Exploring delicious bounty of summer gardens

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Zucchini squash plants are prolific in Oklahoma's summers.

Don't you love this time of the year? Our gardens are full of the most beautiful and plentiful vegetables and flowers, in the most amazing colors of Nature's bounty. What do you have in your garden?

One of the highlights of our gardens in July and August is the bountiful produce we harvest. Tomatoes, zucchini, yellow squash, bell peppers, green beans, ear corn and onions all can be found in our backyards (or in the farmer's market!) and they are at their most delicious right now. Nothing is better than eating that ripe tomato right out in the garden -- all juicy and tasty! However, one of our challenges is deciding what to do with all the vegetables we pick in our gardens.

Tomatoes are probably the most often grown crop in our area. And they have been ripening in the garden ever since the weather turned warm. Getting those red beauties picked before squirrels, birds or bugs get them is always a challenge. However, did you know that once a tomato begins to show pink, it has everything it needs to produce that wonderful homegrown flavor if you pick it pink and let it ripen on the kitchen counter?

Picking tomatoes just after they have turned is a great way to keep them from being eaten by critters or insects. Just place them on a counter or some out-of-the-way place and let them ripen at room temperature. Do not place them in the refrigerator, as they will not ripen, and cooling them definitely affects their flavor. Simply use the fruit as it ripens for a delicious treat in salads, sandwiches or just sliced.

Another favorite way to use your ripe tomatoes is to make salsa. This is also a great way to use green and hot peppers as well as onions you may have in your garden. If you don't have a salsa recipe, there are many available online using your computer; simply do a search for salsa recipes, and you will have many options that pop up. My favorite family recipe for Salsa is this one:

Peel 4 quarts of tomatoes and place in a very large pan; (to peel, just drop tomatoes in boiling water for about 20 or 30 seconds and the peels will slip right off.) Add 2 cups chopped green peppers and 2 cups chopped yellow onions. Depending on how spicy you like your salsa, puree 1 to 2 cups hot peppers and add to pan; if you prefer a milder flavor, remove the seeds before pureeing the peppers.

Add 1 tablespoon sugar, 3 tablespoons salt, 3 large cloves garlic, crushed, and 1 cup of vinegar. Cook at a low boil, stirring often with a wooden spoon to prevent sticking, until the mixture thickens to the consistency you prefer. This usually takes a few hours.

Ladle in jars and process in a water bath according to your canner's directions. Depending on the thickness of the mixture, this recipe should make about 6 to 8 pint jars of salsa. It is great served with tortilla chips, mixed into refried beans, served on tacos or as salad dressing.

Your tomato plants will stop producing fruit when night time temperatures stay above 80 degrees, so you will experience a lull in your tomato crop during the heat of summer. However, when the weather cools in the fall, your plants will again produce fruit and you should be able to harvest them until we get our first frost.

Probably the easiest vegetable to grow in the garden is summer squash, both zucchini and yellow varieties. So, if you planted either or both of these vegetables in your garden, you have been enjoying them for several weeks now. Squash is a great addition to your summer meals because it is so colorful and so plentiful!

Squash is often used as a moisturizing agent in recipes for breads, muffins and casseroles; this is an excellent use because they are mild and very juicy when sliced, grated or cooked. There are great recipes for zucchini bread, cookies, brownies and cakes if you like sweets, and many have a low sugar and calorie count if you look for these options in recipe books or on recipe websites. Many prefer squash in casseroles, and there are many options to choose from in this category as well. A family favorite we enjoy is this zucchini casserole recipe:

Slice 2 to 3 pounds of zucchini and/or yellow squash in a large casserole dish; cover and microwave for 10 minutes. Chop one green pepper, one medium onion and grate one large carrot; mix with 3 tablespoons of butter or margarine and sauté for a few minutes in the microwave until vegetables are beginning to get tender. Mash cooked squash with a potato masher or fork and drain thoroughly. Then add the pepper mixture, one can cream of chicken soup, 1 tablespoon pimento and half a cup sour cream; mix thoroughly.

Finally, mix 2 to 3 cups herb stuffing mix, using enough stuffing for a fairly thick mixture. Top with ½ cup stuffing crumbs; bake covered for 30 to 45 minutes in a 375 degree oven. This recipe is colorful and healthy, and is guaranteed to be popular in family gatherings or picnics. It is also a great way to use up all that squash from your garden!

Enjoy the bounty of nature this month! Even if you didn't plant vegetables in your own garden, a trip to any of our local farmers' markets will leave your mouth watering for those plentiful vegetables and fruits fresh from harvesting.

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