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The inconvenient reality about the home vegetable garden is that everything seems to ripen at once.

One day you're hankering for that first sweet homegrown tomato, and the next day your kitchen is overflowing with more tomatoes than you, your family and all your friends and neighbors know what to do with.

What to do? Put up the bounty the way your grandmother did, by canning, pickling, freezing and drying them so that they will last until you're ready to eat them.

People think of canning as a messy, all-day affair, the kitchen strewn with sticky pots and pans. It can take some time, but it doesn't have to be all-consuming.

Instead of going through the elaborate water-bath process, you can make simple "refrigerator" pickles that will keep for up to a month.

That's usually enough time for you to consume all those excess veggies, made crispy, sweet and sour by a high-acid bath of vinegar, sugar and salt.

"To make refrigerator pickles, all you need to do is slice them, salt them, pour the liquid over them and refrigerate," said John Toulze, chef/partner of the Girl and the Fig, Estate and Fig Cafe restaurants in the Sonoma Valley.

The sky's the limit when it comes to refrigerator pickling. Everything from carrots and cauliflower to onions and shallots can be pickled and preserved.

Knowing how to make refrigerator pickles really comes in handy when you're suddenly inundated with a bumper crop of produce in the late summer and early fall.

"What goes crazy in the peak of the season?" Toulze asked. "Cucumbers, beans and squash ... you don't get overwhelmed if you do refrigerator pickles."

As one of the few local chefs who also wears the straw hat of a farmer, Toulze sharecrops a plot of vegetables at Imagery Estate Winery in Glen Ellen.

Produce recently harvested at the 2.5-acre garden included baby carrots, squash and beans. Toulze and his crew quickly transformed them into Coriander Carrots, Sweet and Sour Squash and Dilly Beans — all refrigerator pickles — to use on antipasti and charcuterie plates at his restaurants.

In exchange for farming the land, Toulze also cans a line of Sharecropper pickles that he gives back to the landowners, Imagery Estate and Benziger Family Winery, for sale in both tasting rooms.

One of the tips when pickling any vegetable is to make sure the veggies are sliced and diced into similar shapes and sizes, Touze said.

You should also make sure you salt the watery cucumbers first to release the moisture, ensuring that the pickles turn out crispy and flavorful.

If you really want to make it easy on yourself, The Girl & The Fig offers a trio of three pickling spices, under the Sonoma Valley Sharecropper label, that come with simple instructions.

The pickling spices, sold at all three restaurants as well as through Williams-Sonoma stores nationwide, come in three flavors: Blanc for white vegetables like turnips and white radishes, Vert for green vegetables like zucchini and beans, and Colour for red and orange vegetables, such as beets and peppers.

"The Vert is sweeter and a little sour," Toulze said. "The Colour is sweeter and a little spicy."

Once you've got your pickled vegetables neatly tucked away in the fridge, there are endless ways to consume them.

"I love to put pickles out on the table, especially if I'm going to serve sliced meats," Toulze said. "It's like an olive. Just add toothpicks and nibble."

Pickles can also perk up a grilled cheese sandwich and serve as a refreshing garnish on a plate of salumi.

Freezing is another, easy preservation option to consider, especially for pulpy products like Roma or San Marzano tomatoes.

Toulze simply cores and freezes his tomatoes whole. Later, when he takes them out of the bag, the skin falls right off, and he turns them into a simple tomato sauce.

"You can use it as a pizza sauce or fresh pasta sauce," he said. "It's simple and bright."

A few years ago, Toulze was surrounded by a mountain of tomatoes, so he decided to sun-dry them on the roof of Estate restaurant, using sheet trays with racks on top.

"You put them in the direct sun," he said. "It takes four or five days."

If you want to dry fruits, however, he suggested purchasing a dehydrator to speed up the process. The fruit slices will dry overnight.

When he cans fruit chutney or mostarda, Toulze doesn't use a water bath, because the sugar content keeps the temperature high.

"We boil the ingredients down, at well over 200-plus degrees, and then we put them right in the sterilized jars," he said. "We like to keep it above 160 degrees, going into the jar."

With excess fruit like peaches, Toulze also likes to make sorbets. He roasts the peaches, then cooks them down with some spice and lemon verbena, adding simple syrup and lemon juice to taste. When the mixture cools down, he turns it into a tasty sorbet in an ice cream machine.

