By Ellen Barcel
September is a wonderful time of the growing season. Your plants have matured and yes, your fruits, vegetables and herbs are ready to harvest and enjoy, not only now, but in the cold winter months ahead. There are a number of ways to preserve what you’ve nurtured all season long. Here are some ideas.
Canning (or putting up, as my grandmother used to say) involves cooking produce, storing it in sterile jars and sealing them so they are airtight. Grandma’s cupboard included “put up” green beans, corn and peaches, especially the white peaches from a tree in her backyard. The jars do not need refrigeration as long as they haven’t been opened.
If you are interested in canning, because of the longevity of the fruit and vegetables,one to five years, take a class first, as it is very important that the contents are preserved correctly and therefore safely. Cornell Cooperative Extension and other local organizations periodically hold such classes. Ball’s “Complete Book of Home Preserving,” edited by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine, has 400 recipes with details on safely preserving your produce.
A reminder: Be very careful with any chemical products you use on produce for human consumption. My preference is to go completely organic, but if you do use chemicals, read the package directions for timing — how long before harvest can you use the product safely. And remember, label each package or jar with contents and date preserved.
Turning your fruits into jams and jellies is another great way of preserving your harvest. Jellies, jams and preserves can be made from most edible fruits. Jellies are clear and made from juice, while jams and preserves use the whole fruit. Marmalade adds the peels, which can add tartness in contrast to the sweet jelly that surrounds it.
Unusual jellies include mint; rose, made from the petals or hips; thyme; tea; lavender; peony; carnation and scented geranium. Many of the edible flowers can be made into syrups too, or turned into candies, such as violet candy.
There are countless recipes available. A really simple recipe uses fruit, such as strawberries, sugar, pectin and water. The resulting jam is stored in containers in the freezer. It lasts about a month in the refrigerator once defrosted.
One of the easiest ways of preserving is by drying. Herbs, for example, do very well this way. Harvest your herbs, making sure they are clean with no insects. Remove any dead leaves. Tie each bunch of herbs bouquet-style and hang them upside down in a cool, dry place. You can then remove and use the leaves as needed or remove all the leaves and store in a plastic bag or storage container. Herbs are not the only plants that can be dried. Virtually all fruits and vegetables can be too. There are various methods ,including drying in the sun, drying in the oven or drying in a dehydrator. Generally, these are rehydrated before use, but not necessarily. Dried apple chips are crunched on as is or can be added to salads. Dried sunflower seeds, salted or plain, don’t need rehydration either. Raisins can be rehydrated with water or your favorite alcoholic beverage (for adults only), like rum or brandy. Use them in rice pudding or homemade ice cream.
Dried string beans, onions and carrots can be used in soups and stews. The University of Georgia Cooperative Extensive has a 12-page pamphlet on drying fruits and vegetables that can be downloaded from their website (www.nchfp.uga.edu/publications/uga/uga_dry_fruit.pdf). It gives detailed information including how much water is needed to rehydrate each, how long each needs to be dried in a dehydrator and much more.
One of the benefits of drying is that you don’t need special equipment (like a large freezer) to store the produce — just package in an airtight container and store on a shelf in a cool, dry place.
If you know that you’re going to be using certain herbs in salads, carefully wash and dry the leaves, removing any brown leaves and stems. Store the leaves in a container — I prefer glass — covered with salad oil of your preference. When ready to use the herbs in a salad, take out the required amount, dice and toss into either the salad itself or your salad dressing.
If you have a large freezer, freezing is another easy way to keep your fruits fresh and tasty for winter. Take berries, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, etc., wash them gently and remove any stems. Let them sit on paper towels or clean dishcloths until dry. Then spread them out on a cookie sheet. Put the cookie sheet in the freezer for a few hours. When the berries are completely frozen, transfer them to a freezer bag or plastic storage container and keep in the freezer until ready to use. This is also an easy way to preserve herb leaves. Remove the leaves from the stem, spread out on a cookie sheet and freeze.
Herbs can also be frozen using ice cube trays. Mince the herbs and fill each cube until it is almost full. Cover with water and move to the freezer. When the herb ice cubes are frozen, transfer them to a freezer bag or plastic storage container and keep frozen until ready to use. Using ice cube trays gives you portion control and makes it easy to take out just what you need. This method is particularly useful for herbs to be added to soups and stews, or mint to be added to iced tea.
When freezing vegetables, it’s best to blanch — dip in boiling water — them first to stop the ripening process, submerge them in cold water and freeze as quickly as possible.
Pickling is a very old method of preserving vegetables and yes, even fruits can be pickled. While cucumbers are the most common, onions, peppers, green beans and even watermelon (the white part) can be pickled for future use. I particularly like horseradish pickles, that is, cucumbers with horseradish included in the brine, and pickled beets; see below for my simple recipe. The principle behind pickling is that acidic vinegar prevents the growth of most bacteria.
Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener.