The kitchen gets no rest during harvest season, and neither does the cook. There is pickling to be done, and freezing and drying and all the cleanup in between—thinking through food preservation projects seems to short-circuit the part of the brain that figures out what’s for dinner. Plus there is the seasonal challenge of handling the river of greens that flows into the fall kitchen. Whether your produce comes from your garden, your CSA box or the farmers market, it will be rich with cooking greens such as chard, collards, escarole, kale, pak choi, mizuna, mustard and turnip greens. Arugula, lettuce and spinach are in good supply, too, which adds up to a lot of greens to work into harvest season menus.
To meet these challenges, you will need to strategize. From cooking large batches to setting up a dinner co-op with a friend, the following tips save time while putting great food on the table.
Roast a large pan of mixed vegetables once a week, and use the cooked vegetables in salads, wraps, quiches and casseroles. The mixture will vary from week to week, but might include carrots, potatoes, radishes, onions, parsnips, turnips and kohlrabi if you have it. This is the perfect use for split or injured specimens in which the bad parts can be trimmed away. Cut the veggies into bite-size pieces, toss with enough olive oil to coat, season with sea salt, and roast in an open pan at 350 degrees for 30 to 45 minutes. Refrigerate leftovers to use in salads, omelets and recipes such as the ones in “4 Time-Saving Garden Harvest Recipes,” later in this article. You also can use an outdoor grill to roast veggies cut into large, flat pieces.
Line casserole dishes with a vegetable crust. This time of year, chard, collards, kale and other greens need picking every time you turn around. Large batches can be frozen or dried, but daily harvests can be cleaned, chopped and arranged over the bottom of an oiled baking dish (for strata or casserole) or deep-dish pie pan (for quiche). As the dish bakes, the greens cook and compress into a pretty green layer that serves as a nutritious crust.
Make refrigerator pickles for salads and snacking. You don’t need canning skills or cucumbers to make refrigerator pickles, which keep for weeks due to their high vinegar content. It’s actually quite simple: Tightly pack two clean quart jars with fresh veggies cut into bite-size pieces (carrots, green beans, ripe peppers and cauliflower, for example), and add a few peppercorns, a sprig of dill or fennel, and two cloves of peeled garlic to each jar. Bring 2 cups white vinegar to a simmer, and stir in 2 tablespoons salt and 1 tablespoon mustard seeds. Pour the simmering brine over the veggies, screw on lids, and refrigerate at least two days to allow time for the flavors to marry. The liquid level in the jars will rise as the vegetables marinate. They’ll keep for about three months.
Put salads inside pitas or wraps. If you tire of plated salads but your arugula and lettuce keep coming, turn chopped salad greens into a crunchy filling for wraps or pitas. Add a protein (pre-cooked meat, beans or cheese) and a tasty dressing or dipping sauce, and you have a no-fuss meal that’s easy to eat. In a pinch, you can use wraps or split pita breads as crusts for quick veggie pizzas, too.
Stock up on fast-cooking grains. Couscous, bulgur (cracked wheat), polenta (corn grits), angel hair pasta and rice noodles cook quickly, so they are great time-savers in the harvest season kitchen. Add cooked veggies and a sauce or dressing, and dinner is done.
Share the work. Wouldn’t it be great to have one day a week when a home-cooked meal arrives at your door, so your own kitchen can take on a food preservation project? A seasonal dinner co-op arrangement with a friend who shares your cooking style can bring much-needed relief while sparing the expense of dinner out. For example, my co-op partner brings me a casserole and salad on Tuesdays, and I do the same for her on Thursdays. Some great ideas for dinner co-ops are explored in Alex Davis’ book Dinner at Your Door: Tips and Recipes for Starting a Neighborhood Cooking Co-op, but there is no fixed model for sharing the work in the harvest kitchen. It could be as simple as a weekly potluck dinner in a neighborhood park. Everyone brings a double portion, and the leftovers are shared for another day’s meal.
4 Time-Saving Garden Harvest Recipes
These greens-friendly recipes come together quickly and make good use of late-season herbs and vegetables. Use these concepts to kick-start your creativity as you plan seasonally streamlined dinners.
Plentiful Pasta Bowl
Cook any type of pasta according to package directions, using 1 cup of additional water. Three minutes before the pasta is done, add 2 cups (or more) of chopped raw veggies and greens such as scallions, sweet peppers, tomatoes and celery, chopped fresh herbs, or a can of garbanzo beans (drained). Bring back to boil and cook three minutes more, then drain. Toss with your favorite vinaigrette dressing and crumble feta cheese on top just before serving. Alternatively, use a sesame-ginger dressing and garnish each bowl with roasted peanuts topped with cilantro or basil.
Polenta with Sausage, Peppers and Greens
Make a 3-cup batch of polenta or grits according to package directions, and spread into a buttered 9-inch baking dish. If you are using purchased polenta, cut the roll into half-inch slices and arrange them in the bottom of the pan. Brown 1/2 pound crumbled pork, lamb or turkey sausage (or a vegetarian version), and drain the fat. Add 1 cup chopped peppers, 1 small chopped onion and 2 cloves minced garlic to the pan and cook until just done. Add 2 cups chopped chard, kale or other greens and 1 cup halved cherry tomatoes, cover and cook until the greens change color, about five minutes. Spread the sausage/greens mixture over the polenta and bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, until hot and bubbly. Sprinkle generously with Parmesan cheese. Serve with crusty bread.
Heat a 9-inch ovenproof skillet over medium heat. Swirl with oil or butter to coat, and add four well-beaten eggs mixed with 1 cup of roasted vegetables, cut into small pieces. Sprinkle with grated cheddar or Asiago cheese, and bake in a 400-degree oven until the eggs have set and the top is brown, about 10 minutes. Allow the frittata to cool for a few minutes before cutting it into wedges. Serve with a dollop of sour cream and a generous sprinkling of fresh parsley, basil or other garden herbs. This dish is excellent with blueberry muffins. To boost a frittata’s kid appeal, mix cooked pasta into the beaten eggs.
Arrange 1⁄2-inch slices of stale bread in the bottom of a buttered 9-inch baking dish. Cover the bread slices with grilled or roasted vegetables and chopped, cooked greens, topped with a layer of sliced tomatoes. Cover with grated cheese, then a second layer of bread slices. Whisk together 2 eggs, 1 cup milk, chopped fresh herbs (rosemary recommended), and salt and pepper. Pour the milk/egg mixture over the strata, top with more cheese, then cover and refrigerate for 2 to 8 hours. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees until lightly browned, about 40 minutes. Serve with a Mediterranean-style green salad.
Award-winning garden writer Barbara Pleasant grows and preserves vegetables, herbs and fruits in her hillside garden in Virginia. Visit Barbara Pleasant’s website to learn more.