritage and heirloom plants, will be interested in cultivating and maintaining this kind of garden. Some of the varieties that will be grown in this sort of garden may lack the disease resistance that newer hybrids possess, but will make up for it in diversity and plant vigor.
  • The Potager: A french term, the ‘Potager’,(literally, the ‘soup’ garden) in my mind, refers to a system of planting and cultivating whereby the plants are packed in tightly and the garden includes flowers and other ornamentals.
  • The Paintbox Garden: This garden concept focuses on the aesthetics of color in the garden, taking into consideration the appearance of the vegetbles as seen in the garden, as well as their appearance as served up on a plate by a chef.

Plant a Vegetable Garden: No Excuses

Lettuces in the Kitchen Garden

Lettuces in the Kitchen Garden

Lacking space, there are few reasons for not planting a vegetable garden. One person I know, who prides herself on her creativity and gardening sophistication, and who owns a very elegant and historic property complained to me that when she bought the place, “there was a big vegetable garden smack in the middle of the lawn…I had to get rid of it”. This statement so shocked me as to render me speechless. Had I managed to regain speech during the course of her monologue, I would have suggested that, with some creativity and thoughtfulness, a person might find a way to highlight the vegetable garden, treat it as a valuable, enhancing landscape feature from which one might extract a sense of aesthetic pride as well as civic pride for ‘greening-up’ their lifestyle and reducing their carbon footprint. I didn’t, at the time, regain speech but am doing so now.

Creating a vegetable garden, or Kitchen Garden, the preferred term, is a project, but it’s an undertaking that will reap benefits that you may never have thought of. If you can’t begin the process yourself, you can get others to do the most difficult part, laying out the garden, tilling the area, creating raised beds (if that’s what you’re after), installing irrigation systems on timers, mulching paths to suppress weeds and reduce your work (or, better yet, laying down landscaping fabric beneath the mulch to virtually eliminate path weeding).  Siting it in the landscape is crucial and is the most important decision you’ll need to make for the project. The kitchen garden needs full sun and, ideally, it is located at a convenient distance from the kitchen.

As for making it attractive in the landscape; I see this as an opportunity to create ‘charm’ and to engage with the land and your food supply in a more intimate way. Fencing will be necessary to keep out the deer and the rabbits, but this isn’t a problem. There are numerous creative and handsome fencing options that will contribute to the aesthetic of your property and plenty of climbing ornamental plants to adorn your fence; many of such staggering beauty that you’ll be spoiled for choice in how to use them. Climbing roses, clematis, morning glories, perennial sweet peas; all contribute to making a Kitchen Garden inviting, beautiful and a place you’ll enjoy working in and relaxing in and looking at.

Why Plant a Vegetable Garden?

Some Good Reasons to Plant a Vegetable Garden

The Vegetable Garden

  1. Reduce your carbon footprint. The fewer miles your food has to travel, the less environmental damage occurs, and this doesn’t even take into consideration the quantity of electricity for refrigeration, watering and lighting required by your supermarket to keep the produce looking fresh.
  2. Eat fresher, better tasting, and more nutritious produce. Produce loses its nutrients as it sits around waiting to be shipped and then further declines in flavor and nutrition on the long trip to your store. Garden fresh food not only tastes better, it is better.
  3. Save money. On food, on gas, and possibly on impulse purchases at the food market.
  4. Develop a more meaningful, thoughtful understanding of your food consumption. When you plant a garden, watch plants grow, harvest those plants and prepare them for your table, you develop a deeper appreciation for the vegetables that are so easily taken for granted
  5. Preserve genetic diversity. There are hundreds of tomato varieties, but you’re grocery store only carries a handful of them. When you visit the local farmers market, you see dozens of unfamiliar varieties. Why? Some tomatoes “travel” better than others. Some varieties of tomatoes just can’t survive the difficult trip over hundreds of miles, and these are often the ones that taste the best.
  6. Get inspired. Once you get a taste for local foods, chances are you’ll want to grow  your own.  The garden doesn’t have to be as extensive as the one pictured above. Even a small, 10′ x 20′ plot will provide plenty of fresh produce for a small family, and you can even grow vegetables in containers.
  7. Feel productive. You will, quite literally, feel that your time and effort has been productive. No salad will ever be as delicious and precious as that first spring salad from your garden.

