Farmers markets are displaying enticing summer fruits and vegetables piled up high. This year’s harvest has been superb—so what can you do to preserve these vegetables fresh now, before summer fades into autumn, and then turns into the chill of winter?
So often has this writer longed for the sublime taste of fresh vegetables when temperatures drop. For thousands of years, people have evolved techniques to preserve summer’s bounty for winter. Most of these techniques predate refrigerators and freezers. These traditional techniques—as well as learning how to make the best use of freezers, since we now have them—are great tools to have access to nutritious and tasty foods during the colder months.
Flavor matters: Yes, frozen and canned vegetables and fruits are abundant in grocery stores, but the flavor of truly fresh produce is hard to replicate.
A trip to a farmers market followed by a few hours of kitchen work will generate a bounty. Do it. You will be surprised by how easy it is. Few tools are needed; your imagination is probably the most important one. But do make room in your freezer.
When you shop at farmers markets, use your eyes. Look for plump, ripe eggplants; fresh herbs; tomatoes that are seemingly bursting with flavor; peaches that hold the promise of sweetness; red cherries that glisten; and if you are lucky, late summer raspberries.
Colors matter: Pick yellow or almost black tomatoes, in addition to the typical red ones. Different colored eggplants will make your pantry shine: white, purple, striped, and black. With carrots, get yellow or purple. Think of the splendor of fresh corn, at times blue or red.
Colors matter to the eye and palate—we also savor the drama of such vibrancy. Just think of the visual and edible joy when the outside world turns gray.
No rules; recipes are but a crutch. Ignore the dictatorship of specific weights and prescribed steps. Recipes from the grandmaster of modern cooking, Auguste Escoffier, virtually never list specific weights or cooking times. This writer drives people cooking with him nuts when he says, “It is ready when it looks or feels right.”
Drying or Freezing Herbs
When the Ottomans seized Constantinople (today’s Istanbul) in 1453, they stopped sales of key spices shipped to Europe almost overnight—no more pepper to cover up the taste of more or less spoiled beef. That also led to primarily Portuguese discoveries to find spices, and the effort by Columbus to find India.
Within three years of 1453, in Italy appeared what many now call the first modern cookbook, “The Art of Cooking.” The writer Maestro Martino of Como essentially told people to go back to the garden and harvest herbs, and use them as spices.
Fresh herbs can easily be dried and used by themselves or in a blend to add flavor. Buy bunches of basil, Thai basil, rosemary, sage, summer savory, winter savory, lavender, pineapple sage, thyme, lemon basil, or purple basil. Wash the herbs and tie them up into bundles with kitchen twine, making the twine long enough to form a loop for hanging. In my kitchen, I hang the bundles from small hooks that hold pots and pants. That way, they get air and dry faster, within 10 days.
Put the dried bundles into a large bowl and use your fingers to strip off the leaves, then crumble the leaves, blend as desired, and put into jars. It’s somewhat messy, but smells great.
Save the twigs, and add them to your grill when grilling meats or fish. To fully release their flavor, soak them in water for 10 minutes or so. I recommend putting the wet twigs right on the coals.
Dried herbs—like all spices, such as pepper or cloves—have a limited shelf life. This also applies to the spices you buy in a supermarket. The dried herbs will retain their flavor for nine months, just in time for the next harvest. Use them on boiled potatoes, scrambled eggs, pasta, or with meats. I use them with soup, toasted bread drizzled with olive oil, or a puree of carrots.
You can also freeze your herbs. For an amazing, yet simple, pasta sauce, use a blender to puree fresh basil with a touch of water, and freeze the puree in an ice cube tray. Once frozen, take a basil cube out of the freezer and stir it into your hot pasta. It will melt very fast and create a wonderful flavor. One cube will suffice to make a simple pasta dish sing.
Drying Fruits and Vegetables
Most vegetables and many fruits can be dried and stored in jars or frozen. If you don’t have access to a covered outdoor patio for sun-drying, you can use a food dehydrator or baking sheets and a low-temperature oven.
