Californians just might have something to lord over dwellers of the Rocky Mountains: year-round farmers’ markets. Fresh produce, abundantly displayed in colorful rows, lines the stalls from January to December. It’s far easier to “eat local” when the local flavors are so readily available at any time of the year.
For those of us living, well, anywhere else, autumn brings not only cooler temperatures and shorter days, but the knowledge that farmers’ market season is drawing to a sad close. Crates are packed up, stalls are dismantled and buyers find themselves trying to snatch up the last zucchinis before the person next to them. Sometimes elbows are thrown. Things can get ugly.
The farming community braces for a cold, long winter leaving those of us with the desire to eat fresh, local produce frowning in concern and feeling desperate. Fortunately, though, with just a little bit of forethought and some planning, winter need not be a time to miss out on the labors of the farmers around Boulder. It’s not that difficult to take advantage of local produce year round with some creative preservation options. Canning, pickling, cold storage, drying and freezing ensure fresh farm-to-table vegetables year round in spite of the snow-covered terrain outside the window.
CANNING: Canning is perhaps the most labor intensive of the food preservation practices. In the canning process, foods are placed in jars or cans and then heated to a temperature high enough to destroy bacteria and deactivate enzymes in the plants. As the jar cools, it creates a vacuum seal under the lid, locking out dangerous bacteria. Generally, there are two safe ways to can. For acidic foods, such as fruits (yes, this includes tomatoes) and cucumbers, a water bath method, in which the jars are submerged in boiling water, can be used safely. For vegetables, utilizing a specialized pressure canner is recommended. Look around for used ones, as new pressure canners can be quite expensive.
Canned foods are convenient and have a long shelf life. But the risk of botulism from improper canning techniques is a danger; and the foods lose that farm-fresh flavor. Grandma’s jar of canned beans in the pantry will never taste as good as those picked directly off the vine.
PICKLING: There are four common types of pickling: quick, vinegar-brined, salt-brined and fermented. Certain fruits and vegetables lend themselves more favorably to one method over another, so make sure to research the methods thoroughly, especially for fruits, as they often do not taste good soaked in salt or vinegar.
The basics of the pickling methods involve soaking food in an acidic solution. The acid is high enough that the risk of bacterial growth is much lower than in traditional canning methods. The fermentation method has the added benefit of providing a source of ‘good’ bacteria to the prepared food, important for healthy guts. Fermenting can even increase nutritional value by both adding nutrients and by breaking down difficult to digest nutrients into more readily available forms. But, while pickling, like canning, increases a food’s shelf life, the fruits and vegetables will be pickled, and will taste as such. There’s a reason a pickled cucumber is no longer called a cucumber. They don’t exactly taste the same.
COLD STORAGE: Root cellars often call to mind the days of Little House on the Prairie, but for good reason. In colder climates, such as our Rocky Mountain locale, locating a suitable area for cellaring requires very little imagination. The key to cold storage is creating a space with suitable humidity, light conditions, air flow and temperature. This can be a section of the basement, a pit dug especially for this purpose, or an elaborate separate structure. For best practices, a dark, humid room with temperatures just above freezing will be best for preserving food for several months.
Root vegetables are the obvious choices for cellaring, but even pears, melons, apples and tomatoes can be cellared safely. Some vegetables, such as squashes, will require curing beforehand. As with all food preservation methods make sure to investigate additional preparation techniques to ensure high quality, long-lasting and safe fare.
DRYING: Drying foods has been practiced around the world for thousands of years and is perhaps one of the easiest options for preparing fresh produce for storage. There is generally very little preparation involved, and although the textures of the plants will be in no way similar to fresh, the flavors and nutrients are preserved rather well. Foods may be dried in the oven, in a dehydrator or even under the sun.
Dried foods can be stored in the freezer or in air tight containers at room temperature. Often lemon juice is added to fruits prior to drying in order to prevent discoloration and spoilage. And, when in a pinch for some fresh, plump apricots, for example, their dried counterparts can be pulled from the freezer and soaked in water, regaining their normal constitution quite easily.
FREEZING: Like drying, very little preparation is required to freeze fruits and vegetables. Along with drying, freezing is perhaps the best method for preserving flavor. And compared to dried foods, texture is better preserved in the freezing process. Vegetables will typically require blanching before tossing them in the freezer. Blanching is a quick, easy process in which veggies are dropped into boiling water for a short amount of time and then cooled quickly in ice water before drying and then storing in air tight bags. Fruits can often simply be frozen directly, or after adding lemon juice to preserve color.
Freezing, with its lack of preparation, work and then hassle over regulating temperature and humidity is the preferred choice in storing local harvests through the winter months. Nothing beats savoring raspberries and peaches in the middle of winter. And knowing they were grown locally adds to the enjoyment!
Do the research into the different methods and figure out the best techniques for each fruit or vegetable, along with your storage limitations and needs. Start preserving the produce as early as possible — plan a weekend for it, and then sit back and gaze at the stockpile of pickled radishes, canned tomatoes, dried strawberries, fresh pumpkins and frozen carrots sure to satisfy those mid-winter cravings for farm fresh flavors.