Simple methods of preserving your harvest
I have a relatively small garden and generally grow foods that my family enjoys most. There is not much that doesn’t get eaten fresh, but on occasion I get a bumper crop of something that I don’t want to spend much time preserving for winter. I don’t have the time for canning and although I have considered picking up a dehydrator, I have not found the need for it yet. There is a quick and easy method of storing just about any fruit or produce. I usually freeze it, or dry herbs.
The trick is sometimes in the preparation
Some things can just be popped right into the freezer in a zip lock bag, making sure as much air as possible is expelled from the bag before sealing. You should always pick your produce at prime time and make sure it is completely dry. Clean is not necessary, you can, and sometimes should, wait to clean when you are ready to use it. And when freezing, some people prefer to spread everything out on a tray to freeze them really quickly, then transfer to storage bags or containers.
For me, produce that needs prep or processing needs to be quick and easy, and result in a better “product” than I might buy at the grocery store. Since I try to practice organic methods of soil prep and maintenance, I know that it will be more nutritious and chemical free. But whatever I preserve will also have better flavor than any processed or stored foods and will save me money.
Precook: Usually when I have excess tomatoes they are overripe. Since I basically cook to freeze, that works out just fine. I split whole tomatoes in half, put them in a big covered pan, and turn the heat on low. I don’t do anything about the seeds but if you prefer them removed then you need to take care of that before you get started. I use a chicken fryer with good conduction so I can do a big batch. In an hour or so the skins will pull right off with a pair of tongs. Then I put the cover back on to simmer the tomatoes. Sometimes I break them up after they have simmered down some, leave the cover off, and simmer of some of the liquid to create a thicker “sauce”. Add some of your fresh herbs and garlic and you have spaghetti sauce to freeze for winter. Add some of your peppers, hot and mild, and you have chili sauce.
Fresh freeze: Pop tomatoes in a blender (seeds and skins removed first if you prefer), blend to a consistency you prefer, and freeze. This is a nice soup or stew starter. You can add herbs now or select appropriate herbs when you thaw and decide what to use it for.
Or, just pop whole tomatoes in a zip lock bag and cut them up for sauces, stews or soups when you thaw them. These are nice to have when you want tomato pieces for a sautéed dish.
If you want to peel, seed, or remove excess liquid from tomatoes, before or after freezing, most are pretty easy to do. A quick submersion in boiling water will allow easy peeling. Then split the tomato open and push or scoop seeds and liquid centers out with a spoon. Smaller paste tomatoes can be emptied of seeds and liquids by cutting the top off and giving the tomato a gentle squeeze.
Fresh freeze: Peppers don’t freeze really great, but for cooking they freeze just fine. These are great for sauces, soups, sautés or omelets, not so great in a salad. If you want to freeze them whole, do not wash them first. Water seems to seep into the pepper around the stem no matter how careful I am, and the result is very mushy after freezing. Cut them in half, remove seeds, wash and thoroughly dry before freezing. You can also julienne or cut into pieces first if you like.
Pickle: Peppers can very simply be pickled in vinegar to store in the fridge for as long as a year. Slice or dice cored, seeded and cleaned peppers of any variety. Cover with vinegar in a jar with a plastic cover. Do not use a metal cover, the vinegar will react with the metal. They stay nice and crisp for several weeks and get a little softer as time goes on. Use them on sandwiches or in pastas.
If you are going to store your squash, be sure to leave a bit of stem attached when you harvest, cut with a knife or pruner rather than separating the squash from the vine. Cure squash at 75 to 80 degrees for a week or two until the skin becomes very firm. Then store at 60 degrees or colder in a well ventilated, dry place. Make sure every few weeks that none are beginning to go bad.
