Keeping the fruits and veggies of summer through the year
by Suzi Steffen
My preserving career got off to what might generously be called a horrible start.
As my partner ladled boiling hot raspberry jam into the sterilized jar I held, the jar’s bottom dropped out, covering my hand in the sticky, scalding substance. I spattered red ooze all over the kitchen (and when I say all over, I mean that five years later, we still occasionally discover flecks hidden in the recessed lighting fixtures) in my rush to free my tender skin. After a lot of cold water, a call to a nurse hotline and some reassurance that the burns would heal, I vowed never, ever, to can again.
Not sure I’ve been more wrong about anything. By the end of that summer, I wanted something to do with all of the goods of the Oregon season. So with the steady hand of the experienced partner on the tiller — and then with friends or acquaintances and even by myself — the production line began.
We stared down low-sugar conundrums (“Is this really going to set? When?”), lids that never sealed (“Put it in the fridge and eat it this month!”), middle-of-the-process runs to the store for star anise or whole peppercorns or more jars. I developed slightly more asbestos-like fingers and a tolerance for steamy heat.
Strawberries? Raspberries? Why, frozen and in jam, of course. Peaches? They turn into peach jam, peach syrup, brandied peaches, peaches frozen into a peach pie filling for Thanksgiving, peach chutney. Pears? Dry pears for winter camping or hikes; mix pears with figs for a deep, luscious chutney. Squash? Zucchini? Dry those suckers for winter soups. Tomatoes? Lots of sauce and frozen whole.
Last summer, in the fevered grip of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and Alisa Smith & J.B. MacKinnon’s Plenty, our household froze, pickled, jammed and canned until the shelves of the garage freezer and the pantry groaned under the weight.
Processing extra produce means a fall, winter and spring of avoiding the grocery store; means inexpensive but special holiday gifts; means satisfaction in making fresh(ish) tomato sauce in February. True, it might mean that you freeze 16 pounds of corn and wind up with a bunch of corn you will never eat, but that’s a learning experience (hell yes, it is). Still, it’s fun. Some tips and tricks, some ideas from my limited but ever-expanding preserving life:
1. Berries freeze well. Got time to go out and pick your own raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, cherries, blackberries and peaches? Great. If not, the farmers at the Farmers’ Markets will gladly supply you with what you need (especially if you get there early in the day to buy a flat of berries). Freeze ’em on cookie sheets and pop ’em into gallon-sized freezer bags. Suck the air out of the bags with a straw saved, perhaps, from an iced coffee; make sure you get as much air out as possible. Store flat. Tasty treats on hot days and dessert material in the winter. Easy peasy!
2. Get what’s in season. That may seem obvious. And hey, it is! If you’re picking your own, you’ll definitely follow this guideline. But check with the local produce sellers (no, that does not include the grocery stores) for what they have in abundance — or read Russ Parsons’ How to Pick a Peach so you know what’s in season and have ideas for recipes beyond preserving. Many vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, peas and more) can be lightly blanched, dried off a bit and then frozen for winter. And many more can be dried.
3. Buy a book and follow the directions. I discovered last year that The Ball Blue Book of Preserving contained all kinds of pickling and jam-making recipes (did I mention the tongue-tingling dilly beans?). For chutney, I like to go online and mix and match the various combos I find. Alert: Keep your recipes! I made a dynamite spiced peach jam three years ago, but the recipe lost itself, and ever since, it’s been ho-hum with the regular golden stuff.
4. Talk to people who have been doing it for years. For they know things, such as what a head of dill really is, when something has set, how much garlic to put in the dilly beans and so much more.
5. Share. If you have a food dryer, share it with someone who has extra jars. Share your book of French preserve recipes with someone who has a book of Indian chutney recipes. And especially, share/trade the food.
Processing food can be a selfish act — enough for me and my family, damn it! — but when it’s a community project, keeping dollars in the pockets of local farmers and making for endless picking/canning hours, securing the bounty of our long growing season preserves a lot more than just the food. Plus, it’s damn tasty. And that’s the point.