Is your home kitchen garden producing well? This time of year, a kitchen garden can overwhelm its caretaker with produce. Beans are typical offenders along with tomatoes, eggplant, and various types of squash. Fruits can also present excesses.
If you’re facing a glut of vegetables or fruit… or if you simply want to store some goodies now so you can enjoy them until next year’s harvest, a deep-freeze makes a great food-preserver.
Of all methods of preserving goods, freezing maintains flavors and textures the most faithfully. But freezing isn’t a perfect solution. Fruits especially suffer from freezing. As a rule fruits become mushy when they thaw, though their flavors remain true. If you plan to cook the fruits before you eat them, they’ll be great after freezing. If you’re going to eat them raw, find applications where the altered consistencies suit your sensibilities.
When it comes to frozen vegetables, I’ve never wanted to eat one raw after thawing it. These, I think, you should plan to cook… but trust that the outcome will be very similar to that of cooking the vegetables when they’re fresh. Root vegetables—carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and so on—do not thaw well, but they do keep a long time unfrozen in a cool, dry storage area.
How you prepare fruit for freezing depends on what type of fruit it is. I suggest making it bite-sized. So, if you’re freezing peaches, pears, apples, or pineapples, peel them and cut them into pieces. If you’re freezing berries, they’re already in bite-sized pieces.
Pack fruit in freezer containers or in food storage freezer bags. Vacuum-seal them for the longest freezer life, but a zipper-style bag with the air squeezed out around the fruit should keep the fruit in decent shape for close to a year. Place only as much fruit in each bag as you’re going to use in one meal or service. Alternatively, follow the instructions below for Individually-Frozen Vegetables and Berries.
You can freeze vegetables raw and they’ll be fine when you cook them up later… as long as it’s not too much later. Conventional wisdom is that certain enzymes in vegetables promote aging and they continue to work even when the vegetables are frozen. This means the quality of frozen vegetables decreases rapidly over time unless you stop the enzymes. To “turn off” enzymes and increase the freezer live of vegetables, blanch them before you freeze them.
Blanching is a breeze. It involves cooking the vegetables only long enough that they heat through, and then rapidly cooling them to stop the cooking before their texture changes significantly.
To prepare vegetables for freezing, first wash off the dirt, discard the bad spots, and cut the vegetables into sizes you’ll want to cook later. Peas, I remove from the pods and leave whole. Beans, I snap into ¾ inch lengths… some people prefer to cut them rather than snap them.
Set a very large pot of water to boil. I use my canning pot filled about ¾ of its depth. Fill a second very large pot with cold water, and have some ice on hand to add to that water.
Fill a strainer or a steamer’s colander with prepared vegetable chunks, then plunge the strainer into the boiling water so that all the vegetables are in the water. This may stop the boiling, so cover the pot to help bring up its temperature.
When the water starts boiling again, leave the vegetables cooking for three minutes. During this time, add ice to the pot of cold water. Then, at the end of three minutes, lift the strainer from the boiling water and submerge it in the cold water. Stir the vegetables around in the strainer to promote rapid cooling. In about three minutes, the vegetables should be at or below room temperature; remove them from the water and let them drain.
Put one-meal-sized portions of the blanched vegetables into freezer containers or bags, and toss them into your deep-freeze. If you can vacuum-seal the containers, your vegetables may keep well for 18 months, but even in a heavy-weight hermetically-sealed bag they should be acceptable for eating up to a year after you process them.
As with fruit, blanched vegetables tend to stick together when they freeze, resulting in a brick that may be hard to separate until it thaws. You can simplify your freezer space by freezing the vegetable parts individually, and storing them in much larger bags or containers.
Typical instructions for freezing fruits and vegetables result in large clumps of frozen-together stuff. Blanch beans, toss them in a bag, put them in your freezer, and soon you’ll have a brick of frozen beans. If you want to use a portion of the beans, you may need a hammer or an ice pick to break them free of the bean brick.
The same goes for fruits: Wash a quart of blueberries, put the berries in a bag, freeze them, and you’ll need to chip them apart when you want to use them.
You’re best off freezing packages of beans or berries in modest amounts—no more per bag than you’ll use for a single meal… unless you freeze the beans or berries individually. Here’s how I do it:
After washing berries or blanching beans (or peas or broccoli spears or cauliflower florets), drain them and then dump them onto a towel. Gently roll the fruits or vegetables around on the towel to remove as much moisture as you have patience for.
