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Monthly Archives: August 2009

I love having a few bags of blueberries in the freezer. While my mom used to add them to grapefruit-based fruit salads, I prefer to sprinkle frozen blueberries into puddles of pancake batter I’ve just poured on the griddle. Then, as the pancakes cook on side one, I drizzle a bit of extra batter over the blueberries so they’ll cook inside the pancakes when I flip them to side two. Using frozen blueberries to make pancakes, I set the cooking temperature lower than I would for plain pancakes. This gives the blueberries more time to thaw before the pancakes finish cooking.

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.

Why Freeze Produce?

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.

I line jelly roll pans with waxed paper and then add single layers of blueberries or other produce. These I set uncovered in the deep-freeze overnight. The frozen berries easily come loose from the waxed paper and from each other.

Freezing Fruit

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.

Freezing Vegetables

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.

Individually-frozen, blueberries are hard, cold marbles. You have ten or fifteen minutes to package them and return them to the freezer before they soften noticeably.

How to Blanch Vegetables

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.

I use my canning pot or a very large stock pot for cooking, and another for cooling when I blanch vegetables for freezing. The colander is an insert from a pasta-cooker, though I might just as well use a strainer. I used to let the vegetables float free in the cook-pot, but it took so long to fish them out that some were nearly totally cooked by the time I’d finish.

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.

Individually-Frozen Vegetables and Berries

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.

When last I froze wax beans, I ran out of waxed paper so I tried plastic wrap as pan-liners. I much prefer the waxed paper because it’s far more biodegradable than plastic. I had so many beans to freeze that I layered them in the pans: first wax paper, then beans, then paper, and then beans. This worked well, and let me double the amount of produce I could freeze in one night.

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.

Why So Much Boiling Water?

You can blanch stuff in rather modest amounts of boiling water. However, when you plunge vegetables into the water, you rapidly lower the water’s temperature; it is likely to stop boiling. At low volumes, the water may take many minutes to heat back to boiling. If the size of your blanching pot is dramatically bigger than that of the strainer-full of vegetables you put into it, it may not stop boiling at all… but even if it does stop it remains much closer to the boiling point than a small volume of water would.

You’ll blanch more produce more quickly if you work with a large vat of boiling water.

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Squash seedlings from a Home Kitchen Garden

My squash seedlings grew to this size in their starter pots, and then slowed way down. By the time I planted them in the garden three weeks later, each had added no more than two inches of stem and another leaf; they looked very sad.

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.

Slow Grow

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.

By May 10 (left), sprouts in my Home Kitchen Garden were pathetic. I had planted much of this in March, yet lettuce and spinach weren’t yet ready for thinning. Fully 20 days later (right), I was finally making salads from thinned lettuce plants and young spinach leaves… but I had harvested only three pods of peas. I had no doubt by May 30th that there would be no space for squash plants until July.

Hardening Down

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.

A Home Kitchen Garden Seasonal Transition

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.

On July 14 (left), the pea plants (center three rows) showed a lot of brown; there were still pea flowers and forming pods, but there would be only an occasional handful of pods had I let them alone. So, on July 15 (right), I removed the trellises, the pea plants, and the weeds. I left in place some volunteer tomato plants, cilantro, and dill weed. Squash plants in the front-left of the photos were well-established after nearly three weeks in the garden. Other squash plants, nearly invisible near the top of the photo, started far more slowly I think because their roots have been too wet.

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.

This morning, the squash in my Home Kitchen Garden fills fully one third of the space where peas grew just two and a half weeks ago. Even the slow-starters at the far side of the garden are waking up. Things are very crowded what with the volunteer tomatoes and herbs, but the plants don’t seem to mind. Already, the squash have set at least a dozen fruits, and there are many fruiting buds preparing to blossom.

Summer Crops Prevail

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.

 

 

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