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Filtering by Category: The Garden

Time to get back to the garden

Rosetta

My garden is right at what I call the “transition period” this time of the year: we are ending the winter garden, some of the spring vegetables are not quite ready yet for picking and we have yet to start our summer garden planting. The winter vegetables that are still around in my garden are broccoli rapecavolo broccolo (also known as spigariello), cavolo nero (Italian kale) escarole and chicory.

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Back to the blog!

Rosetta

Thank goodness things have calmed down from the book tour. Now I can continue sharing recipes and telling you about the garden. But I would also like to hear from you about what you'd like for me to include in the blog: any particular kinds of recipes? More garden tips? More stories about Calabria? Let me know, and I'll get right on it. Here is a video that was shown last Tuesday on Eye on the Bay, a local tv show on the Bay Area channel, KPIX.  The show featured my book,  my dad’s garden and my mom cooking along with me in my kitchen.

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Today's pick from my "orto" (vegetable garden)

Rosetta

Someone asked me the other day how much food I typically get from my Oakland orto. Of course it varies depending on the time of the year, but during the summer I typically pick enough for family dinner every night. As an example I thought I'd show you what I picked from my garden today, July 22, 2010. I picked enough romano beans to cook and serve as a salad for dinner:

This handful of gorgeous zucchini blossoms I will save for my Saturday cooking class:

Lots of figs, both Adriatic and Black Mission, from my trees:

I also picked two cucumbers, three zucchini and two eggplants, which I will use in a pasta dish tonight.

Oh! I forgot! I even got a basketful of strawberries from our strawberry bushes:

and lots of sweet sweet Italian prunes. Take a look at how many are on just one branch!

There is a lot of satisfaction in growing your own vegetables. I hope that I have convinced some of you to give it a try, even if you have only pots on a terrace. In fact I extend my own garden by planting in pots; all my basil and hot peppers ended up in pots this year. I even put a cherry tomato plant in a pot, and take a look at it. It is the first one to have ripe tomatoes!

I also get eggs every day now. Here are the eggs just from the last three days. The beautiful blue-green ones  were laid by Gelsomina, our Ameraucana chicken.

My family can almost live off our small garden during the summer months, especially now with the addition of those eggs.

Pitticelle di Zucchine (Zucchini Fritters)

Rosetta

July is the month when my eight zucchini plants produces more zucchini that I can keep up with. I pick quite a few of them each day; as you can see below, each plant produces lots of them.

A typical daily pick of zucchini:

My parents never pick zucchini when they are small. That would be wasteful! Why not wait until they are larger, and thereby get a lot more food out of them? Like good Calabrians, my parents have many ways to preserve zucchini for the winter. In fact two of my favorite recipes that preserve zucchini use only large zucchini. One method is to dry the zukes in the sun during the summer; they are then called cose siccati or seccatini. The other is to cook them with vinegar and preserve them with olive oil, garlic, fresh mint and hot peppers, known as zucchine sott’olio. I love them both and a large portion of my zucchini end up preserved both ways. Both of these recipes are included in the preserves section of my upcoming book.

I love zucchini every which way you can think of and I prepare them in many dishes from appetizer to dessert. I will share more of my zucchini recipes that didn’t make it in my book in the coming weeks. I even started doing a cooking class a couple of years ago where the entire menu is based on zucchini. In fact  this class is coming up on July 24, and if you are interested in attending it there are still some spots available.

Today, the first recipe that I will share  is one that my mom would always make for me as a snack,  and it is now my children's favorite summer snack. They are zucchini fritters: pitticelle di zucchine in Calabrese, or frittelle di zucchine in Italian. My mother would fold some zucchini slices into a simple batter and fry each individual fritter. But when she started making these for my kids she noticed that they  would pull out the zucchini slices and eat just the fried dough. So she started chopping the zucchini and fold them into the batter. This did the trick. I will show you both ways and you decide which way you prefer. Eat them as an appetizer or as a snack. The problem is you can’t stop eating them.

How to make pitticelle di zucchine:

Slice the zucchini into ¼ inch rounds, or dice the entire zucchini.

Prepare the batter by  mixing flour with salt, parsley, basil, grated pecorino cheese, egg and water.

Place the zucchini rounds on top of the batter or fold the diced zucchini into the batter.

Fry the fritters until golden on both sides

Here is what they look like when done. The top photo has fritters with sliced zucchini and the bottom photo fritters with diced zucchini.