Another way to preserve peaches is to bathe them in a bracing cocktail of brandy, sugar and spice. The peaches will last in the refrigerator for about a week before they turn brown.

But if you go through the trouble of canning them in a water bath, they will hold indefinitely. There's nothing like opening up a jar of sweet, golden sunshine in the heart of winter.

The following recipes are from John Toulze, chef/partner of The Girl & the Fig, The Fig Cafe and Estate Restaurant in the Sonoma Valley. Bread & Butter Pickles will keep for up to 4 weeks in the refrigerator.

Bread and Butter Pickles

Makes 5 pint jars

2 pounds pickling cucumbers

1 onion, thinly sliced

? cup salt

2? cups cider vinegar

1? cups sugar

? teaspoon turmeric

? teaspoon mustard seeds

? teaspoon anise seeds

1 star anise

? teaspoon whole allspice

? teaspoons ground ginger

8 garlic cloves

Slice the cucumbers on the curved bottom blade of the mandolin, making sure to set blade to its largest setting. Place the cucumbers and onions in a perforated pan and marinate them with salt. After two hours, rinse the cucumbers and onions and let them drain.

Bring the cider and sugar to a boil until the sugar is completely dissolved. Add the spices and simmer for 5 minutes. Place the cucumbers, onions and liquid in a large crock. Place in refrigerator and allow cucumbers to brine for at least 24 hours.

Coriander carrots will keep for up to 4 weeks in the refrigerator.

Pickled Coriander Carrots

Makes 5 pint jars

2? pound carrots

1? cups water

1 cup apple cider vinegar

? cup sugar

2 garlic cloves

? teaspoon coriander seeds

? teaspoon turmeric powder

? teaspoon mustard seeds

? teaspoon anise seeds

? teaspoon whole allspice

? teaspoon ginger powder

1? tablespoons salt

1star anise

Peel and cut the carrots into sticks approximately ?-inch by ?-inch.

Bring a medium-size pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Add the carrots to the boiling water and simmer for about 1 minute. Strain the carrots into a colander and rinse with cold water. Drain thoroughly.

In the same pot, heat the remaining ingredients. Once the liquid begins to boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 2 minutes. Remove the pot from heat and add to the carrot sticks. Cool until room temperature.

Pickled Dilly Beans will keep for up to 4 weeks in the refrigerator.

Pickled Dilly Benas

Makes 5 pint jars

2? cups white wine vinegar

? cup salt

1 garlic clove

? teaspoon chili flakes

? teaspoon black peppercorns

2? pounds green beans

1 bunch dill

In a large sauce pot, stir together the vinegar, water, salt, garlic, chili flakes, and black peppercorns and bring to a rolling boil over high heat.

Pour boiling liquid into a container with the green beans and dill. Cool until room temperature and then refrigerate.

Fresh Tomato Sauce will keep for up to 4 weeks in the refrigerator.

Fresh Tomato Sauce

Makes 6 pint jars

10 pounds freezer tomatoes (skinned)

1 yellow onion, small dice

12 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1 cup extra virgin olive oil

1 bay leaf

Salt and pepper

In a bowl, add the tomatoes and break them apart with your hands and set aside.

In a large sauce pot, sweat the onions and garlic in a ? cup of extra virgin olive oil, until translucent, on medium to low heat for about 10 minutes.

Add the tomatoes and bay leaf. Season with salt and pepper, and simmer for about 15 minutes. Stir consistently so that the tomatoes don't scorch on the bottom of the pot. Add the remaining olive oil. Adjust seasoning if needed.

Brandied peaches will keep for up to 4 weeks in the refrigerator.

Canned Brandied Peaches

Makes 5 pint jars

? cup honey

? cup sugar

2 cups water

1 orange, zested and juiced

? cup brandy

2 to 3 pounds peaches

5 star anise

5 cinnamon sticks

11-inch knob of ginger, sliced

15 cloves

Add the honey to the water and heat until dissolved. Add the orange zest, juice, and brandy. Remove the mixture from the heat and set aside.

Wash the peaches, remove the pits and stems. Place the peaches in jars slices down overlapping, filling the jars up to 1-inch from the top.

Add 1 cinnamon stick, 1 star anise, 1 slice ginger and 3 cloves to each jar. Pour the warm syrup over the fruit leaving 1-inch of head space. Gently press the peaches to remove air bubbles and seal. Heat the jars in boiling water for 20 minutes.

You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com

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