Preservation Hall

September is when it seems that everything is ready to harvest at once and it's impossible to go to the garden or farmers market and not return without baskets full of fruit, herbs and vegetables.

How can we save some of this bounty for those frozen months when a ripe tomato seems an impossible dream? I admit that I'm pretty daunted by the demands of most food preservation—I've tried making jams, jellies and pickles and my hat is off to those who can cook at the height of summer. In this case, when the kitchen is too hot—I'm out of there!

But there are some homegrown foods that can easily be preserved using no additional heat, and it's very satisfying, in the middle of winter, to be able to eat something I grew in my garden last summer.

It's a cinch to dry herbs, and they'll smell so much fresher than what comes from the store in a jar. Herbs are best harvested before their flower buds bloom. But even if yours have bloomed, bruise and smell the leaves—if they still have plenty of aroma, they're fine to dry. And if you've grown mint or anise hyssop, you've probably got enough for tea for the entire winter!

To prepare herbs for drying, cut the stems at the bottom and remove any withered or yellowed leaves. Give them a good rinse with cool water and shake out the excess. Then, using string or wire twist-ties, bundle them loosely at the bottom of the stems. Hang them upside-down in a dry, warm area.

Krista Oarcea has discovered a great way to dry herbs (and fruit)—by using her car as dehydrator. She simply hangs her bundles from the handy clothing hooks. It only takes a day or two of parking in the sun with her windows cracked. Herbs are dry when the leaves are crunchy and the stems snap easily. Now you can remove the leaves from the stems and store your herbs in jars or zip-lock bags. (Toss out your older herbs and reuse the jars for freshly dried!) If you can avoid crushing the leaves completely, all the better, since crushing releases more of those volatile oils.

Krista shared another interesting method to preserve the tender herbs like parsley, basil, and cilantro that are best used green. She takes clean, fresh, leaves and stuffs a jar with them—she said to really pack them in, pressing down and adding more after you think the jar is full. Then screw the lid on and freeze. Herbs stay green and fresh-tasting and you can then easily scrape off as much as you need throughout the winter.

Many fruits and vegetables need preparation before freezing to maintain their flavor and texture. But berries can be popped right in the freezer. Clean and pick over the berries, then wash and drain them in a sieve. My favorite way to freeze berries is to spread them out on a cookie sheet, one or two layers thick, and freeze completely, then put into labeled, dated freezer bags. This way, you can use just as many as you need at a time. You can also pack berries into freezer bags or containers and freeze them in a block. There's nothing like a blackberry crisp in the middle of January to remind you of summer sun. Green peppers and leftover cooked corn (cut off the cob) can also be frozen without additional prep.

Another great way to preserve fruit is with alcohol. You can mix cut-up fruit, like peaches, berries, even melon, with bourbon, vodka, rum or other liquor about half fruit and half liquor by volume. You can add sugar or other flavorings (like herbs) to taste. Let the mixture macerate for 5 to 7 days (tasting every day) then strain out the solids. The fruit liquor lasts for a up to a year. Fruit liquors with a homemade label make great gifts, too.

Resources:

Putting Food By, by Greene, Hertzberg, Vaughan. A terrific book in its fifth edition.

Well-Preserved, by Eugenia Bone, and Gena's blog: http://blogs.denverpost.com/preserved/

Forgotten Skills of Cooking, by Darina Allen. A more general book with some good fruit syrup recipes and techniques.

Put 'em Up, by Sherri Brooks Vinton. Great recipes for fruit liquors.