Pitticelle di Zucchine

Zucchini Fritters

1 large zucchini (about 1/2 pound), in 1/4-inch-thick rounds or diced

1 teaspoon kosher salt

For the batter:

1 cup  unbleached all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 large egg, lightly beaten

1 tablespoon freshly grated pecorino cheese

2 teaspoons minced flat-leaf parsley

1 teaspoon minced fresh basil

3/4 cup cold water

Extra virgin olive oil, for frying

In a bowl, sprinkle the zucchini with salt and toss to coat. Let stand 10 minutes to draw out some of the water.

Make the batter: Mix the flour and salt in a bowl and make a shallow well in the center. Place the beaten egg, cheese and herbs in the well and mix into the flour with a fork. Add the water and beat well until the mixture resembles thick pancake batter. When you lift some batter with the fork, it should fall in a ribbon. If the batter is too thick, add more water, a teaspoon at a time. If too thin, add a little more flour.

Heat 1/4 inch  of olive oil in a frying pan over moderate heat until it sizzles when you insert the end of a wooden skewer or chopstick (about 365ºF).

Drain the zucchini but do not rinse. Put a half-dozen slices of zucchini on top of the batter and spoon batter over them to coat. Transfer the battered zucchini to the hot oil with the spoon, making sure they are completely coated. Continue adding battered zucchini to the frying pan until it is filled but not crowded. Fry zucchini until golden brown on both sides, turning with a fork halfway through. Transfer with tongs to paper towels to drain. Repeat battering and frying zucchini until done. Let cool 5 minutes before serving.

If you choose to make the fritters with the zucchini diced, fold them in the batter and using a spoon transfer a spoonful to the hot oil.  Fry the zucchini fritters until golden on both sides, turning with a fork halfway through.   Transfer the fritters to paper towels to drain.  Repeat until all the batter is used.

Makes 2 dozen, to serve 6 to 8

Copyright 2006, Rosetta Costantino. All rights reserved.

1

My garden at the end of June

Rosetta

Last month I was worrying that my garden wasn't doing as well as last year since the weather had been unsually cold for the Bay Area. But after taking some pictures today and comparing them to last year's, I was amazed at how similar the garden is. After all that cold weather everything seems to have caught up to about where it was last year. But this year we have a new garden member: actual kiwi fruit on the vines!

I planted the vines three years ago and have patiently waited, and this year it finally happened. Last year, having almost given up on them, I went to the nursery where I had purchased the vines and asked whether I really had a male and female plant. The lady behind the counter reassured me: "It takes three to four years before kiwi bear fruit". Well, she was right! The fruit finally showed up this year and lots of them!

I'm happy to see my vegetables in such good shape. I've been tending them all by myself this past month since my parents are vacationing in Calabria. I have just a few more weeks on my own and then I will get lots of help with watering, tying and pruning those tomatoes. Take a look at last year post, so you'll know how to remove the suckers from the tomato plants.

The Romano beans are up to the top of their wood poles, loaded with flowers and tiny beans which I'll soon pick. The zucchini plants have started producing flowers and zucchini.

The tomatoes are up to the same level as last year

and the peppers and eggplants are doing just as well.

I think my parents will be happy with the results!

Bruschetta with Fresh Fava Beans

Rosetta

My garden is a little behind from last May. The weather has been unusual for California this year, with lots of rain and cold. We have planted all the tomatoes, eggplant and romano beans, but have not planted our peppers yet. Fresh peas are still on the vines because they were late coming out this year.

And of course we have been picking lots of fava beans on a daily basis.

Eating fava beans every day prompted me to write about them. We plant the variety of beans that we brought over from Calabria. The bean pods are very long compared to the ones that you find here at the farmers' market. Typically fava bean pods are about six inches long with 5 or 6 beans inside, but our variety is 10 to 12 inches long with 8 to 10 beans inside the pod. Each plant produces lots of pods.

Here are the beans inside the pod.

The beans themselves have an outer skin that most people here in the United States always remove, making for lots more work. Calabrians usually leave them on when making pasta or minestra with fava beans  but I do remove them for certain dishes. The recipe for a fava bean "spread" that I will show you is one of these. You can put it on top of bruschetta or serve it with grilled fish, toss it with pasta, or fold it into a risotto. It is so easy to make that you can just follow the photos below to make it at home.

To make enough for six people you will need about four pounds of fava bean pods. Shuck the beans from the pods,  blanch the beans in boiling water for about a minute, put them in cold water to stop cooking, drain them and then remove the outer skin.  Place them in a skillet with a good amount of olive oil, three cloves of  minced garlic and a sprig of fresh thyme.  Cook until soft for about  20 minutes, adding a little water if dry. Remove the thyme sprig and mash with a potato masher. Add some lemon juice to taste.  If the puree is still dry add some good extra virgin olive oil at the end.

While it is still warm spread it on top of bruschetta and top it with some shavings of ricotta salata or pecorino.

