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posted: 8/20/2014 8:00 AM

Culinary adventures: Eating, preserving, sharing vegetables from the garden

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  • Lynda's Garden Vegetable Casserole is a hearty way to serve the season's bright and bountiful vegetables.

       Lynda's Garden Vegetable Casserole is a hearty way to serve the season's bright and bountiful vegetables.
    George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

 

This year my garden has been especially bountiful yielding a bumper crop of vegetables begging for my attention. Since I don't like to let anything go to waste, we have been eating lots of vegetables. This has been good for both my waistline and foodie curiosity, as I have found new ways to incorporate vegetables into meals and preserve our harvest.

I come from a long line of "canners." Tomatoes, green beans, cherries, peaches, and pears scratch the surface of the list of items I helped my mom can through the years. I confess I was a reluctant participant in this process, yet I always appreciated being able to add a jar of homegrown tomatoes to a midwinter's pot of chili or a jar of peaches I helped pick to a homemade pie. Rows of jars containing the summer's colorful harvest lined a small room in our basement my mom affectionately called "the store." How I wish I had a room like that in my own home.

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My desire to consume and preserve our precious summer produce has driven me to pickle cucumbers, jalapeņos and even green tomatoes. Cucumber, tomato and onion salad has been on the dinner table almost every night; zucchini has been shredded, measured and frozen for future zucchini bread recipes. Some of my recipes have met with mixed results, but so far my family's favorite dish this summer has been Lynda's Garden Vegetable Casserole. Given to me by a friend, this hearty casserole won "two-thumbs up" from even the veggie-adverse around the table.

Layers of eggplant, zucchini, peppers, onions and tomatoes hide under a thick layer of bubbling melted mozzarella cheese that has been sprinkled with oregano giving the dish a pizza-like flavor. Besides the taste, another great thing about this casserole is it's flexibility. If you don't like eggplant, leave it out and add another vegetable like diced carrots or even more squash. Want things a little spicier? Add some jalapeņos or poblano peppers. This recipe is also the perfect place to camouflage leftover grilled vegetables.

The key to the success of this dish is removing as much liquid as possible from the vegetables prior to layering them in the baking dish so the end result isn't watery. Salting eggplant, and allowing it to sit, helps to draw out some of its water; blanching and drying does the same thing for zucchini. The crushed saltines also help absorb moisture and add flavor.

If your garden is like mine, you may end up with more fruits and vegetables than you can handle. Most suburban food pantries accept produce and will make sure your bounty gets shared with hungry neighbors.

For a list of food pantries that handle produce, head to AmpleHarvest.org.

Right now, I'm holding on to my eggplant. I plan on making Lynda's Garden Vegetable Casserole a few more times.

Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the Daily Herald's 2011 Cook of the Week Challenge.

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