Here are inspiring ideas to preserve food and extend the growing season so you can enjoy fresh food year-round.
It just makes sense to eat locally grown food as much as possible. Not only is less petroleum used to transport it, but best of all, local produce is picked ripe — when it’s at its peak of flavor and nutrition. Unfortunately, though, believing in the merits of locally grown food won’t help many of us in the cold months. Community supported agriculture (CSA) subscriptions end and farmers markets close down as our own gardens die with the first frosts.
I know that people survived with only local produce all year before we started buying food from all over the world. Rediscovering some of the methods our ancestors used has been an annual challenge for my husband, Tom, and me. We are gradually learning how to eat all year from our 13-acre homestead in Ohio. To do this, we preserve the summer harvest and extend the growing season.
Canning is still basic. For years, I’ve used a water-bath canner to preserve tomatoes, pickles and some orchard fruits. High-acid foods can be safely preserved this way, but when in doubt, the Ball Blue Book of Preserving gives guidance in all aspects of canning. This past year was our first growing celery, and there was such a bumper crop that I dug the pressure cooker out of the corner of the garage and put it to work. That allowed me to can a concoction of the extra tomatoes, sweet onions, celery, bell peppers, basil and parsley in quart jars labeled “veggies.” This highly nutritious potion is finding its way into stews, spaghetti sauce, soups and chili. No one has yet commented on the uniqueness of having celery in spaghetti sauce! Canning does take time during the high-yield months of August and September, but lining the jars up on the shelves gives me the same visual pleasure as piecing together a quilt — and the same satisfaction that I imagine a squirrel enjoys. (For more detailed information on canning, read Home Canning Basics.)
Fermenting and pickling add variety. Cabbage and cucumbers are two things that I ferment in crocks in the basement before canning. The advantage of putting cucumbers in a brine-filled crock is that it allows me to add a few each day as I gather them from the garden. After the crop has peaked and we’re able to eat each day’s harvest, I allow a couple weeks for those in the crock to pickle before I can them.
I cut and salt the cabbage destined to be sauerkraut, then put it in the crock and pound it with a wooden mallet. I really enjoy that because it reminds me of my Peace Corps days — women pounding millet with large wooden pestles. To add to my enjoyment, I use red cabbage, which gives a unique kaleidoscope pattern with each slice. When preparing sauerkraut, use noniodized salt to protect the necessary bacteria for fermentation. It takes only a few weeks for the cabbage to ferment. Then I pack it in quart jars that are processed in a water bath. I would like to have crocks of food in the basement throughout the winter, but I find it difficult to avoid introducing unwanted bacteria when fishing out portions for dinner.
I sometimes use a more direct method of making sauerkraut and just pack shredded cabbage into clean quart jars, sprinkle 1 teaspoon of noniodized salt on top and fill the jars up to their necks with boiling water. After placing the lid and ring on, the cabbage will ferment right in the jar without further processing. Cabbage (and sauerkraut) is high in vitamin C, so we don’t need to import oranges in the winter!
A small, old crock was given to us last year, and I couldn’t resist pickling odds and ends in it. I first made a brine of water, salt, dill and a small amount of cider vinegar and then added some tomatillos, small pieces of cauliflower, broccoli, garlic, small Mexican cucumbers, Jerusalem artichoke tubers, nasturtium buds and barely steamed green beans. After a couple weeks of pickling, I kept a quart jar of this mixture handy in the refrigerator for meals that lacked either variety or vegetables. This mixture of vegetables must be loaded with nutrients.
The freezer still seems essential. The contents of the freezer varies with the current year’s harvest. We always enjoy the small green beans that are barely steamed before being stored in freezer bags. The pressure cooker softens vegetables, but freezing preserves their texture. My mouth waters when thinking of winter meals when we cook the beans lightly in olive oil, garlic and salt. I’ve learned to label bags so I don’t thaw diced bell peppers for dinner when I wanted green beans.
Some of last year’s peaches made it into the freezer, too, but preserving them by canning them in a hot-water bath would have been an option, too. Shredded zucchini is frozen, so it’s easy to make desserts, such as zucchini bread, in winter. The downside to using a freezer is that our electricity comes from a coal-burning plant. Because the freezer is also necessary to preserve chicken and beef from our farm, it makes good, ethical sense to aim for a solar source of electricity in the future.