The next time you go to the farmers' market grab the fava beans because their season is short. Look for bright fresh pods. If they are wrinkly or brown don't buy them. And remember to buy lots of pods. Five pounds of pods give you only about 2 pounds of shelled beans.

P.S.  Here is a formal portrait of my chickens. They have finally lost their fear of open spaces and have become proper country chicks. This photo was as hard to take as one of kindergarten children (they just wont stand still). I managed to corral all four of them in one corner of the yard.  They love being outside and eating greens. Can't wait for that first egg!

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Bruschetta con Fave Fresche (Bruschetta topped with fresh fava bean spread)

Ingredients

4 pounds fava beans
1/4 to 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
One small sprig rosemary
One small sprig thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
Juice of one lemon
Six slices of grilled country-style bread

1. Shell the fava beans and discard the pods.

2. Bring a pot of water to a boil and add the shelled fava beans. Cook the beans for about one minute. Drain and place in a bowl of ice-cold water, to cool. Drain them again. Using your thumbnail, break the outer green skin and squeeze the pod between your thumb and forefinger - the bright green bean inside will pop right out. Discard the tough, outer skin.

3. Heat 1/4 cup of olive oil in a medium size skillet. Add the fava beans, garlic, rosemary and thyme sprigs, salt, pepper and 1/4 cup of water.

4. Cook over low heat until the fava beans are soft and absorb the flavors of the garlic and herbs, about 20 minutes. Add more water if the beans are drying out. Remove from the heat. Remove the herb sprigs and mash the mixture to a coarse puree or use a food processor and briefly process the mixture, if you prefer a smooth paste. Taste for salt and pepper. Add more olive oil and the lemon juice to taste. If the mixture seems dry, add more olive oil.

5. Spread the bean mixture on the grilled bruschetta. You can finish the bruschetta with a drizzle of good quality extra virgin olive oil and topped with some shaved, fresh pecorino cheese or ricotta salata if you like.

Copyright 2005, Rosetta Costantino. All rights reserved.

Crema di Limoncello

Rosetta

What do you do when life gives you lemons? I make limoncello with the Meyer lemons from my tree.

Last week I made a batch of limoncello and crema di limoncello, which I learned to make from my cousins. In Calabria people make all types of liqueurs, infusing grain alcohol with different fruit, herbs, flowers, even hot peppers. (The most unusual liqueur I have ever tasted in Calabria was at Villa San Domenico in Morano Calabro where the owner had infused the alcohol with porcini mushrooms.) It is a custom to offer a bicchierino (little glass) of liqueur when someone comes by to visit. Most waiters in Calabria won’t leave you alone until you have a little glass of limoncello or other infused liqueur after dinner.

Limoncello is very easy to make: you just need some lemons that haven't been  sprayed or waxed, a bottle of Everclear and some sugar. Crema di limoncello, the recipe for which I give you below, has one extra ingredient: milk.

Wash your lemons and remove the peel with a very sharp peeler or knife, being careful to remove only the yellow part of the lemon.  You don’t want any of the white pith--this will make the limoncello bitter.

Place the peels with the alcohol in a  jar with a hermetic seal.  I use this jar that is large enough to hold the peels and the alcohol, and has a tight seal.  Leave the peels in the alcohol for a week.

After a week, strain the alcohol and add the cooled sugar syrup, made with either water for plain limoncello, or milk for crema di limoncello.  That is all there is to it. Leave it alone for a week and then enjoy a little glass as an after-dinner drink.

Crema di Limoncello (left) and Limoncello (right)

Crema di Limoncello

(Creamy lemon liqueur)

Ingredients:

Peeled zest of eight lemons

1 bottle of grain alcohol (750ml)  (Everclear 151 Proof)

6 cups of whole milk

4 cups of granulated sugar

1. Remove the peel of the lemons taking care to peel only the yellow part and none of the white.  If any white pith is left on the peel it will make the limoncello bitter.

2. Pour the alcohol in a bottling jar that will hold at least three quarts and add the lemon peels.  Close the jar with a tight fitting lid and leave to infuse for one week in a dark cool place.

3. After this time, place the milk and sugar in a pot over a low flame and heat until the sugar is dissolved.  When the sugar is dissolved, remove it from the heat and let it cool to room temperature. Make sure that the sugar mixture is completely cooled.  For making regular limoncello this is very important; if the sugar syrup is still a little bit hot the limoncello will turn out cloudy instead of clear. Remove the lemon peels from the alcohol and then add the cold milk syrup to the jar and mix well.

4. Pour the crema di limoncello through a fine sieve lined with clean cheese cloth and decant it into bottles.  Close the bottle with a cork or lid. Leave to rest for at least a week in the freezer before using it.

Crema di Limoncello is always served cold.  I keep it in the freezer once opened.

