While it’s hard to imagine on a cold January day, there may come a time when you look at your vegetable garden and wonder what possessed you to plant so much. Tomatoes pile up on the counter, green beans are eaten at every meal and your neighbors warn that they will not take any more zucchini.
Fortunately, you have several options for preserving the harvest to enjoy next winter when its home-grown taste will be so appreciated.
Freezing is the easiest way to save some of your garden produce for winter eating. Some foods such as raspberries can simply be frozen whole. Wash them lightly, let them drain on paper towels, and put the berries on a cookie sheet in the freezer. In a couple of hours, they’ll be frozen and you can pack them in plastic bags, removing just what you need for baking or fruit smoothies. Even tomatoes can be frozen whole, if you plan to use them only in cooking. (You can also blanch them lightly and remove the skins before freezing, but that’s not necessary.)
Other foods such as green beans and zucchini need a quick blanching before freezing. Clean the food and cut to the size you like (for zucchini a one-half inch slice works well), then drop the vegetables in water and boil for three minutes. After cooking, place the vegetables in ice water to cool them immediately. Drain well and pack in freezer bags.
One of my favorite foods to freeze is pesto. When basil is abundant, make pesto using nuts, olive oil, garlic, salt and basil. I do not add Parmesan cheese until I’m serving the pesto, but I know people who add it before the pesto is frozen with good results. Once your pesto is made, spoon it into zip lock bags and lay the bags flat on a cookie sheet. Freeze them. You’ll have narrow little packets of pesto, which make for a quick and soul-restoring pasta dinner in mid-winter, and take up almost no room in your freezer.
Drying is another option for preserving food. Drying removes the water from foods, making them less likely to spoil. Dehydrators are available in a wide range of prices from under $50 to almost $200. Dehydrating can be tricky and you might want to read up on it before trying it. Minnesotan Mary T. Bell of Lanesboro has several books (Food Drying with an Attitude is her latest) and offers drying supplies at www.drystore.com. You can also dry tomatoes in the oven by cutting them in half, salting lightly, if you’d like, and cooking them at about 200 F. for five to seven hours. Oven-dried tomatoes have an intense flavor and are delicious on pizzas or in pasta sauce. Oven-dried tomatoes need to be stored in the refrigerator or freezer to prevent spoilage.
Jams (for fruits) and pickles (for vegetables) basically involve preserving foods by cooking them with sugar or vinegar and sugar. Most jams and pickles or relishes can be preserved using the “hot-water bath” method of canning. In this method, the hot jam or pickles are packed into sterile, hot jars and then boiled under water. The boiling creates a vacuum seal and the foods can be kept without refrigeration. Hot-water bath canning is not hard—though it can be hot—and doesn’t require a lot of special equipment. Canning sets include helpful tools such as a large canning pot and a jar lifter. To can non-acid foods, such as green beans, carrots or corn, you MUST use a pressure canner, which can raise the food temperature to 240 degrees or higher in order to kill bacteria.
Carrots, potatoes, onions, beets and other root crops can simply be stored in a root cellar for the season. If you do not have a root cellar (and these days, not many of us do), you can keep veggies in the garage or a cool spot in the basement for awhile. Or you can set up an outdoor root cellar, like this one. No matter where you store vegetables, be sure to store only perfect vegetables. Nicks, dings and soft spots will soon go bad in storage. Also, choose varieties that are labeled for storage. You’ll often see potatoes or squash labeled as “good keepers.” Those are the ones to store for winter eating. University of Minnesota Extension has good advice on storing vegetables.
Preserving foods is a satisfying endeavor—it brings out that inner pioneer—and there are several informative books and websites on how to do it well and safely. We like:
The Fresh Girls Guide, written by Minnesotan Ana Micka
Put ‘em Up by Sherri Vinton Brooks This has one of the best sections written on the safety issues surrounding canning and preserving.
Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving – a rewrite of the famous Ball Blue Book of Canning and Preserving Recipes (which is also still available);
Canning for a New Generation, by Liana Krissoff and Rinne Allen
There are many websites devoted to canning, too. A good place to start is the National Center for Home Food Preservation. It has complete instructions on all the processes. The University of Minnesota also has good information on canning on its website.
—Mary Lahr Schier
Follow Notes from Northern Gardener throughout January as we offer our series on 31 Days to a Great Northern Vegetable Garden. Tomorrow: Best Books for Beginning Vegetable Gardeners.