Your garden is overflowing. What now?
Until moving to Cape Cod 45 years ago, I thought jam came from Welsh’s and tomatoes from Heinz.
But once we had a garden, I realized I better learn to “put up” – or a lot of our hard labor would be for naught. I learned the basics, canning tomatoes and, once, only once, making my own ketchup. I covered peaches and strawberries in sugar and froze them. I pickled green beans. I made blackberry and wild grape jam. And I learned to love the summer memory invoked by opening something in January that I remembered picking in August.
While I no longer regularly cook for five people, there’s something about fall that still makes me want to stockpile; perhaps a long-lost bit of DNA warning me about winter. And, good news for small households, with new techniques, preserving has become much easier, healthier and safer. You can do a small batch of pickles, for example, or freeze a few tomatoes or slices of fruit (sugar free!) when they are at the peak of flavor.
Of course, safety and nutritional concerns have not changed.
That’s one reason Brittany Pond, clinical nutrition manager for Cape Cod Hospital, thinks freezing is usually the safest and best way to preserve foods. You don’t have to add a lot of sugar to fruits or over-process vegetables, and you don’t have to worry about bacteria like botulism, which can ruin canned goods and be life-threatening. Canning is also more complicated, since it requires heating or cooking the produce and then “processing” the glass jars, usually in boiling water, to kill bacteria.
Freezing is easy, Pond said, and preserves most fruits and vegetables up to 12 months. For example, to freeze apples, just core them, take out the seeds and slice evenly, separating them on a sheet of parchment paper on a baking sheet. Then, freeze. “And then once they are frozen, you can pop them into a storage bag and label and date them,” she said.
The purer you can keep fruits and vegetables, the more nutritious they stay, she said.
“When you’re adding things, like when you’re adding sugar, or if you’re pickling and you’re adding salt, you’re decreasing the overall nutrition because you’re adding so much other stuff that’s not great for us,” Pond said.
Many fruits and vegetables freeze well with no processing or sugar, says Kim Concra, a dietitian and nutritionist with Cape Cod Cooperative Extension. Tomatoes are a great example. Just rinse, dry and throw them in a plastic bag. The peel rubs off under cool water when you retrieve them. Some vegetables may benefit from some quick blanching, however.
“The reason we do that is because it halts the ripening enzymes,” Concra says. For example, if you just grate zucchini and put it in the freezer, it will get yellowish and “kind of slimy.”
“It doesn’t mean it’s bad necessarily, but it’s spoiling even in the freezer,” Concra says. “So if you blanch vegetables, it halts that process.” Blanching is quick. Zucchini, for example, take just three minutes.
Be wary of old recipes, she said. Whether it’s freezing, canning, pickling or fermenting, Concra recommends recipes from after 1994 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture changed its guidelines. She also warns about long-term preserving that suggests cooking food in the microwave, saying it heats food unevenly. And, if you’re a longtime canner, be aware of changes in lids, she says. Manufacturers took bisphenol A, or BPA, out of canning lids due to possible adverse health effects, and now the seals may lose their adhesiveness with over-processing.
Also, if you’re using traditional containers like crocks for fermenting or pickling, check for lead in the paint using test swabs from the hardware. If you’re determined to use an antique crock, Concra suggests lining it with a plastic roasting bag.
For basics on all kinds of food preservation, Concra recommends the Ball canning jar company site; the National Center for Home Food Preservation, a service of the states and the U.S. Department of Agriculture; and state extension service sites. All have recipes, videos or tutorials for preserving. And, she said, you can trust that processing times are safe and appropriate for the best quality results.
To me, there’s something both primal and reassuring about preserving food. There is a bag of sliced peaches in my freezer now that I’ll take out on a cold winter day and use to make peach cobbler. And with that first bite, I’ll be reassured that summer will come again. Here are some easy recipes to get you started.
MICROWAVE BREAD AND BUTTER PICKLES
This recipe is crazy easy and crazy good. I used pre-mixed pickling spice and turmeric for the spices (because that’s what I had), and next time might experiment with cider vinegar or add a few red pepper flakes. There are several versions; this one is from Allrecipes. I made them with a friend’s regular garden cukes but you could make them with store-bought produce in winter for a quick gift or pick-me-up.
- 1 cup white sugar
- 1/2 cup white vinegar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 teaspoon mustard seed
- 1/4 teaspoon celery seed
- 1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 2 large English cucumbers, thinly sliced
- 1 large onion, diced or thinly sliced
Stir sugar and vinegar in a large microwave-safe bowl until sugar has dissolved; mix in salt, mustard seed, celery seed, and turmeric. Stir cucumbers and onion into the pickling mixture.
Microwave on high, stirring twice, until cucumber slices are tender and onion is translucent, 7 to 8 minutes. Chill before serving. This makes about 3 cups and will keep in the fridge for weeks.
Everyone has their fave tomato sauce. This one is mine because it’s indulgent and so lightly processed that it tastes like summer. It freezes well. While the butter isn’t great for your cholesterol, the fresh taste of this sauce is an amazing treat in winter. It’s adapted from The Romagnolis Table, written by Margaret and Frano Romagnolis, two of WGBH’s first cooking stars. Don’t worry too much about the proportions; it’s barely even a recipe. Plum tomatoes are best but use whatever garden ones you have; they just might take longer to cook down. It’s best made in small batches.
- 1 stick unsalted butter
- 4 cups of cut-up tomatoes, peeled and, if large, seeded.
- ¼ cup fresh basil leaves
- Salt and pepper to taste
Melt the butter in a pan and throw in the cut-up tomatoes. Add the fresh basil and bring to a boil. Turn it down and let it simmer, stirring occasionally, until it thickens slightly. This usually takes about 30 to 40 minutes but varies depending on the kind of tomatoes you use. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve over your favorite pasta, adding a tablespoon or so of the pasta water to the sauce before you toss it so it will stick. This makes about 3 to 4 cups of sauce, depending on the tomatoes.
STRAWBERRY FREEZER JAM
If you don’t want to mess with canning, you can make jam in the freezer. This recipe is from Ball, which manufactures glass, as well as plastic, jars and canning lids. It uses pectin, which is a natural (and vegan) starch that acts as a thickener. This makes about 5 half-pint jars.
- 3 cups crushed strawberries (about 3-1 lb containers)
- 1 3/4 cups unsweetened cranberry-raspberry or apple juice
- 3 tablespoons pectin
- Up to 3 cups sugar or 1 1/2 cups granular no-calorie sweetener or 3/4 to 1 cup honey
Gradually whisk pectin into fruit juice until dissolved. Bring to a full rolling boil that cannot be stirred down, over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. Boil hard 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat.
Immediately add crushed fruit into hot pectin mixture. Stir vigorously for 1 minute. Stir in your choice of sweetener.
Ladle freezer jam into clean jars leaving a ½ inch head space. Loosely apply lids and let jam stand in refrigerator until set, but no longer than 24 hours. Serve immediately, refrigerate up to 3 weeks or freeze up to 1 year.