Limoncello Variation: If you wish to make limoncello, just replace the milk with water.  Boil the water and sugar and let it cool.  Follow the rest of the recipe.  Keep refrigerated or in the freezer once made.

Makes 3 quarts.

Copyright 2005, Rosetta Costantino. All rights reserved.

It's time to start your seeds!

Rosetta

If you are planning to start your vegetable plants from seeds, this is the time to begin, so that they will be ready for planting in 6 to 8 weeks. This last week was when my parents started all the seeds for our vegetable garden. My parents never buy seeds; they always keep seeds from the previous year for planting in the next. In fact, all of our vegetable seeds came over from Calabria with us, in the early 1970s; they are truly heirloom varieties. Once the seedlings are ready for transplanting, they bring them over to my garden and plant them. Since we live in California they can start the seeds outside;  if that is not possible in your climate you can start the seeds indoors and then move them outside once the temperature is warmer. My parents use large pots or recycled containers for the seeds, and the soil they use is a fluffy rich soil.

If you are ready for planting, sprinkle the seeds evenly over your soil and cover it with a thin layer of more soil, about a quarter of an inch. Now for my parents' secret to keeping the seeds moistened evenly: instead of watering the seeds directly, they take a thin piece of cloth, typically a piece of an old t-shirt or thin kitchen towel, dampen it, and keep it over the soil until the seeds germinate. This way when they water the seedsthey stay in place rather than getting washed around. The picture shows you various pots that are covered with the cloth.

Pots - Seeds covered with cloth
Pots - Seeds covered with cloth

They then place the pots in a sunny spot, and once the seeds sprout, which can take up to two weeks, they remove the cloth, exposing the little seedlings to sunshine. If it rains or gets too cold they move the pots in a sheltered area. They treat those little seeds like babies.

I have found an online source for Italian seeds that carry many of the vegetable seeds that we grow.

www.growitalian.com

In the next couple of weeks we will make our annual manure trip to the farm and start preparing the soil.  See last year's post on how to prepare the garden for planting.

A peek at my garden in January

Rosetta

I have been busy reading my upcoming book’s first layout. I can't believe it's almost done! I always feel that not a whole lot happens in my garden in the winter months, as things grow fairly slowly compared to summer, but if you look back to the November post you will see that indeed a lot has happened. The peas are on their way up; in the photo below you can see the peach tree prunings that my father uses as their stakes. The netting is to keep the birds away.

The fennel is doing quite well:

The fava beans are starting to produce flowers, which will soon turn into pods:

Right after I took the picture below of my broccoli rape I picked a bunch of them. One of my favorite ways to cook it is to sauté it with olive oil, garlic and peperoncino.

Here is a picture of the cavolo broccoli; you can see the broccoli starting to come out.

The escarole is thriving in this cool weather.  I will pick these later in the week for my soup class.  One of the minestra (hearty soup/stew) we are making in the class is scarole e fagioli!

The citrus trees are loaded with fruit.  I have oranges, Satsuma mandarins and more Meyer lemons that I can use.  Take a look at the pictures below!  If you are wondering where I was hiding my citrus trees: they fill in the space between my house and my neighbor’s.

Satsuma mandarins:

My Meyer lemon tree:

A close-up of the gorgeous Meyer lemons:

I have some work coming up soon, making candied orange peel and limoncello.

My garden in November

Rosetta

I received an e-mail from a friend the other day asking me for advice on what she should plant for the winter months. This request prompted me to write about what is in my garden at this time of the year. It is fall in California but the days are still warm and some of my summer vegetables are still going strong; I am still picking tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. Take a look at these beautiful corno di toro peppers that will be ready to be picked as soon as they get fully yellow.

If the weather holds up I will have tomatoes on my vines until December.

The garden is also loaded with fall fruits. I have wonderful apples, of the golden delicious and fuji varieties, and lots of fuyu persimmons, which are almost ready.

Here is a fruit you would not expect to find on a tree during the month of November!

Can you believe it? A peach tree that doesn’t mature until November!  This is a special peach tree that made its way from Calabria. We call them pesche sanguine, which means “blood peaches,” and the color is just like that of  a blood orange on the inside. I peeled a couple so you could see the intensity of the red color.

They are so good, both sweet and tart. What a treat to have this time of the year!

In the past week my parents planted fennel, sweet red onions of Tropea, and cavolo broccolo, also known as spigariello, a cross between a broccoli rape and cavolo nero (Italian kale). As it grows I will show you more pictures.  The peas, fava beans and broccoli rape have already sprouted.  Here are some pictures of the baby plants.

My lettuce bed is just coming up and my arugula bed is growing quickly enough to give me baby arugula on a daily basis.

