Preserving the harvest at its peak extends the pleasure of the season
Photography by Donovan Roberts Witmer
This time of year is filled with abundance. Our gardens are producing like crazy to beat the inevitable frost. Pick-your-own orchards boast trees heavy with tempting fruit. Farm stands are overflowing with the bounty of the harvest.
And it’s impossible to eat it all now. Which means it’s time to put it up for when you need it more: In the dark days of winter, when frozen berries seem like precious jewels and roasted tomatoes hold the shimmering heat of summer intact.
Preserving the harvest when it’s at its peak extends the pleasure of the season.
“Putting up is a way to make sure you can feed yourself well on a daily basis,” says Betsey Gerstein Sterenfeld, the creator and instructor behind Essen, which offers sustainable thinking, cooking classes, and food products (www.breathelivegrow.com). “It’s a way to leverage your time in the kitchen by storing an excess of ingredients when they are at their best.”
Produce in hand, the first decision to make is what you’re going to do with the harvest. Do you want to use those apples to make trail mix, or pies, or chutney? Once you’ve decided what you’d like to make, the means of storing your bounty will follow. You can dry the apples to add to granola, you can chop and freeze into portions perfect for baked desserts, or you can create a condiment that can be canned to dress up future dinners.
“What you’re going to do with the food is a separate decision from the storage technique,” says Sterenfeld. “You can make applesauce, then decide after if you want to can or freeze it depending on where you have space and how much time you have.”
Dorothy Martin of Conestoga, who inevitably takes home top prizes from county fairs and the Pennsylvania State Farm Show for her canned goods, likes to make jellies and jams in the winter, when a warm, steamy kitchen is more welcome.
“I’ll freeze my strawberries right after I pick them, and make juice out of my grapes as soon as they’re ripe; then, later, I’ll defrost them and make jellies to can,” she says. “That’s the joy of having a freezer. I’d hate to make all that jelly when everything is ripe and needs to be taken care of right away, the way my mother had to.”
Easy does it
Using the freezer as a step in the creative process is welcome to Sterenfeld, who preaches ease and pleasure in the kitchen.
“When in doubt, put it in the freezer,” she says. A freezer can be a harried cook’s best friend.
“The key to success of not getting stressed out is remembering you have options – you don’t have to spend all day picking, cleaning, and canning an entire harvest if this doesn’t fit into your lifestyle,” she says. “Think about how putting up small batches of things can fit into your everyday life.”
If a bushel of tomato seconds is on sale at a local farm stand, Sterenfeld doesn’t hesitate to pick it up, make a quick tomato sauce for her family’s dinner, then freeze the rest for winter meals. It’s the same process for applesauce, or for a batch of soup. When local sweet corn hits the farm markets, she’ll cook up a dozen for her family. What doesn’t get consumed immediately is shaved off the ears onto a sheet pan for a flash freeze, then later stored in freezer bags for future dinners.
“I have a saying that ‘you should pay the freezer first,’” she says. “When I’m making dinner, I build that idea in, filling freezer containers before serving the meal. Organization is key. I just set out the freezer masking tape and label the lids of the containers, and then when I’m cleaning up from dinner, I store our future meals.” For Sterenfeld, it’s a way of eating locally all year long.
Try, try again
Like in cooking, experimenting is the key to finding out the best methods of preserving food, and whether your family will eat it.
“Keeping trying, that’s what I have to do,” says Martin, who after 59 years still has her share of failures. “People think it should be perfect, but if they only knew how many times I tried to get a prize-winning jar to look like that, they’d be surprised.”
Where Martin may cook each ingredient of her chow-chow separately to get the most picturesque product, Sterenfeld concentrates on “helping people get over the anxiety of it.”
“I’m all about experimenting,” she says. Sterenfeld’s favorite success: Freezing an overflow of fresh tomatoes whole when her family had to leave for vacation. On her return, as she attempted to make sauce, the happy accident was that the peels came right off. Now in her freezer is an “overwhelming” bag of whole garlic scraps that she didn’t have time to make into pesto. “They might work; they might not, but I find the best thing to do is try.”
Make it your own
Today’s food preservation has expanded from yesterday’s rows of single-ingredient jars, like green beans or cherries lining a cellar shelf, to an extension of kitchen creativity.
Canning’s newest converts are looking to wow friends and family with homemade bruschettas and chutneys, sassy salsas and inventive barbeque sauces to spice up meals or give as gifts.
