Everyday gardener // Preserving summers bounty

I probably should have thought to write this column earlier this season but the idea finally popped into my head, so I’m going for it now. All summer, boxes of veggies have been coming into our house each week from the CSA we belong to and I’ve struggled to find ways to prepare them all before they go to waste. Now that fall is approaching, that bounty is sure to grow even bigger as everything gets harvested before winter. If you’re in this same boat, or are expecting a bounty from your own garden, I hope this column will come in handy as you look for ways to preserve veggies and herbs.

Of course, canning always comes to mind when you think of preserving fresh produce for winter. But, to be honest, I don’t have it in me to can. I’m just not that ambitious. If you are not as lazy as I am, however, you might want to check out the website of the National Center for Home Food Preservation: (uga.edu/nchfp/). There you’ll find all kinds of information on canning and just about every other preservation method you can think of.

One thing I can do is freeze stuff. Lots of vegetables will keep well in the freezer. If you go this route, you first want to blanch your veggies (the freshest ones you have, nothing bruised or soft). Blanching stops, or at least slows, the enzymes that cause vegetables to lose color and flavor. You can use steam when blanching, but I think it’s easier to use boiling water.

You need to be somewhat precise when blanching because undercooking speeds up the enzymatic process and overcooking leads to more loss of color, vitamins and minerals. The general rule is one gallon of water per pound of vegetables. If you put the veggies in the water and it doesn’t go back to boiling right away, you’ve put too many in at one time.

Cover and start the timer. Once the veggies are done, drain and cool them right away in a bath of icy water to stop the cooking process. (The website I mentioned above offers a comprehensive list of cooking times for lots of different vegetables.) More info can be found at the University of Minnesota Extension Service website: (extension.umn.edu/distribution/nutrition/00053.html). After the chilled vegetables have been drained, you can put them in containers and straight into the freezer. (It helps to pack them in servings rather than in large quantities you won’t be able to use all at once.)

Though herbs can always be dried, they taste better if you freeze them. Don’t wait until the end of the season when your herbs are looking leggy and scraggly. Harvest the freshest herbs and wash them (if you need to) and pat them dry. Next, spread them out on a cookie sheet and put them in the freezer. Once they’ve frozen, you can put them in baggies or containers and just use them whenever you want. (If you’re in a hurry, you can always just put the herbs right into the containers and skip the cookie-sheet step. This step just keeps the leaves separated so the herbs don’t freeze into bulky chunks.)

And, there’s always the ice-cube tray method. For this, you wash and dry your herbs and then put a couple of leaves or a spoonful of chopped leaves into an ice cube tray. Fill the tray about half way with water and freeze. Because the leaves will all float to the top, you’ll want to add more water once they’re part way frozen. When the cubes are frozen solid, pop them into baggies and freeze until you’re ready to grab a few and drop them into soups, stews or chili.

It’s hard to imagine, but the easiest way to preserve tomatoes is to freeze them whole. This trick will no doubt come in handy this year since so many of our tomatoes are likely to ripen at the end of the season because the summer has been so cool. All you have to do is rinse each one, set them on cookie sheets and pop them in the freezer overnight. The next day, you can put them in freezer bags or containers and just take them out whenever you want to use them. You’ll want to remove the skins because they’ll be tough, so once the tomatoes have thawed, run hot tap water over them and the skin should just peel right off.

Meleah Maynard is a Master Gardener and freelance writer. Contact her at meleah@everydaygardener.com.