The vegetables that we plant in the fall are:  peas, fava beans, fennel, red onions, cavolo broccolo, broccoli rape; and soon we will plant more escarole and chicory.

Peppers and more peppers

Rosetta

We harvested lots of peppers during the months of September and October!

I have the same three varieties in my garden that we always grew in Calabria: sweet Italian peppers, peperoni di Senise and a couple of corno di toro yellow peppers. The peperoni di Senise are ideal for drying, as they have a thin skin and dry quicker than the Italian sweet peppers. Because September  in the Bay Area is also our Indian summer, we are able to dry them outside.

Here are some pictures of my dad stringing all the peppers from our harvest:

He hangs them out in the open until they are fully red and dried. This can take up to a month or so, depending on the weather.

Each string of peppers is called a ristra:

And this is what the peperoni di Senise look like when they are completely dried:

We grind up these peppers into pepe rosso, a mild, sweet paprika-like powder, that we use in making Calabrian sausage.  The ones that we don’t grind we keep whole and use during the winter months in many braised dishes.  There is a winter snack made in my town of Verbicaro made with these dried peppers, called pipi arrusckuatiin my dialect and peperoni cruschi in Italian.  They're like potato chips, but made with peppers instead. I will tell you more about this snack when I make them during the upcoming winter months.

Although some of the sweet Italian peppers end up dried, we use most of them fresh in various dishes.  One of my favorite ways to eat sweet Italian peppers is to remove the stem and seeds, put an anchovy inside, and pan fry them whole in olive oil.  We also use them fresh in frittate, pan fried with potatoes or with eggplants and tomatoes, stuffed and baked, grilled and peeled with olive oil and garlic, tossed with pasta--you name it, we make it.

In the next post I will include a recipe that you can prepare with red and yellow bell peppers, which are more readily available in this country. The recipe will be one that didn’t make it in my cookbook.  For all the other pepper recipes that I've mentioned above you will need to wait until next fall, when my cookbook, My Calabria,  will be published.

How to save tomato seeds

Rosetta

I have had some students ask me how to save tomato seeds for next year's planting. Last week when my mom was collecting tomato seeds I took a couple of pictures so you can see how she does it. It is actually a very easy task. My mom has saved our tomatoes seeds ever since we moved to the Bay Area from Calabria in the 70s. We still grow the same San Marzano variety that we brought with us. Every year she picks the best-looking tomatoes from which to harvest the seeds.

Cut a ripe tomato in half and using only your fingers remove the seeds with the gelatinous stuff around them and place them in a fine mesh strainer.

Rinse the seeds under running water. Move them around to remove any of the gel that might still be clinging to the seeds.

Once the seeds are clean place them on thick paper, like a grocery bag or a paper plate.

Spread them evenly and make sure they are all in one layer.

Allow them to dry thoroughly, keeping them away from direct sun. Three or four days should do it, although my mom usually lets them dry for a week. The seeds will stick to the paper, so carefully loosen them.

You should store the seeds in an air-tight container, like a small glass jar or paper bag or even a plastic 35-mm film container. Make sure you put the containers in a cool, dry place. Also, remember to label and date your seeds so that you will have them ready for next spring's planting.

Canning Tomatoes: the entire process

Rosetta

The detailed recipe for canning tomatoes will appear in my upcoming book, My Calabria, but I think you will get a good idea of what is involved by just looking at all the photos below.

We picked over 100 pounds of tomatoes in the first harvest and ended up canning 32 jars, not counting the tomatoes I brought to my cooking class. It takes on average 2.5 to 3 pounds of tomatoes to fill a quart jar. The canning took only three hours, with my husband, my son, and my mother all helping out.

Cleanliness is extremely important when canning. The first step is to clean the tomatoes well and make sure your jars are also clean.

We put the tomatoes in boiling water for about 30 seconds:

and quickly chill them in ice water:

Once they are cooled the skin is peeled:

Each tomato is then cut in half:

The seeds and core are removed:

The tomatoes are then placed in colanders to drain until we have enough tomatoes ready to be packed in jars. Here my mom is packing them:

Then she is pushing them tightly with a wooden spoon to remove all the air and gaps:

Once packed and sealed the jars go in a water bath, where they are boiled for one hour.

Here is the finished product to be put away for the winter months, so that throughout the year we can enjoy the taste of fresh tomatoes. There is nothing like it!

Since last week, I have picked even more tomatoes in a second harvest and will be canning about 25 more jars tomorrow.

The first tomato harvest of the season

Rosetta

I am so happy with the tomato harvest that I want to share some of the photos of it. I will be using the tomatoes this Friday for my cooking class, "A Tomato Dinner from My Garden" and my students will have a chance to taste every variety that I grow. The rest of the tomatoes my mother and I will can on Saturday. Here is a shot of my favorite tomato this year: "the little horned one", there on the vine in the lower left corner, ripe and ready to be picked.