Wash and prepare your produce: halve, pit, and slice peaches and plums; halve cherry tomatoes; seed and slice large tomatoes; and trim and slice eggplant and summer squash. As for the thickness of the slices, 1/4 inch is perfect. Keep the sizes consistent, for even drying. Some vegetables, including eggplant, squash, and green beans, should be blanched before drying: Dip them in boiling water for a few minutes, then plunge them in cold water to stop the cooking. Drain and pat them dry.
Preheat your oven to 170 degrees F, or the lowest temperature setting. On your baking sheets, lined with parchment paper, arrange your prepared produce. Separate the items so they don’t touch. Then, transfer the baking sheets to the oven to let the produce dry, flipping the pieces occasionally throughout the process. Keeping the oven door cracked slightly open can help with air circulation.
Dry vegetables until they are crisp and brittle. Dry fruits until they are shriveled and not sticky or tacky, though they may still be pliable. Tomatoes should be shriveled and dry but still pliable. This will take several hours, depending on the produce.
When dry and cooled, put them into clean jars, which can then be kept sealed in a cool, dry, dark place, or freeze them. You can also pack dried tomatoes with olive oil in a clean jar.
How to use dried vegetables and fruits? You can snack on dried fruits as-is. Rehydrate dried vegetables by soaking them in boiling water, then use them as almost fresh vegetables. If using dried vegetables in soups and stews, you can add them directly to the pot to cook.
Freezing Fruits and Vegetables
Buy freezer-quality Ziploc bags for freezing fruits and vegetables such as whole berries, pitted cherries, sliced peaches, uncooked shucked corn, and sliced eggplants. You can even freeze tomato sauce.
Quickly wash the produce you want to freeze and pat it dry. Pitting cherries, plums, apricots, or peaches helps—the pit can add a bitter flavor. For eggplants, you will need to salt, drain, and dry the slices first, to get rid of excess moisture. Some cooks like to blanch the vegetables first—dip them into boiling water for a few to 10 minutes, depending on the vegetable, then stop the cooking in cold water, drain, and pat dry.
Put the prepared produce into bags and squeeze out the extra air from the bag. Berries such as raspberries, strawberries, and blueberries require a further step. First, place the berries on a large aluminum baking sheet, separated from each other, and freeze them. Then, transfer the frozen berries into freezer bags, so they remain separate and loose in the bags. If you freeze them directly in the bag, it becomes an unsightly mess. The same process can be used with other products such as okra, delicate green beans, or cherry tomatoes.
Frozen fruits and vegetables will last a good 10 months.
All kinds of preserves—jams, pickles, tomato sauces, whole fruits in syrup—can be canned for long-term, shelf-stable storage, but the process is hot and labor-intensive. Canning requires fresh clean jars with new lids, which you will also have to sterilize and process in boiling water, and lift out of the boiling water with metal tongs. Improperly sterilized jars can create unwanted bacteria and cause canned fruits or vegetables to spoil.
The National Center for Home Food Preservation site has detailed information and safety tips, including a comprehensive “Complete Guide to Home Canning.” This is a superb resource for canning and other forms of food preservation.
Here is a list of supplies you want to have on hand:
- Kitchen twine and scissors
- Clean jars with new, clean lids
- Large rimmed baking sheets
- Freezer bags
- Plastic containers
- Labels, so you can write the date and content on your jars and freezer bags
- A FoodSaver vacuum sealer: This can be used with fresh, dried, or frozen fruits and vegetables, or sauces. Look for bargains online; costs range from $35 to $60. It isn’t needed, however; a tightly closed, good quality freezer bag works just fine.
Agostino von Hassell is based in New York. In addition to corporate consulting, he also writes about food and military and political history. He recently co-authored “Caesar’s Great Success: Sustaining the Roman Army on Campaign.” See also the book’s Facebook page, Julius Caesar’s Recipes, and his website, AgostinoVonHassell.com