Archive for August, 2008

Dashboard Tomatoes

August 30, 2008

My goal for this year’s garden was to provide all of our vegetables during the summer.  There have been a few exceptions–red peppers on a vegetable tray for a family picnic, carrots for a bag lunch, etc.  On balance, I’m also putting away a little bit from the garden for the winter.  Most of this squirrelling is pretty pedestrian–freezing green beans, squash in the attic, etc.  In late summer, though, it’s dashboard tomatoes.  Using home-grown produce and passive solar power, I’m able to produce shelf-stable sundried tomatoes.

I start with cherry tomatoes, along with the first few paste tomatoes that ripen before I have enough to make sauce.  I cut them in half and take out the seedy pulp.

Each tomato, if inspected carefully, has a ridge running along each side, giving it the appearance of a very overstuffed figure-8.  By slicing perpendicular to this ridge, you’ll cut open both sections of the fruit, which makes it easier to clean out.

I put the tomato halves, cut side up, in any heat-proof container.  I’m using a cast iron skillet here, which seems to retain more heat than my other containers.  Eventually, I’ll have to upgrade to a glass brownie pan, and by this time of year I’m using a 16+” pizza tray.  As long as they hold up to heat and can keep the tomatoes in place, anything will work.  When I’m out of tomatoes or the tray is filled, I’ll sprinkle them with salt.  I use coarse kosher salt, because I’ve read that iodized table salt causes discoloration, but I haven’t tried it.  The salt helps to draw out the liquid, which speeds drying and prevents spoilage.

The tomatoes are facedown here, which I thought might help them dry by allowing the liquid to drain.  It didn’t work very well, and the tomatoes discolored where they touched the iron.  From there, I put them on my dashboard.  My current vehicle has a dark interior, but my last car had a white leather interior, and it didn’t seem to make a difference.  If your car gets hot in the summer, it should work.

In my treeless neighborhood, I don’t have any choice but to park in the sun.  During August, when the tomatoes first start coming in, they will be finished within 24 hours.  Even if I have to drive somewhere, I’ll set the tomatoes in the passenger seat (or the backseat if I’ve got a passenger) while I drive and put them back on the dash when I park.  When the weather cools off, there’s usually enough sun to generate the heat needed to dry the tomatoes in a day or two.  I let them dry to beyond the leathery stage, so that they are still flexible but a bit crispy.  This next picture is marred by an overzealous automatic flash, but it shows the finished product.

From this point, I load the skillet with the next batch, and put the finished tomatoes into a clean, dry jar.  I generally keep the jar out, where I can keep an eye out for condensation, which would suggest I didn’t get the tomatoes dry enough.  As the jar fills up, there’s usually enough very dry tomatoes in there to absorb some of the liquid from a not-quite-ready addition.

These can be rehydrated in a marinade for use as sun-dried tomatoes in salads or on french bread.  They’re also excellent added to casseroles or soup–they bring a tart sweetness that is not available locally in the winter.  I’ve also given jars of them away as gifts.  Last year, I ran out right about the time the first lettuces came in, and I’d like to eventually make enough to last through the “tomato gap”, so that we can have tomatoes in some form all year.

I do a bit of freezing, and may wind up canning, but both of those methods of preservation are energy-intensive at some point in the process.  Aside from the effort involved in slicing them and moving them on and off the dashboard, these use no commercial energy in either their creation or storage.


August 1, 2008

Finding Mayapple

Mayapple is easy to identify by its distinctive leaves, which can be seen on the Wikipedia page.  The umbrella-like leaves can be found in forests.  Unlike the past several foods I’ve tried, which are found on the borders between woods and fields, I’ve found mayapples deep in the understory of hardwood forests. 

Harvesting Mayapple

It’s a little difficult to find mayapples anywhere near ripeness, since they are a favorite among wild animals.  I picked them a little underripe and stored them in a bag for a few days to ripen.  Since the fruits are low to the ground, I found them by getting close to the ground to look under the umbrella-like leaves.  The lemon-like fruits can be seen in the not-so-great photo below:

The smallest of them is about the size of a ping-pong ball.

Preparing Mayapple

 There are recipes for jellies and jams made with mayapples, but they all call for cups and cups of the fruit.  The above picture represents my total harvest from the forest near my house, so making jam is not a reality at the moment.  I just cut the top off of a dead ripe mayapple and sucked the pulp out.  The pulp was very seedy, so I spit the seeds out.  I was able to chew through the skin, but it was a little tough and sour, so I stuck with eating the pulp.  My mayapple jelly recipe calls for using the entire fruit.

Eating Mayapple

The taste is a little similar to wild grapes, which probably doesn’t mean much to the beginning forager.  It’s a perfumy, almost tropical flavor, and I really enjoyed it.  This may be the best-tasting wild food I’ve found so far, and I’m eagerly anticipating next year’s mayapple season.  In the meantime, I’ll be scoping out new patches of the fringed umbrella leaves.