The plant is of the "cuore di bue" or "ox heart" variety that my dad planted along with the San Marzanos and it produced more tomatoes that I thought it would.  I didn't want to pick it, because it was so cute, but it finally ended up in the box along with its mates.

Here is my mom picking the San Marzanos. Look how many tomatoes each cluster produces.

I made lots of trips from the garden to the house yesterday;  I think I probably picked about 100 pounds of tomatoes!

My mom likes to keep them on a flat surface, not in a box, until we are ready to can them. We usually  keep the tomatoes in my basement for four or five days. The temperature is cool there and this will maximize their sugar content and turn them a deep red.

Take a look at the table covered with them all and then, if you really want to be impressed, check my previous post to see the size of my garden.

Can you believe how many tomatoes you can grow in a small area?  The next harvests will be somewhat smaller, but I will end up canning more than 80 jars for the season and still have plenty to eat every day, as well as enough to bring to my cooking classes.

I have been picking cherry tomatoes for weeks on a daily basis, and from only two plants, but I still pick more than I'm able to eat raw everyday...

... so I roast the ones I can't keep up with, and then add them to dishes during the days following.  You can keep roasted tomatoes in the refrigerator for up to a week. They are very easy to prepare. Just place them on a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper, sprinkle with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil.  Roast them at 300 degrees for a couple of hours until they are wrinkled and look like this:

The roasting concentrates their flavors by caramelizing the natural sugars that they taste like candy.  They are good to place on top of a bruschetta with ricotta, or toss with olive oil, garlic and lots of fresh basil in some pasta.  They are also tasty on top of pizza, along with other roasted vegetables.

I will continue this post next week with picture of my canning day.

My vegetable garden at the end of August

Rosetta

In the month of August I've been able to enjoy eating romano beans, cucumbers, zucchini and eggplants, all from my own garden. Even my apple trees and my two grapevines are loaded with fruit.  But because August was unusually cool here in the Bay area, some of the vegetables, like the tomatoes, didn't start ripening until the end of the month, which you can see in the photo below. They're growing on two trellis rows, and are so high that we can no longer tie them down--they are now taller than we are.

The majority of the tomatoes are the San Marzano variety. We brought the seeds from Calabria with us in the 70s when we moved to the Bay Area and my parents have always kept the seeds from year to year, so you are looking at real heirloom tomatoes! I will write a post soon on how to harvest the seeds so that you don't need to buy them every year.

There are three other tomato varieties I planted along with the San Marzano: an early girl variety, a cuore di bue, or "ox heart", and sweet 100s, which are cherry tomatoes.

The early girls:

Cuore di bue tomatoes, this one with a cute little horn:

Cherry tomatoes:

My pepper plants are also abundant. We have two varieties:  sweet Italian peppers that we eat fresh as they mature in the next few months, and the peppers of Senise that we dry and make into peperoni cruschi, or grind intosweet pepper powder.

Sweet Italian peppers:

Peperoni di Senise:

Peperoncini (hot Calabrian peppers)

When I tell my students that I buy no vegetables during the summer, I can about 80 quarts of tomatoes, and I still have enough produce to use in the cooking classes they attend, they think that I have acres of land.  But the length of my back yard is only 50 feet, and the garden is six feet wide. There are also three other sections 20 feet long and three feet wide.  We extend the garden a bit by using large pots on the patio, which hold basil, hot peppers, strawberries and even an extra cherry tomato plant that I had no other place to put.

So how does it produce so much? It's the care and work that my dad puts into it that makes it so abundant.

Here are two pictures that give you a view of my garden, the left side and right side where you can see the pots on the patio. We have another section on the side of the house with a lettuce bed, my zucchini plants, my citrus trees, and a nespolo (loquat) tree.

Here is the left side of my garden:

Here is the right side:

Not bad for an urban metropolis like Oakland!

Eggplant: Queen of Vegetables

Rosetta

Growing up in Calabria spoils you for eggplant. The soil and hot weather are ideal there for it, but luckily we have similar weather here in California and I can grow them in my garden. After tomatoes, eggplant takes the top spot in vegetables in Calabria, and there are hundreds of ways of fixing it. I could probably write an entire cookbook on it. My favorite snack as a little girl during the winter was preserved eggplant, or melanzane sott'olio: sliced, cooked with vinegar, dried out for a day and then packed in jars with garlic, hot peppers, wild fennel and olive oil. It is still one of my favorite vegetables.

