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Store garden surplus all year

  • Tomatoes are ready to roast. Hillary Nelson—For LiveWell

  • Make grape juice. Hillary Nelson—For LiveWell

  • Concord grapes. HILLARY NELSON—For LiveWell

  • Grape juice. HILLARY NELSON—For LiveWell



For LiveWell
Thursday, September 01, 2016

Harvest season is upon us, when backyard gardens are bursting and bargains abound at the local farmers market. That said, a crate of cheap tomatoes isn’t so cheap if they wind up rotting while you try to figure out what to do with them.

But not to worry. After 30 years of serious gardening and recipe writing, I’ve learned a trick or two for coping with the harvest frenzy of September. What follows are some of my favorite hacks for the fruits and vegetables piling up in your kitchen.

Freezing

First, the most important tool for anyone serious about putting food by for winter is a stand-alone freezer. I know – it’s an investment and it uses energy. But an inexpensive chest freezer will pay for itself. And if you don’t have much free time, freezing produce is faster and easier than canning or drying. Also, produce properly frozen at its peak retains high levels of most vitamins. Finally, with freezing, there is no need to worry about botulism and other canning dangers.

Most vegetables need to be “blanched” before freezing, that is, placed in boiling water for a few minutes then cooled quickly in ice water. Blanched vegetables retain much of their crunch and nutrition, and the heat stops enzymatic reactions that would otherwise cause the vegetables to become unpalatable once frozen.

For a good chart on timing for various vegetables, go to The National Center for Home Food Preservation website, nchfp.uga.
edu/how/freeze/blanching.html.

Once blanched and cooled, the vegetables are packed in freezer bags, the air is squeezed out and they’re popped in a freezer, preferably with a temperature of zero degrees Farenheit, where they will keep for several months.

Many fruits freeze just fine without blanching or cooking. For example, all kinds of fresh berries freeze well. Rinse, if necessary, and in the case of strawberries, remove the hull. Lay the berries in a single layer on a sheet tray and freeze solid, before storing in freezer bags with the air squeezed out as much as possible. It’s best not to thaw berries before using them in recipes, or they will become watery.

Stone fruits, like peaches and plums can be rinsed and placed in a single layer on a sheet tray, then frozen solid and repackaged into freezer bags. To use them in winter, remove the fruit from the freezer, allow them to begin to thaw, then slip the skin off the fruit – it usually comes off in one piece. Slice the fruit while still slightly frozen and continue with your recipe.

Some things we think of as vegetables, but which are really fruits, also work well with this method. For example, tomatillos freeze extremely well, unblanched and left whole. Simply pull of the husk, give them a rinse to remove their waxy coating, then freeze as above in a single layer. When frozen, store them in freezer bags. These will make terrific cooked tomatillo sauce all winter long; just saute some onions, garlic and hot peppers, throw in the still-frozen tomatillos, and cover with a lid. Finish by adding a little salt, some chopped cilantro and more hot pepper if desired.

Roasting

Some people also freeze tomatoes this way, but I prefer to roast them first, which intensifies their flavors and makes them take up much less room in the freezer.

To do this, cut up ripe tomatoes into similar sizes, lay them on a sheet tray that has been slicked with a little olive oil, and bake them in the oven at about 325 degrees. Use a spatula to flip them over about halfway through, and continue cooking for as long as it takes for their edges to be slightly browned but not dried out, usually about 45 minutes or so.

Cool the tomatoes, then pack them tightly into freezer containers, being sure to leave enough room for expansion so the lid doesn’t pop off.

These are wonderful added to soups and stews. Or try adding some herbs, garlic and pitted Greek olives to the barely thawed tomatoes, top with feta cheese and a drizzle of olive oil and bake at 375 until golden and bubbly on top.

Juicing

If you happen to have Concord grape vines, or know where to find wild grapes in the fall, try making grape juice – you will be delighted with the result. The recipe is easy – pull the grapes from their stems, put them in a big, non-reactive pot (enameled or stainless steel), barely cover them with water, and bring the water to a simmer. Turn the heat off, cover the grapes, and let them sit until cool. Then strain the juice from the grapes by placing them in cheese cloth or a stainless steel sieve over a large pot or bowl.

Some recipes recommend against pressing down to extract more juice, as grape solids will make their way into the juice. I, however, am all for pressing to extract every last bit of juice. The solids will sink to the bottom of the storage container, and can be discarded or used for something else, like making vinegar. Pour the juice into freezable containers (like recycled plastic water or cider jugs) being sure to leave room for the juice to expand as it freezes. Check for popped-off lids and replace as necessary. The juice will keep all winter, and can be diluted with water if desired. It’s delicious, and super-nutritious.

Drying

Drying is another method that can be used when frost threatens, one that works especially well with herbs and small red-ripe hot peppers.

Simply cut the plant stem at ground level, bring the whole plant into the house, and hang it upside-down in an airy spot. Within a week or so, the leaves and fruit will be crisp and dry. I have had great success with this method for Thai peppers (or any small, thin-walled peppers), mint, basil and sage. Pick leaves or peppers off the dried plant as needed to add to recipes. For larger drying peppers, use a needle and thread to string individual peppers into “ristras” and hang them up to dry.

To hold dried peppers or herbs for longer than a few months, pack them into jars and place in the freezer. There they will keep for up to a year.