Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Preserving the Seasons: October, Week 1

Though it's easy to think of autumn as a slow march to winter, with days growing shorter and progressively colder, I'd like to propose that we consider it instead as a kind of hope chest, in which we gather together the things we will need -- both beautiful and practical -- for the life journey that lies ahead.

October, then, brings us an abundance of treasures to add to that hope chest: memories of golden sunsets and flaming red leaves, the warming tang of wood smoke, the last breath of summer's warmth, and the solace of woolen clothes and simple pleasures. Above all, October provides the solid heft of produce colored like the changing leaves and graced with the keeping quality needed to feed us well into winter.

As the temperature drops, who doesn't start thinking about comfort food? Be it a hearty soup or stew loaded with vegetables, a velvety baked squash, or cookies and cakes laced with sweet warming spices, the food we enjoy the most here at the beginning of autumn reflects the farms' yields of the moment. And yet, much of that new produce will also store well and nourish our hearts and stomachs on even colder days.

In October, we still find the last true summer produce since those plants will hang on until first frost, but we also see a more definite shift toward cool-weather crops. I'll expect to find almost all of these at the market or in my CSA basket:

--tomatoes, tomatillos, eggplant, peppers
--onions, leeks, shallots, and garlic
--all kinds of squash: pumpkins, acorn, butternut, spaghetti, and even the last summer squash
--dark leafy greens such as kale, spinach, and chard, as well as a late crop of lettuce
--second plantings of broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage, as well as Brussels sprouts
--carrots, parsnips, beets, turnips, even rutabagas
--potatoes and sweet potatoes
--Jerusalem artichokes
--apples and pears, the last grapes, and possibly fall-bearing raspberries

Our preservation projects shift a little more in October, and though this may seem to be the ideal time to fire up the stove and run the canner for heat as much as for jars of food, canning and pickling often taper off over the month, as does the need to dry other kinds of produce. Instead, we might turn our attention to taking care of some of the little problems that crop up in food preservation, like using up excess fruits by making liqueurs or syrups, or checking on what we've already stashed away to make sure it's still safely preserved.

This past week I took the time to rearrange my pantry shelves so that I could move all the boxes of jars out of my studio and onto the shelves, and as I handled each one, I checked the lid to make sure it was still concave and thus sealed, wiped any sticky streaks off the side of the jar, and arranged it carefully with its kin. I don't have a total number at this point as there were still jars from last year, but I would venture a guess at around 100 jars of jams, pickles, fruit, and tomatoes, all still safely canned and ready for winter.

Though I'm still drying some vegetables, I clearly need to do some rearranging in the cabinets, too, to make room. I probably have close to twenty jars of different vegetables stored in with grains, pulses (beans), and condiments in this side of the cupboard...

...and perhaps ten or so jars and bags of dried fruits, not to mention a large collection of jams lingering from last year, nestled in with all my baking ingredients. At this point, I really don't want to add much more!

Other forms of food preservation for the month, then, will include ways to simplify my cooking later on: more dried produce, more purees to be frozen for easy use, more stocking up on staples (I've already put in a call to the grist mill), and the most basic of all, cold storage. (More on that next month.) I may well end up filling every corner of the kitchen!

Since the global situation is looking a little grim by now, food preservation is rapidly becoming much more important. Maybe you haven't been able to do much this summer, and maybe you have. But as the weather shifts, the harvest shifts, and the economy shifts, you will want to shift your thinking as well from food preservation to food storage. I'm not suggesting that anyone should start hoarding groceries, but it's wise to think about storing some basics for when the power goes out, for when you have family over for the holidays, or for when the need arises to share with others who are less fortunate. You can learn more about food storage at Seeking Simplicity or -- as I often say -- from Sharon Astyk's excellent online course.

And while you're planning ahead for yourself or your family, think about helping others, too. Our nation's food banks are seeing difficult times right now, and as the economy worsens, more people may need to rely on what food banks can provide. If you want to give a loved one a gift, consider making a donation to your local food bank in their name. If you're planning your garden for next year, consider planting an extra row for your local food bank, or consider sharing your garden with a neighbor or a family member. If you're baking bread or cookies for your family or friends, or you're making a big pot of soup, consider taking some to a neighbor or a friend in need. If there's any way you can help, please consider it. Our economy may tank, but our community never should.

Though the harvest season may end soon, October still has many riches to share with us all, and we have opportunities to share those riches with others, now and into the holiday season.

October -- gorgeous, ever-changing, consoling October -- is a month of hope. Let us reap it in our harvest and continue to sow it where it's needed.

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At 10/10/2008 5:49 PM, Anonymous Janet said...

Can I move in when the apocalypse arrives? :)

At 10/13/2008 7:31 AM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Well, that's up to you, Janet... don't know how you'd feel about sleeping on a creaky sofa in a chilly apartment with inadequate insulation, but hey, bring a tarte tatin, and we'll talk! ;-)


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