How to Maximize the Value of Abundant Fresh Foods: Lessons from a Gardener and CSA Member

One of the pleasures of the summer season is the abundance of fresh foods available. From early summer through the middle of fall, gardens and fields are producing in such impressive abundance that we can scarcely take it all in.

In fact, in all honestly, it’s too much right now. Between our CSA share (which amounts to a basket of vegetables each week) and the abundance of our personal vegetable garden, we’re actually finding that we’re unable to eat all of the fresh items on our table.

If you consider that it’s very easy for us to also find huge produce sales at every local grocery store as well as at the many roadside fruit and vegetable stands that pop up this time of year, it’s easy to see how a family can end up having more produce than they can eat.

You might ask, “isn’t that expensive?” The truth is that it’s really not that expensive. The vegetables from our gardens are very cheap per pound, as is the basket from our CSA (we kept a running tab on it for a year and found the price to be way below a dollar per pound). Roadside stands around here are selling giant ears of sweet corn and many other vegetables for similarly low prices and the local grocery stores seem to be racing to the bottom on prices for fresh produce. Even the farmers markets are in on the act, with large truckloads of vegetables practically waiting for someone to carry them away.

Sure, this won’t hold true in the winter, but for right now, we can get pounds upon pounds of extremely good produce for pennies.

The thing is, even in the face of this abundance of produce, there’s still no reason to be wasteful. The prices won’t always be this low. In the winter, for example, the only option for fresh produce in the area will be imported stuff at the grocery store, which will be quite expensive.

Not only that, it’s wasteful to simply fail to use this stuff, even if it comes to us at a very low price.

Since this is a “problem” that we face most summers, we’ve developed a pretty sizable arsenal of techniques for dealing with the abundance of produce that the summer and early fall months deliver to us. If you find yourself flooded in produce this time of the year, take these strategies to heart.

Swap with Neighbors and Friends

Whenever you have more produce than you will reasonably use, you should consider sharing that extra produce with neighbors and with friends. Ideally, you can do this in a “swapping” fashion, where they give you some of their extra produce in exchange. For example, you might swap half a dozen ears of sweet corn for a dozen tomatoes, or a box of cucumbers for a bowl of green beans.

Another powerful thing to do with your excess produce is to use them for an informal “gift economy” with your friends and neighbors. Just give the excess to those people close to you. Then, the next time you need a small favor from them, receiving it will be trivial.

I’ll give you an example: We live across the street from a couple with children. They also have a garden and (I believe) they are also members of a CSA. About twice a week, my wife and the woman across the street get together for some exercise and some conversation and they often end up swapping or giving each other things.

Unsurprisingly, our flood of summer produce is part of that exchange. Because of that friendship, we have people who keep an eye on our house when we travel and water our plants. They will also watch our pets when we travel, watch our children in an emergency, loan us tools, help us move around heavy stuff, and son on.

Right near the core of all that is simply giving them our excess produce from the garden. It’s a simple gift that grows into so much more.

Make Simple, Storeable Recipes

If you have extra cabbage, make sauerkraut. All you need is a big crock and some salt, as described here. You can also freeze the sauerkraut instead of canning it.

If you have extra tomatoes, onions, and peppers, make salsa. Chop everything up and combine it to your tastes. Add some cilantro, too. You can keep it in a jar in the refrigerator for quite a long time.

If you have extra tomatoes, onions, peppers, basil, and oregano, make pasta sauce. Just puree some of the tomatoes, then add some chopped-up tomatoes, onions, peppers, oregano, and basil, then boil this at a low boil, stirring regularly, until it thickens up. Thicken it even more for pizza sauce. You can store it in the refrigerator for a while, can it, or freeze it in small containers.

If you have extra tomatoes and oregano, make ketchup. Puree the tomatoes, then boil it down into a paste with some chopped-up oregano (or just add dried oregano later). Add two tablespoons of cider vinegar per half cup of paste (and maybe a bit more to taste), then mix in a teaspoon of salt, a teaspoon of cumin, a few hefty dashes of dried pepper, and two teaspoons of mustard powder. Add more of the spices if it’s not flavorful enough. This can be stored for ages in a plastic bottle in the refrigerator.

There are so many simple recipes that you can make with summer produce that work as a part of another meal and can be stored on their own. These four are just the start.

