With nearly an acre garden, our extended family likes to preserve much of the harvest for later use. Over the years we’ve accumulated the newest ways of doing so, always cognizant of timesaving and ease of preparation,
The first gain we’ve found is using a dehydrator for drying herbs, tomatoes and fruit. Ours is an inexpensive model (under $100) and within a day or two we can put up quart jars of half a dozen herbs with hardly lifting a finger. We simply cut the herbs when they’re ready, making sure to do so on a sunny morning when any dew is dried away. Then swish the herbs in water to remove any grit or insects. Tosave time, we lay the herbs on dry dish towels in front of an open window to do the initial drying.
Within an hour they’re ready to snip onto the dehydrator trays. Use leaves only, not stems, for the purest taste. The leaves should be arranged pretty much single layered on the five or six racks of the dehydrator, then assembled one on top of the other in the machine. With very fine leaves, such as thyme or oregano, we leave them on the finer stems, then when they are dry, slide the dried leaves from the stems between thumb and two fingers..
Turn the dehydrator on and let in run for an hour. Check at that time to see if the trays need to be alternated. (Trays at the bottom of the system will dry more quickly.) Unless you’re doing the operation on a very humid day, chances are you’ll need less than two hours total for your dehydration process, probably a lot less.
Meanwhile, you can be preparing the next batch of herbs, basil and parsley work well, as does summer savory, thyme and oregano (which takes less than a half-hour total), and chives, dill weed and rosemary (also quick.). When your herbs are finished and stocked in shining clean glass jars or any other airtight container you prefer, it’s time to dry your tomatoes.
In Italy, you can’t drive around the countryside without seeing whole tomato plants hung upside down on the exterior of houses. I presume this is part of the making of sun dried tomatoes. Years ago we used an abandoned Pontiac in our field for drying herbs and tomatoes—on a hot day the car was like an oven! But once we discovered how easy the dehydrator makes our work, we changed the modus operandi.
The addition of dried tomatoes to homemade spaghetti or pizza sauce enriches and flavorizes that sauce unbelievably well. It’s like adding Italian sunshine right in your kitchen! And simple to prepare. Using preferably plum or other meaty tomatoes, wash and dry the tomato with paper towels, remove the core and any bad spots, lightly squeeze the tomato downward into the sink to allow any excess juices to flow out. Then slice in1/3” slices and place on dehydrator racks. Dry as you dried herbs, allowing slightly more time for the tomatoes.
When they are crisp dry, but not blackened with the dehydration process yet, pack them a few to a small freezer bag and keep in the freezer, or, if you plan to use them within a month, on a cupboard shelf. You can also store them in oil flavored with herbs or garlic, for a tasty addition chopped up with cream cheese for a spread, or added to sauces and stews.
Since we have a large crop of tomatoes, we do some the newer “old-fashioned way,” (the old-fashioned way was to boil the tomatoes and hot pack them into boiling hot jars, a risky venture at best!) Our method calls for blanching, peeling and cold-packing them into Mason jars, covering with a wet, heated lid and screwing down the outer ring of the two-piece cover.
Then we process in a pressure cooker according to manufacturer’s directions, or in a boiling water bath for 15-20 minutes. The pot for this bath must be large enough that the jars and lids are covered with the boiling water. Be careful removing them to a dish-towel covered surface, where they can cool gradually.
If the days are too warm for processing on the stove, we bag whole, washed, smallish tomatoes in freezer containers. When we’re ready to make spaghetti sauce, we remove the bag a couple of hours ahead, process the defrosting tomatoes through a blender, then pour them into a dutch over for cooking down into a summery-tasting sauce. Add oil, garlic, some of your dried basil, even chunks of browned sausage or meatballs for a wonderful sauce.
For jams and jellies, we now use the quick-cook and freeze method, available on most containers of fruit pectin, such as Sure-Jell. While the jars will have to be stored in the freezer, there’s no risks of handling hot paraffin to cover the jam, and virtually no risk of spoilage in the freezer. Mark the tops of your jars clearly, because some cold December day when you want the taste of summer raspberries, you won’t be able to identify the frozen contents of that little jar!
Freezing fruits and vegetable for winter use has never been very difficult, and it just got easier. County Extension Services now advise that for short term freezing, chopped green peppers, onions, even herbs can be frozen without blanching. Simply prepare your product in the right ize dice for you and layer them on a sheet cake pan directly in the freezer. A few hours later, bag the contents of your sheet pan and label it.
In addition to canning, freezing and jelling, we also make relishes and pickles, but have not found many quick methods that thrill us. We do like the look and taste of some vegetables picked from the garden, wound into braids and/or threaded onto a rope for hanging in the kitchen and using as the season wears on. Onions, garlic bulbs, and shallots work best in the braids, and hot chili peppers make attractive garlands or strings.
Just thread a needle with carpet thread, run it through the stems of hot peppers, and continue threading them on until you have a pleasing hank. Tie off the string or thread with knots, and hang over a hook or nail in your kitchen. Snip off a hot pepper or two for adding to sauces, or grinding up for use at the table. (Take precautions when grinding peppers, protecting both eyes, nose, and mouth, and sensitive fingers.)
With a little ingenuity and a minimum of time, home gardeners and others can enjoy the taste of the harvest for months, at reasonable cost and premium quality!With a little