The Winter Garden

A friend recently wrote a book focusing in part on Alaskans’ longing for specific and unique food items–from box cake mix to whale blubber.

Winter is an ideal time of year for Alaskans to plow through their favorites. In fact, winter is my favorite time to eat food from the garden.

As a dilettante food preserver, the canned pickles in the pantry, the packages of cubed pumpkin in the freezer, and the jars of various ferments in the refrigerator seem more precious to me than fillets of wild salmon.

In recent weeks, I’ve hacked apart three large pumpkins and winter squash, mostly to preserve in the freezer but also to make pie, pumpkin butter, maple-pumpkin-cornbread, stews, pepitas, and a really awful pudding (don’t EVER replace blackstrap molasses with pomegranate molasses). Several more pumpkins and squash are waiting in the living room for their turn to be carved.

Fragrant buttercup squash with saved seeds.

Cutting up pumpkins used to be intimidating, but I’ve learned how to knife through them relatively quickly, stopping the knife tip in the center cavity, and carving down from one end to the other. I scoop out the seeds and stringy pulp with a sharp grapefruit spoon. If I’m cutting up raw cubes of pumpkin for vacuum packing, I’ll start by peel the tough skins off with a sturdy Y-shaped peeler.

I’ve been sharing the last few jars of dill pickles and pickled runner beans with friends and co-workers. The last few too-salty fermented pickles are mellowing out in a water container. I’ll fish those out to dice into tuna salad.

One of the best gifts from the garden at this time of year is the “fast food” provided by kimchi and other fermented vegetables. The jars of lemon-dill kraut, curtido, celery, and hot peppers in the fridge could last until March or April. Everything in those jars is delicious, and if the fridge smells a little spunky, we don’t notice anymore.

Seaweed/sesame kimchi, fermented celery with sage and thyme, and garlic dill slices.

A new treasure from last year’s garden is the small cache of runner beans bagged up in the freezer. For a ski trip this past weekend, some of the purple speckled beans were soaked, cooked and tossed with pesto and pasta. They looked beautiful (staying purple) but I discovered a much more flavorful use for the beans is cooking them and tossing with rosemary, dried marjoram, capers, tarragon vinegar and lots of garlic.

Here are a few recipes that have worked well for us so far this season.

Pumpkin Maple Cornbread (you can cut the sugar and try making your own pepitas if you have really large pumpkin/squash seeds that are too tough to roast).

Warm White Bean Salad with runner beans instead of cannellini.

Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Dilly Beans with runner beans. I prefer this recipe which is in her book. The recipe in the pickle section of her website omits lemon peel.

If you have some favorite recipes for preserved food that you are enjoying this winter, please send along or share them in the comments!

Our summer in beans

For Alaskans who grew beans in this year’s abnormal heat, the harvest exceeded expectations.

It may have even induced a little panic for those who sowed generously. Pleas from fellow Anchorage gardeners normally associated with runaway zucchini started showing up in my Facebook feed, in the context of beans.

Fortunately, our household ended up with just the right amount for two bean eaters’ annual needs.

Well, to be honest, at the end of the summer, I could have used couple more pounds of snap-tender beans to experiment with lacto-fermented recipes. But at that point, all but a few pods were swollen and ready for shelling.

I can’t complain though. This summer was a sizzling success story for beans. We vacuum packed them. We made a few beautiful jars of tightly-packed dilly beans. We “quickled” them with kombu and lemon. I added them to cabbage ferments, stir fries, and stews.

Shelling half-runner beans for freezing and drying.

This year I eschewed dependable, prolific bush beans and only grew runner bean varieties: my favorite St. George red-and-white variety; a few mystery beans saved from last year that grew to resemble the St. George variety; and a white-flowered, half-runner variety re-gifted by a gardener friend.

From the get-go, the half-runner beans had tough shells, so I let all of those mature into shelling beans. Until flowering ended, they attracted hordes of bees.

At the end of the summer, I shelled a dozen or so of the driest half-runner beans for possible replanting in the deck trellis next summer. The rest went in the freezer, because I’m no expert (yet) in deciding when to dry out fresh beans versus freezing them.

Piles and piles of speckled St. George runner beans for the freezer.

Thanks to this summer’s large crop, the months ahead should provide many opportunities to try runner beans in a wider variety of winter recipes. Now … if only we had as much salmon in the freezer!