Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Relishing the Heat

At Sandhill, we've officially entered condiment season. It lasts from now until frost—about 10 weeks. While this summer has been unusually hot, it is only now that we start packing heat into jars.

With the weather as brutal as it's been—there have been all-time highs across much of the country—we're thankful that we're entering summer's second half. Today we inched into August, which is generally cooler than July. We can only cross our fingers and hope that this year will be typical.

[You know it's a hot summer when you're thankful that the daytime high is only in the 90s, and that you're praying for a nighttime low that dips below 70—such that you're reaching for a sheet before dawn.]

On a Midwest homestead, August is the month that both tomatoes and peppers are headline vegetables. Think salsa. While our hot peppers are not quite ready for prime time, we've nonetheless eased into condiment season. The stars were aligned this summer such that we succeeded in keeping the coons out of our sweet corn—a noteworthy accomplishment all by itself—and we've enjoyed a bumper crop of both cabbages and kings, I mean corn. This translates into corn relish. While my community relishes an abundance of sweet corn in the freezer, this year we have enough for everything (including plenty of corn-on-the-cob gluttony) and there are now 42 quarts of this once-every-five-years specialty in the root cellar. Yum.

Next in line are our tomatillos. As they start maturing in July (and keep on marching out of the garden until frost), we already have four buckets of these tasty Mexican nightshades patiently stockpiled in our cooler, waiting for the hot peppers to catch up. Once the jalapeños start ripening we'll enter serious tomatillo salsa production, which is one of our hotter sellers (pun intended) on our fair table each fall, standing proud right next to the sorghum and horseradish. Olé!

Once we get the tomatillo surplus under control, we'll have time to catch our breath and lay in the years' supply of tomato salsa, featuring generous amounts of pan-roasted cumin, hand ground in a mortar and pestle (it's completely different than using store bought ground cumin).

This takes us pretty much through August, by which time the peppers will be in full stride and we can pair their incoming bounty with new crop honey (our bees are enjoying their strongest showing in years) to cook down caseloads of pepper relish. We use equal parts of sweet peppers and hot peppers, diced small and cooked down slowly in honey and vinegar to create a a piquant, sweet gooey condiment that sells as fast as we can make it.

It's interesting that the hot peppers don't reach full strength until the weather starts tapering off, as if the peppers have been storing up all the extra heat that Old Sol has been radiating, releasing it later as starbursts of reflected glory whenever you take a bite.

As we enter condiment season, I am reminded of the lyrics of "Canned Goods" by Greg Brown, who grew up in rural Iowa. I aspire to be a culinary alchemist like his grandma, about whom he had this to say in the chorus:

Peaches on the shelf 
Potatoes in the bin 
Supper's ready, everybody come on in 
Taste a little of the summer, 
Taste a little of the summer, 
You can taste a little of the summer 
My grandma's put it all in jars.


Ma'ikwe Ludwig said...

Warning: This blog should not be read before breakfast! Now I'm hungry, Laird!

Sandy Shaw said...

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