You can buy seeds from GrowItalian of the "Violetta Lunga" and "Gitana" varieties, which are like the eggplant found in Calabrian gardens;  I plant these because they are hard to find in the farmers' markets.  And the two varieties I usually buy are the "black beauty" or "globe" type, and the Filipino type. The picture below shows all three varieties. The Filipino is the light greenish purple one.

When you buy eggplant, look for firm, heavy ones free from blemishes, with a uniformly dark, rich purple color. The skin should be taut and shiny, not wrinkled or flabby. The fuzzy caps and stems should be green. As eggplant mature on the vine they develop seeds and their shiny deep purple color starts to fade. Eggplant are best eaten the day they are picked, but if you keep them, make sure it's only for a couple of days, and keep them in a cool but not cold area; they go bad quickly in a refrigerator. If you notice black seeds inside the eggplant when you cut it open, throw it away; it has been sitting around too long and will be bitter.

Eggplant are naturally sweet when fresh, and do not need to be salted for a long time to remove bitterness.  I typically salt and brush the slices with oil and immediately grill or bake them.  The only time to keep eggplant under salt would be if you are frying it;  then the salt will prevent too much oil being absorbed.

One of my students once dared me to teach a whole class using only eggplant.  So, I created a menu using only eggplant from appetizer to dessert, and it was such a hit that I have been repeating the class every year during the month of August. I vary the menu for every class--except the dessert!

For instance, here is the menu that we prepared at the eggplant class last Friday:

  • Polpette di melanzane (eggplant fritters) for the appetizer.
  • Involtini di melanzane con ripieno di pasta (eggplant rolls filled with spaghetti, caciocavallo cheese and topped with tomato sauce and ricotta affumicata or smoked ricotta) for the first course.
  • Melanzane ripiene(eggplant stuffed and baked with ground pork, breadcrumbs and pecorino cheese) for the second course.
  • Insalata di melanzane(strips of cooked eggplant tossed with olive oil, garlic, peperoncino, mint and vinegar) as a salad.
  • Melanzane al cioccolato(eggplant layered and filled with ricotta and chocolate) for dessert.

Eggplant in a dessert?! Yep!  It is not a Calabrian dish, but comes from the Amalfi area of Campania, and its ingredients vary from town to town.  I created my own version similar to the one from the town of Maiori.  It's kind of like the dessert version of eggplant parmigiana, with sweet ricotta substituting for the cheese and chocolate sauce in place of the tomato sauce.  This dish is always the piece de resistance in the class.  The only way you can believe that you're eating eggplant is if you make it yourself.

For the rest of the month of August I will share three eggplant recipes from the class. And since I know you can't wait to try it, I will start with the steps of how to make this unique and delicious dessert. To whet your appetite, see below!

My vegetable garden in July

Rosetta

Since my last garden update in June a lot has happened in my garden. I have enjoyed fresh strawberries, zucchini, cucumbers, romano beans and baby lettuce every day, and lots of wonderful figs. We have a small patch of strawberries that provide us with the best fruit all summer long; we manage to pick a basket every other day!

Look how wonderful they are below, fully ripe and sweet and juicy. Note the shape and size carefully so that you can buy strawberries that look just like them at a farmers' market. Whatever you do, don't buy those giant, perfectly shaped strawberries.

July is also the month when we start harvesting and preserving some of the garden bounty.

We picked our sweet Italian red onions (cipolle di Tropea) and as you see from the picture below we braid them and hang them from my apple tree, which is how we always kept onions in Calabria. This way, they stay in the shade and don't sprout.  Not that I have to worry about their sprouting--they don't last past the summer months, because they make for great eating.

My 14-year-old son harvested his potato patch and was very proud of the results; from just a few cuttings he managed to pick 15 pounds. He has just planted another crop, this time of Yukon gold, to see if he can produce two crops in one year. I will let you know how his experiment turns out.

We also harvested my oregano patch.  Right after it is in full flower we cut it down to the base.

We tie the long stems in bunches with kitchen string and hang the bunches upside down to let it dry in a shady spot in the garden. This is the oregano that I'll use for the rest of the year for dishes that require it dried. But I always keep a small patch of fresh oregano in the yard; luckily here in California I am able to have fresh herbs all year round.

I also harvested lots of basil and made my first batch of pesto. I freeze it and put it away for the winter months.

The tomatoes are growing up their trellis. They are almost at the top of the poles and all the branches are loaded with tomatoes. In about a month I will have the juiciest, sweetest tomatoes.

The Italian eggplants are just starting now...

...as well as the sweet Italian peppers.

For the next update I will have a garden full of eggplants, tomatoes, romano beans, and hot and sweet peppers. August and September are the best time of year, loaded as they are with all my favorite vegetables.

