Preserving your Harvest -August 2013

by: Hilary Newell

The basic animal need to prepare for winter sets in and can only be satisfied by getting herbs dried or frozen, vegetables in the freezer, pickles brined, and fall fruits boiled and jellied. Bags of frozen pesto are stacked tidily next to the pile of carefully-bagged roasted tomatoes, which are leaning on the 18 bags of corn kernels that have been processed a few at a time since July.

Preserving the harvest these days isn’t as critical an endeavor as it was several generations ago. In the early 20th century, families relied on food all winter that they “put away” through summer and fall. Good harvests ensured a winter of good eating, or at least no starvation. Root crops were stored in root cellars where the consistent temperature and humidity kept potatoes, onions, turnips, winter squash and carrots edible for months on end.

Canning was one of the most common ways to preserve food until post-World War II, when commercially-canned food became widely available. Rows of carefully-processed and sealed glass quart-sized jars would line the shelves of the root cellar, their contents ready to add to soups, stews and sauces. Staving off hunger aside, one of the biggest benefits of canning and preserving your own food was, and is, knowing exactly what is in it. Home-canning eliminates preservatives and ingredients that are difficult to read, let alone understand. We know what salt, vinegar and pickling spices are. That’s not the case with MSG, sodium benzoate or polysorbate 80. These ingredients sometimes cause allergies and reactions in some people and home-canning and preserving is one way to avoid these issues.

“Every year as August wanes and September rushes at me, I am overcome with the need and desire to harvest and preserve anything and everything I can.”
If you’ve never done anything like this before, start small. Only you will know if you are getting carried away, and your progress will only be limited by the amount of time you want to spend on this pursuit.

I have found that working with herbs is a very satisfying and easy way to start preserving, especially if you don’t have a lot of space to dedicate to storage. Herb butter, dried or frozen herbs, pesto and herb vinegars are all uncomplicated ways to spice up your winter fare. Herb vinegars make great gifts and will make your salad dressings more interesting. Tarragon vinegar is one I make every year. Sometime in September, harvest tarragon from your herb pots. Be sure the plant is well-watered the day before, and pick everything when the foliage is dry. Crumple the tarragon between your hands to bruise it, and stuff it into a very clean Mason jar. You will need about a cup of tarragon for a quart-size jar. Pour cider vinegar over the crushed tarragon leaves and seal up the jars with lids and rings. Mark the top of the jar with the date and let it sit, out of the way, for about three weeks. Strain the vinegar through several layers of cheesecloth and pour it into decorative bottles for gifts, or back into the Mason jar if you are going to keep it for dressing. Be sure to label it somehow. The same method applies for other herbs, too.

Another task that I truly enjoy is making pesto with freshly-harvested basil. I grow several pots of basil just for this, and keep other pots for daily use. For the greatest harvest, it is a good idea to regularly pinch the tips of the basil plants to keep them from going to flower. This makes them produce more branches and more leaves. The better they are fed, the greener and tastier your pesto will be.

Herb butter is great to use in any dish that would benefit from the addition of herbs. It is really easy to make and will keep for months in the freezer. Think about what type of cooking you do and use whichever herbs fit your style. Fresh fish is a perfect vehicle for a dab of dill butter. I like to put a little on steamed vegetables once in a while. Try rolling steamed corn in a little chive butter.

Take a stick of unsalted butter and let it soften. Chop a quarter-cup of fresh herbs. Mixing any of your freshly-harvested herbs will do. Use a fork to mash the herbs and a teaspoon of lemon juice into the butter. Add a little sea salt to taste. On a piece of plastic wrap, shape the butter into a log about one inch in diameter.

Wrap the log in plastic. When you're ready to use it, slice off a piece, let it thaw and place it directly on the hot food. You can use chopped nasturtiums in butter, too. Chop the flowers into small pieces before adding to the butter.

Recently I learned another technique for preserving the flavor of fresh herbs that couldn’t be simpler. Coarsely chop fresh herbs, stuff them into ice-cube trays and fill the cubes with olive oil. Put them in the freezer and use the individual cubes to sauté onions or other vegetables. Cooking with these cubes in the middle of winter makes it taste like you are using fresh herbs.

