Preserving the Harvest at Home
Sep 01, 2014 04:14AM
By Analiese Paik
Our gardens are overflowing with more herbs than we know what to do with, many already flowering and gone to seed (make sure to save seeds for next year). Tomatoes, squash, peppers, eggplant, corn, beans, cabbage, beets, summer squash, peaches, plums, nectarines and raspberries are coming out of our gardens and farmers’ fields faster than we can eat them. It’s time to preserve the fleeting flavors of summer so they can be enjoyed all winter.
If you think food preservation is always a complicated, labor-intensive process, think again. Some homesteaders and farmers – the very people at their busiest this time of year harvesting and preserving – shared their commonsense practices and cherished traditions to help you discover a method or two that’s just right for you.
Farah Masani, a homesteader at Farah’s Farm in Wilton who keeps chickens, ducks and turkeys and grows a variety of organic herbs and vegetables, speaks about two enormous jars of pickled cucumbers out on her counter. “This is nothing. I’ll make ten more of these before the summer’s over” she says as she rattled off the jars’ contents – cucumbers, dill, fresh and dried coriander seeds, radishes, carrots, curry leaves, green peppers – essentially whatever was coming out of her garden. The cilantro growing next to the porch had already gone to seed, providing the coriander for the brine. Masani mentions that fresh green seeds add a delicious burst of citrusy flavor to almost any dish.
Masani lays her homegrown basil, mint, lemongrass and rosemary flat to dry, seed heads and all, on brown paper bags or newspaper, then bags the leaves and seeds for use in the winter. “I have no time! The less fussing I do the better” she says. “I use dried mint and anise leaves in a personal chai blend I grew up drinking in Bombay that includes cardamom, cinnamon and clove.” She dries fruits, vegetables and leeks in a dehydrator because they last indefinitely. “In India everything is sun dried. Tradition plays a big role in how I do things. My ancestors are my biggest resource.” Masani snips dried lemongrass into rice, green tea and soups and rehydrates sliced leeks in warm water before making potato leek soup. Not one to waste a thing, she reserves the leek-soaking liquid to make the soup.
Rather than turn the stove on in the summer to make jams, Masani freezes raspberries and strawberries in plastic bags and does her cooking in the winter when the house needs warming and she’s enjoying her off-season. A water bath is her preferred canning method because it’s easy and convenient compared to a pressure canner. Cold storing root vegetables is a more complicated process. She stores carrots, potatoes, onions and peppers earmarked for short-term use in a root cellar under the Bilco doors. A trek outside in the snow, and a trip down a ladder, are required to retrieve food from long-term storage in an abandoned, covered well twenty feet below ground to replenish short-term stocks. “It’s not ideal” she said. “The transfer from the well to the basement is a lot of labor.” Yet the system works for her and she’s able to enjoy her harvest all winter long.
As the stewards of Wakeman Town Farm Sustainability Center, an organic demonstration homestead in Westport, Carrie Aitkenhead, her husband Mike and two children live in the main house. Aitkenhead holds a canning workshop at the farm each August and teaches participants how to make and can jams, jellies, pickles, salsa and tomato sauce. “My favorite things to can are jams and jellies. My absolute favorite thing to can every year is jalapeño jelly!” she says. “The sweet spicy tartness of this jelly is unlike any other. Delicious!” When attending a party or gathering, Aitkenhead brings her jalapeño jelly as a hostess gift where it can be served with crackers over cream cheese or goat cheese.
“The best advice I can give for canning is to always use reliable sources for canning recipes, and to always follow the instructions and measurements exactly to maintain the safety of canned goods. With canning, it is important not to be intimidated by the precise nature of the recipes, but also not to be careless” says Aitkenhead. “The adage I’ve heard about home canning safety is, when in doubt, throw it out.” Sherri Brooks-Vinton’s canning and preserving cookbook, Put ‘em Up, and Better Homes and Gardens canning issue from summer 2013 are her go-to resource for recipes. For hands on learning of preserving, she’s enjoyed attending Northeast Organic Farming Association conferences and classes on canning and preserving.
Micro-farmer and private chef Phoebe Cole-Smith cultivates organic herbs, vegetables and fruit on Dirt Road Farm in Weston. Thirty-five pounds of organic strawberries harvested from her farm, The Hickories, and Fort Hill Farm yielded forty jars of jam, but Cole- Smith has plans for more single-fruit jams. “I like the single fruit flavor to come through and just add an herb or another flavor note. Strawberry and rose petal jam with a hint of rose is fantastic!” Beach plum jelly, a delicacy she grew up with, is in the plans, as is something experimental – blueberry jam with pine or spruce. Last year she made a wild raspberry and lavender jam that was also delicious, but cautions restraint when using lavender because it’s so potent.
After taking a workshop at the Greenwich Historical Society two summers ago with Food in Jars author Marisa McClellan, Cole-Smith made a rhubarb with Earl Gray and vanilla jam that she loved. “I have made strawberry-rhubarb jam, but really like rhubarb on its own.” Although her farm produces maple syrup and honey, she favors organic, Fair Trade cane sugar. “Alternative sweeteners sometimes interfere with the flavor of the fruit.” She doesn’t use store-bought pectin either, an approach shared by revered jam and jelly expert Christine Ferber, author of Mes Confitures.
“My mother used to make pickled green tomatoes, so this year I’m pickling green cherry tomatoes, which are great in martinis,” says Cole-Smith. Her pantry will also be stocked with cucumber pickles, jalapeño pickles and salsa, all canned using the hot water process. She recommends putting a fresh grape leaf in the jar with the pickles to keep them crisp, a trick she’s used with great success. “I don’t use the pressure canner, but want to make garlic confit with it. That would be a good one to have around,” she explains. “Chef Paul Virant has a recipe for it in his cookbook, The Preservation Kitchen, which is all about cooking with foods he’s pickled and preserved.”
Cole-Smith likes to roast and freeze peppers, especially poblanos, because they freeze well, unlike green beans, which turn soggy. She blanches and freezes corn kernels, fava beans and peas along with soups and pestos. “I make Mediterranean salsa verde with parsley, marjoram, mint, capers, anchovy and olive oil, then freeze it in ice cube trays for use in winter dishes. It’s a breath of summer that’s heavenly,” she says. After conducting careful research on author Margaret Roach’s AwaytoGarden.com website, Cole-Smith decided to experiment with collecting poppy seeds from her garden, something she has in abundance. Like Masani, she uses the space under her Bilco doors for cold storage, but it’s not cold enough to keep them in good shape all winter. “I really need a root cellar,” she laments.
Fermentation is an ancient method used by cultures around the globe to preserve food, and it’s undergoing a renaissance. Masani ferments honey to make mead and Cole-Smith declared her sauerkraut, made in a big German crock, a delicious success. Using The Art of Fermentation and The Kimchi Cookbook, you can learn to make traditional fermented foods at home, including kimchi. Whether you dry, pickle, freeze, can or ferment the harvest, enjoy the sweet satisfaction of reaching into your freezer or pantry this winter for a taste of summer.