It’s the time all gardeners look forward to: High summer, when many crops are in their glory. Here’s a guide to growing and cooking with basil, green beans and tomatoes.
Basil, beans and tomatoes are the jewels of the summer garden.
Photo by Barbara Damrosch
For the summer gardener-cook, every day brings an armload of beautiful vegetables, and the happy challenge is to make the most of them, especially those that thrive only in the warm season. Of these, tomatoes win the prize, and I could cheerfully put a platter of sliced, just-picked, ripe tomatoes on the table at every meal, but we must also make room for tomato soups, pasta with fresh tomato sauces, and BLTs. High summer is a busy time. Even a basic ripe-tomato sandwich with mayo and a few basil leaves tucked in makes a satisfying summer meal, so the simplest fresh summer recipes work best.
Tomatoes may be the nation’s most popular garden vegetable, but in some regions, they’re a little tricky to grow (for an essential playbook, see All About Growing Tomatoes and check out Growing Tomatoes: A Collection of Expert Advice). Beginners often plant more than they need — remember, a single cherry tomato plant will keep a couple well supplied for snacking and for scattering over salads. But you’ll want a few of the indeterminate (vining) type with larger fruits for summer-long harvests. If you’d also like to dry, freeze or can tomatoes, grow a half-dozen determinate (bush-type) tomatoes as well. These ripen over a shorter stretch of time, which is just right for a few weeks of processing. Of these, dense, meaty, plum-shaped paste tomatoes make the quickest sauce with the deepest flavor.
Ideally, you’ll harvest tomatoes when they have fully colored up and softened. Sometimes picking them before that perfect day is necessary, to avoid some anticipated ill fate — an intractable pest, a disease, or the cracking that can happen with certain heirloom varieties. In fall, a frost might take you by surprise before you’ve had a chance to can or freeze your bounty. Fortunately, tomatoes ripen off the vine. If that hard green ball has even the slightest pink blush, it will eventually turn red on your kitchen counter.
After they’re picked, ripe or not, tomatoes should not be refrigerated. Cold is the enemy of their flavor — another reason not to let tomatoes hang on the vine very far into fall, even if frost holds off.
In many cases, such as in sandwiches and salads, tomatoes can be used just as is. Other times, as in sauces, peeling is called for because the skin doesn’t soften and shriveled bits of it can interfere with a dish’s texture. The best way to peel a tomato is to pour boiling water over it, count to 10, and then slip off the skin with your fingers. You can skin tomatoes that have been frozen whole by just holding them under running water for a few seconds.
Removing the pulp and seeds is sometimes necessary, too, either for texture or to decrease the water content. This can be done by cutting each fruit into quarters and scooping the pulp out of its cavities with your finger. For making a smooth sauce or purée, remove the skin and seeds by straining them out so you retain more of the nutrients in the pulp. If using a small food mill, cooking the tomatoes first makes the job easier. A more heavy-duty strainer can handle them raw.
Meanwhile, as my mother would say, you’re “keeping up with the beans.” As with tomatoes, beans come in both vining and bush types. Vining ones, usually called “pole beans” because they need support, bear for a long season, but must be picked regularly or they’ll stop making pods. So pick you must, even if it means giving some away. Bush beans mature over a shorter period, ideal for freezing, shelling or gorging.
With any bean, a series of harvests is possible. Start by picking some when the pods are small and skinny, as the French do, letting others get full-sized for the more typical snap bean harvest. If you wait too long and you can feel the seeds in the pod, wait a few days more until the shell bean stage, when the shells will toughen but the seeds will swell to full-sized yet are still soft enough that you can dent them easily with your fingernail. This is a great way to take advantage of a surplus if you’ve fallen behind in your picking.
Lima beans are the most familiar shell bean type, but virtually any edible bean can be enjoyed this way. After shelling, the fresh bean seeds cook in about 20 minutes. To get dry beans for storing, just let the pods get fully dry, crisp and brown on the vine. Just note that, picked too soon, dry beans will get moldy when stored. Left too late, rain, frost or disease may ruin them.
And basil! What would high summer be without its lush, pungent leaves? The thing to remember about growing basil is to pinch off the flowering tips. This makes the plant branch and become bushy, giving you a better yield, and also keeps flowers from forming, which would eventually end the plant’s leaf-producing stage. If flowers do form, pinch them off quickly.
Basil does not hold its flavor well when dried, but it can be frozen. Purée or chop it finely and preserve it in oil. This is a bit like making pesto. Basil discolors easily, especially when moist, so don’t wash it just before puréeing or chopping it to freeze.
I mix chopped basil with olive oil and freeze it in straight-sided jars — only the surface turns a little dark. It stays soft enough that I can remove chunks of it as needed with a small knife. You can also freeze basil in oil by using ice cube trays with individual compartments. Be sure to leave the cubes in the tray until ready to use or they will darken on all sides.
If, despite your best efforts, your basil goes to seed too early in the season, just sow some more.
Barbara Damrosch farms and whips up creative, fresh summer recipes with her husband, Eliot Coleman, at their Four Season Farm in Harborside, Maine. She is the author of The Garden Primer and, with Coleman, of The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.