09 February 2012

Adventures in Preserving

The 2012 garden season is almost upon us.  In preparation, we've reviewed our successes and failures.  When we design our garden we plan for both fresh-eating and preserving.  Preserving garden vegetables requires work.  I didn't mind preserving as much as possible this past summer because I wanted to make up for my inexperience and move myself along the canning learning curve.  Canning tomatoes in my sauna of a kitchen every other day in August and September taught me a lot about the process.  It also taught me that you darn well better love tomatoes to make the effort worth it.

They look innocent. Don't be fooled.

There are several methods of preserving.  In order to see what we liked best, I tested most methods.  I froze peas, snap peas, shredded zucchini, chopped green beans, blanched eggplant, quartered tomatoes, rhubarb puree, cantaloupe puree, basil pesto, and cilantro pesto.  I dried sweet and hot peppers, cherry tomatoes, eggplant, and spices.  I canned chopped tomatoes, tomato puree, tomato salsas, green tomato jam, pepper jelly, pepper relish, and peaches.  We root-cellared potatoes, turnips, rutabaga, carrots, parsnips, and squash.  We cured onions, leeks, and garlic. I pickled snap peas, made hot sauce from our peppers, and preserved a few things sott'olio, or under oil.  It's a common practice in Italy, but isn't unapproved by the FDA.  I preserved tomato and pepper conservas and spicy marinated eggplant sott'olio

frozen quartered tomatoes, basil pesto, shredded zucchini, and peas

We've adjusted the amount of which we will grow and preserve.  There are certain things that we won't grow at all this year, for example, turnip and rutabaga.  They always make me think of The Middle Ages.  The horrible sulphurous smell was probably a welcome potpourri to cover the smell of the Black Plague wafting in from the filthy streets.  With the advent of penicillin, I see no good purpose for the smelly roots.  Remember when you were a kid and you had the friend with the house that smelled?  Remember how you never wanted to play at that house? Yeah, that's my house.  G'bye turnips and rutabaga.

be happy this isn't a scratch and sniff blog

Also, melons got nixed.  I enjoy a good watermelon--one good watermelon.  The 125 or so we grew last summer were 124 too many.  I pureed and froze some of the cantaloupe more out of guilt than desire.  Someone please tell me what the hell I planned to do with that--and do not say smoothie.  No one wants a cantaloupe smoothie.  After cutting and eating more melon than I've ever wanted and giving away as much as we could, most of them ended up becoming a good circuit training workout of carrying them to the compost pile.  No thanks.

One picking of cantaloupes. I never eat cantaloupe!

I could write at great length about the vegetables we love for fresh-eating and my favorite ways to prepare them, but for the purpose of brevity and focus, this post is devoted to my favorite preserved foods from this past season.  The criteria to qualify as a favorite is as follows: it's versatile, it's delicious, it's worth the effort, and I look forward to repeating it this summer.

Spicy Pickled Snap Peas

Our snap peas were abundant.  We enjoyed them steamed, sauteed, and stir-fried, but they were best pickled with garlic, dill, and hot pepper.  One packet of seeds provided enough to eat fresh and then pickled all summer long. They made a great appetizer paired with an IPA as we sat around the picnic table in July.   

snap peas

pickled with hot pepper, dill, garlic
Hot Sauce

I will definitely make hot sauce again.  Homemade hot sauce has great flavor along with heat.  It's simple to prepare and gives your sinuses a good clearing in the process.  I vaguely remember doing it: there was pureeing of many Hungarian hot peppers, bringing them to a gentle simmer with vinegar, water, and sugar, and then bottling them in absolutely pointless squeeze bottles after cooling.  Next year I will keep it in jars rather than the cheap squeeze bottles that get clogged with pepper chunks and slowly drip hot sauce all over my refrigerator.

Hungarian hot peppers are first purple, then red when ripe


I had a hard time convincing myself to can salsa.  I mean do I really want to chop onions, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, and herbs and then spend hours canning them over the hot stove just so that I can crack a jar open on a Saturday night after three or seven beers and eat the whole jar in less than four minutes in a flurry of splintering tortilla chips? No.  Luckily, after three or seven beers I don't venture into the root cellar in fear that I may never make it out, and my salsas have remained for the explicit use of braises, sauces, and soups.  I found a great guide to canning salsas from the University of Wisconsin and canned eighteen pints. I've made simple middle-of-the-week meals with a pint of salsa and few other ingredients.  The spicy cilantro salsa is great for braising skirt steaks.  The mild salsa with parsley is great for a quick pasta with homemade ricotta.  This past week I made a southwest-style bean soup with a jar of spicy salsa, several cups of homemade stock, dried beans, frozen peas, frozen shredded zucchini, and a few ounces of frozen cilantro pesto. It was an inventive, healthy, and delicious way to use our preserved vegetables 

the remainder of our salsa in the root cellar

Frozen Zucchini and Peas

If you are watching your budget or care about local eating and sustainability, zucchini and peas are very exciting.  Zucchini and peas are both very easy to grow:  they both can be planted directly (you don't have to start the seed early), require little maintenance, and are prolific.  Furthermore, they both are very easy to preserve with a little freezer space.  In winter when everyone else is buying insipid hothouse vegetables or those imported from another continent, we have our tasty homegrown vegetables.  Shredded zucchini is the perfect vegetable because, if prepared properly, it takes on the flavors of your dish while adding texture, fiber and nutrients, and substance.  I throw it in soups, stews, pastas, chilis, and muffins to add a few unnoticed vegetable servings to our diets.  Peas freeze beautifully and can be added to most of the aforementioned dishes.  They also hold up well enough to serve as a simple vegetable side with butter, if that's your style.  For me, peas will always belong with pancetta and cream over pasta, but I mainly keep them in soups to salvage what remains of my waistline. 

pea plants

peas prior to shelling


Anyone with an herb garden and minimal patience can make and freeze pesto.  It's an easy way to make good use of summer herbs.  I'm not a huge fan of pasta with basil pesto, but I make it ceremoniously once or twice a summer to give thanks to the basil gods.  I froze about a dozen several-ounce servings of basil and cilantro pestos in very small Ziploc bags.  Traditionally, pesto is made by blending basil, olive oil, toasted pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese.  For the sake of freshness, I omit the cheese when freezing it.  And for the sake of our budget, I eliminate the pine nuts--I think they are now more expensive than saffron.  Traditionalists swear that is must be made with a mortar and pestle, but I did not acquire one until after basil season so my pestos were made with a food processor.  For a fast meal mix a few ounces of basil pesto with some heavy whipping cream over hot pasta and sprinkle with Parmesan (kind of a paisana mac n cheese).  Or, stir some pesto into mayo and toss shredded chicken into the mixture for the best chicken salad sandwich ever.  After my minestrone experiment, I've found that pesto is a wonderful garnish for soups.  The cilantro pesto this week was nothing short of miraculous in the spicy bean soup.  Pesto is also great for a quick crostini with goat cheese.  I'll put almost anything over goat cheese.

spicy cilantro bean soup

There are other preserved items we've enjoyed and will repeat, but thus far, those previously listed have proven the most versatile and worthwhile.  I will continue to experiment with our frozen, canned, dried, cured, and sott'olio bounty.  And while we decide what to do with our former melon, turnip, and rutabaga beds, there will be some serious removing and bleaching of the cruciferous stink creeping up from the root cellar.



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