As we stand on the far edge of summer, waiting for it to ooze away, even basil, beloved herb of all back-yard gardeners and cooks, looks boring. The harvest has begun to overwhelm us -- what to do with all those tomatoes? -- and we dream of cold nights and parsnip soup, of root vegetables and red cabbage, of chestnuts and savory stews.
If we have been proper squirrels, we can please our guests by producing homemade tomato sauces, jars of caponata, brandied fruits, chutneys, relishes, mint jellies, frozen packets of pesto sauce and homemade vinegars flavored with sprigs of tarragon or the squooshed berries that are always left in the containers holding the fall crop of raspberries. It is a great deal of work, but worth it, since we never really want things until they're gone.
So set aside a day -- or even a weekend -- to put up the harvest. Tomato sauce is easy and does taste better than store-bought, flavored as it is with your own fresh basil and parsley. Cook the pulp down to a proper thickness; flavor with onions and just a few herbs and spices. Whether you freeze the sauce or put it up in jars, you will be pleased with the finished product.
As for the zucchini, chop it up, cook it in a small amount of chicken broth, season with salt, pepper and nutmeg and whir it in the blender until smooth. You will have a thick and tasty soup base, to be frozen now and, when you want it later, defrosted, thinned with cream and served as is, or garnished with bits of ham or diced carrots.
Chutneys, which look extremely complicated, are actually very easy to make and a good way to get rid of green tomatoes (green tomato relish isn't bad, either). A little chopping, a lot of spices, vinegar and sugar, and a lot of cooking and you have side dishes to serve with roast pork or curries, or with a late-night supper of scrambled eggs.
Not easy but worth every agonizing minute is caponata, a thick conserve of eggplant, onions, tomatoes and celery. The best recipe I've found comes from food writer Leslie Land. You start (and this is an all-day project) by cutting up five or six large eggplants into 1-inch chunks, putting them in bowls (two very large ones will usually suffice), sprinkling each layer with salt, weighting the chunks with a plate and letting the whole thing sit for at least four hours to let the eggplant exude its juices.
Next chop enough celery to make five cups and enough onions to make seven cups. Spread the celery and onion chunks out on a dish towel to dry out. This will make them fry more quickly and cut down the spattering.
While the eggplant is oozing and the celery and onions drying, peel enough tomatoes to produce three quarts of cored tomato chunks and put over low heat so they'll yield their juices. Add one half cup each of fresh parsley and basil and cook till the sauce thickens, about an hour or so. Add one half cup each red wine vinegar and white sugar and keep on cooking until it's as thick as spaghetti sauce.
Now get out your biggest frying pan and a large can of olive oil and get ready to fry the celery, onions and eggplant. Pour olive oil (at least 1/2-inch deep; add as needed) into the pan and when it begins smoking, add celery chunks. Fry them until they scrinch up and turn brown. As you remove them from the frying pan, put them in the tomato sauce, which is on a low flame at the back of the stove. Add more olive oil as necessary and brown the onions. Add them to the tomato sauce. Then take a handful of eggplant chunks, squeeze out any remaining juice, and add them to the frying pan. When everything has been fried and added to the sauce, it will be thick enough to stand a spoon in. Add 1 1/2 cups each of chopped green olives and capers, 1/2 cup each of fresh basil and parsley (yes, again), a teaspoon of crushed black pepper and salt to taste. (Here I diverge from Land's recipe; she throws in a tablespoon of crushed red pepper. Too hot for me, but suit yourself.) Simmer for a half-hour, stirring, since by this time the sauce is so thick that if you don't watch it, it will scorch. Pack the caponata in sterilized jars and process for 35 minutes. It will make 12 pints and unless you're careful, friends will try to make off with 11 of them. After that much work, it's okay to be stingy.
What's the point of all this bother? By putting in a few days of hard work now, you will have bought lazy days later on. When you're too tired to cook, you can invite friends for a pickup dinner of bread, cheese, caponata and red wine and no one will think they've been given short shrift. Add chutney and a bit of gravy to left-over, chopped-up lamb or pork, cover with mashed potatoes and you will have turned shepherd's pie into a company dish.