Long before the era of big-box grocery stores, people preserved and stored their own foods. But what might be viewed today as quaint homesteading chores undercuts the profound historical significance of food preservation. “Food preserving…made it possible for some of our ancestors to travel, taking their food with them as they journeyed over long distances to explore unknown places,” writes Sue Shepard in her book Pickled, Potted, and Canned (Simon & Schu-ster). The convenience of modern production and shopping has made it easy to buy jams and pickles pre-packed, but learning to preserve your own food will keep your favorite seasonal flavors close at hand year-round, and save you money, too.
Cook It Up
Seasonal foods are packed with flavor. Garlic scapes, tomatoes and greens are among the vegetables that announce their arrival in abundance—often too much to enjoy in a short time. If you want to get the most out of these ingredients, harvest, buy and cook extra. Kale, Swiss chard, mustard and collard greens save space when they are steamed, cooked down in oil or shredded fresh for later use. The curly green scapes, or the false bud of the garlic plant, can be sautéed or roasted just like garlic and stored in your refrigerator for later use, or pureed into a pesto, which can be refrigerated or frozen. Tomatoes can easily be cooked down and made into sauce, or diced and made into a zesty salsa with other vegetables of plenty like onions and peppers.
Storing Your Roots
Some hearty late-fall and winter crops can be stored in cool, dark, dry places that will not freeze. Beets, potatoes, winter squash, select onion varieties, carrots, celeriac (celery root) and parsnips can be kept in a root cellar or cold corners of your garage. (To determine if you have the proper place for root cellaring, put a glass of water in the location overnight. If it’s ice in the morning, try another spot.)
Keep the Freezer Full
The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy suggests keeping your freezer full to minimize your fridge’s energy use. This should be easy, given the amount of foods that freeze well. Fruits, including berries and cubed watermelon, survive for months when placed in airtight containers or storage bags. A range of vegetables, such as beans, small beets, broccoli and cauliflower florets, peeled and sliced carrots and spinach, can be quickly blanched, or thrown into boiling water and cooled immediately by “shocking” it in cold water, and frozen for later use. Zucchini can be grated, drained of its water and frozen as well. You can also remove peas and beans from their pods and corn kernels can be cut from the cob and sealed in bags in the freezer.
Drying and Dehydrating
Drying foods is an excellent method to lock in flavors, while also removing water to prevent spoilage. Some fruits and vegetables dry better than others, including apples, berries, peaches, plums, onions, mushrooms, kale, peas and tomatoes, and can be eaten dried or reconstituted in water, broth or other cooking liquids. If you are fortunate enough to own a dehydrator or are looking to purchase one, drying is relatively easy. If your weather and climate permit, open-air sun-drying on metal sheets, racks or on hanging lines is a great use of natural resources. Other low-impact recipes include dried herbs. Rosemary, thyme, parsley, sage, oregano and tarragon can be tied at their stalks with kitchen twine and hung upside down in a dry location, including barns or attics, or any place not prone to moisture or mold.
Each food requires a different level of preparation before drying, so it is best to consult books like Putting Food By (Plume Books) by Janet Greene, Ruth Hertzberg and Beatrice Vaughan for successful and safe drying advice.
Canning with Confidence
Canning is often shrouded in fears of hard work and food poisoning via botulism. But if you follow canning and pickling instructions correctly and have the proper equipment (i.e., canning pots, mason jars, a jar lifter, screw caps with seals, canning funnel), preserving jellies, jams and sauces can be a fulfilling way to spend an afternoon.
And it appears that more people are gaining canning confidence: In 2008, 150 million jars and 350 million canning lids were sold in the U.S., according to an interview with Martin Franklin, chairman and CEO of Jarden Corporation, which manufactures Ball jars. Groups like Canning Across America are also starting a self-professed “canvolution” by promoting safe canning, savoring local flavors and cultivating the communal aspect of food preservation.
While Michael Pollan writes in Food Rules (Penguin) that we should “eat only foods that will eventually rot,” it is also important not to waste the fresh food that we do purchase and grow. Slow down to appreciate your ingredients, read through reference books and use extra time to practice freezing, drying and canning. Your taste buds and wallet will thank you...
Quick Herby Beans
2 cups water2/3 cup white vinegar2-3 Tbsp. olive oil4-6 cloves garlic, depending on size and tasteSprigs of your favorite fresh herbs: dill (traditional), tarragon, rosemary1 tsp. sea salt1 pound green or wax beans
In a medium saucepan, combine the water, vinegar, garlic cloves, herbs and salt, and bring to a boil.
Add the green beans and bring the mixture back to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Store the beans in their cooking liquid in the refrigerator and allow to chill. They should last at least two weeks.