Thursday, July 03, 2008

Preserving the Seasons: July, Week 1

When July 1st rolls around, I always feel like the summer is halfway over, thanks to my slavish adherence to the academic year. Never mind that summer didn't officially start until just two weeks ago: for me, half of that blissful ease of summer is already gone.

I don't really know why I still cling to that outlook, though. The more I devote myself to eating local foods in season and the more I spend my Saturday mornings wandering around the farmers' market, the more I realize that really, we've only just begun the harvest season, and it's going to last a good while longer.

I'm sure I'd feel differently if I lived according to a farmer's schedule. July is the time for the first wave of harvest to give way to the second -- when the cool-weather leafy greens start to disappear and the vining and twining vegetables come into their colorful ripeness. (Even in local pastures, the first crop of hay is making room for the next.)

And as the weather warms up -- and it will, make no mistake! -- not only will more crops be harvested and brought to market, but I'll be buying more and more produce and taking it home to preserve, thus heating up the kitchen even further in the process.

July (and August) is a difficult month for food preservation. When the thermometer rises above 90 -- and it will -- the last thing any sane person would want to do is to stand over a boiling-water canner, loading jars of hot jam or pickles (often made while standing over yet another hot pot), and getting a face full of scorching steam. (Not everyone has the wit to plant their canning vegetables late so as to postpone all this hot work.) It's sweaty, back-straining, tedious work, and it's not the sort of thing most people want to do when the muggy heat outside saps their energy.

Heaven help me, I love it.

No, I'm not crazy about the heat and the sweat and the aching back. But it seems to me a fairly reasonable amount of work in return for easy-to-prepare meals in the winter (not to
mention a cold shower immediately following the work).

And since I tend to go waaaaay overboard on buying fresh local produce at this time of year, I really do have to make the effort to preserve a large percentage of it for later.

So I break up the work: some things get a quick blanching and then get popped into the freezer, a few fruits get made into jam, several things get dried, and the first pickles start lining the shelves. And in between batches of one thing or another, I drink lots of cold water, iced tea (especially a cleansing herbal brew), or maple lemonade. (I recently spotted a recipe for ginger switchel, which also looks like it's worth a try.)

What, then, can we look forward to finding at the farmers' market this month here in northern Ohio?:

--a continuation of some of June's produce: early potatoes, onions, garlic, broccoli, carrots, kohlrabi, herbs
--beans (green and wax)
--cucumbers (for pickling and eating)

--squash (patty pan, yellow crookneck, zucchini)
--the first nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, eggplant)
--assorted berries (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries)
--stone fruits: cherries, peaches, plums

In short, it's almost peak season for the best of the summer produce -- the end of the early foods and the very beginning of the classic summer fruits and vegetables, those foods that drip sweet cooling juices and make us roll our eyes in bliss at the fresh and indescribably wonderful flavor that are worth the year-long wait.

I've already gotten a good start on preserving the year's produce, with around 15 bags of June's fruits and vegetables in the freezer, two rounds of jam, and several pints of dried fruits, vegetables, and herbs in the pantry. But it's just a start. This month, I plan to dry much more in the way of produce -- something I'll share with you next week -- and to start pickling, from the classic hot dill pickles to various relishes and chutneys.

I'll get cracking on a number of these projects this weekend as I stay home for the Independence Day holiday. It seems a fitting time to participate, if unofficially, in the Independence Days Challenge that is making the rounds on the Web, and though food preservation certainly doesn't seem to free up any of my time, I know I'll be very glad I did it come winter, when the free time actually shows up in my calendar.

For those of you who are sticking with me faithfully on this series, thanks! What more can I share with you as we go through food preservation season together?

And for those of you who are looking for a place to begin, stop in again next week for another easy way to preserve some of the harvest.

In the meantime, enjoy the holiday, and exercise a little Independence!

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