Preserving the bounty is on the minds of many of us who are lucky enough to have more vegetables and fruits than we can use this time of year, especially if we’re thrifty-minded or like to know where our produce comes from. If you grew up in a clean-your-plate family like I did, you don’t like to see anything go to waste, whether it’s a few extra fruits or veggies from your garden or CSA share, leftover soup or casserole, or some of the abundant wild fruit or other wild edibles that can be found all over the Island.
I find it hard to be in the kitchen when the weather is nice, so I’m always on the lookout for ways to preserve food that requires a minimum amount of time and effort. Freezing is one of the simplest and least time-consuming ways to preserve food, and it can be as easy as filling a bag or jar with fresh whole vegetables or fruit.
Many years ago I learned about blanching (a short steaming or boiling) of vegetables before freezing them to preserve the color and texture, and prolong shelf life, especially for more starchy veggies. But some vegetables are fine being frozen without that extra step, like whole tomatoes, chopped peppers, onions, leeks, garlic, corn on the cob (or cut off), mushrooms, and herbs frozen whole in a bag or chopped in a jar. And any vegetables can be frozen if texture doesn’t matter, like in soups, stocks, or smoothies — it’ll all be blended in the end.
The old fashioned way to preserve tomatoes was to skin them, chop or grind them, and seal them in glass jars to sterilize in big, awkward canning pots. Once I learned you can put whole fresh tomatoes in a plastic freezer bag, there was no going back. When you’re ready to use them, you can put them in water for a few seconds and the skins will pop off — if you care about skins. They’re easy to chop frozen, and you can use them in soup or chili, cooked with beans, or in sauces. I freeze all sizes of tomatoes, from cherry to full-size, for which I sometimes cut out the stem end and slice in half in order to fit more in a bag.
I learned another easy way to save tomatoes (good for tired harvesters at the end of the day), from gardener Carol Collins (and check out her garden here): oil a cookie sheet (you can line it with parchment paper first), cut cherry or other small tomatoes in half and arrange cut side up, season with salt and pepper (and herbs if you like), put in a very hot oven and after 5 minutes or so, turn the oven off and leave the tomatoes in there overnight. In the morning, you can slide the semi-dehydrated, roasted tomatoes into bags and stick them in the freezer. They’re excellent with pasta or for any tomato needs. But it’s hard to freeze too many of these — they’re so delicious.
When there’s extra of any crop, and enough time, I try to think of ways to make the veggies into something that I can freeze in a ready-to-use form. When the summer squash and zucchini were in full production, I made simple soups by cooking them up with an onion, herbs, and sometimes a potato and carrot, blending it all, and freezing the soup in jars. I have jars of nettle soup, made in the spring, and bags of steamed nettles and dandelion greens for putting in with beans. During tomato season, I make a big pot of tomato sauce once or twice, and freeze it in portion-sized jars. This year, I tried freezing gazpacho, salsa, and tomatillo sauce. I also freeze pesto, either in small jars or in ice cube trays, from which I pop them out and store in bags or jars after the cubes have frozen.
Berries can be frozen by putting them directly into bags or jars, and used later for smoothies, pies, crisps, pancakes, etc. Other fruit like peaches or apples can be cut up and used the same way. You can keep them from freezing in one big clump by spreading them out on trays to freeze and then transferring them to bags for storage.
I freeze apple and pear sauces in jars — same with fruit jams, jellies, and butters. I like to make fruit spreads with less sweetener, which means they don’t store as long as regular products that you can put on your pantry shelf. With freezing, they can easily last a year or longer.
I also make juice from grapes, beach plums, rose hips, apples, or autumn olives. I freeze the juice in small jars, or in ice cube trays. I store the cubes in bags or in jars, eventually adding them to fizzy water, salad dressing, or anytime you need a small amount of fruit juice.
General freezer tips
It’s useful to think about what you like to eat and what you’re likely to eat out of season. Try not to freeze too much of something you don’t really care about, just because you have lots of it. That’s a hard one for me when there’s an abundance of anything, but I’ve gotten better at reining-in my enthusiasm, after years of throwing out things like rhubarb sauce or rosehip butter dated two years earlier.
Anything that fits can be frozen in glass jars, which I try to use in order to avoid plastic. However, with a bag you can suck extra air out with a straw before sealing it, which is good for keeping things frost-free and takes up less room in the freezer. For things that are liquid, you need to leave extra room in the jar for expansion when it freezes. When you go to thaw the food frozen in glass jars, you need to be careful because a fast temperature change can crack the jar. In order to thaw soups or sauces, you can put the jar in a pan of cool or room temperature water for awhile, or put the jar in a pot of cold water on a burner’s lowest setting to heat very slowly.
Using permanent magic marker to label the food with the date and contents on the lid or on masking or duct tape — things start to look alike in the freezer. I try to separate things into categories using labeled boxes keeping different types of foods together.
Once the freezer was accidentally unplugged and everything thawed. Now it has its own outlet, with the plug taped in place. I keep an old down quilt over the freezer to help with the electric bill. Keeping the freezer full helps, too, so I add soda bottles of water as it empties through the winter. If the power goes out, covering the freezer can keep it plenty cold for at least a day or two.
The best part of all the work preserving the harvest is opening a container of something yummy, ready to eat, and enjoying the flavors of summer and fall in the deep of winter.