Crazy about figs

Rosetta

When I lived in Calabria as a child I was surrounded by fig trees all around our farm, and I never could decide which type to pick from first. The best fig that is grown in Calabria is the "dottato" variety, known in this country as the "kadota" fig.  These have a green skin with a golden interior.  They are excellent fresh as well as great for drying, which is what my grandparents used to do with them.

When I moved to California as a teenager, my dad planted some cuttings from our friends' trees.  Then, when my husband and I built our house in the Oakland hills, the first thing we planted were two fig trees.  One was a black mission and the other was one that my dad grafted into two varieties, the "kadota" and the "adriatic".

Fig trees produce two crops a year.  Here in Northern California the first crop lasts from late June to July and the second crop from late August through the beginning of October.  The first crop is borne on the twigs grown the previous year and the second crop grows on the new wood. Here are photos of my figs:

Adriatic Figs

Kadota Figs. Note the drop of honey on the blossom end of the center fig. Perfection!

Black Mission Fig:

I have been picking my first crop of the Adriatic variety for the past two weeks. The black mission figs are just starting to ripen this week. My favorite way to eat them is right off the tree, fully ripe.

Most figs sold at the store are underripe, so try to go to a farmers' market to buy them.  A ripe fig is soft to the touch; you should see some cracks in the skin. If you see that little tear of syrup falling from the blossom end you have a perfectly sweet fig.

Calabrians don't really cook with figs unless they are making jam or using them in a dessert.  As for savory dishes, I will wrap some prosciutto around a cut fig, or slice them in a salad of arugula with some prosciutto.

The majority of the figs grown in Calabria are dried in the sun and are nowadays packaged in beautiful confectioneries.   My grandmother would braid the dried figs in various shapes: coroncine (wreaths) around stems of fragrant myrtle; spinapisci (fish spines) in which dried figs are threaded around a sharpened reed in the shape of a fish spine, one fig to the left and one to the right;  and crocette (crosses), in which two figs are split and stuffed with pieces of walnut or an almond and crossed in the form an "x".  These are then all baked.

There are two firms in Calabria around Belmonte Calabro and Amantea that do a beautiful job packaging dried figs: Colavolpe and Fratelli Marano. They shape them in the traditional forms, but also stuff them with almonds and a piece of candied orange peel, dipping them in dark chocolate, my favorite way to eat them dried.

If you can't find a tree-ripened fig in your area you can still enjoy the dried figs of Calabria that are now available in this country.  Here is a website where you can buy Calabrian fig confectioneries:  http://www.italianharvest.com/subcategory.php?subcatID=13

My vegetable garden in June

Rosetta

I promised you in May that I would post some pictures of how my vegetable garden looks after a month.  Compare the photos in the previous post to those below to see the difference a mere four weeks make.  It is amazing to see seedlings change into fully grown plants and start producing fresh summer vegetables. The zucchini are producing beautiful blossoms and fruit.  The romano beans have grown to the top of the wood poles and the beans are ready to be picked.

The tomato plants are on their way.  My dad builds the entire trellis with recycled material he has around my garden, like wood poles, metal posts left over from when we built my house, and left over irrigation tubing.  He buys nothing and recycles everything from year to year.

The poles are about 6 - 7 feet high--that's as high as we can reach to tie the tomato stems--and planted about 6 feet apart.  These poles support the horizontal bars, which he makes out of wood sticks or tubing, are placed about 12 inches apart.  When the plants start producing, the trellis looks like a wall of tomatoes. You will have to wait until August to see what I am describing.  In the meantime, if you have planted San Marzano tomatoes and would like to use this time-honored Calabrian technique, please feel free.

Take a look at the picture below to see how my dad ties the tomato stems to the trellis. He uses strips of his old worn shirts!

We always remove all the suckers once the tomato plant is well on its way up the trellis. A tomato sucker, or side shoot, is a growth that appears between a branch and the main stem. Here is a picture of what it looks like:

We leave suckers on the lowest portion of the tomato plant, as many as five or six,  and these become the main branches that will produce tomatoes.  All the other suckers that are produced by these stems will be removed as the tomato stems climb up the trellis.   You want to prune the suckers when they are small, no more than two to four  inches.  Suckers this size can be snapped off with your fingers, but suckers any thicker than a pencil should be cut with a pruner or knife to avoid damaging the plant.

The eggplant and pepper plants are growing well and my two cucumber plants are on their way to producing:

This is the best time of the year in my garden; I get to pick fresh vegetables on a daily basis.

Even my fig trees are ready to produce wonderful sweet figs. They will be ripe enough to eat right off the tree by next week.

I have two large fig plants, a Kadota (green-skinned and golden flesh) and a black mission tree. I'll have more on figs in a future post.