Ratatouille, vegetables, canning, farm stands, farm stores, NYS, canning, preserving, freezing, country life!
20190908 00106e, Still Homesteading. 13 minutes.
The next item on the agenda was our Annual August Ratatouille Marathon, started years ago when Hilary insisted we should spend a day together working on the sauce. The marathon starts long before the day when we make the sauce. It starts with finding and getting the fixings, the veggies.
Normally, my summer veggies and fruit are available locally, but the year of hurricane Irene it didn’t work out that way. Usually the fixings for the ratatouille came from a local farm, plums from a local orchard, peaches from another orchard, and pears from my daughters’ trees.
Everything was up-ended the year of hurricain Irene. The usual farms didn’t have any plums or any of the ratatouille fixings.
The following year my local summer veggie farm didn’t have the fixings for ratatouille. Over the winter, the owners had gentrified their local sales operation. Their main outlet was the NYC farmers’ market on Saturdays. Previously, whatever was left they brought home and sold as seconds, from a big flat-bed trailer. Wonderful ratatouille fixings had always been available at minimum cost: heavy bushel boxes of enormous big red juicy tomatoes, colorful red, yellow and green Bell peppers, big purple eggplants, and firm shiny green zucchini. The onions were already waiting at home.
Over the winter they had built a beautiful new farm store and only sold firsts, no discount for quantity or seconds. They had started a co-op whereby customers joined and paid a membership fee at the beginning of the season, and would receive an allocated quantity of a variety of produce each week – too much for me, alone. The young man at the store was remarkably uncooperative, wouldn’t, (or maybe couldn’t,) give me a clue when or if they might have seconds for the ratatouille fixings, and got me thoroughly unhappy. I learned later that they gave the seconds to the local food bank.
With plums and ratatouille fixings not available, let alone seconds by the bushel; (the peaches would hopefully come from one daughter’s three peach trees, and the pears would come from my other daughter’s pear tree,) I activated my umbilical cord to Shaul’s farm in Fultonham, NYS, and was given the telephone number of a plum orchard, but even that was over 50 miles away.
The woman at the orchard said: “It’s too early for plums. Call in three weeks.” By then the envelope, on the back of which I had written their number, had vanished. I didn’t get back to the search for a month, which was almost too late so I temporarily gave up on plums.
Not being able to find any plums locally or anything for our ratatouille marathon, scheduled for that weekend, I called Shaul’s again and organized a trip North for the next day. Dave, the owner, answered the phone and, amazingly, remembered me. He said he would see if he could also rustle up some plums, but warned me not to expect too much. It was the end of the season and they had very few left. He invited me to lunch with the family at twelve o’clock, and told me not to forget the books for his sister!
The next day dawned, with no clouds in the sky. The dogs were excited at the prospect of a long “walkie-in-the-car” and we headed out, with a full tank of gas, an empty car and full of hope.
The journey was uneventful, if a trifle hot. It was mid-August, which meant the countryside was green, instead of the usual reds, golds and oranges. The route to Shaul’s was very familiar to me, having lived nearby in a previous incarnation.
My GPS decided we should take a path over the mountains, different from my usual one. They are BIG mountains. I declined the suggestion.
“Drive one mile then turn left.”
“Drive 50 feet and turn left.”
After several go-arounds with the very-insistent GPS woman, I eventually gave up and gave in.
We arrived the other side of the mountain in one piece, but I wondered how my poor little car would cope with the climb up the mountain on the return home, loaded to the gills? After all, it’s only a baby Honda FIT!
The journey took longer than anticipated and Dave was heading back out to the fields when we finally arrived. I felt ungrateful and stupid. They had been gracious enough to invite me to lunch and I couldn’t even get there on time!
After giving the dogs a run, I drove to Dave and Becky’s home. It is a beautifully updated 1700’s building that was completely flooded by the hurricane. The house was barely usable, after the flood, and Dave’s wife, Becky, was coping with their small children, and preserving peaches for the long winter months ahead. .
Dave had found one and a half bushel boxes of plums for me, which we bartered for two copies of each of my two small books. His sister had said she wanted them and his wife intended to send her a set. It was really amazing that they remembered the books, amongst all their very serious problems.
After lunch I drove to the enormous pole barn where the retail side of the farm produce is sold to the public. It was breath-taking. By October, on my usual Fall pilgrimage, only the winter veggies are there. This time, at the end of August, the summer ones were available as well. It was the overlap period and everything looked gorgeous: all the different colors, textures and shapes of the summer and winter veggies displayed side by side: many varieties of colorful shiny apples, deep reds of the beets, crinkly deep green broccoli, enormous green cabbage, huge strangely shaped carrots (some phallic!), wonderful big creamy white cauliflowers, dark shiny eggplant, sacks of big yellow onions, bright shiny red, green and yellow peppers, huge sacks of red and white potatoes, which I knew would need something underneath them to prevent their dusty soil from escaping onto the floor of the car, big orange pumpkins, strangely shaped rutabaga (what are they?), all the different shaped colorful squashes, bright red enormous tomatoes, deep green and yellow firm zucchini, – and probably many more.
The sales people in the barn remembered me. They had always been curious as to what I do with all the veggies and enjoyed my tales of cooking and preserving.
They filled my poor little FIT to bursting, leaving just enough room for the two dogs on the front seat. It was tight, but they tried to leave me space to maneuver the stick shift. The dogs and I got in and started the long Odyssey South, back home.
The sun was still shining and the sky blue when we left, but shadows were beginning to lengthen. It would be dark, as usual, by the time we reached home. The journey was uneventful, if long, but at least it was beginning to cool off. We drove over the mountain very slowly, so the engine wouldn’t over-heat. But my spunky little FIT chugged along, apparently happy.
Having filled up the car with gas and checking the mileage, before starting out in the morning, and by the Thruway in Cairo on the return journey, and again when we got home, the total mileage was 400 miles exactly, and we used 10 gallons of gas, an average of 40 mpg. Even with that heavy load on board! But then it is mostly downhill coming back.
As anticipated, it was dark when we got home, so under the guise of “tomorrow is another day,” everything but the dogs stayed in the car.
I brought down the fixings to Hilary’s house, and lots of olive oil, with sharp knives and cutting boards, bowls for the cut items and big pans for cooking. Ziplock bags and jars and lids and a big apron to envelope me, rounded out the mis-en-place.
Making ratatouille isn’t difficult, just tedious, like most preserving. It involves cleaning, cutting, and sautéing the fixings, and either putting the sauce into bags and the freezer, or into jars and the boiling water bath, to sterilize them. Jars take longer and are another step in the process, but at the end, one isn’t prey to electrical blackouts and the produce will wait almost indefinitely on the shelf.
Having once lost two freezers full of food to a four-day electric outage makes me hesitant to work hard and be subject to the worry of maybe losing it all. So, despite the extra work, I prefer to can everything.
As usual we had the problem of too much produce, too many pots and pans, too small a stove, and too many cooks in a not-large kitchen. Between us we each had a bushel basket of each of the five ingredients, all of which had to be cut, sliced, sautéed, assembled in the big pot, and processed. Just doing the slicing and cooking takes a whole day, and is remarkably boring and tiring.
Hilary puts her sauce into baggies and into the freezer, which isn’t too time consuming; mine go into jars and are boiling-water-bathed. My sauce was made at her house and then returned home with me in the big (extremely heavy) pans, and the canning procedure was done in my new outdoor “kitchen!”
Update: Now, trying to do everything in a small apartment kitchen, is challenging!