It’s fun to dry or dehydrate foods. Dried beans have become a staple at our house, and we use them frequently in winter meals. Many varieties of beans have made their way to us through friends and seed savers. Whether bush-type or climbers, we eat or process some while they’re in the tender, green-bean stage. Next is the stage where you can still bite into the beans, but they require only 15 to 20 minutes cooking time. After that stage, I allow the beans to dry on the vine.
If one variety of beans appears dry and I have an extra moment, I cut or pull the vines and put them in a basket in the hot toolshed. They stay there until the slower evenings when I pull out a lawn chair to face the sunset and sit and shell beans into a large bowl. When the chickens head into their coop, I close up the henhouse and go inside for the night, too. No wonder I find it a pleasure instead of work! I’m surprised when people comment on how much work it must be to have such a variety of dried beans in glass jars on the porch shelves.
Have you heard of “leather britches”? The entire pods of beans are threaded and hung up to dry completely before storing in airtight containers. The pod and beans need several hours of cooking to be tender, but have a good, unique flavor. It’s fun to find one more way to store and consume more of what we produce.
Dehydrating other fruits and vegetables is an excellent way to preserve nutrients in food for the winter months. I resisted adding more electrical equipment for food storage. Tom came to the rescue by building a solar food dehydrator. I’m hoping for another bumper crop of apples and tomatoes this year to try it out. Who knows? Maybe we can also add chicken and beef jerky to our winter diet.
Treasures in the basement. A final method we use for storing food is the root cellar. We built one 30 years ago and found the year-round temperature in the 50s worked well for all root vegetables and winter squash, as well as aging cheddar cheese. When we moved across the road to the little farmhouse this past year, Tom created a basement root cellar. It uses one interior concrete wall and is otherwise a well-insulated 9-by-6-foot room with two, 2-inch pipes to exchange air with the outside. We uncap these pipes to cool the room in the autumn and winter, and it gradually reaches a more ideal storage temperature in the upper 30s.
This room has the advantages of being less expensive to build than a stand-alone cellar. And in winter, I appreciate the convenience of fetching vegetables from the basement rather than going outside. The main disadvantage is that the interior temperatures are higher in the summer and don’t cool quickly enough for the usual harvest time. We attempt to compensate for this by planting and harvesting winter storage crops later in the year.
Covering the garden crops. That’s about all the places you’ll find food stored on our homestead, but we’re gradually learning to keep fresh food growing for year-round consumption. Row covers have allowed us to plant lettuce earlier and keep it growing later in the year, but it only takes one night of temperatures falling into the lower 20s to lose a precious crop.
Our cold frame is a bit more sophisticated than the row covers and has been moved here and there in the winter garden. It is wonderful for protecting lettuce and carrots from frosts and cold winds. The sun poses more danger than the cold, because a sunny day with the temperatures only in the single digits can quickly cook the lettuce plants if the lid is not ajar. I do admit that diligence is a small price to pay for fresh lettuce when there’s snow on the ground.
The winter garden. Our big project, both in money and Tom’s labor, has been the lean-to greenhouse. It’s wonderful to have fresh lettuce, chard, spinach, parsley and peas to supplement the canned and frozen vegetables. The “floor” is covered with compost and wood-plank walks. Because we live at 40 degrees latitude, the tempered, insulated glass is positioned at a 60-degree angle to absorb the low winter sun. A sunny, below-freezing January day will raise the interior temperature quickly into the 80s. We then depend on automatic openers to assure adequate ventilation.
Water-filled plastic jugs, painted black, hold some of this heat into the night. We still use supplemental heat during the cloudy days and cold nights of December and January, but perhaps solar panels can help us with that in the future. For now, we have a lot of experimenting to do to see how varied our greenhouse crops can be.
The animals are a big help. Finally, our animals give a big boost to year-round eating from our farm. The meat, eggs and dairy products supplement the garden produce to help create winter banquets. The animals also provide the valuable compost necessary to grow nutritious food. Bees pollinate the crops and provide honey.
I’m not suggesting that everyone can have livestock in their backyards, but buying produce from local farmers rather than distant corporations will help expand the availability of all kinds of local produce for the future.
I think it’s obvious that we’re not starving at our house. The reasons we continue to undertake new food preservation projects are because it’s fun to do new things, it’s a blessing to eat well and it’s a challenge to help preserve the genetics of a wide variety of plants and animals. We’re in a strange culture that considers eating whole foods too time-consuming and too much work. We who enjoy eating well can buy or harvest local food and find ways to enjoy its flavor and nutrition all year long.
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