Then, line a jellyroll pan or a pizza pan with waxed paper (plastic wrap works as well) and cover the paper with produce only one layer deep. If you like, cover the produce with more waxed paper and put a second layer of beans or berries on that.
Place the uncovered pan of beans or berries in your freezer over night. Then, retrieve the pan (I actually do as many as four pans in a single freezing event), break the individual fruits or vegetables off of the waxed paper, and load a container with the frozen produce. Put the filled container back in your freezer.
When you freeze fruits and vegetables this way, you can grab a handful, a pint, or a quart as-needed without having to bust a clump loose from a frozen produce brick.
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In May, it was apparent that my home kitchen garden’s spring crops would not mature on time. By “on time” I mean “on my time;” I have no illusions that plants growing outdoors are going to follow my schedule. Still, for the sake of comparison, in 2008 my garden put out its last load of peas in mid June. This year, the plants continued producing till the third week of July… and even as the vines were dying, cool weather coaxed a burst of flowering.
To prepare for this year’s late transition from spring crops to summer crops, I started squash seeds under lights on my ping pong table. These, I captured in a time lapse video as they popped out of the soil, and I posted it in blog entry titled, Squash Babies for my Home Kitchen Garden.
By early June, my squash babies were ready to move into the garden, but the spring crops weren’t even close to done. I didn’t want to “pot up” the squash seedlings (transplant them into larger pots) because I’d run out of large peat pots and my gardening budget was stressed. So, my squash babies sat in their infant-sized pots and yearned for greater things.
And there they sat, and sat, and sat.
When a plant spends too much time in small pot, it feels stress. Roots grow into any open space they can find without actually growing up out of the soil. Eventually, there are so many roots in the pot that they quickly suck all the nutrition out of the soil. Most plants shut down; they don’t die, they just stop growing… or they grow very slowly.
What is most problematical is that pot-bound plants continue to mature… even when they put on virtually no new growth. For most plants, this maturation includes what I call “hardening down” (forgive me if there’s a horticultural term for this that I ought to know). When a plant hardens down, it strengthens the distinction between the root system and the above-ground stem.
For many types of trees, hardening down is obvious as the bark turns from smooth to rough and it eventually develops deep furrows. For garden vegetables, hardening down produces similar textural changes in the stem. The surface of the stem nearest the soil becomes woody and it eventually stops thickening. Some plants produce flower buds even though they’ve grown only a few small leaves.
Once a plant hardens down, the hardened stem will not thicken—or will thicken only a little when the plant reawakens… if the plant reawakens. And that brings me back to the transition from spring crops to summer crops.
My sad little winter squash seedlings were hardening down, and my pea plants hadn’t yet produced peas! A vaguely unfortunate turn of events provided a partial solution: My spinach plants met an abrupt and unexpected end.
I had planted only four feet of a row with two types of spinach. The plants took forever to grow big enough for harvest, and after providing for only two salads, half the plants wilted and died. I guessed a plant disease or insect was involved, but the wilting death didn’t spread to the other half row of plants. Then, about seven days and two more salads later, the remaining spinach plants bolted. In early July, I pulled the spinach plants, turned over soil in the row, and planted two of my squash pots just three feet apart.
At the opposite side of the garden, I planted another squash pot snuggled between two rows of peas. A week later I planted the last squash pot between adjacent rows of peas. I figured to spend the next month stepping over those plants to pick peas… but I also figured the squash plants would stretch their roots and break out of their pot-bound stupor.
It was a short month; we had some heat in July that cooked the pea plants. On July 15th I removed the pea trellises and the plants, and I pulled the weeds that had grown from the exposed soil along the pea rows. I worked around four volunteer tomato plants and a few volunteer herb plants. In the two weeks since, the squash plants I had placed in the vacated spinach row have exploded outward in all directions.
As the vines have lengthened, I’ve trained them toward the newly-opened space. They obviously have overcome being pot bound, and are already setting fruit. It’s clear that four plants from the first two squash pots will completely fill the space the pea plants had occupied.
Clearly, starting the squash in pots gained two or three weeks on the summer growing season. This means extra days for the plants to produce squash before frost shuts them down. Even if we don’t have wacky spring weather, you can bet I’ll start my squash in pots early in coming seasons.