Enjoying the fruits of our labor
Thursday August 25, 2011
I’ve been doing some sort of garden work every day since March 1, when I planted my first seeds indoor (artichokes, leeks and onions). That’s nearly six months of effort. Of course, most of what I do is fun, at least for me. But now is the best part: eating from the garden every day and putting up food for the winter.
Tomatoes are my favorite vegetable (or fruit, if you want to be technical). Once they start ripening I eat them two, even three meals a day. I love eating them whole like apples, in salads, or eaten between 2 slices of bread. Tomatoes promote good health and give any cooked dish a tastier, juicier flavor. But you know that.
Here is how I avoid becoming a slave to my 40-50 tomato plants: I freeze most of the whole. No need to blanch or skin them. Just put a dozen in a gallon freezer-grade zipper bag and freeze. I like to use a common drinking straw to suck the air out of the zipper bag before sealing it. I insert the straw and zip the bag right up to the straw. Then I suck out the air, watching the bag snuggle up to the tomatoes. Finally I remove the straw and pinch the last bit of zipper closed all at once. No need to buy one of the machines to do the job for you. And a bag without humid summer air in it has less frost on your tomatoes.
Come winter when I need tomatoes for a stew or sauce, I run the tomatoes under hot tap water, rubbing the skin off with my fingers. I let the tomatoes warm a trifle, then chop and use. When fully thawed they have the consistency of canned tomatoes, so I can’t use them in sandwiches, alas.
Any flawed tomatoes I turn into tomato paste after cutting off any bad parts. I use a paring knife to cut out the attachment point, then squeeze out as many of the seeds and as much excess juice as possible. I halve or quarter the tomato, and toss it into the food processor. I blend the tomatoes into a puree, then transfer it to an enameled cast iron pot to slowly simmer. It takes a few hours, but eventually the puree gets thick enough for a spoon to stand up in, which tells me it’s done.
I also use less-than-perfect tomatoes to make sauce, and sometimes use a hot water bath process to can a few jars to store in the pantry. Most sauce I freeze, despite the fact that I like to look up on the shelves of my pantry and see nicely labeled jars all in a row. Canning takes a lot of time and effort, so I prefer freezing.
I also dehydrate tomatoes. I cut cherry tomatoes in half, place them in a food dehydrator cut-side up, and dry for 24 hours. I use a NESCO American Harvester dehydrator, one called the Garden Master Pro. The dehydrator uses 1,000 watts of electricity per hour, but I can stack up 8 trays of tomatoes at once if I have them. Once dry, I could just store them in zipper bags on a shelf, but I usually store them in my freezer as I usually have adequate space. I also dry apples, hot peppers, pears and sometimes garlic for making garlic powder.
Some veggies need to be blanched, or slightly cooked in boiling water, before freezing. The ones I blanch include summer squash, kale, beans, broccoli, corn and Brussels sprouts. The reason for blanching is to stop the enzymes in the vegetables that would continue the ripening or aging process. Beans, if not blanched, get tough and stringy with time. I’ve never read a good explanation why tomatoes don’t seem to age in the freezer without blanching. Peppers don’t need blanching either.
Home-frozen vegetables seem to have a bad name with many gardeners because most books on freezing tell you to blanch longer than I deem necessary. “Putting Food” By by Greene, Hertzberg and Vaughan is considered the bible on how to store foods, but the authors say to blanch green beans in boiling water for 2-4 minutes, depending on size. To me, that’s cooking them, not blanching them. Cooked that long, they’ll be mushy when you eat them, and I want my beans to be crunchy.
To me, the key to blanching is brevity. Start with lots of water at a rolling boil, and don’t add too many veggies at a time. I have a special 2-piece blanching pot — it has an inner pot with drainage holes that fits into the (slightly) bigger water pot. I lower the beans into the boiling water, and then as soon as they change color — turning a lighter green — I pull up the inner pot, allowing the water to drain out. Using the lid as a saucer, I carry the inner pot to the kitchen sink and dump the beans into a full sink of cold water.
The cold water stops the cooking process. Some people add ice to the water, but I just change the water frequently to keep it good and cold. I then drain the beans in a colander, spin dry in my salad spinner, and pat them dry with a cotton tea towel. Then into zipper bags and the freezer.
So I eat from my garden all year round. Yes, it takes some effort to put food in the freezer, but I take great satisfaction in being able to eat my own produce, especially since I know it has never been sprayed with chemicals.
Henry Homeyer cooks and gardens in Cornish Flat, N.H. You may contact him at P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.