Some herbs, like dill and parsley, will freeze just fine by just chopping them and putting them in a small freezer bag. These will keep their flavor when they’re frozen and when you toss a little frozen dill in your omelet in February, it will taste just like you are using fresh herbs.

With the rebirth of homesteading, canning vegetables has come back into favor. The economic downturn caused more people to embrace domesticity, citing lower costs and just having more time to take part in these age-old activities of growing food and preserving it.

I canned hundreds of jars of tomatoes with mom. It always began with the appearance of a bushel of red-ripe beauties on the back porch sometime in August. Usually the gift was from a friend or neighbor to whom mom had given some prize iris or peony plants earlier in the summer. And so we hauled 20 or so jars up from the basement, washed them thoroughly and set three pots of water to boil. Jars, lids and rings went in the biggest pot.

A small pot that held five or six tomatoes was for blanching, and the medium pot was for cooking the tomatoes after they’d been peeled. My job was to peel the tomatoes after they had been blanched. My fingers were wrinkled beyond the prune stage way before the last tomato went into a jar.

Here’s the process as we did it in the 1960s and ’70s. Blanch four or five tomatoes for one minute. Remove from the water and slip the skins right off. Cut the hard stem area from the tomato and place it in salted boiling water. Cook until they are just fork-tender. Put them in the jars, add cooking liquid to cover, cover with the canning lid and ring. Keep all the pots actively simmering all the time, kind of like a three-ring circus. It’s definitely easier with two people. This is called the openkettle method. It is really not considered safe, however, and all sources today recommend carrying out the further step of processing in a hot-water bath. I follow that recommendation when I can vegetables today. It involves a pot that is very large and will hold six to eight quart jars at a time. This method eliminates the step of cooking the tomatoes as they go straight into the jar as soon as they’re peeled. The entire jar gets boiled in the boiling-water bath for 40 minutes. The process is very satisfying, and nothing feels better than when you hear the “snap” of the lids sealing themselves down tight on the jars as they cool.

Tomatoes are also excellent when they are dried, but sundried tomatoes can have a high price tag. If you like to use them in cooking, it’s worth making them yourself. Because of our high humidity, the only way to guarantee that your tomatoes will dry, and not rot, is to use some heat in the drying process. I’ve found that the most reliable way to dry things here on our humid island is to invest in a food dehydrator. Prices range from $30 to $300 and beyond, depending on how large, how many watts, and how sturdy they are. Dehydrators use a combination of heat and air-flow to reduce the water content of food. Tomatoes and most other fruits are typically 85-90 percent water, so this process can take a while. But once they are dry, you can store them in a waterproof, airtight container for a few months. Dried fruits can be stored in the freezer indefinitely. The food dehydrator is a great way to dry peppers, too.

So that takes care of your tomatoes, but what about those giant zucchini that got
away from you? I have a friend who is known to turn it all into loaves of zucchini bread and throw them in the freezer to give as gifts later. The only other thing to do with overgrown zucchini is turn it into relish, which is very forgiving if the squash is less than perfect.

Someone gave me a copy of Andrea Chesman’s “Summer in a Jar: Making Pickles, Jams & More” many years ago, and it is easily the most dog-eared, stained cookbook I own. Perfect for the small gardener, it has a whole chapter on “Easy Single-Jar Pickles.” It allows the home-gardener to make one or two quarts at a time, but the recipes are easily converted to make larger batches. By making one or two jars at a time, you can take advantage of a day’s extra harvest, and you can add lots of variety to your pantry. I get bored making huge batches of the same thing. But a couple jars of baby kosher dills, some bread-and-butter pickles, one or two mixed pickled peppers and a whole bunch of dilly beans keep my family’s taste buds happy for months. Cucumbers continue to bear fruit over a long period of time, so if you have only one cucumber plant, as I usually do, it’s easy to manage making one or two jars at a time. You can make a beautiful jardinière with a variety of vegetables. Making freezer pickles is an even easier way to preserve your veggies. Technically, they are not pickles, but seem more like marinated vegetables. Great in salads, or as an accompaniment to any roasted meat, they are very easy and delicious. There’s no cooking involved. “Summer in a Jar” has a nice assortment of freezerpickle recipes.

