Thanks to the moisture-heavy air of monsoon season, gardeners are harvesting the rewards of their summer labors left and right.
Now it’s time to decide what to do with all the goodies. The organizers of the Payson Community Garden, just east of the Church of the Nazarene on Tyler Parkway, presented a program on preserving vegetables, fruit and meat Aug. 22 which they’ll repeat tomorrow.
Food preservation options presented included freezing, canning with a water bath or pressure steamer and dehydration.
Linda Kreimeyer presented the information about freezing fresh produce at the Aug. 22 session. She focused on zucchini, since everyone participating in the Payson Community Garden has so much of it this year.
She said zucchini between six and eight inches in length works best for slicing and preservation purposes. Larger zucchini have lots of seeds, which means lots of shredding and grating before freezing.
Freezing zucchini requires a couple of big pots big enough to hold a colander; plastic freezer bags or other containers suitable for freezing; a food grater; and a good, sharp kitchen knife.
Before freezing, most fresh produce requires blanching by being placed briefly in boiling water and boiled for a few minutes, then put in cold water to stop the “cooking.” Blanching cleans the surface and kills the organisms that will lead to spoilage; it also helps retain the color and most of the nutrients.
Using the knife, slice the zucchini into relatively even pieces about 3/8 of an inch wide.
Put enough water in the pot (with the colander and lid) to come to a depth of about an inch or two and bring to a boil. Place the sliced (or grated) zucchini in the colander and lower it into the water. When the water comes back to a boil, cover the pot and start timing. Blanching takes about three minutes for sliced zucchini and 1-1/2 minutes for grated zucchini.
Keep the blanched produce in the colander and place in cold water for the same amount of time it was blanched. Once cooled, drain off the water before putting the produce in a plastic freezer bag. Kreimeyer likes the Ziploc® brand of bags.
A good online resource is the Web site of the National Center for Home Food Preservation, nchfp.uga.edu.
Stephanie Jenkins said publications put out by two major manufacturers of canning jars, Ball and Kerr, offer good information. Any fruit or acidic food (pickles, relish, etc.) can be canned, she said.
Using the traditional water bath method — putting the produce-filled sealed canning jars in boiling water — requires unblemished, hot canning jars, lids, rings, a properly-sized funnel, a bubble popper, a lid lifter and a jar lifter and a covered pot big enough in which to place several pint or quart jars at once.
Jenkins advised using real canning jars, not recycled jars that once contained commercially produced pasta sauce or mayonnaise. You can recycle the cans and lid rings if they’re blemish-free. The lids must be new with each processing.
Heat the canning jars before putting in the produce. Once filled, run the bubble popper round the inside of the jar to avoid any bubbles.
Also, heat the lids to keep the rubber seal pliable, as it cools it tightens. Use a magnetized lid lifter to prevent burns.
The sealed jars of produce are then placed in a hot water bath (not boiling), with the water coming up an inch over the top of the jars. Bring the water bath to a boil, cover and start timing for about 30 to 40 minutes depending on the size of jar. Remove the jars from the water with a jar lifter, dry them off and set them aside to cool.
“The only thing hard about canning is the time it takes,” Jenkins said. “Nothing is more rewarding.”
Patti Cotney and Ruth Newton presented the program on dehydrating (drying) food, which Newton described as the oldest form of food preservation.
Equipment needed can be as simple as several hot, dry days (at least 85 degrees and less than 60 percent humidity); a couple of cinder blocks; and two fine-mesh (food safe) screens — or one screen and enough cheesecloth to cover it. Called solar drying, this method works for fruit, not vegetables or meat.
Blanch with added lemon juice concentrate when preparing food for electric drying. Cotney said the lemon juice helps the food retain its color.
“When it (the food) starts to shine, it has been blanched enough,” Cotney said.
Slice, dice or chop up foods to a uniform size and spread on the drying tray in a single layer, not quite touching to make sure the air flows freely.
Dried food has a very long shelf life, whether it is dried at home or available commercially. “The ‘use by’ date is really only applicable to commercial meat and dairy products,” Newton said. Canned goods are fine unless the container begins to bloat.
Among the books Newton recommended: “Recipes for Self-Sufficient Living;” “Cookin’ with Home Storage;” “Stocking Up.” Again, the NCHFP Web site has a great deal of information.
The round dehydrators available at big box stores require rearranging (flipping) the food to assure processing; with boxed dryers, the food is placed on the trays and the structure assures full circulation of the warm air.
To get four to five pounds of dried squash, you would need to start with 50 pounds fresh. It also takes a lot of time — that 50 pounds of fresh squash would need 12 to 16 hours to dry down to that four to five pounds.