Dry Things Out

If you grow a lot of herbs (as we do), you should strongly consider drying them. Drying herbs is easy – you essentially just lay them flat and heat them up to cause the moisture to leave and then you’re left with dried herbs that will last you for months, all throughout the winter.

This even works well with tomatoes and onions. You can powderize the dried onions later to make onion powder if you’d like, and there are countless uses for dried tomatoes. I like to use them as a pizza topping, myself.

You can use a food dehydrator to do this task, but laying the things you want to dry out on a non-stick baking sheet or a sheet covered with parchment paper and baking them in the oven at 200 F will do the trick.

Once the vegetables are dried, you can store them in your pantry in whatever containers are available, from old pickle jars to empty spice containers. As long as it’s clearly labeled and you can find it, the container will work. Plus, there’s nothing that quite beats the fragrance of herbs that you dried and quickly packaged when you open up that container on a cold winter’s day.

Can Your Extras

Canning excess vegetables in glass jars and storing them in your pantry is a great way to store those vegetables for the future. You can can almost any type of vegetable – in my life, I’ve been involved in the process of canning pickled cucumbers, green beans, whole tomatoes, tomato sauce, salsa, pickled peppers, jams, jellies, and probably a dozen more things that I can’t remember.

The process is pretty straightforward, though there are different variations on the process depending on what exactly you’re canning. This “Canning 101” guide from Real Simple is a great guide to get you started. Mostly, you’ll just need some jars (which are reusable), lids, rings, tools for getting the jars in and out of hot water, and a large pot and/or pressure cooker (depending on what you’re canning). If you want to just try it out in the easiest way possible, this Ball Canning at Home Discovery Kit provides everything you need as long as you have a large pot with which to boil water. You can also expand that kit by merely buying more jars, lids, and rings.

The biggest advantage to home canning, in my eyes, is that you can store the results at room temperature in your pantry. You don’t need a freezer or anything else for the products of home canning. Just label them (I usually just write on the lid with a Sharpie or another magic marker) and store them.

Another advantage is that you can flavor the foods you are canning. You can add a few onion rings, some peppercorns, and a couple garlic cloves to your jar of pickles. You can toss some diced onions into your whole tomatoes. You can make your own homemade salsa or pasta sauce and can it up.

Freeze Your Extras

If you have access to significant freezer space, such as a deep freezer, freezing your extra produce can be a good option as well.

Many vegetables and fruits can be frozen whole. For example, you can simply soak tomatoes in water for a while, then freeze them on a baking sheet. They will become very solid, much like billiard balls, and can be frozen in bags and gently thawed later on.

Fresh produce can also be frozen very well after having been cut up or slightly prepared. Shredded cabbage stores very well, as does diced apples, applesauce, tomato sauce, pasta sauce, and so on.

Another strategy is to use the fresh stuff in preparation of full meals, then freeze those meals. If you make a fresh lasagna using tomatoes and spinach from your garden and you have an abundance of those things, make three or four pans and freeze the extra pans. Pull them out later in the fall when the thought of a slice of lasagna with garden-fresh ingredients sounds amazing.

Almost every food pantry or food bank in the country will happily accept your donations of fresh food and will quickly redistribute them to people who are hungry.

We love doing this on the local level by dropping fresh produce off at our local pantry. Not only does this ensure that the vegetables will get used quickly while they’re still fresh, but we also know that the food will stay in our local community, helping the disadvantaged that live nearby.

Putting some fresh food on a hungry child’s plate is a wonderful way to use the produce that goes above and beyond what you might need.

Make Smoothies

If you find that you’re collecting a lot of extra vegetables and fruits, you’re pretty much begging to turn those things into delicious smoothies.

Personally, I like to mix together a wide variety of things, usually in a 50/50 split between fruits and vegetables (sometimes with a few more vegetables). I’ll sometimes add a bit of ice, a bit of milk, or a squirt of honey, and then I’ll just puree the stuff in our blender.

The end result is a delicious smoothie that will fill up your belly with natural goodness.

If you’ve had too many smoothies already, one strategy is to simply prepare all of the ingredients you’d use to make a couple of smoothies in a freezer container. Label it “smoothie kit” and then pull it out later in the summer or fall or even next spring. Just toss those frozen ingredients in the blender with a splash of milk and a few drops of honey and blend it up.

