Saving summer

Where to start with preserving foods

Thwop. It’s the sound that is the only barrier between you and summer in the middle of a snowstorm.

Thwop. It’s the sound that is the difference between eating potatoes for the third night in a row and remembering what fresh-off-the-vine tomato tastes like.

Thwop. It’s the sound that captures a moment — in the kitchen, windows open, maybe even sweating a little — a sweet memory during the time of year you put on three layers to get the mail.

Pulling off a lid to a jar of locally grown tomatoes, preserved at their peak, is an experience locavores relish in the winter when backyard gardens are covered in snow. A little work now, when the harvest is starting to peak, supplies delicious gifts in the winter. While canning is the first method of preserving that usually comes to mind, it’s not the only option. Freezing, drying, and fermenting can also help stretch the summer’s bounty throughout the year.

Planning for canning
For Debra Kam, canning is the most rewarding — and most intimidating — method of food preservation. Kam, who lives in Kittery, is a master food preserver with the Maine Cooperative Extension. The program, which is similar to a master gardener program, is one of only a handful in the U.S. She also writes the blog “Diary of a Tomato,” which includes information about food preservation.

“For me, as a cooking staple, tomatoes are like gold in the middle of winter.”
— Debra Kam  

According to Kam, canning is the best method for preserving the most popular of summer’s crops: tomatoes. “For me, as a cooking staple, tomatoes are like gold in the middle of winter,” she said.

They can be used in soups, stews, and sauces. And some extra free time opens the possibility for canning tomato paste or ketchup, two time-consuming, but rewarding, kitchen staples.

“It’s one of those things you never ever share with anybody. If anybody shares their ketchup with you, you know they really like you,” Kam said.

Many first-time canners turn back after confronting information about U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines and bacteria, not to mention the intimidating boxes of canning equipment sold in stores.

Relax: you don’t need all of that equipment, Kam said. If you don’t have space for a canning pot, a stockpot will do. Tools like funnels and jar lifters aren’t necessary either, though they make the process easier. Just make sure to use jars that are approved for canning (re-used mayonnaise jars won’t do), along with clean rings with no rust and new lids. Also, be sure to put something on the bottom of the pot to keep the jars from knocking around and breaking. Canning rings, bound together side by side with rubber bands, work well.

Avoid shortcuts on safety guidelines. That means learning the difference between pressure canning and water bath canning. The difference boils down to this: high-acid foods, like fruits and most pickles, can be canned in a water bath. Low-acid foods, like most vegetables, must go in a pressure canner. Tomatoes, while fairly acidic on their own, still need a little lemon juice — one tablespoon for a pint jar, two tablespoons for a quart.

Feeling intimidated? Start with pickles or blueberry jam, Kam said. Both are high in acid and great for beginner canners.

Ice is nice
For beginners, freezing food is a good place to start. “People always think about preserving as canning. Freezing is really the best way to preserve things,” Kam said.

“Nothing preserves the freshness of the fruit like freezing.” — Debra Kam 

Almost everything can go in the freezer, Kam said, and the process is simple. Tomatoes only need to be cored. When defrosted under hot warm water, the skin slips right off. Other things, like corn (take it off the cob) and green beans, only need a quick blanch.

The best thing to freeze, according to Kam, is fruit. “Nothing preserves the freshness of the fruit like freezing,” Kam said. “I have been amazed at the stuff I have pulled out of the freezer.”

Now is the perfect time to freeze freshly picked blueberries, something Kam said she is doing this month. She recommends sprinkling the fruit with sugar to maintain the color and freshness.

Kelsey MacDonald, a University of New Hampshire student studying nutrition and a farmhand at Heron Pond Farm in Hampton, goes one step further. “I shred zucchini and make zucchini bread and muffins and freeze that to have a quick snack,” MacDonald said.

Get dry
Drying foods can be even simpler than freezing. “Right now drying herbs is perfect,” Kam said. “This is the weather to be drying herbs. It’s dry and the herbs are in full (bloom).”

All you need is a paper bag and some time. Kam recommends bundling the herbs and putting them in a paper bag to hang upside down. In addition to protecting the herbs from light, the bag catches seeds that can be used in next year’s garden. If you want to go one step further, a dehydrator or the oven can turn zucchini or kale into chips. Even tomatoes can be dehydrated and used later in salads or pasta.

A fine brine
Fermenting is one of the oldest methods of preservation, but has only recently come back into vogue. It works like this: your fruit or vegetable of choice is mixed with either salt or whey (typically from yogurt). This is mixed with a brine and left to sit while the bacteria go to work. Kimchi and sauerkraut are great places to start fermenting, according to Kam.

“I love having a hearty winter salad with fermented veggies. I just crave that.”
— Jaimee Rudman

Jaimee Rudman, a working mom of two in Lee, said fermenting is her favorite way to preserve her overflowing garden for the winter. She makes kimchi, but added that fermenting goes far beyond cabbage.

“I love having a hearty winter salad with fermented veggies.” Rudman said. “I just crave that. Along with a nice vegetable soup or a bean and vegetable soup, it is just as nourishing as it could be.”

One of her pantry staples is a mixture of diced carrots and fresh ginger that she ferments and then adds to pretty much everything: salads, burgers, sandwiches. Fermenting also goes beyond vegetables.

“I do a great strawberry and rhubarb compote and ferment that down,” Rudman said. “It’s just so good over ice cream.”

For each of these preservation methods, the important thing is to find what works for you. And, according to Kam, don’t let Yankee practicality and an urge to prepare for winter take over too much.

“Preserve what you like to eat,” she said, “And remember to enjoy what’s in season now.”