Preserving the bounty

| 30 Aug 2012 | 02:58

In a good year, I feel like I am running a food-processing center by the end of the summer, squirreling away the bounty in anticipation of winter’s lean months.

Herbs are perhaps the easiest to preserve. In the early morning, I spray the plants with clean water and by midday the sun has dried the leaves sufficiently for me to spread them in a single layer in shallow baskets. I leave these trays in a warm, ventilated space, away from direct sunlight until the leaves are brittle dry. The car, with its windows partially open, has become my favorite energy-saving method to dry produce ever since I burnt out the motors of two food dehydrators years ago. The only problem I have experienced with this mobile dehydrator was when I braked hard one day, and trays of lima beans scattered. For years thereafter, I discovered beans in the crevices of the car seats and trunk. Raspberry leaves, mint, lemon basil and cinnamon basil dry rapidly and are favorites for tea. Throughout the summer, I snip sprigs of thyme, oregano, rosemary, sage, anise hyssop and winter savory before the plants begin to bloom. At this stage, the leaves contain the most essential oils. Avoid raising herbs in nitrogen rich soil since over-fertilization produces lush vegetation with less potent flavor. In fact, I reduce the amount of water I give my herbs the week before I harvest them in order to concentrate their essence. Fennel, dill, coriander, mustard, celery, and sunflower seeds dry readily and are welcomed additions to the spice rack. Dried celery leaves and thinly sliced stalks are favorites for winter soups, while dandelion roots enhance immune-boosting stocks. Another use for dandelion and chicory roots is to roast them until dark, then grind them for caffeine-free coffee substitutes. Bok choy takes on a distinctly different flavor when dehydrated and is used in southern Chinese cuisine to make a healthful, tasty stock. In fact, drying and salting has traditionally enabled people in hot climates to preserve food without refrigeration. Vegetables preserved this way, including kohlrabi, cabbages, radishes, turnips, mushrooms and squashes, take on an intense flavor and are used sparingly to enrich many recipes in that region. Some herbs lose their flavor when dried. Parsley, for instance, tastes best fresh so I simply pot up a healthy specimen in late fall and place it by a sunny window. To enjoy pesto throughout the cold months, I freeze small containers of pureed basil with garlic and extra virgin olive oil. Whole, thin-walled hot peppers dry well in the car and will retain their color if they are not subjected to strong sunlight. Peppers also freeze beautifully. Simply remove seeds, cut into pieces and place in airtight containers. I often roast hot peppers, removing the charred skin before freezing in single layers. Anaheim and jalapeno peppers frozen this way warm up our winter nights as we indulge in chile relleno. Tomatoes also freeze well. Simply slice in half and slow roast, cut side up on cookie sheets until slightly wrinkled. Cooled and frozen in airtight containers, their sweet, dense flavor rivals sun-dried tomatoes. We savor the taste of these vine-ripened tomatoes throughout the cold months and regard them as one of the greatest rewards for the toil and sweat of summer. In fact, this has become my preferred method for preserving tomatoes. For years I begrudged the hours spent by a hot stove as I canned cases of whole tomatoes, sauce and salsa. Inevitably it would be on the hottest days of the year that the kitchen table would be laden with mountains of ripe fruit, and there was a sense of urgency to process them before they rotted. Freezing makes light of the work. Indeed, one could simply pop whole tomatoes into the freezer, but I find that pre-roasting intensifies the flavor while taking up less space. The drawbacks with canning are that one must be scrupulous throughout the process, and the high heat destroys nutrients. Although tomatoes are considered one of the easiest fruits to can, the resurgence of low-acidic heirloom varieties necessitates the addition of citric acid to be safe. I no longer dehydrate tomatoes since their high water content makes them susceptible to mold. Moreover, any residual moisture could easily ruin the entire batch in storage.

By Gar Wang