Freezing, drying, pickling

With hard work and good weather this month should see your garden producing food much faster than you can eat it. Much of this surplus will go over very rapidly and become unusable. Worse letting it do go over may lose further harvestable crops from the same plants such as courgettes where they must be picked clean. It is neighbourly to give your surplus away -but it is also provident to store some, or all, away for future needs. And as you have to pick it anyway then better you reap the benefit.

A few crops will just keep anyway in the ground for a while, beetroot and carrots will get bigger and still be fine. But radish and turnips will get hot and fierce and if not used are best composted. Though leave a few good radishes to go to flower as their young seed pods are great in salads. Some hearting cabbage will stand weeks, but cauliflowers and calabrese can go over quickly in a week or so and need to be used or stored. (The cauli’s curd turns yellow in the sun so break a leaf or two and bend them over covering the curd so it will stay whiter while it matures.) But the courgettes, the tomatoes, the peas and the beans all need to be picked to help encourage more and before they go over. Then what do you do? I dealt with the fruit options of jamming, juicing, fruit leather and so on in Kitchen garden August 2003 but you can only eat so much jam, what about alternatives?

Freezing is the obvious answer but few of us have a deep freezer capable of preserving much in total. Even a big freezer will still have too little space to store such as a years supply of potato chips or whatever and all your harvest. You have to be ruthless, especially as it takes time and effort to prepare the stuff to be frozen.

First of all clear out the old and unusable and make space for the new. Then do not freeze anything already gone over. If it is bad already it will hardly get better after the process! Only freeze the best at it’s prime, though blemishes don’t count. Most vegetables have to be blanched; that is boiled for a few minutes then chilled, drained and frozen. This is done to disrupt their cells so they keep better. Freeze them on open trays then they are easily broken up to be packed once frozen. Of course you can just put them all in a freezer bag or box and freeze them like that if you want them as one block later. But for peas, beans, corn, cauliflower florets, currants, berries and sliced fruit and so on it really is best to freeze them loose first. And pack them in indelibly boldly labeled containers or you will never find them.

Some crops are efficient to freeze if tiresome to grow or in preparation such as petit pois which take little space in the freezer compared to the garden or for their value. French beans likewise. But corn on the cob takes work or is space consuming. Rather than freeze whole blanched cobs better to boil and strip the kernels off and pack them for adding to winter soups and so on or too much of your space will be taken up. On the other hand tomatoes can be frozen whole unblanched then popped in freezer bags to fill odd corners. When you want them pop them in hot water for a few seconds and the skins will slip off easily before the fruit can defrost. This trick can be done with many fruits to get rid of their skins.

Most fruits do not need the blanching required by vegetables and can be frozen on trays and packed later. The stone fruits such as apricots, peaches and plums need their stones removing as these can give an almond taint to the fruit, anyway it saves some space. Even more space is saved if you reduce the fruit to a puree and freeze that in portions. Or as juice to drink or make squashes with later, especially good for this are the currants. I find blackcurrants and redcurrants make a better flavoured squash than the former on their own. Cherry and white currant is another good one and the traditional raspberry and redcurrant is only beaten by strawberry and gooseberry. All these need a lot of sugar to make the frozen juice into a squash but one juice can be had neat. Early apples never keep and go pappy but they can be squeezed to make a delicious juice. This freezes easily in plastic bottles for use the rest of the year. Or if fermented with white wine yeast makes a superb apple wine but that’s another story. (KG Sept 03).

Or very popular is pureeing the fruits with sugar; ie turning surplus fruit into sorbets and fruit ices, particularly raspberries –The problem then is these do not store for long as they get eaten too quickly.

Oh and one tip- when I have asked my friends what fruit, and named dozens of choices, they would like from my freezer for their dessert they have invariably chosen strawberries. So freeze more of these than everything else, it doe not matter they go to pulp, it is very tasty pulp. And when it comes to serving – partly defrost them by coating them, still frozen, in cream and sugar, just beforehand, then eat them partly frozen. (Personally I love to nibble frozen apricots and blueberries)

Fruits and vegetables generally freeze well but not most leafy ones such as cabbage and lettuce of course though spinach is excellent value as about ten rows will pack down to a small box. Herbs are easy to freeze and retain their flavour if they are in really well sealed containers, if not everything in the freezer can acquire ‘herby’ overtones. Herbs can be chopped and frozen in ice cubes for convenience and this also stops them drying out. The same trick can be used to make stock cubes of boiled down vegetables, ‘not pretty enough for the table but full of goodness’, for winter soups and stews.

