Endless Harvest Preserving Peak Produce

Custodian With a dry mop in a hallway

To Enjoy in Every Season

By April Bartel | Posted on 10.14.19

Hope grows in every garden. Planting a veggie patch, even a few pots on a patio or reveling in the abundance of a farm market, satisfies a need to connect with our earthly roots. It’s also a hands-on way to nourish one of our most important relationships, the one we have with food. As the harvest season wanes, opportunity remains to preserve a taste of that bounty. Come February, each bite of rich, garden-ripened tomato or pungent herbs, each spoonful of fruit captured at its peak or tangy pickled veggies is a tangible reminder of promises fulfilled.

So, what about that bumper crop crowding the kitchen counter? Drying or freezing are perhaps the most accessible methods, since they only require everyday equipment—clean water, a fridge and a stove, a pot or pan, and a few storage containers. Freezing is a relatively modern option, beyond the coldest climes. Electric refrigerator/freezers became common in American homes well after World War I, making consistent temperatures possible long-term.

In either case, the National Center for Home Food Preservation recommends blanching most foods first. (That’s boiling or steaming for a few minutes, then plunging into iced water.) Blanching stops enzyme action, helping preserve flavor, color and texture. It also removes surface dirt and organisms. According to the center’s research, microwave “blanching” is not recommended since it doesn’t sufficiently inactivate some enzymes.

Salad-type produce, such as celery, cucumbers, lettuce or radishes, doesn’t freeze well because their texture or flavor declines, but many other foods do just fine. Artichokes, beans, peas, broccoli and cauliflower, carrots and corn hold up to a kiss of cold, as do pumpkin and turnips. Delicate foods, like berries, don’t need blanching.

Homemade applesauce, simmered in a crockpot with cinnamon, freezes well. So does summer’s most elusive flavor: the perfectly ripened tomato. Cut into raw chunks for cooking within the next month (they will soften), juice or thickly stew, then freeze in recipe-ready portions. Then the concentrated sweetness of tomatoes, roasted with olive oil and seasonings before freezing, can brighten a winter meal.

Deborah Rhoades, a Family & Consumer Sciences Educator with the University of Maryland Extension in Frederick County, routinely fields questions about food safety, nutrition and preservation. This Georgia native freezes ready-made peach pies as an indulgent midwinter treat.

Rhoades is one of several local experts who offer insights about making the most of fall’s harvest. She’s creating curriculum for a freezing/ drying class. Her office on Montevue Lane has an idyllic demonstration garden open to the public. It’s a hub for information on home gardens, agriculture, environment, natural resources, food and nutrition, health and wellness, and more. Residents can submit questions online, too.

Denise Morrow and Lalania Knowlton, both Master Gardeners, recently gave a free lecture on har-vesting/drying flowers and herbs at the Walkersville Public Library. The talk included tidbits about choosing the right environment (dry, dark and well-ventilated), the best time to harvest (early morning after dew has evaporated, before the first frost) and herbs that do better frozen (basil, borage, chives, cilantro and mint). They showcased a few library resources, too. Patrons can borrow up to 75 items at a time, perfect for gathering inspiration for next year’s garden.

Edibles should be clean and trimmed. If kitchen space is limited, secure bunches of herbs with string or paperclips and drape them over a hanger until crisp. Air drying takes just a few days and herbs last up to six months.

Herbs can dry in 30 to 60 seconds in a microwave, but Morrow offers a caution. “Set the timer for less than you think you need and keep an eye on things. … You don’t want a fire.”

Likewise, an electric dehydrator or a warm, ventilated oven can speed the process for fruits and vegetables, since room-temperature air drying only works if heat, humidity and air movement are adequate. Mushrooms, peppers and flecks of carrot, parsnip or beet, dried until brittle, can be re-hydrated nicely in soups and stews or ground into powdered seasonings. Store in containers away from dust, sun and heat.

“The high sugar and acid content of fruits make them safe to dry in the sun. Vegetables and meats are not recommended for sun drying,” notes a University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service publication. The agency offers a 12-page downloadable booklet on drying.

Putting Up

Napoleon spurred canning innovation with a reward for a better way to feed an army. Nicholas Appert collected the prize for a new method of sealing glass jars. Today, canning is more apt to conjure images of great-grandma rather than revolutionaries, but nostalgia isn’t always ideal.

Rhoades encourages home canners to follow scientifically tested methods for safe, high-quality results. “People will say, ‘My grandmother did it this way,’ but researchers found that wasn’t really a safe way to do it.” She recommends exploring Extension resources for proven techniques.

Canning via water bath or pressure cooker each have select applications. Donielle Axline, Extension’s Frederick County 4-H Extension Educator, teaches a fall class for adults on both approaches. She says pH dictates best practices. A water bath (boiling jars submerged in water) is fine for acidic foods, such as jellies and salsa.

Pressure canning is advised for less acidic foods, such as potatoes, carrots or corn, “because higher temperatures kill bacteria before sealing the jars.” Always start with sterilized jars, rust-free rings and new lids for each batch.

Axline says, “Canning is a viable option as long as you observe basic kitchen safety.” She credits her mom and granddad as her teachers. Now, she cans with her children. A recent 4-H class introduced 40 kids, half under age 10, to the essentials of canning.

Current pressure canning equipment incorporates technological advances, minimizing the earlier risk of explosion, and the Extension service will check old gear for free. Throw away anything questionable, even commercially canned foods with failed seals. You can’t cook away botulism.

Microbes can be friendly, too. Fermenting, the same process applied to making beer, wine, yogurt and cheeses, is an ancient practice and it’s making a comeback in home kitchens. The approach utilizes naturally occur-ring bacteria or yeast to break down carbohydrates, improve digestibility, enhance flavor and extend usability, ultimately preserving good bacteria (probiotics) for the digestive system.

Rachel Armistead and husband Luke Flessner founded The Sweet Farm in Woodsboro in 2011. Business grew out of their mutual experience as home fermenters and now extends to a variety of flavored sauerkrauts, pickled cukes, dilly beans, garlicy sunchokes, relishes and kim chi, all raw, natural and never heated. Fans can find them at Serendipity, Firestone’s and The Common Market.

Armistead regularly teaches fermentation classes and explains that keeping oxygen out of the mix is key. “Mold is aerobic, meaning it needs oxygen to grow. Fermentation is anerobic.” Foods are submerged in salty brine to avoid contact with oxygen. “It’s a pretty easy process, even for beginners, but it takes a little care and attention.”

Available vacuum-pack systems and specialty lids make the practice even more accessible for home use. Follow recipes precisely to ensure success.

Sure, it’s easy enough to shop at the grocery store, but there is some-thing particularly satisfying about digging into homegrown foods, preserved with loving care. It brightens the bleakest days and feeds a sense of accomplishment. In sharing these treasures, we offer a little piece of ourselves.

Frederick Magazine