Preserving the Value of Food

A few weeks ago, I put out a call on Twitter and on Facebook for detailed posts that people would like to see. I got enough great responses that I’m going to fill the entire month of July – one post per day – addressing these ideas.

On Facebook, Emily requested to know more about “Meals from the garden, and ways of buying up food when it’s in season and preserving it.”

I’m going to focus on the second half of her request with this post, but I’ll just first mention that there are a lot of recipes out there that utilize the produce from a garden if you just look a bit. A great place to start is a vegetarian cookbook, like Mark Bittman’s wonderful How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, which occupies a spot on our “frequently used” cookbook shelf right in our kitchen (with the requisite stains and spots that such heavily-used cookbooks acquire). I often write about dishes in my weekly food posts that use ingredients right from our garden. If you’re looking for recipes that are almost entirely from the garden, take a look at my favorite all-fresh-vegetable dish, ratatouille.

In the second half of her suggestion, Emily hits upon a very good frugal idea: “buying up food when it’s in season and preserving it.” This strategy can work very, very well if you’re willing to invest a little time into it or, even better, have some freezer space to devote to the task.

Finding Produce to Preserve
There really are only three ways in which I acquire enough produce in abundance to wish to preserve it. I either hit a fresh produce sale, I plant a particular vegetable in abundance in my garden, or I enter into some sort of barter with a friend or neighbor.

Produce sales that I hit hard enough to come up with enough produce to preserve are fairly rare – and I very rarely find them at the grocery store. Instead, I tend to find them privately, buying the produce from people who are selling them from the back of their truck along the side of the road. If I think the price on their sign is low, I’ll stop and lowball them even further with an offer for a lot of their produce at a very low unit price. Very rarely am I turned down, particularly on a hot day when the person would rather not be sitting out there in the heat. I’ve purchased 20 pounds of tomatoes for $4 and several dozen ears of sweet corn for $5 this way in the past year alone. You simply have to be selective and patient. Many roadside stands are run by professional operators who won’t bargain. What you’re looking for are people who have a garden that ended up turning out too many vegetables for them to deal with, where they’re almost happy to get rid of the excess.

Bartering is a great method among neighbors. Several of our neighbors garden and, often, they wind up with a big abundance of some crop or another. We’ll often enter into arrangements such as a “summer vacation swap,” where we allow each other to pick our gardens clean while we’re gone on vacation (as long as they leave the unripe stuff behind). We’ll also often indirectly swap our excess as we pick it, often in the form of just handing extra produce to the neighbor as we’re picking it if we happen to see them nearby.

Of course, a big key to that type of bartering is having your own vegetable garden. I wrote a low-cost food garden guide earlier this month which should start you off nicely. There’s nothing wrong with just planting one or two vegetables that you really love in the garden with the intent of saving the excess for the future.

Produce – For the Future!
You have an abundance of cheap produce. Now what? Now come options for preserving the produce.

The first thing many people think of when it comes to preserving food is canning. It can work very well, but it can also be very labor-intensive. Canning simply refers to the process of saving the produce you wish to save inside sealed glass jars until you’re ready to eat them. Canned produce can usually keep for a few years, though it’s usually best to eat it in the first nine months or so.

However, that’s only one option among many.

Dehydration can be an option. This works very well for things such as herbs, as dried herbs will last for up to a year, take up little space, and are very convenient for cooking use. The process is usually quite simple and is easily found for whatever herb you wish to dry. I’ve also had success drying tomatoes for future use, preserving them in oil for a few months.

My preferred method of produce preservation, however, is freezing. Not only do we freeze whole produce (if you soak a tomato in water and then freeze it, you can have pretty good fresh tomatoes in the middle of the winter), we also freeze nearly-prepared produce as well, such as corn already trimmed from the cob. We also freeze processed produce, such as tomato juice and salsa.

For whole produce, we typically trim the vegetables a bit, soak them in water for a while, then freeze them on cookie sheets in our freezer. Once frozen solid, we remove any obvious frost from the outside, put the items into labeled containers (such as Ziploc bags or reusable freezer containers), and pop them back in the freezer until use. For other items, we often just cool it down to just below freezing, put it in a freezer-safe container, and store it until we’re ready to use it.

In our freezer, you’ll find lots of frozen vegetables (even now, in summer, we have a few things left from last summer), frozen vegetable stock, and a few containers of frozen pasta sauce made from the products of last fall’s harvest. In each case, we simply prepared what we wanted, soaked the whole vegetables we wanted to save in water, froze any large non-liquid pieces first, then just put the items we wanted to freeze into freezer-safe labeled containers.

Whenever we want to use them, we just pull them out of the freezer and leave them in the refrigerator for 24 hours or use a microwave’s defrosting mode. It’s as easy as can be.

I can speak from personal experience having tremendous success freezing whole tomatoes, sweet corn cut from the cob, sweet corn still on the cob, asparagus, tomato sauce, vegetable stock, broccoli, and radishes, all within the last few years and all coming out of the freezer quite delicious.

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