Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Preserving the Seasons: October, Week 3

So you spent your summer buying up wonderful local produce, going home, and blanching it for freezing or drying. You've lined your shelves with jars of canned fruits, tomatoes, jams, pickles, and relishes. And maybe you've even started a batch of sweet liqueur to warm your stomach come winter.

Now what?

Well, I hate to tell you this, but your work isn't really done. The hard part is, yes, but preserving produce is only the first step.

Now it's time to devote some attention to storage issues, to guarantee that all the food you put up for winter lasts until you're ready to use it.

I know, that sounds like a no-brainer. If you've taken all the necessary precautions in preserving the food, it should last, right? Right. But it doesn't hurt to check just to make sure that something unforeseen hasn't happened to spoil your plans (and your food).

Remember the mishap I had with my pickle jars? That's the first time I've had a whole batch of jars un-seal on me, and I've been doing this for years. But I may well have stored them in a less-than-optimal place or changed my procedures just enough to cause a problems.

So this week, take the time to check all your jars. Make sure the lids are still concave, indicating a good seal. Make sure you don't have a sticky trail down the side of the jar, which could also indicate a less than perfect seal.

And when you're done with the jars, check the produce you still have sitting around. Some of the fall vegetables I've been stocking up lately -- potatoes, onions, squash -- can be stored as is in a cool, dry, and preferably dark space, but if I've missed a cut or blemish in the vegetable, they could slowly rot even in optimal storage conditions. So check those, too.

Now, in checking on those items, say you find a couple of onions that are getting a little soft in spots. You can still use most of the rest of the onion, but you have to do it now. What do you do, short of using them in dinner?

At this point in the season, if I have any room left in the freezer, I might take the time to use some of my last or fading produce and to make purees. I hit upon this last year as I had a surplus of onions, garlic, and hot peppers that needed to be used before they rotted, so I chopped them and pureed them together in the food processor, scooped them into muffin papers, and froze them in small hockey-puck disks. Since so many curries begin with a saute of these vegetables, I had essentially set myself up with several dinners' worth of jump starts.

You can modify this kind of puree to the kind of dishes you make the most. If you make a lot of Asian dishes, you might puree together onion or scallions, garlic, and ginger; for Italian dishes, you might combine onion and garlic with basil, oregano, or other herbs.

The bonus to this kind of preparation is that the sauces or dishes you make with them end up a little smoother because you've started with such small pieces of vegetable. (That also saves you some space in the freezer!)

Think about other produce you have yet to use: does this look like the basis of a sauce or a soup or another dish? At this point in the season, most of us have had a surfeit of tomatoes and may be running out of ideas for what to do with them. So why not puree them, especially with fresh herbs?

I usually end up with extra second-crop cilantro around this same time, so I like to puree tomatoes and cilantro together and freeze them in cubes, again for curries and Indian-spiced soups. You could do the same with basil to give yourself a jump start on spaghetti sauce.

And while we're talking herbs, need I remind you about pesto? It's an incredibly easy and tasty way to preserve herbs -- and you can make different kinds of pesto with different herbs. I've used a cilantro pesto in Thai cooking, and I imagine a parsley pesto might brighten up a vegetable soup come winter. These sauces freeze well, too, especially when you use ice cube trays to spoon out the pesto in serving-size cubes.

Frozen purees might seem like a silly addition to the preservation pantheon, but the time they'll save you later on is invaluable. Experiment with what vegetables work well in this format -- I haven't tried many, but I know that roasted and pureed eggplant freezes well. Fruits can also be pureed and frozen, if need be, though what fruits are left at this time of year (apples and pears, primarily) can usually last a while in cold storage.

Winter's coming all too soon, so before you settle back and say you're all done with food preservation, do take a little time this week to check on your stores and to see what you might be able to simplify for use later on.

Go ahead. I'll wait.

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At 10/22/2008 7:48 PM, Blogger Tara said...

This is a great idea. Remembering what you did with the tomatoes and cilantro, I roasted the tomatoes we couldn't eat fast enough and pureed them with the basil we got. I put one small container in the freezer and added the other to some store sauce a few days later. It really improved the flavor. Thanks for the tip.

At 10/22/2008 10:55 PM, Anonymous Janet said...

You're so clever. I lover the puree idea. Maybe I'll attack my produce drawers later this week.

At 10/23/2008 6:58 AM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

Back at you, Tara -- I should do that, too, since I'm not getting around to the rest of the basil, either. Thanks for the reminder!

Hee hee, Janet, now I have the mental image of you singing "Attaaaaaack ON the Killer Tomatoes"!!!! :-)


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