These days, it would seem that our worries about storing food for the winter are behind us. You can get tomatoes year round, strawberries in January, and lettuce just about any time you need it. Buying out of season was unheard of only a few decades ago; now we barely give it a thought.
But perhaps we should. If you’ve been buying fresh fruits and vegetables at the farmer’s markets and roadside stands this summer, I can guarantee that the first supermarket-purchased December tomato or January strawberry you bite into will leave A LOT to be desired. No flavor, no color and far fewer nutrients. Then there’s the high cost, not just to us, but to the environment, as well—cost in fossil fuel transport, added pesticides, extra fertilizers—the list goes on. But there’s a way around this.
There’s the gift of abstinence—yes, it can actually be a gift to just wait for the first asparagus spear of spring, the first berry off the vine, the first tomato that is bursting with flavor and juice. I find my appreciation for in-season food reaches celebration level once it appears—the way it used to for people in the past. If this idea appeals to you—eating in season and leaving a smaller carbon footprint–check out Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver, and read the incredible journey her family undertook when they moved back to their Southern Appalachia Farm and vowed to grow their own food and eat local-only for one year. Each page is pure inspiration, with great recipes, environmental facts and green tips we can all use.
On the other hand, there are ways to keep that home-grown, best-of-the-season taste in your kitchen all year. Storing carefully and putting in the effort to freeze and can—like that little ant—will keep you pretty content until March, when the seasons cycle over and spring… well… springs eternal. And how will you know what stores and freezes well? Ask your farmer, the person who did the research, bought the seed, and grew the plants. The following are a few general guidelines to get you started:
Onions, Shallots, Winter Squash, Potatoes and Garlic
In my kitchen, I have a worktable with a slatted bottom shelf where I store sturdy vegetables and fruits. This area keeps them out of direct sunlight, allows airflow and easy access. But this is for short-term use. If I want these vegetables to last through at least the first of the year, I need to be an ant.
Onions, shallots and garlic enjoy dry, cool, well-ventilated, dark areas. For me, that’s a storage room upstairs in my house that is insulated but isn’t really heated. Things won’t freeze in there, but they will stay very cool and dry. (This is also an excellent place to hide Christmas cookies in tight-sealing tins, away from hungry elves.) The garlic, onions and shallots stay spread out in baskets so they have air flow but a soft cushion.
Potatoes need more moisture, but not so much they would get moldy. The best storage place, according to Daydream Farms is in the basement. If your basement is very dry, a plastic tub with a lid will keep them happy. My basement is pretty moist. (Several dehumidifiers have sent in their resignations through the years.) So my potatoes are lightly covered—newspaper works well, but darkness is essential. You will need to judge your own space and decide. Then watch them carefully because you don’t want them turning green or beginning sprout. Those will have to go out to the compost. (BTW—we’ll be talking compost in the future.)
My pumpkins, butternuts and acorns usually end up someplace airy in my basement, where there is some humidity but where they are safe from sunlight and freezing. It’s dark and cool and fairly moist. A shelf or even a drying rack gives them proper ventilation. Keep an eye on them for signs of bacteria and mold, though.
Corn, Berries, Tomatoes, Peppers, Green Beans, Broccoli and Zucchini
More vegetables than you think can be frozen—as long as you have the space in your freezer. My dream is to have a small deepfreeze in the basement, but for now it’s just my standard freezer at the top of my frig. And, of course, I’m competing with the meat.
Over the summer The Family Garden stand at the market kept me supplied with blueberries and corn—and it was very hard not to be a grasshopper and eat every berry and ear of corn I bought. But I used restraint and put some away.
To freeze any berry—raspberries, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, etc—wash them well and let them dry completely on your counter on clean kitchen towels. (Note that raspberries, strawberries and blackberries will stain, so a couple layers of non-bleached, recycled paper towels is a good idea.) Once dry, carefully place the berries on a cookie sheet that is lined with waxed paper. Place in your freezer so the berries freeze separately. Once frozen, dump them in dated freezer bags—now you can remove only as many as you need for your pie, bread or smoothie. The texture of blueberries and cherries holds up well, so I’ve been successful in tossing them thawed in a winter fruit salad, too.
Corn can be frozen on the cob or cut off for easy prep later. Whole cobs take more space, though. The key with corn is thorough cleaning, making sure all the silks are scrubbed away before you freeze. This is best done with a clean toothbrush, a little veggie wash and water. I keep a toothbrush in the kitchen just for this purpose—amazing for removing those silks. Once you’ve scrubbed the ears of corn, let them dry completely on clean towels; then, you can cut off the kernels or leave the ears whole and place in a dated freezer bag.
Tomatoes—who knew! This is a tip I learned last year and immediately started storing them away. Until I can get up my courage for canning, I will be freezing tomatoes for soups, sauces and stews.
