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Friday Favorite: Variegated Sweet Peas

September 22nd, 2017

This spring I purchased ‘Mammoth Choice’ sweet peas from Johnny’s Seeds. The first ones to bloom were crimson, I was underwhelmed. I’m not a lover of red flowers, especially dark red garnet. Then the lavender, blue, and pink ones started blooming. A few weeks later I had a variegated purple, then this variegated bright pink.


I’m planning on saving seed from my sweet pea patch, they will end up being a mix of colors just like the patch is now. Marking the vines that produced variegated flowers might be a way to see if I can continue getting these types of flowers. I guess I’ll find out next summer when they start blooming. I’ll have to mark these vines and keep the seeds and seedlings separate in order to see if they come out like their parents.

What are a few of your favorite flowers this year?

Drying Herbs

September 21st, 2017

I’ve been cutting and drying herbs, mostly by hanging them on the back porch. After walking through the hot front porch many times a day, it dawned on me that this spot would be perfect for drying herbs. On sunny days, it hovers around 100 degrees, which is perfect for drying herbs.

I didn’t have an easy to hang herbs, so I put in a few nails, string a string between them, and starting clipping bouquets of herbs from it.

At the moment I have loads of catnip (more on what that will be used for later), oregano, and sage. These herbs will keep our winter meals savory and our cats happy all winter.

What herbs do you grow and dry during the summer?

Tomato Hornworms

September 20th, 2017

It’s tomato hornworm season here in Maine, I’ve been picking them off my tomatoes like mad. I always watch for the parasitic wasp eggs, but none have been found yet. I never pick them all off, I always sacrifice a few plants in hopes that the wasps will show up. In my Ohio garden I always had the wasps.


The worst part about them is that they take bites out of all the tomatoes, which then get moldy and aren’t good for anything. They won’t ripen and are lost as a crop.

Tomato hornworms are a favorite of my muscovy duck and her ducklings, they’ve been feasting on 5-8 hornworms a day this week.

Do you get hornworms on your tomatoes & peppers? Have you ever seen one covered in parasitic wasp eggs?

Making Tomato Conserva

September 19th, 2017

Many years ago, I purchased the book ‘Cooking by Hand’ by Paul Bertolli. This book is part cookbook, part biography, part cooking theory; recipes are interspersed with stories of how they came about and recommendations and theories for making food even more delicious. While reading through the section on tomatoes, I came across the recipe for Conserva and immediately knew I wanted to make it. It’s not a difficult recipe, but it does take some time. The final product makes it worth every single minute, you won’t find a better way to preserve tomatoes.

This rich, concentrated tomato paste (though calling it paste is a bit derogatory as it’s nothing like canned tomato paste), is like a ripe summer tomato intensified in a jar. Because it’s not cooked at a really high temperature, it has a completely different flavor than many cooked tomato sauces. The sugars seems to intensify and the fresh tomato flavor comes through quite clearly. Overall I’d say it’s much brighter than other cooked and canned tomato products, which almost end up with a heavy bitterness from the heat of cooking. Conserva is a bit of summer tomato heaven in the middle of our long Maine winters. It is such a versatile pantry staples; a small spoonful can be stirred into sauces to add a richness and depth of flavor, add it to canned tomato sauces to make it thicker, a spoonful in broth will add another layer of flavor to soup. We really enjoy it spread on sandwiches made of olive bread, eggs, arugula, bacon, and cheese (a bit of a BLT with conserva taking the place of fresh tomato).

In the book his recipe starts with 5 pounds of tomatoes, I find this size of a batch to be way to small. The final product is only about a cup of concentrate. I always double it, both because I want lots of it in my pantry, and because I like to maximize my time. If I have the oven on for 7 hours, I may as well have it full. Typically, my batches start with 10 pounds of tomatoes (though I make two 5 lb batches separately and put them in the oven together), from this amount I end up with a pint of conserva. Generally, I make 3-4 batches each summer. I also add a branch of a tomato plant in the pan, it adds a wonderfully deep tomato flavor to the final product. Contrary to popular belief, the stems and leaves of tomato plants are not poisonous.

Here’s the basics recipe:
Dice 5 pounds mixed tomatoes, some paste, some canning, into small pieces. Add a splash of good olive oil to a large pan, pour in tomatoes, add a small tomato branch with leaves, sprinkle with a teaspoon or so of sea salt. Bring them to a rapid boil and cook for 2 minutes. Put through smallest plate on a food mill, there should be no seeds in the final puree. (If you’ve been looking for a nice stainless steel food mill, I highly recommend this one from Matfer. I bought mine 7-8 years ago and LOVE it. Previously, I was using an old aluminum Squeez-O and wasn’t super keen on my food coming into contact with the aluminum. I use this one all the time, for making applesauce, pumpkin puree, tomato puree, and pureeing soups.)

Lightly oil a large casserole dish, I prefer to use glass since tomatoes are very acidic. (My favorite are these borosilicate glass pans from Marinex, I have several of them and use them constantly.) Pour puree into pan, place into a 300 degree oven, convection is best, but not necessary, but it will take longer in a regular oven. Cook for 3 hours, if not using convection add another hour or two to the time. Stir occasionally with a spatula, when you notice the surface start to darken, reduce heat to 250 and continue cooking for another 2 1/2 to 3 hours, or until it is thick, shiny, and brick-colored. Your final amount will be about 1/10 of what you started with, 1 cup of paste is about what you will end up with this batch (which is why I always double it).

Put conserva into a glass jar carefully pressing out any air pockets, cover with 1/2 inch of good olive oil. Paul recommends keeping the conserva in the pantry if you have a cool, dark space. As long as you maintain the 1/2 inch layer of olive oil on top it should keep. I keep mine in the fridge because my pantry isn’t always cool. Mine always lasts a year in the fridge if I am careful to maintain a layer of olive oil on top.

It seems a little complicated, but it’s not at all. In fact, most of the time is spent waiting and occasionally checking on the conserva in the oven. I make 3-4 double batches each year, it’s a staple in our pantry.

What’s your favorite way to preserve tomatoes for winter?

Bringing in the Sheaves…Or Other Veg

September 18th, 2017

We’ve been having beautiful weather here in Maine, in the low 80’s during the day and in the 50’s at night. I was planning on pulling all tomatoes and peppers last week, but with the beautiful weather, I decided to leave them. I did pick all the ripe fruit, but decided to leave the unripe fruits on the vine/plants to ripen up.


My pumpkins and other squash are starting to ripen as well. I have been a bit worried about my ‘Musque de Provence’ pumpkins are a long season variety and they are just starting to blush with color. I’ve had my fingers crossed that the weather would stay warm so they would fully ripen. Everything else is coming along well, fall broccoli and lettuces are sizing up. The third planting of fennel will be ready in month or so.

These last months in the garden are always full of activity, which need to be balanced with work preserving all the bounty.

How’s the harvest coming in your garden?

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This is a daily journal of my efforts to cultivate a more simple life, through local eating, gardening and so many other things. We used to live in a small suburban neighborhood Ohio but moved to 153 acres in Liberty, Maine in 2012.

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