Preserving the Harvest
THE BIG CHILL
Photos by Tamara Flanagan
For even the most committed locavore, the start of winter can bring a sense of trepidation. Root crops, those stalwarts of winter seasonal eating, are undeniably delicious, but by the time spring comes many people are sick of squash, bored with beets, and just plain tired of turnips. Not to worry! With some advance planning, summer’s bounty, and the variety it brings to your table, can be preserved in your freezer.
The time to start preparing a well-stocked freezer is now, when gardens and farmers’ markets are brimming with produce. Prices are reasonable and quality is at its peak. Great candidates for freezing include greens—such as spinach, chard, and kale—peas, beans, peppers, and corn. However, not every veggie is freezer friendly; because of their high water content cucumbers, eggplant, and zucchini do not freeze well.
Freezing vegetables involves a few simple steps:
PREPARE. Prepare. Prepare. Thoroughly wash and prep the food. Remove the tough stems from kale, chard, and spinach, break the ends off beans, and remove corn kernels from the cob. I like to freeze foods prepped to the size in which I will use them. For example, chop green beans and peppers to the size used in soups or fajitas.
BLANCH. Blanch. Blanch. Vegetables contain enzymes that will cause them to discolor and turn soggy when they are frozen and thawed. Blanching the veggies before freezing will deactivate the enzymes and preserve quality. To blanch, simply add the veggies to a large pot of boiling, salted water. Blanching times vary from one minute for tender greens to four minutes for corn kernels. See The National Center for Home Food Preservation’s excellent website (http://nchfp.uga.edu/how/freeze/blanching.html), which details blanching times for a wide variety of vegetables. After blanching the vegetables, immediately plunge them into a bowl of ice water and keep them submerged for the same number of minutes that they were blanched.
DRY & FREEZE. Dry & Freeze. Dry and Freeze. After thoroughly drying the veggies, arrange them in a single layer on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Place the pan in the freezer until the vegetables are completely frozen, which usually takes a few hours. I find it easiest to use the frozen veggies when I store them in two-cup portions in Ziploc freezer bags, which I label and date. Before sealing, remove as much air as possible by sealing the bag until it is almost shut, inserting a straw, and sucking out the air. If you intend to freeze a lot of food, a food vacuum sealer is a wise investment. To ensure none of the veggies get lost in the recesses of my freezer, I keep a whiteboard nearby with a list of its contents. When I take out a bag of green beans, I simply erase it from the list.
THAW. Thaw. Thaw. According to Cooks Illustrated magazine, one of my most trusted kitchen resources, when using a moist-heat cooking method, such as steaming or boiling, the vegetables can be used without thawing. This also holds true when adding frozen veggies to soups or stews. When using these cooking methods, frozen veggies will cook in half the time of fresh vegetables. When using dry heat cooking methods, such as stir-frying or sautéing, the folks at Cooks Illustrated found that partially thawing the frozen veggies resulted in optimal taste and texture. They recommend thawing a bag of frozen vegetables in the refrigerator for four hours or submersing the bag in cold water for 15-20 minutes.
Freezing vegetables at home is an easy way to preserve locally grown food. But, in our already busy lives, is this extra step worth it? Why bother when grocery store freezers offer the same items, often organic?
For me, all the reasons I eat local—superior taste, nutrition, supporting local farmers, and preserving the environment—come into play. But the most important reason is that I feel more comfortable knowing where my food comes from. While the organic label offers me some assurance, unfortunately, it is not the panacea I once believed it to be. I have learned to look beyond the organic label to understand where food is grown. Some vegetables, including organics, are grown halfway around the world. On more than one occasion, and much to my dismay, I have flipped over a bag of frozen produce only to see the words Product of Turkey or Product of China stamped on the package. All the quality control checks in the world won’t help me be as comfortable with food grown half a world away as I am with food grown in my own garden or by a local farmer I have come to know and trust.
And, so, with just a bit of effort over the course of the summer, come October, my freezer will be bursting with bags of frozen veggies.
What a delicious reminder of summer’s bounty!
When the farmers’ markets are brimming with produce,
freezes plenty of fruits and vegetables. The effort is minimal and the reward is sweet—a taste of summer during the coldest days of winter.
Photos by Michael Hart