In my opinion, cherry tomatoes are the ideal freezing tomato. Just wash well, let dry completely on clean towels and toss into freezer bags; I have not found a need to freeze separately first. I try to put tomatoes away in quantities that work well for recipes—one to two cups per bag. Then, I just add the entire bag into the pot in place of tomato sauce or juice. As we explore winter recipes, I’ll let you know when I’m using these.
I number my bags, since I’m pulling these little cuties in from my own garden day by day. Once a bag is full, I start a new one.
Bell peppers and hot peppers are just as easy to freeze as tomatoes and corn. I wash, dry and toss in the bag. My friend Diana goes an extra step with some of her bell peppers and chops them before freezing to save her time in the kitchen during hectic holidays and family dinners. I find pre-chopping or slicing works really well for my very hot peppers—those Carolina Reapers and Ghost Peppers—since I may not want an entire pepper in my recipe.
It should be noted that peppers and tomatoes won’t work in salads once they have been frozen. However, they are wonderful in any cooked sauce, soup or sauté—I’ve even added frozen peppers to scrambled eggs and quiche or frittata–can’t tell them from fresh.
Green beans and broccoli freeze very well, but they take a couple of extra steps to prepare. Because they both contain a lot of starch that will create an unwanted mealy texture as they continue to break down, you must blanch them first. If you are not familiar with blanching, it will go like this:
- String your green beans and cut up your broccoli into desired-size flowerets. (I also peel and chop the broccoli stems, which are fabulous in soups and sautés.)
- Wash the beans and broccoli thoroughly and set aside.
- Bring a large covered pot of water to rapid boil on the stove.
- Have a large bowl of ice water ready in your kitchen sink.
Carefully add the vegetables to the pot. (Don’t blanch beans and broccoli together because they vary in timing. Do your green beans, then broccoli or vice versa.)
- Cover and return to full boil. For standard to large green beans, blanching time is about three to four minutes. For French fillet or Haricot Verts it is a little less, maybe two to two and a half minutes. For broccoli blanching is three to three and a half minutes. It is better to err on the side of too little blanching than too much. The goal is to arrest the starch so that the vegetables will not continue to break down in the freezer, not cook the vegetables. The fresher the vegetables, the less blanching time, in my opinion.
Immediately pour off the boiling water and strain the vegetables. (Be very careful here; it’s easy to scald your hands. An in-pot strainer is a nice investment for this process.)
- Immerse the vegetables in the ice bath to stop the cooking process; then, strain.
The last step is to line up your vegetables in single, separated layer on a cookie sheet lined with wax paper. Freeze separately so that later on you can take out just what you need, instead of grabbing one big frozen clump. In an hour or two, transfer the frozen vegetables to your dated freezer bag.
Once you’ve blanched your broccoli and green beans, you’ll notice how beautiful their color is. And if you take a taste, you’ll discover how fresh and tender crisp they are. So if you slip into grasshopper mode, you just might forgo the freezing and add them to your dinner menu with a squeeze of fresh lemon, a sprinkle of Himalayan salt (It’s pink and lovely.) and some chopped fresh basil or thyme.
Finally, zucchini—even though you may think you could never, ever, eat another zucchini by summer’s end, trust me, you will. To be honest, I don’t freeze a lot of zucchini because I’m never totally happy with the result, but maybe in your kitchen it will be different. You can freeze it two ways—
You can just wash and dry it and cut it into big chunks to add to soups, sauces and stews. Or, you can wash and dry it to prepare it for winter baking, as follows:
Cut the ends from your clean, dry zucchini and grate the squash into a colander lined with paper towels. I grate my zucchini fairly large. Place the colander over a bowl to catch any liquid and place in the frig for a few hours so that water leaches from the zucchini as much as possible.
Once a few hours have passed (or overnight), remove the colander from the frig and move your grated squash to dry paper towels. Again, wring out as much excess water from the zucchini as you can and then place in a dated freezer bag. Water is the culprit with zucchini; the more you can remove the better.
As you extract the liquid, however, the amount of vegetable matter decreases. So if you are freezing a bag of grated zucchini for a bread recipe that requires a cup and a half, you’ll need a three-cup bag to have enough for your recipe. At least, this has been my experience. Often I’ve needed to re-squeeze to get out that last little bit of water from the thawed zucchini at baking time. There is something quite wonderful about fresh-baked zucchini bread on chilly February morning with a nice cup of herbal tea or fair-trade, organic coffee.
If this post has whetted your appetite for more information on storing and freezing, check out Gardeners Supply Company, an online resource for great information on gardening and harvesting, as well as an online store for gardening and kitchen supplies.
What are your tips for storing and freezing?
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Something I didn’t cover? Ask a question.