Though you must keep the garden picked once your vegetables begin to ripen, you don’t need to eat everything you pick immediately. Garden produce harvested at its peak can be preserved for your eating pleasure when this summer is just a pleasant memory.
Preparing Produce for Keeping
Probably the oldest means of preserving food is by drying it, and this is still a popular and effective method. Freezing and canning are also popular, and other methods, such as fermenting cabbage to make sauerkraut or preserving fruit in brandy, are still used for special effects.
When you plan to preserve vegetables, it is important to harvest the best, most unblemished produce and process it as quickly as possible. Whatever method of preservation you choose, clean the vegetables meticulously, cool them immediately, and then proceed with the preservation method you select.
With the exception of some specialty foods, such as pickles and jams, home canning is not recommended for most vegetables because of the potential for contamination in under-processed foods. Given the relative ease and speed with which home-grown vegetables can be frozen, and the quality of the finished product, it is not surprising that most contemporary gardeners and cooks opt for this method of food preservation.
The food you freeze will maintain the same nutritive values it had when fresh. All your crops may be frozen, but not all are best kept this way. Generally, vegetables that you normally cook, freeze well. Those with a high water content that are usually eaten raw do not; for example, carrots, celery, and bell peppers lose their crispness after thawing, but are still suitable for cooking. Handled quickly and with care, ears of corn, baby beans, and young peas are still superb after freezing—and it is easy to do. The key to success is in correct preparation and packaging before the food is put into the freezer. When freezing vegetables, use only very fresh, very young produce.
To prepare vegetables, wash, trim, and cut them up as you would for cooking, and then blanch them. Blanching is an important step; it destroys the enzymes that cause deterioration and helps maintain color, flavor, and vitamins. (See Freezing Vegetables for more information on blanching.) Most frozen vegetables keep well for 9 to 12 months.
Vegetables also can be preserved by drying or dehydrating. This particularly suits households in which soups and stews and backpacking are a way of life. Herbs and pithy vegetables such as carrots, corn, peas, and beans dry readily in a dehydrator. Drying preserves strawberries as well. In recent years many dried foods, such as tomatoes and cherries, have seen more frequent usage, showing up in salads, pasta sauces, soups, and other appetizing concoctions.
After drying, either in the oven or in sunlight, vegetables may be stored as they are or in jars covered with olive oil. It is very satisfying for a cook to have access to the intensely fresh flavor of home-dried herbs and vegetables when the plants are out of season. Properly packaged and stored, dried vegetables keep well for long periods of time and are a welcome adjunct to any pantry.
Another popular use of dried vegetables is to make vegetable powders. Dehydrated onion, garlic, carrots, celery, spinach, and green and red bell peppers make wonderful powders for use in stews, fresh pasta sauces, gravies or soups, or to sprinkle on hot popcorn. The powders can be stored individually, or mixed together to make a vegetable medley. They add a richness and depth of flavor that is otherwise difficult to achieve.