Here, in our little corner of Kentucky, autumn is trying hard to nudge summer into the creek and out of sight, but summer is resisting mightily. It’s 32°C today and the humidity is steadily climbing. Thanks to the drought – we’ve been weeks without any real rain – it looks set to be what the people in this district call an “ugly (pronounced urgly) fall”: one in which the leaves yellow and die almost overnight. The black walnuts on our property – the last to leaf up in spring and the first to shed in autumn – are already covered in sickly yellow mantles that are noticeably more threadbare after each puff of wind, no matter how slight.
Back there in Australia you’re probably scoffing at my use of ‘drought’ to describe a dry spell of only weeks, but in a region with a usually reliable annual rainfall of more than 1000mm spread over the non-winter months, several weeks without rain can have a devastating effect on crops, pasture and gardens. To make matters worse, a mild winter with next to no snow has left waterways and groundwater seriously depleted.
Kentucky at its best is such a green and beautiful place. To someone from Western Australia, the green exuberance of the landscape and the voluptuous abundance of watercourses of all shapes and sizes borders almost on the pornographic – just too much of a good thing. But the Celt in me adores it and perhaps has thirsted for it since before I was born. My grandparents’ genes, but one generation removed from Wales and Ireland, may have passed on their inherited love of greenery and water, and that could explain why I fell in love with Kentucky when I first saw it while on holiday 10 years and more ago.
This state is a gardener’s dream. The University of Kentucky’s home garden extension service claims that in the Bluegrass, where we live, 1000 squ.ft of maintained vegetable garden will yield 700 lbs of produce (that’s 93 sq.m for 316 kg) – and they understate I reckon. Even during long drys – and we’ve had two in the nearly four years since we’ve been here – I’ve watered the vegetable garden no more than four or five times. As an indicator of the bounty of the Bluegrass earth, let me pass on a statistic. A neighbour who lives in the next holler (over the hill from us) in this not particularly good growing year has canned – as the Americans call bottling – 50 quart jars of beetroot, 100 quarts of sweet corn and 50 pint jars of pole beans (50 US quarts = approx. 47 L, so 50 pints are about 23.5 L) out of her home vegie garden.
Despite a growing season that has been all over the place, the vegie garden has survived and thriven – most of it has anyway. Pumpkins and cucumbers didn’t do very well; the warm early spring saw them get a great start, then the sudden hot, dry weather knocked them too far back for a lot of the fruit to mature. A spell of high humidity and torrential rain about three months ago put paid to most of what remained of the crop. It also cooked in the ground what had been a promising crop of onions. One cucumber that did moderately well was Poona, an Indian variety edible at all stages of growth. The tomatoes really got going late in the season and the Hillybilly Potato-Leaf, Cherokee Purple and Federle have been exceptional, so exceptional that I decided to resurrect one of my mother’s recipes. This is a dish Peg would make when money was short and tomatoes plentiful. We ate it as a main meal, or as an accompaniment-cum-gravy to sausages. Frozen, it can be resurrected as a quick stand-alone meal or a base for winter stews.
Peg’s Tomato Goop
(This is a good way to use up tomatoes too ripe or too blemished to bottle or freeze. I have modified the minor ingredients a little over the years but the basics have remained the same. Don’t be too fussy about the aesthetics of the preparation – it’s a meal in a hurry. Quantities will vary, depending on the size of your pan, so there’s a fair bit of your own judgement involved here. The recipe is based on our 45 cm wide x 10 cm deep, stainless steel frying pan.)
8-10 large tomatoes or equivalent, skin on and thickly sliced
1 or 2 capsicums, seeds and ribs removed, sliced
2 large onions
Garlic, crushed, to taste
1 cup chicken or vegetable stock, preferably low sodium organic, or stock cube dissolved in 1 cup water
Generous quantity basil leaves, roughly torn
Marjoram or oregano
Pepper and dry mustard, preferably fresh ground
Soy or Worcestershire sauce
Scant tsp treacle (optional)*
Flour for thickening
Salt (if you must, but bear in mind there is salt in the sauce and stock)
1 tbsp olive oil
Heat the oil in a pan over moderate heat
Add pepper and mustard, then garlic, capsicum and onions, sautéing until onions are transparent
Add tomatoes a little at a time so as not to cool pan. When all are cooking, raise heat slightly, add stock and simmer, stirring occasionally until tomatoes begin to break down. Add a dash of sauce, the treacle and herbs, stirring in well.
When hardest parts of tomatoes are soft, remove from heat until boil ceases. Sprinkle generously with flour and stir in well. Return to heat, and bring to boil, stirring constantly until mixture thickens.
Serve while piping hot over sausages, toast or macaroni, as a side dish or in a bowl on its own to be eaten with a spoon.
*I can’t get Cocky’s Joy of any sort here, so I substitute with Brer Rabbit (I’m not pulling your leg) molasses.