Planning the Kitchen Garden

In my experience, it’s relatively easy to establish parameters for oneself by committing to a 20’ x 20’ plot and limiting the plantings to fit within those confines. It works in writing and on graph paper. If, however, you’re a dreamer like me, seduced by fantasies of abundance and variety, it doesn’t work all that well, especially after the hibernation of a dark season of long winter evenings spent reading seed catalogs, with a glass or two of wine, a highlight marker and a block of post-it notes. It’s very easy to slide into the 20’ x 35’ plot, or the 30’ x 50’ plot or the 50” x 85’plot, so easy that it’s almost inevitable.

I offer the following example. The first year that we started our vegetable garden, our seed bill was $27 dollars. The next year it was $74 dollars. The size of the garden didn’t alter.  So, what changed? A desire for greater variety; we wanted three kinds of beets, not one, seven different tomatoes, not three, four kinds of squash, not two, etc…

Shakespeare knew something  when he wrote: “Know thyself and to thine own self be true”. But here’s the rub: as a home-gardener, I don’t need 45 zucchini seeds. I need 4, or, if I’m going to sow successively, I need 8, or maybe, at the limit, twelve. The cost of seeds isn’t that expensive but it does add up, especially if you’re like me and want to try all sorts of things.

The fun and economical solution/idea is to share. Get together with other gardening friends during the winter months. Call or e-mail your gardening compatriots in October/November to make sure that they are receiving the same seed catalogues that you are (and e-mail them the links to your favorite seed suppliers if they’re not). Set up a potluck buffet-dinner evening in mid-to-late January to come together and prepare a group order. This will work for either a large Community Garden group or a Rag-Tag band of home gardeners. You could be admirably well organized and list the categories of produce for which you seek seeds for your garden, i.e., tomatoes, corn, squash, lettuce, cucumbers, beets, spinach, etc… You might even use the various catalogues’ categories and headings as a guide. No matter how you do it, remain focused and have a designated someone to keep track of everyone’s shared orders.  If you’re going to be professional about it you could purchase very small ‘Ziplock’-type bags or ‘glassine’ envelopes (in future, you will be directed to a resource link for such products) to divvy up the seeds once they arrive. This is yet another excellent opportunity to share shoptalk with other gardeners and will likely lead to long lasting horticultural friendships.

In future, more to come about Kitchen Gardening.

The Harvest. Yes We Can!

I recently shared a link on Facebook about Coloradan school cooks  who are preparing meals from scratch  for their students.  I’m interested in this, and am particularly intrigued by how this could connect with schools that subscribe or participate in Community Garden programs. Its a sticky-wicket. When much of the harvest occurs when the kids are on summer vacation what does one do with all the good, wholesome produce?  I’ve not properly researched this and I’ll bet there are some clever solutions out there, so please, e-mail me with whatever you know about the subject. In the meanwhile, I’ll tell you how we deal with the excessive abundance that we’re not able to consume as fresh produce, i.e., food preservation:

  • Zucchini. We grate it and freeze it. It goes into zucchini bread or curries, which we adore.
  • Tomatoes. Yes we can! We can them as pieces, whole and as juice. They will make their contribution as a base to soups, stews, curries, pasta dishes and, on non-school days, Bloody Marys.
  • Beans. Freeze them; later to be eaten as a side dish or a stew or curry ingredient.
  • Garlic. Since I’ve mentioned stews and curries several times I might as well give you the drill. We go to an Asian Market and buy  a lot of fresh ginger-root at half the price of the local supermarket. We then puree it in a food processor with the garlic we grow and freeze it in ice cube trays. Each ‘cube’ is equal to the normal recipe amount for a standard curry. When it comes time to prepare the curry, that will be sauteed on the stove and then, left to simmer and cook on the top of the wood-stove, along with all the other preserved vegetables its very easy work.
  • Cabbage. Freeze some. Make sauerkraut with the rest of it. I’m not a vegan. I like sauerkraut and cheese sandwiches, or macaroni and cheese with a side of sauerkraut. Comfort food worthy of a gastronome.
  • Cucumbers. What else? Pickles and relishes. I’ve designed a recipe which I call Saigon Relish which combines Cilantro to a typical relish recipe. It’s good with most everything but can be combined with white wine as a reduction sauce served over poached or grilled fish (particularly salmon) and it contributes a surprising elegance to something that can be done in 5 minutes.
  • Grapes. Jelly and sherry
  • Blueberries. Freeze for muffins in the dead of winter.
  • Basil. We grow three row of its and make gallons of pesto.