Once you have a freezer you probably prepare and freeze already cooked meals for later use. These need much the same care as herbs to keep such strong smelling items sealed in tight containers or other items may pick up a taint. Garlic and fenugreek are especially naughty. Rather than make a finished ratatouille and freeze that instead make a base of cooked chopped- tomatoes, courgetttes, peppers, aubergines and so on and freeze that to later combine with the onions and garlic which can be stored fresh anyway.

It is possible to cook and freeze most vegetables but unless it really is your favourite it may not be economic. I adore asparagus but it takes a lot of space to store a few meals and is just not worth it. Especially as the texture is never as good after, and it costs serious money, whereas many crops can be stored for free if they are dried.

Of course almost all the fruits and vegetables can be dried though it is not always so easy to make them usable again. Peas and bean dry on the vines only too simply and store for years if kept cool and dry though need soaking overnight at least and even then are somewhat tough compared to fresh. But what a lot of gain for little effort. Almost all pulses can be dried the same, runner bean seeds make interesting aditions to winter casseroles once well cooked. Onion rings dry easily on strings and are then handy for soup and stews. Dried courgettes and cucumbers are almost pointless but can be treated the same, if you have a use for them. Indeed most dried vegetables are best used for slow cooked soups and stews and similar dishes once rehydrated as they benefit from the further softening. Fruits such as apricots can be halved and dried in a warm drying place such as over a range in a week or so and eat deliciously. Apples, peaches and pears dry fairly well and are good value winter snacks. My favourite is the Asian pear Kumoi which when dried is scrumptious.

Of course don’t forget to try drying grapes if you have a surplus; it’s hard to make them seedless except by hand but then your own hand squeezed raisins and sultanas are a treat. You can of course grow seedless varieties, and finer flavoured sorts; Muscat Hamburg grapes make divine Muscat raisins. I find Marechal Joffre and Leon Millot do pretty well as currants though they have small seeds. Incidentally the Russian varieties Tereshkova and Gagarin have quite peppery seeds some might enjoy.

However without a proper drier it is hard to preserve great quantities and for some such as the vegetables above there seems no point. But for these there is always pickling.

Pickling is preventing the food rotting by adding sufficient salt, sugar and vinegar to kill anything that tries. Our ancestors used to pickle far more than we and perhaps our desire for a low salt diet adds to the swing away from pickles but they are not all unhealthy. Removing some of the excess water first by salting and bringing does not need make the food salty if it is washed before pickling. Indeed what could be better for you than nearly raw pieces of vegetable such as pickled onions or gherkins.

They are ecologically efficient too. It is hard to get food to dry without artificial heat and it takes a lot of energy to keep it in a freezer but popped under vinegar and many vegetables keep really well with little other preparation. Beetroot pickled in vinegar is legendary as an accompaniment to most salads and cold meat dishes. Where would the beefburger be without the slice of dill pickle.? And where would a cheese or ham sandwich be without piccalilli- though this is one of the hardest pickles to make as so many different ingredients need to be separately grown, prepared and all ready together to be fused in that sweet mustard and vinegar sauce. But the satisfaction when you’ve got it right with everything home grown is great.

The pickle in which almost anything surplus can be included is chutney; which in my families tradition is effectively curry flavoured vegetable jam with vinegar in it. Again it is the salt, sugar and vinegar doing the preserving, the curry is but a flavouring though the spices must have some action. The vegetables are basically immersed in such a strong solution nothing can rot them and the curry gives the mix a flavour. Or with the addition of tamarind paste instead of curry powder you can have the brown sauce type pickles, or with mustard the piccalilli.

A ketchup/catsup tomato sauce as we all know it is very easy to make being no more than the same pickling ingredients with almost nothing else but tomatoes, almost a third sugar this really should be called tomato jam! Mind you true tomato jam made with green fruits, lemons and sugar is very very good. But that’s a preserve of autumn.