I picked my first ripe tomato Sunday and turned it into a delicious tomato sandwich. It was exactly the right lunchtime treat.
That first ripe vegetable signals that the harvest is almost underway. That means farmers’ markets and good, garden-fresh eating. With any luck at all, it will be a lot of good eating.
Our family has developed a tradition of a harvest dinner. Everyone brings something they produced themselves and it develops into a very good meal.
With any luck, after enjoying the bounties of harvest garden meals and sharing with friends and neighbors, there will still be produce left over to preserve for winter eating.
Food preservation is something of a tradition around here. It hearkens back to the days of the pioneers although most of us don’t have to rely entirely on what we can put away for the winter.
We do have some advantages over the early settlers of Tooele Valley. They would have dried or salted their food to preserve it. Bottling was a possibility, but not nearly as dependable as today’s methods.
When it comes to vegetables, the easiest way to save them is to freeze them. Bottling is another good option, but it requires considerably more time and effort. As low-acid foods, bottled vegetables must be processed in a pressure canner.
Both canning and freezing have their strengths and weaknesses.
Bottled foods do not require expensive storage equipment and will survive power outages. As long as the bottles stay sealed, the food will be safe to eat. Over time, however, the food value of the produce declines.
Processing methods must be followed meticulously to destroy any microorganisms that could cause spoilage.
The flavor of bottled foods, although still good, will not be the same fresh taste as frozen alternatives.
Freezer foods on the other hand, retain nearly the same flavor as fresh-picked produce. Preparing produce for the freezer is relatively simple. No other method of preservation better retains the natural color, flavor and nutritive value of fresh foods than freezing. It is definitely the most popular method of food preservation.
Properly prepared frozen food keeps fresh flavor and maintains vitamin quality. Preparing foods for the freezer is easy and requires little time.
However, storing any large quantity of frozen foods requires more freezer space than most refrigerator units provide. In addition, they maintain quality better if they are frozen at lower temperatures than in most refrigeration units. This means that a separate freezer is needed. If the power goes out for an extended period, foods will thaw and spoil. They may develop freezer burn if they are not wrapped air-tight or if they are left unused in the freezer for too long.
For optimum flavor and quality follow some simple procedures.
Freezing preserves quality, but it does not improve it. Food does not get better in storage. Start with a top quality product and handle it under sanitary conditions. This is the single most important factor for good results.
In general, bigger is not better when harvesting produce. Beans should be full and crisp, but not bumpy. A zucchini should be about the size of a salad cucumber — not the size of a baseball bat. Beets are ideal when about the size of a golf ball — not a soft ball. Ideal carrot size depends on variety but all are best before they become fat and woody.
For best quality, providing the proper preparation steps have been followed, food will remain tasty for about a year in the freezer. After that, it is still safe to eat but the quality deteriorates. It is a good idea to rotate — put new frozen food at the bottom of the freezer pile with older packages on top for immediate use. Keep a written log and add to it as you add food, taking off items used. Such a list will keep you up to date on what is available and how old it is.
Preserving food by freezing is based on the premise that extreme cold retards growth of microorganisms and slows down enzyme activity. It does not sterilize food or stop enzymes.
Enzymes help produce mature but after harvest they continue to work and cause the vegetables to age and cause other chemical changes. They work gradually, but over time make the food off-color and destroy the fresh flavor if they are not inactivated. Heat deactivates enzymes. For this reason, most vegetables must be blanched before freezing. Fruits do not need a heat treatment before freezing. Sugar takes the place of blanching for fruits.
Vegetables may be frozen without blanching if you plan to use them within a week or two but blanch them for longer storage. The vegetables you froze in August may taste uniformly like alfalfa hay with a similar texture by Christmas if they are not blanched before they are frozen.
Blanching is another name for scalding. Heat vegetables quickly to stop enzyme action but not don’t leave them long enough to cook it.
Depending on the vegetable and the size of the pieces, the vegetables may need only be heated in boiling water for two or three minutes. The larger the pieces, the longer the time required for blanching. Corn on the cob, for example may require six minutes for 1 1/2 inch diameter ears or up to 10 minutes for ears larger than two inches in diameter.
Most vegetables appear somewhat darker and slightly translucent when they are scalded enough. As soon as blanching is complete, put the vegetables immediately into very cold water to stop the cooking process.
Place the vegetable pieces into heavy freezer packaging to prevent chemical changes from exposure to air including loss of color, flavor, and nutrient value and also the absorption of odors. Use air-tight packaging although it does not need to be hermetically sealed. Sealed packages must be moisture and vapor proof, of food quality, with no odor or taste.
Many companies manufacture rigid freezer containers. Canning jars make excellent freezer containers but they may break as they are shuffled in the freezer. Those with slanted, straight sides are better for removing food while still frozen than those that curve in at the top. Plastic freezer boxes are ideal because they stack well and do not break easily.
Freezer quality flexible bags are also excellent for freezing. Foods packaged in sandwich and other light-weight plastic bags tend to dry out and quickly develop freezer burn.
Fill bags and twist the top squeezing out as much extra air as possible. Tie off with twist ties. When using zipper-top bags, squeeze out air and seal. Leave a little space between the food and the tie off wire or zipper top to allow for expansion caused by freezing.
For best results, don’t leave air pockets in package food. Don’t leave headspace for dry pack vegetables. For foods that are liquid at room temperature, allow 1/4 to 1/2 inch headspace for expansion when freezing.
After use, wash rigid containers in hot soapy water and store until ready to use again. Do not re-use plastic bags.
Place the vegetables directly into the freezer. Freeze quickly — place the packages in a single layer where possible in the coldest part of the freezer — on the bottom or over the compressor. Ideally, the temperature inside the freezer should be 0 degrees F. or below to quick freeze food. Set the temperature at -10 or lower to keep the temperature below 0. Put no more unfrozen food into a freezer than will freeze in 24 hours.
Cook frozen vegetables without thawing them first for best flavor and quality.