Fresh freeze: Not all herbs will freeze well, some get mushy and black. Rosemary is an excellent herb to freeze, and comes out of the freezer like you just cut it fresh. Freeze whole sprigs or strip leaves off the stem and freeze in a zip lock bag. Freeze chervil, dill, marjoram, tarragon or thyme on their stems. You can also freeze cilantro, chives, oregano, parsley and sage. I find that mint in particular gets very mushy and black, and basil discolors but otherwise is good for cooking.
Air dry: Many herbs will air dry very well, and very easily. Make a small bundle of fresh cut herbs with a string or rubber band. Just hang them in a warm, dry, dark place (a pantry or cupboard can work just fine) until the leaves have dried well. This does not work very well in humid climates, the air needs to be very dry. Remove the leaves and store in airtight zip lock bags or jars, and store in a dark cupboard. I know it looks nice to have a pretty row of clear jars full of herbs on the counter or on a shelf, but dark is the way to go. Air drying works well for basil, bay leaves, dill, fennel, mint, oregano, rosemary, sage, thyme and tarragon.
PRESERVING ROOT VEGETABLES
Carrots, rutabaga and beets: First, DO NOT WASH THEM! Just rub off the dirt with a dry towel, remove green tops, and store in the crisper drawer. If you want to bag them separately, do not seal the bag as good air circulation will help keep them fresh. Fresh root vegetables should keep for a few months or more. Do NOT store with apples, which emits a gas that affects the vegetables.
Potatoes: Yukon Gold store very well, as well as Kennebec and Yellow Finn. You may have good luck with other varieties also but perhaps for a shorter time. Cure them first to extend storage life. Lay them out on newspaper in a cool dark place for a couple of weeks. Brush off any dirt but do not wash them. Store them in a ventilated basket, ventilated box, or bin covered with newspaper or cardboard to keep the bin dark. Ideally 35 to 40 degrees will keep them fresh the longest. Up to 50 degrees will still keep them up to several months. Do not store potatoes with onions, but you CAN put an apple or two in the potato storage. Apparently the gases emitted by the apples HELPS potatoes, but harms the carrots. Do note, however, that the reverse is not good. Storing your apples and potatoes together will accelerate decay of the apples.
Onions and garlic: Cure onions before storage by laying them out in a single layer where they will remain dry for about two weeks. After the necks have dried out and turned brown you can put them into storage. Use bushel baskets or mesh bags and keep them at 35 to 45 degrees in a dark place.
Fresh freeze: First, do NOT wash them! Unless you thoroughly and completely dry them they will get mushy and moldy. They tend to get a little soft anyway. If you feel the need to wash berries before storage, rinse but do not submerge them, and spread them out on a towel until completely dry (takes longer than you think!). I just put whole berries in a zip lock bag and freeze. If you like, you can wash, slice, sprinkle with sugar, let sit for a bit on the counter, then freeze in a zip lock bag or airtight container.
Avoid storing apples that are bruised or have damaged skin with apples that you intend to store for a long period. Use up any damaged apples first, and keep the separated from perfect apples. Store apples in a cool dark place, they should keep well for at least a few months if not longer. Wrapping them individually in newspaper increases storage life. I have kept them quite well even just in a crisper drawer in the spare fridge for several months. After a while if the apples are getting soft, we all love apple crisp and apple bread!
Much of our produce just cannot be stored very long and we need to enjoy them when they are fresh. However, you may be surprised at how much longer your fresh produce remains fresh, the stuff you buy from the store has already been stored to its limit. Various gases emitted from fruits and produce can affect the storage life, so do try to separate your harvest crops. And store at the proper temperature!
Tomatoes: store at room temperature
Cucumbers: store at room temperature separated from melons, tomatoes and bananas
Melons: ripe melons should be stored in the refrigerator. Melons that are still very firm can be left on the counter for one to three days to ripen. Watermelon can be stored on the counter until you cut it open.
Beans, peas, broccoli, asparagus, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, peppers, radish, lettuce and spinach: store in the refrigerator.
Enjoy all that wonderful produce while you can! Then preserve the excess quick and simply.
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