September 4, 2015
Preserving your Harvest – What to do with all those Tomatoes!
If you are fortunate enough to have a harvest basket that is overflowing, or your shirttail is sagging with the weight of all the produce you’ve just picked, fear not. There are lots of ways to ensure that your harvest doesn’t go to waste. Assuming you’ve already overwhelmed your neighbors and the local food bank with donations, consider preserving some of the harvest to enjoy in the months ahead.
Tomatoes are plentiful in August. If you have a few extra big juicy slicers that you know you won’t use before they decline, simply cut them into wedges and lay them in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Put them in the freezer for a few hours. This will prevent them from congealing into one big brick. After they harden, toss them into a Ziploc for a more long-term storage in the freezer. You can grab as many as needed to add to your soups, stews and chili throughout the winter months. I also like to have “sun-dried” tomatoes for homemade pizza. I use the little cherry tomatoes, either super sweet 100s, sun gold or grape tomatoes. Cut them in half and remove seeds before putting them in a slow oven or use a dehydrator. If you have more tomatoes and more time, canning and making sauce are great alternatives.
For sauce, you’ll want to have basil and oregano on hand. If you’ve ever planted oregano, there’s no question that you’ll have plenty. It’s easy to grow, and is perennial, so it comes back year after year. Hopefully, you planted a whole row of basil so you have enough for salads throughout the summer and sauce.
The best way to ensure a continuing supply of basil is to keep using it. If you Harvest the top growth and side shoots frequently to prevent it from flowering (which can cause a somewhat bitter flavor), it will continue to grow into a lovely mound of green heaven! My favorite way to preserve basil is to put it in the food processor with a little olive oil, then purée and freeze in ice cube trays. Once frozen, pop into Ziploc bags for the long run. Of course, you could also add garlic and Parmesan to make pesto. Either way, these little cubes can brighten up your chicken, fish and vegetable dishes all winter long. Be aware that the basil can turn dark when exposed to the air so use enough oil or cover it tightly with plastic wrap until it’s frozen.
Of course, you can simply cut your herbs, tie them in bunches and hang them upside down to dry. Ideally, the air should be dry and able to circulate freely around the bunches, but this process works just fine in my kitchen. After they’re totally dry, I strip the leaves and keep them in glass jars to have basil, oregano, Rosemary, thyme, parsley and mint at the ready all year long.
If you’ve grown hot peppers, you know that just a few go a long way in any dish. So what to do with the dozens hanging on the plant? You can dry them. Stringing them on a cord ensures good air circulation and looks festive! Freeze them by tossing them in Ziploc bags. You can also can them or make pepper jelly. The jelly is easy; just follow the directions on the pectin box. It tastes great on a cracker with goat cheese. The Thai peppers are fairly thin skinned and dry well, whereas the sweet bells like California Wonder and Costa Rican Sweet are best frozen or canned, or added to that tomato sauce!
Strawberries can also be in abundance at harvest time, especially if you’ve chosen heavy producers like Fort Laramie, All-star or Quinault, or plants that produce mature fruit over a short time period. Strawberries can be frozen whole, sliced, crushed or puréed. Smaller ones freeze best and can be eaten when they still have a little crunch to them. Fully thawed berries tend to be quite soft and juicy.
Blueberries are also very easy to pop into the freezer for future use. Give them a quick rinse, arrange in a single layer on a cookie sheet, freeze, then transfer to containers for long term freezing. Jersey and Patriot varieties are good producers.
There are so many options when it comes to preserving food. It’s a good idea to consult with Penn State Extension for detailed instructions and food safety tips. Whatever you’re preserving, there’s nothing as enjoyable as tasting homegrown goodness during the dark months of winter!
Jeanne Mantell | Greenhouse Sales & Design