And every time I do this - every time I'm picking the green tomatoes off the vine with that crisp fall chill in the air - I think of my father. He was the gardener in the family.
My mother liked the results of the garden, but she wasn't enamored with the labor involved. She was unceremoniously booted from garden duties the year she "accidentally" pulled all the seedlings and left the weeds in the row she was working on. There's not much doubt in my mind about whether that was an accident or not.
So the garden was mostly left to my dad and me. Because I was little, agile, and lightweight, I was the perfect helper since I could walk on the old boards placed between the rows to do the planting and weeding and picking, and I didn't fall off the board or compact the dirt very much.
All summer dad and I watered, weeded, and harvested. Some of the harvest was eaten right there in the middle of the garden. There's nothing better than a home-grown tomato, fresh picked and still warm from the sun. If I was feeling fancy, I'd bring the salt shaker with me.
When fall came, the weather watch began. Dad would check the temperatures, playing chicken with frost warnings and waiting until the last possible moment to pick the last of the tomatoes.
It was always the tomatoes.
And it was always dark.
Dad would watch the temperature fall, and when he was sure there would be frost, he'd round up me and mom and we'd go to the garden to pick the crop. We'd be bundled up against the cold, but it's miserable hard to pick tomatoes with gloves on, so our hands would be bare and the tomatoes would be cold... so cold.
It would be pitch dark, and the air would be crisp and cold and the stars would be bright pinpoints in a black sky. Our breath would make clouds in the air as we worked. Dad would pull the car up close to the garden and he'd turn the headlights on, shining beams of yellow light onto the nearly frosty plants. We'd try to find each and every last precious tomato in the jungle of vines before the frost could get to them.
Sometimes we'd go back to the car where the heat was blasting to thaw ourselves out, and then we'd be back in the dark damp cold, looking again for more tomatoes.
So now, when frost warning are announced and I pick the last of what's left of my little garden, even though I do it in daylight I think of those crazy cold nights when mom, dad, and I worked together to bring in the last of the summer's bounty.
My last harvest was a bit meager, and the frost didn't come. But the memories did.
Maybe dad was right. Maybe I should have allowed the tomatoes however many more days and nights they could have had. Or maybe it's just nostalgia.
This one's for you, dad.
Tomato and Pepper Rice
Roma tomatoes, peeled and chopped (about 6 small)
Green pepper, seeded and chopped
Onion, chopped (1/4 of a medium red onion)
Rice (1 1/2 cups of broken rice)
Chicken stock or water (as needed, to cook the rice)
Herbs/spices, to taste (I used Penzey's Greek Seasoning)
I heated a bit of olive oil in a pan and cooked the green pepper, onion, and tomato to soften them a bit, then added some of the Greek seasoning and stirred that around a bit and let it all cook until the vegetables were almost cooked through. It all got scraped into the rice cooker along with the rice and water, and I set the timer. That's all there was to it.
The broken rice was something I got at an Asian market for no other reason than that I never saw it before. It's literally broken rice. Small pieces. The texture is different (of course) but the taste is the same. Oddly, I used up the last of my broken rice along with some of the last bits of my garden.