P. Allen Smith: Preserving the Harvest
We all know home gardens can help save money at the grocery store, but planting extra to preserve will help extend the savings and your produce into the fall and winter. Over the years I’ve found a few different ways to make my favorite herbs, berries and veggies last a little longer. It gives me a deep sense of satisfaction to bring out something I’ve preserved — especially on the coldest winter day — to use in my cooking.
One look at the prices in the spice aisle is the only motivation I need to grow and dry my own herbs! You can air dry herbs by suspending them in bundles or laying them on a screen in a dark area with good air circulation, but I prefer to use the oven. It’s almost instant gratification, the leaves won’t get dusty, and I don’t have to worry about finding a good spot for the process.
To get started, gather the herbs in the early morning after the dew has evaporated — but before the sun gets too intense. Wash them and pat completely dry. Remove the leaves from the stems, and spread them on a cookie sheet or a recycled aluminum tray. Set your oven on its lowest temperature, place the herbs inside and let them go for several hours. Check on them regularly. Once dried, just crush or crumble them and place in labeled and dated, airtight jars. Store your dried herbs in a cool, dark place.
Nothing beats a garden-fresh tomato, and I always seem to have plenty around at the end of the growing season. Drying is an excellent way to preserve tomatoes for enjoying in recipes during the winter.
Some tomatoes seem to be better for drying than others; the meatier the tomato, the better, so I like to use plum varieties, like “Roma” or “San Marzano.” I bought 10 Bonnie “Roma” plants last year and just these few plants produced bushels of tomatoes! Just quarter them, or cut them into thin slices, and lay them on a flat surface, like a cookie sheet. Salt and pepper the pieces, and place the tray in the sun. Long, hot, dry days are ideal. It usually only takes about two days to remove the water. If you don’t have sustained sun, you can finish them off in your oven, set a low temperature. Once dried, place them in airtight bags and freeze. Another way of to preserve dried tomatoes is to pack them in jars and pour olive oil over them.
If you want to enjoy blueberry muffins or blackberry cobbler in the fall and winter, bypass the frozen section at the grocery, and freeze your own berries. I guarantee you the flavor cannot be matched! The process is easy and applies to all kinds of berries, even strawberries, although you need to remove the green caps before freezing. All you need are fresh berries, plastic bags — vacuum-sealed bags are better and will prevent freezer burn — a colander and a cookie sheet or other tray that will fit in your freezer.
With the exception of blueberries, rinse the berries and let them dry in the colander. I’ve found that blueberries are so thin-skinned that it’s best to wait and rinse them after they’re frozen, before you use them. Spread your completely-dry berries on the cookie sheet — make sure they’re in a single layer so you don’t have clumps of frozen berries. Place in the freezer overnight to ensure they’re completely frozen.
Transfer to a plastic bag and remove as much air as possible before sealing. Be sure to label the bags with the date and contents before putting them back in the freezer. When you’re ready to use them, just thaw the berries in the refrigerator overnight.
I’m partial to blueberries myself, and another way to enjoy them past the growing season is with an easy blueberry preserve recipe (doesn’t require cooking). It’s also a great (and safe) way to get kids in the kitchen to learn the delicious garden-to-table benefits of growing your own fruits and veggies! The preserves keep in the refrigerator for about three weeks and in the freezer for one year. Just thaw frozen jars in the refrigerator, and enjoy!
Freezer Blueberry Preserves
4 cups fresh blueberries • 4 cups sugar •
½ teaspoon cinnamon • 2 tablespoons lemon juice • 1 1.75 ounce package freezer pectin
• 5 sterile, 8-ounce jelly jars with lids
Rinse and pick over berries to remove stems, etc. Mash with a large spoon or potato masher. Add sugar and cinnamon. Combine lemon juice and pectin. Don’t add more than the 2 tablespoons of lemon juice or the preserves won’t set up. Stir into berries.
Stir for 4 or 5 minutes, or until sugar is dissolved. Fill 8-ounce sterile jars leaving about half an inch of headroom. Screw on the tops and leave to set up for 24 hours.