Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Living Within the Seasons - Buying in Bulk to Preserve Fruits and Vegetables

Where have I been, you ask?
 It's summer. I've been busy!
 Here's why...

Sean and I are taking part in a grand life experiment, in which we eat lots of organic, locally grown food throughout the year. Most folks think that we're a little bit "funny" for opting to live and eat within the seasons. If you think about it, though, living within the growing cycle is how humans survived and stocked their pantry (and ice house, and spring house) for centuries.

Our process is simple.

Over the last few years we've formed great relationships with a number of local farmers and farmer's markets in the Lansing area. All you have to do is be a friendly customer, and you'll reap the rewards! When a crop is ripe for the picking, we buy a few bushels (on average) at a great bulk price from one of these local growers.

There's no way we could eat a bushel or two of cucumbers before they go bad, so Sean and I preserve the over-abundance to enjoy for the rest of the year. It's may seem like a lot of work, but it's well worth it. The food always tastes better than what you'd find in the grocery store, and it's healthier and cheaper.

We preserve our food in a few different ways. The three main methods are canning, dehydrating and freezing. (We also dabble in lacto-fermentation, but that's a story for another day.)

Every vegetable and fruit has a preferred preservation method.

It's easiest to dehydrate squash and zucchini, which will keep for about a year. You can also dehydrate peppers, tomatoes, strawberries, apples, venison and beef jerky and a myriad of other tasty treats. Dehydrated vegetables are great to cook with, and are extra-delicious in stir fry, soup and sauces.

Never, ever try to dehydrate raspberries or blackberries. We learned this the hard way, and they turned into crunchy, crispy little nuggets. It was like eating a bug's cocoon. 

With ample freezer space, you can freeze just about anything. Strawberries, asparagus and corn are relatively easy to freeze, and they keep for at least a year. Another neat trick is to cook dishes and soups in BIG batches, and freeze the left-overs. If you cook a big pot of cream of asparagus soup, for example, you'll have enough left over for soup and sandwiches in the winter.

Blueberries are easy - you just toss them in a gallon-size freezer bag and tuck it into your icebox. Or, you can vacuum seal them. Don't bother rinsing the blueberries before freezing, as that will wash away their natural wax-like coating. (Rinse them before you eat or cook with them, though!)

You can also save food in glass jars, which is called "canning". To be honest, canning is my least favorite method of preservation. I just can't get excited about sweating over a big pot of boiling water. Still, it's worth the hard, hot work. Tomatoes, green beans, pickled cucumbers,  jellies and jams are commonly canned. Meats, homemade soup and other strange things can also be canned, but that requires a pressure canner.

Right now, it's cucumber season.
We've been pickling.

Sean and I have spent many a romantic evening in our kitchen, this month. There were no lit candles, but we cranked up the classical music while we sweating over our cans (and cans, and cans!) of pickled cucumbers.

Also, it's zucchini season. Green pepper season, too. And green beans. It's nearly tomato season, and it would be corn season if we'd gotten more rain.

If you think we're nuts for doing all of this hard work, you're not alone.

Most of our friends view us with a mixture of skepticism and awe (but mostly skepticism) when the conversation circles around to our strange food practices. We're not ashamed of it. In fact, we're pretty darn proud, but we tend to keep quiet about it because we feel as though we're bragging when we list off the benefits of our proclivity to preserve.

We're not the only food savers in town. Today at Curious I talked with my new friend Ken, a fellow pickle lover and novice canner. We bragged to one another about our freezers full of Michigan blueberries and the benefits of a probiotic diet. Bonding with a stranger over the joys of preserving food helped me gain confidence, and convinced me that what Sean and I are doing isn't completely insane.

If you think you're up for a rewarding challenge, I'd be pleased as punch to answer your questions.

If you want to jump in feet first... STOP!

First, do some research. Make sure you're going about this the right way. If you don't know what you're doing, you'll likely lose all of that fresh food you want to save.  

Courtesy of U-Pick.org

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