Be Like the Squirrel – Food Storage for the Winter

With frost descending and our local farmers’ market season drawing to a close, eating local suddenly becomes much more challenging. Even purchasing food at the year-round market begins to take on a frustrating sameness. Rather than the vibrant greens and reds of summer, all of the food is a bit gray – potatoes, beets, sweet potatoes. Mind you, I love sweet potatoes, but there’s only so much one can eat of them. And when Alice Waters comments on how they have to wait all the way until March for green vegetables, I just roll my eyes and wish I had the luxury of living in California. (This was even more true when I lived in upstate New York – snow sometimes falls in late April.) However, we can maximize our local food intake while not succumbing to boredom by taking a cue from our ancestors and “putting things up” for the winter.

1) Freezing
A main advantage most of us have over previous generations is the amazing technology known as “the freezer.” (Admittedly, not everyone does have one.) And yes, it can do so much more than hold microwavable lunches. (Although I eat a lot of pre-made gardenburgers, so I’m not innocent here.) You can freeze items from the garden or farmers’ market in two ways – by themselves or within a larger dish.

Certain vegetables are fine frozen by themselves, including broccoli, corn and peas. I think freezing green beans is also fine, although some people think they come out stringy. But there is a bit of preparation involved. Instead of sticking the vegetables straight into the freezer, blanch them first to preserve their color and flavor. Boil a pot of water, drop the vegetables in there for a few minutes (how much depends on each vegetable), and then dump the vegetables into ice water, which prevents them from overcooking. This About.com article has a very comprehensive list of vegetables with blanching times and directions. Once you blanch them, dry the vegetables off very thoroughly, and put them in plastic freezer bags one-layer deep. This is most easily done by placing the plastic bag on top of a plate and putting the whole thing in the freezer. If you just throw them in a bag, you get a big frozen block of beans like I did last winter.

However, this method doesn’t work well with high-water content vegetables, such as eggplants, zucchini, tomatoes, and summer squash. When you freeze these vegetables, they get so many ice crystals that they lose all structural integrity. Instead, it’s better to make a huge batch of a soup, stew, or curry and then freeze it. One word of advice here as well – freeze your food in a quantity that you will actually eat at one time, so you don’t have to defrost and refreeze it. It’s easy to put your giant pot of chili in one big container, but you’ll be much happier later on when it takes 3 minutes and not 3 hours to defrost it. My favorite recipes to make and freeze are vegetable chili, tomato sauce, pasta bakes, and vegetable curry.

2) Dehydrating
Dehydrating seems to work the best for sweeter foods, like tomatoes, apples, and other fruits, because it concentrates their sugars. People do dehydrate vegetables, but I personally am not a fan. My favorite thing to dehydrate is apples, so that you can eat sweet apple slides all winter long. You can either use a dehydrator, or if you don’t have one (like me), you can use your oven. This website has pretty good directions for dehydrating apples and a number of other fruits.

3) Making a “mini root cellar.”
Earlier generations put their food up for the winter in a root cellar, an old-time necessity that very few of us have the advantage of these days. As most people’s basements are somewhat heated, they aren’t suited for storage for most types of food. For example, potatoes should be stored at 32-40 F with 90% relative humidity, far cooler than our basement is ever going to be.

Although most of us have no desire to build a full root cellar, one book I have (The Week-by-Week Vegetable Gardeners’ Handbook) has an intriguing idea for creating a miniature version. They recommend digging a hole a few feet deep and putting a garbage can in it. You place the food in the garbage can, put the top on the garbage can, and then cover it with about a foot of straw for insulation. However, we’ve decided not to do this because Chris understandably doesn’t want to dig a big hole in our yard, which is very visible from the street. In addition, he was concerned about the potential effects of snow. Although you should keep the lip of the can a few inches above ground to prevent rain seepage, I could see how several inches of snow could end up as several inches of water in the bottom of your can. But for places with very little snow and temperatures just below freezing, I think this idea could work well.

Although it’s not appropriate for most produce storage, I am going to try storing just a few vegetables in the basement. Sweet potatoes and winter squash both do well in warmer, humid places – 50-60 F and 60-70% relative humidity – so I’ll see what happens.

4) Making jams and preserves.
Sadly, this an area with which I have little experience. Chris and I made an excellent tomato jam in the summer due to our glut, but it wasn’t designed to last more than a week. This is mainly because we haven’t mastered the next skill of…

5) Canning
One of the most traditional and popular ways of storing food, canning is one of those things that I suspect looks harder than it is. Unfortunately, if you screw up and don’t sanitize something well enough, you can make yourself sick. Although we haven’t yet tackled this area, I did buy the Better Homes and Gardens Canning magazine, which has a lot of intriguing recipes. Next year, I’m going to start by making fruit jams and canning tomatoes, products that have enough acidity to prevent most bacteria growth. According to the book, boiling-water canners, which are what all but the most hard-core home cooks use, shouldn’t be used at all for low-acid foods like carrots and green beans. So freezing is probably a better bet for those foods anyway.

6) Pickling
It’s rather shocking how many types of foods can be pickled, from the traditional cucumbers to the more exotic watermelon rinds. I didn’t make pickles this year, but I tried a couple of variations last year. I particularly liked the Three Day Pickles in How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. Unfortunately, they don’t last more than a few weeks, but they were quite tasty.

7) Fermenting
A good option if you like fermented things like sauerkraut. As I’m not particularly fond of them, we haven’t tried this either.

This is just a very short rundown of a few methods of food storage. For more information and a great bibliography of resources, check out the handout from the Ecolocity DC workshop on Preserving and Storing Food in Your Urban Home last fall. My friend Gerri, who taught the workshop, said the book Food Security for the Faint of Heart was particularly good.

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5 Responses to Be Like the Squirrel – Food Storage for the Winter

  1. Pthalo says:

    In the summer, the market across the street is full of vegetables with clods of earth still sticking to them. The old ladies bring their produce in from the village every morning, and younger farmers come too. In the winter, only the old ladies are left, with home grown flowers to sell. I see them most mornings wrapped in blankets against the cold with their baskets of flowers.

    • That’s a lovely image. Unfortunately, we don’t have many daily markets around us. Most of ours are specific farmers’ markets on the weekends, partly because the farmers live too far away to come every day and partly because the space is being used on weekdays. (Many are in parking lots or side streets that are shut down.) I wish we had more markets that carried fresh produce daily, like in Europe, but America’s food culture just doesn’t fit that model well.

  2. jemand says:

    You can also can pickles fairly easily, they are acidic enough to be safe with a boiling water bath. My main problem with canning was using quart jars while my pot wasn’t tall enough to submerge them. Not recommended, but nothing has gone bad yet.

    Unfortunately, my frozen broccoli seems to have become almost inedible due to extreme bitterness. I didn’t know I needed to blanch them, so perhaps this was the problem? Or maybe it was just a more bitter batch to begin with… or I just wasn’t in the mood for broccoli.

    • Good point on the pickles – vinegar is really acidic, so that makes sense. One reason I didn’t make pickles this year either is because one local farmers’ market has a great pickle stand and one of my friends runs a business that sells all sorts of pickled goods (https://www.facebook.com/ThePickleDC).

      I’m not sure why your broccoli is bitter. According to Chris (my husband), not blanching them should have resulted in them falling apart after freezing, but not necessarily have a huge effect on taste. Looking around on the Internet, it’s possible that your broccoli was originally bitter, especially if it matured during hot weather. Apparently broccoli that matures and begins to flower during hot weather is very woody and bitter.

  3. Cristopher Morsberger says:

    Great post!

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