While growing and preserving food is no longer necessary for survival, it is still a worthwhile activity. It’s worth setting aside some time to do a little canning or preserving. Take advantage of pick-your-own activities, and use what you have grown in your own garden to create an assortment of jars of interesting foods to consume when there are few fresh choices available. You will appreciate that you don’t have to read the label to see what’s in it. You won’t find any preservatives, additives or unpronounceable ingredients in your home-preserved foods.

Hilary Newell is the director of marketing at Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm and a regular contributor to Nantucket Today.

THE RECIPES

CILANTRO PESTO

2 cups packed cilantro (soft stems are ok to use) 1⁄2 cup roasted, unsalted pistachios
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Olive oil
Process cilantro, pistachios and lemon juice in a food processor. With the motor on, drizzle olive oil until you reach desired consistency.

NOT YOUR AVERAGE ZUCCHINI BREAD

21⁄2 cups zucchini, shredded but not peeled 1 cup whole wheat flour
11⁄2 cups unbleached flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda 1 teaspoon cinnamon
1⁄2 teaspoon ground cloves 1⁄2 teaspoon nutmeg
3⁄4 teaspoon salt 3 eggs
11⁄4 cups sugar 3⁄4 cup canola oil 1⁄4 cup honey
1⁄2 cup raisins
2 teaspoons lemon zest 1 cup chopped walnuts

1. Preheat oven to 350°. Place shredded zucchini in a colander to allow moisture to drain off.
2. Combine flours, baking soda, baking powder, spices and salt.
3. In a large mixing bowl, beat eggs until very light. Gradually add sugar, beating until mixture is very light. Add oil and mix well.
4. Using a rubber spatula, blend in flour mixture until smooth. Add zucchini, honey, raisins, lemon zest and nuts. Stir until well-blended, but do not over-stir.
5. Pour batter into two well-greased loaf pans and bake for 50-60 minutes, or until inserted toothpick comes out clean. Cool in pan for 10 minutes, then cool on wire racks.
6. Wrap in foil and refrigerate overnight before slicing.

Makes 2 loaves.

DILLY BEANS BY THE PINT

Approximately 2 cups green beans or wax beans, trimmed to fit into pint jars
1 clove garlic
1 dill seed head
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup white vinegar
1⁄2 cup water

Place the seasonings in the bottom of a pint jar. Pack the green beans tightly into the jar so they are all vertical. Heat the vinegar and water to boiling in a saucepan. Pour over the top of the green beans, leaving some head space. Cover with lids and rings and process in a hot-water bath for 10 minutes. Let sit for one to two months for the flavor to develop.

REFRIGERATOR PICKLES

6 cups cucumbers or small zucchini, sliced thin 1 cup onion, sliced thin
1 cup green pepper, sliced thin
1 cup white vinegar
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon celery seed

In a large bowl, combine the vegetables. Mix together the remaining ingredients and pour over vegetables. Mix well. Pack in jars and store in refrigerator for up to three weeks.

PESTO

2 cups packed basil leaves 2 cloves garlic
1⁄2 cup pine nuts
3⁄4 cup Parmesan cheese
2⁄3 cup good quality olive oil

Process the basil and garlic in a food processor. Add pine nuts and process until fine. Add grated Parmesan cheese until well-blended. Drizzle olive oil in gradually. Freeze in ice-cube trays or small “snack-size” plastic bags

SWEET CUCUMBER RELISH

4 large cucumbers or medium zucchini
2 tablespoons salt
2 sweet red or green peppers, seeds removed and cored 2 teaspoons celery seed
2 large onions
2 teaspoons mustard seed
2 cups sugar
3⁄4 cup white vinegar

1. Pare and slice cucumbers or zucchini into a large bowl.
Add salt and mix. Let stand overnight in the refrigerator. Drain and grind in a food processor with the onions until uniformly coarse.
2. Put in a large saucepan. Add remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil and cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, about 30 minutes. Pack into sterile jars and seal with lids and rings. Process for 10 minutes in a hot-water bath.






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