Before affordable refrigeration units, individual households often canned, dried, pickled, smoked, salted, and preserved a large portion of the autumn harvest. Today, preserving a portion of the harvest still offers a number of advantages.
Buying produce in quantity can achieve the best possible economies. As an example, I purchased a large box of tomatoes for just a few dollars from a farm stand. Granted, many had minor blemishes or spots and several varieties were mixed together. However, the imperfections and assorted varieties really didn’t matter because, two days later, I had turned that bargain box of tomatoes into many quarts of rich sauces, perfect for freezing and later use in pastas, chili, and other hearty winter dishes.
Preserving your own food also enables you to choose the varieties you like. To continue the tomato example, increasingly popular heirloom varieties, grown by gardeners and some regional farmers, have flavors very different from the supermarket varieties. Home gardeners have access to a diversity of fruits and vegetables that never makes it to grocery chain shelves.
Home preserving foods enables you to ensure quality control in the final product. If you have any special requirements or food allergies, want no salt, reduced sugar, or GMO-free, use the varieties that suit you best. Prepare your preserved foods to your specific tastes and needs.
Finally, preserving foods ensures that there is no “out of season.” Using only the freshest produce quickly prepared and frozen can ensure that you enjoy autumn’s harvest during February’s blizzards.
Freezing is one of the simplest and least time-consuming methods of preserving foods, and keeps the natural color, flavor, and nutritive value of a range of produce. Additionally, you can use frozen fruits and vegetables on short notice because the bulk of the preparation goes on before freezing. Generally, you simply thaw and heat.
Freezing foods at proper temperatures ensures safety and quality, but some produce simply does not freeze well. Green onions, lettuce, and other salad greens are not likely candidates, nor are radishes and uncooked tomatoes. But, most other produce can work well.
I try to use containers that hold enough fruit or vegetables for one meal. Rigid containers, flat on top and bottom, stack well in a freezer. Round containers and those with flared sides or raised bottoms waste freezer space. Nonrigid containers that bulge also waste freezer space.
Pack food cold into containers to speed up freezing and help retain natural color, flavor, and texture. Packing foods tightly cuts down on the amount of air in the package. However, allow ample headspace — an inch or 2 — between packed food and the closure because food expands as it freezes. Vegetables that pack loosely, such as broccoli and asparagus, require no headspace. Seal carefully, then label the packages with the type of food, quantity, and packaging date.
BARGAIN BOX TOMATO SAUCE
I hesitate to give any precise ingredient quantities for my bargain box sauce. You can alter this basic tomato sauce so many ways to suit your taste. Experiment with it: Add oregano instead of basil, try capers and black olives for a redolent puttanesca sauce, or cook in some pancetta or sausage for a heartier flavor.
3 quarts tomatoes, quartered, seeded if desired
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 cup fresh parsley, shredded
1 medium onion, chopped
1 small carrot, peeled and chopped
1 celery stalk with leaves, chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
1 cup fresh basil leaves, shredded
1 tablespoon sugar
Salt and black pepper to taste
Fill a 3-quart kettle with quartered tomatoes. Use a spoon or your fingers to remove the seeds if desired. Cook on medium heat until the tomatoes start to liquefy and the skins start sloughing off. If you are fussy, run the cooked tomatoes through a food mill that will segregate the remaining skins and seeds from the resulting sauce. Otherwise, simply use a food processor.
For a chunkier sauce, pull out several cooked tomatoes prior to milling. Ensure they are seed- and skin-free, coarsely chop them, and set them aside until the rest of the tomatoes are milled.
In a large skillet, add the olive oil and parsley, onion, carrot, and celery. Cook, stirring, until the onions brown. Add the cooked vegetables to the tomato sauce along with the garlic, basil, salt, pepper, sugar, and chopped tomatoes. Simmer, uncovered, until the sauce thickens.
Reed Hellman is a professional writer living in Alberton, Md. Visit his website at reedhellmanwordsmith.com.