“Now, when we have access to fresh produce all year long, there are certain things that aren’t worth the bother to freeze or can,” says Martin’s daughter Debra Martin Berkoski. What the mother-daughter team does bother to put up are ingredients they will use later in their prize-winning pie and cake recipes, like sour cherries for their cherry almond angel food cake or heavenly jam for their pineapple upside-down cake.
“We’ve even had our apple pie filling stolen from fairs because people wanted to figure out why we’re always winning the apple pie contests,” chuckles Berkoski.
As an extension of creative cooking, putting up the local bounty when it’s in session yields gourmet ingredients to create memorable dishes.
For Sterenfeld, “the magic happens in the application” of the preserved food. “Instead of thinking of just preserving one ingredient, I like to take our everyday food and make it special.”
The pickled sugar snap peas and rhubarb honey rosemary preserves she created in May, along with the spicy Asian ginger pickled watermelon rind she made in July, give future dishes “an unexpected twist.”
“I like to draw on tradition and put a little modernity in there,” she says.
Preserving your own food also allows you to control the amount of salt and sugar in a dish.
“The quality of the final product is dependent on the quality of the ingredients,” says Sterenfeld, who teaches a technique of creating simple preserves without pectin and with just a bit of sugar. “If you have good quality, you can let the fruit macerate in its own juices.”
When preserving food at home, basic food safety measures should be taken. Wash produce well and use high quality ingredients. Pay attention to the freezer life of foods and pack well to avoid freezer burn. When canning for extended shelf life, consult guides published after 1994 for tested methods to avoid molds, yeasts, bacteria, and enzyme issues. For the basics or to brush up, take a class at your local extension office or cooking school.
- Wondering why your raspberry jam won’t set? What causes soft pickles? How to create a boiling water bath? Your local extension office has the answers. Contact the food preservation specialist with questions and to sign up for classes.
- Your local cooperative extension office offers free information detailing how to preserve a variety of fruits and vegetables. These tips are also available on the Penn State Home Preservation website, http://foodsafety.psu.edu/preserve.html.
- The National Center for Home Food Preservation, www.uga.edu/nchfp, is one of the best sources of safe food preservation methods.
- Recipes from the following books, in editions published only after 1994, have been scientifically tested for safety and quality: Ball Blue Book of Preserving, So Easy to Preserve, Complete Guide to Home Canning, and Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.
- Sterenfeld recommends Janet Chadwick’s book, The Busy Person’s Guide to Preserving Food, as a resource for small batch preserving with the seasons.
- Canning tips, recipes, products and consumer message boards are available on the Ball website, www.freshpreserving.com.
- Other helpful books we like include: The Beginner’s Guide to Preserving Food at Home by Janet Chadwick and Urban Pantry by Amy Pennington. (Find recipes and tips from both online at www.susquehannastyle.com!)
Recipe courtesy: Mother & Daughter, Dorothy Martin & Debra Martin Berkoski
2 medium oranges
6 medium pears
6 medium peaches
6 medium apples
Pinch of baking soda
Sugar equal to amount of fruit (example: if fruit after being crushed and ground equals 4 cups, add 4 cups of sugar)
Grind, unpeeled, the oranges and lemon. Transfer to a large kettle. Add the baking soda. Simmer 10 minutes. Peel, seed, core and grind remaining fruit. Add to the orange/lemon mixture. Add sugar to equal fruit. Boil until thick, about 30 minutes. Does not require pectin. Use fresh or preserve in jelly jars. The Martins like to use on top of pineapple upside down cake (recipe follows).
Pineapple Upside Down Cake with Heavenly Jam
Recipe courtesy: Mother & Daughter, Dorothy Martin & Debra Martin Berkoski
3 cups of sifted cake flour
1 cup of buttermilk
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
½ tsp almond extract
1 cup shortening
6 egg whites
2 cups sugar
1 tsp cream of tartar
6 pineapple rings (fresh or canned)
¼ cup melted butter
8 oz Heavenly Jam (recipe above)
1 cup brown sugar
Combine flour, baking soda and salt. Set aside. Beat together shortening with 1 and 1/3 cup of sugar, beat until light and fluffy. Add the flour mixture alternating with buttermilk, beating well after each time. Blend in the flavoring. Beat the egg whites in a separate bowl until foamy. Add the cream of tartar. Beat until soft peaks form. Beat in remaining 2/3 cup of sugar. Beat until stiff peaks form. Fold into flour mixture. Melt butter and pour into 9 x 13 baking pan. Spread the brown sugar over the butter; lay the pineapple rings on top. Top with a jelly jar of Heavenly Jam. Bake at 350 degrees for 55 to 60 minutes. Remove from the oven. Let cool 5 minutes. Turn upside down and serve.