The average date for the first frost here in Topeka, Kan., is October 15. Depending on your geographic location, the average date in your area may be several weeks earlier or later. No matter what the date is, it will be a time to scramble and save the last offerings of the vegetable garden until next season.
That first frost will turn tender foliage dark and limp, and it will also reveal an enormity of vegetables still on the vine. Peppers, tomatoes, and winter squash and pumpkins stick out like a sore thumb as the eyes survey the damage. Now is the time to take care of the crop.
Remaining peppers in the garden can be pickled, dried or frozen. Freezing is my choice of these options, even though the peppers will be mushy when they thaw out, making them unfit for a salad. However, they will still retain a good taste and be a welcome addition to cooked recipes.
In my opinion, fried green tomatoes are only good for a meal or two, and pickled green tomatoes will only use up a small amount of the remainder. So, what are we to do with the rest? Let them ripen.
With a little forethought, green tomatoes can be ripened in succession to give three to four more weeks of homegrown treats. Tomatoes that are beginning to show a little yellowing will ripen if you simply let them sit on the counter, but those that are pure greenies may need a little help.
Mature-size green tomatoes should be the ones used for ripening; smaller ones should be reserved for the skillet or canning jar. Place the tomatoes in a plastic bag with some holes for airflow (I use saved plastic potato sacks perforated for this purpose), then place the bag away from direct sunlight. Paper bags can also be used to do this, but it's much harder to check the ripening progress when you can't see through the bag.
Temperature and ethylene gas - gas emitted from the ripening fruit - are important factors in the ripening process.
The cooler the temperature, the longer the tomato will take to ripen. You can spread out the ripening time by placing several bags in different temperature zones in your home. The kitchen pantry may be 60°F. to 70°F. That being the case, it may take fruit placed in that area a week or two to ripen, whereas tomatoes placed in a basement, which is about 10 degrees cooler, may take three to four weeks to turn red.
Ethylene gas is put off by fruit in greater levels as the maturity level goes up. If you want to slow down the ripening process of a sack of tomatoes, pull out the ones that are further along than the others and store them separately. On the other hand, throw an apple in the bag of tomatoes to speed up the ripening process. Apples produce a high rate of ethylene gas. If you've ever stored apples and bananas in the same refrigerator drawer, the maturing quality of the apple is quickly apparent from the browning bananas.
Ripening tomatoes in the house may not result in the same taste of a vine-ripened one, but it will keep you away from the truck-ripened fruit that we'll have to rely on - or avoid - until next season.
Pumpkins that will not be used for Halloween decorations and winter squash that won't be eaten right away need only a little attention to be enjoyed through the winter months. An attached stem is important for successfully storing these fruits. Once the stem is broken off, this area becomes an entry for fungus that can quickly spoil the fruit.
Pumpkins and squash should be left to set out of the sun in a warm location for a week or so, to allow vegetables to cure. After that, move and store the squash in a cool, dry place - a basement or cellar - until you're ready to use them. Make sure to check on the vegetables occasionally and remove any that are starting to rot or are covered with mold.
If you've had problems in the past with moldy fungus growing on these vegetables, try spraying the vegetables with 3 to 4 teaspoons bleach or chlorine bleach mixed with one gallon of water. Be sure to let the vegetables dry before storing them. The chlorine solution can be washed off before using the vegetables, but this procedure kills any fungal spores that are carried into the storage area with the vegetables.
Making the most out of the produce that's left in the garden may seem like a hassle, but the flavor and nutrition are sure to make it all worth it in the end.
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