Turn Edible Scraps Into Stock and Soup Starter

If you have leftovers that are edible, such as the remnants of a bowl of vegetables that you steamed for dinner or the three extra cucumbers that you sliced or the extra head of broccoli that you didn’t need, chop them up into small pieces and combine them all together in a gallon-sized freezer Ziploc bag. Keep that bag in the freezer and keep adding to it until it’s full.

When you have a full bag, it can work great as a soup starter, but what I really like to use it for is for preparing vegetable stock. Just add that bag full of vegetables to a stock pot or to a slow cooker, fill it up with water until you’ve covered the vegetables with at least an inch of water, then turn it on low and let it simmer all day. Add some salt and a handful of peppercorns, too. After several hours, strain the liquid and save it.

That liquid is golden. It works wonderful as the basis for a soup, the liquid ingredient in any casserole you might make, or even as the liquid in a skillet meal. I’ll use it as the liquid in cornbread to make the bread incredibly savory, or even as the liquid in pizza crusts or other kinds of bread. There is nothing that doesn’t get a giant infusion of flavor from vegetable stock.

You can easily freeze this extra stock if you prefer, or you can raise it to a boil and then can it. I tend to find freezing it works much easier, as I’ll put a quart in a freezer container and pop it in the freezer. That’s just about a perfect amount for anything I might want to do with it.

Turn Inedible Scraps Into Compost

What about the pieces that are left over that are inedible (or at least not very tasty at all)? Things like corn cobs, trimmings, and so on?

Those items are perfect for a compost bin. A compost bin is simply a container where you allow organic materials – like plant scraps – to break down so that the material is usable as a fertilizer for future crops. We actually have both a compost barrel and a compost bin in our yard which allows us to process pretty much all of our scraps.

If you don’t have a bin, you can actually compost pretty well in any loosely-lidded container that you can keep outside. Just add your scraps, rotate it regularly, make it moist regularly, and wait until everything inside is kind of mushy and brown. When that happens, you have some of the best fertilizer you can buy for your flowers, garden plants, and other vegetative life on your property.

I do find that chopping up large pieces before you put them in the composter really helps with the speed of composting. Whole corn cobs can take a long time to compost, but if you chop it into small pieces first, it will compost a lot faster.

Save Your Seeds

If you’re careful about the seeds you grow in your own garden – and about the produce you buy – you can save the seeds from those fruits and vegetables and grow them again in the spring, saving you the cost of buying more seeds.

We often buy our seeds from Seed Savers Exchange, which provides non-hybridized seeds. Many of the vegetables you buy at the store have hybridized seeds, which typically means that their seeds won’t grow new plants. Non-hybridized seeds generally will do so, which means that you can grow plants from those seeds.

We often do this with whatever produce is in the greatest abundance. Generally, it involves extracting the seeds from the vegetable and drying them properly. If you’re unsure as to what to do with your specific plant, the information you need is just a Google search away.

Once the seeds are dry, you can store them in ordinary envelopes. Label them with the type, the variety, and the year and you’ll have seeds that you can easily plant the following spring.

Start a Roadside Stand or a Farmers Market

If you’re still flooded in produce… well, that means your garden is working overtime this year. You might want to consider selling the excess at a farmers market or at a roadside stand.

If you have a relatively small amount – less than a truckload, for instance – a farmers market might be the best option. Many farmers markets offer inexpensive spots for sales which you can easily recoup and still make some nice pocket money.

A roadside stand requires some significant setup effort beyond that of a farmers market, but if you have permission and time, almost all of your produce turns into profit.

Both methods are viable ways to turn your excess produce into cash. While this won’t earn a mint for you, it can help you deal with a bumper crop of produce.

Final Thoughts

You never need to waste an ounce of summer produce unless you choose to. There are a ton of options for you to try here and while some may not work for you, most of these strategies will work well for everyone regardless of their situation.

If you’re flooded with produce in the summer months, be smart. Find good ways to put all of that produce to use. If you’re saving it for the winter, look at it as time invested right now to make things easier and less expensive in January.

Just remember, the smarter you are with produce this month, the less you’ll be spending on food this month… and next month… and the month after that. The savings from properly handling a big load of summer produce keeps rolling throughout the year.

Good luck, and may some delicious foods find their way into your pantry, your freezer, your dinner table, and your stomach!

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