It's Harvest Time! Freeze it, Dry it, Can it.

by Sandra Tonn, RHN
Source: Health Action Magazine Fall 2007

Whether you've grown your own food this summer, shopped at a farmer's market or chosen locally grown produce from the grocery store, it's harvest season. Along with the opportunity to enjoy the abundant fall harvest of local, fresh fruit and vegetables is the chance to save some of this goodness for the winter months ahead.

Preserving some of the fall harvest is a winning choice in many ways. For you, the consumer, it helps to save money, adds local variety to the winter diet, and brings fall harvest nutrition to the table. Preserving also helps the local farmer, community economy, and the environment. Imagine the food miles you save by walking to the freezer for some locally-grown blueberries instead of driving to the store to buy fruit that's been flown into the country from afar.

It's amazing how easy and fun food preservation is once you apply yourself to the task. In addition to the great food and savings, it just feels good to do something that makes so much sense and has been a part of sustainable survival many years.

Freeze it
The absolute easiest form of preserving seasonal bounty is freezing it. Enjoy fruit-filled muffins, pancakes, smoothies and pies in mid-winter.

If fruits and vegetables aren't ripe and ready for eating when they go in the freezer, they won't be ripe and ready when they come out. Choose produce that's in its prime and freeze it as soon after picking as possible. The longer the produce sits around, the less nutrition will be preserved.

When freezing berries, first spread a layer on a cookie sheet and freeze. This prevents the berries from freezing together in one big blob. Once frozen, place them in a plastic container or bag, label, and store in the freezer.

Most vegetables will retain more nutrition if quickly blanched before freezing, to stop enzyme deterioration. Simply dunk vegetables into boiling water, remove, plunge into ice-cold water (to stop cooking), drain, dry, and freeze right away. High quality plastic bags, wrap and containers make for safe and successful freezing. Such materials are readily available and re-usable.

Most fruits may be frozen without significant quality loss for eight to 12 months. Most vegetables will maintain quality for 12 to 18 months, but why not eat them up within the year and then re-stock the freezer with the new harvest?

Can it
Enjoy locally-grown tomatoes for pasta sauce, chili, and minestrone soup this winter. Canned peaches make a wonderful breakfast or dessert, and pickled cucumbers, beets, or cabbage offer disease-fighting plant chemicals and enzymes as well as lactic acid to promote healthy digestion and colon health. How about some blackberry jam for a treat? Canned fruits and veggies make great gifts, too.

Canning really means "jarring." Cooked or raw fruit and vegetables can be preserved in sterile glass jars, sealed and stored. As with freezing, fruit and vegetables should be in their prime before canning. Fruit can be preserved using natural sugar substitutes, and vegetables can be pickled using sea salt and/or vinegar.

Canning equipment and jars can often be purchased second-hand at thrift stores or garage sales. Buying new jar seals and reusing jars makes canning affordable year after year. Most canned foods will last for up to a year.

Dry it
Drying or dehydrating food is yet another easy way to preserve the fall harvest. Dried apricot and apples taste divine. Dried basil offers taste and nutrition to a winter recipe.

While there are many ways to dry food, including in the sun or by the pilot light of an oven, investing in a dehydrator is the simplest, safest and most efficient way. Garage sales are an excellent place to pick up a used dehydrator for a fraction of the cost of a new one.

Dried fruit can be used as a fruit leather-type snack, cut up for meusli or trail mix, or re-hydrated and used in cooking and desserts. Pick ripe fruit, wash, dry, slice and dehydrate. The juicier the fruit, the longer it will take to dry. Vegetables and herbs can also be dried. As with freezing, blanched vegetables will preserve better (with the exception of peppers, parsley, onions and mushrooms). If the food is well dehydrated, it will last for up to a year when stored in airtight containers and kept in a cool, dark place, such as the freezer.

Store it
Thanks to Mother Nature's design skills, some of the fall harvest needs only to be properly stored to be enjoyed at a later date. Traditionally, root vegetables, such as carrots, beets, potatoes, parsnips, taro, yams, and shallots, were kept in root cellars. When given the proper storage conditions, these hearty veggies will last weeks or even months. Firstly, store all root vegetables unwashed.

Carrots and sweet potatoes will last weeks when kept in a cool, dark and well ventilated place, but not when kept in plastic bags in the refrigerator. Store them loose and keep them away from sunlight and temperatures above 16 C (60 F).

Store regular potatoes in a paper bag in a dark, dry, cool place, but not in the fridge. The ideal temperature is between 7 C (45 F) and 10 C (50 F). When stored properly, without heat, they will last for up to two months. Check them occasionally to see that they aren't sprouting or shriveling. If so, remove them so as not to spoil the others.

Beets will last in the refrigerator crisper for up to a month. Cut all but 5 cm (2 inches) of the greens and stems from the root to help retain moisture in the beet.

With care and interest, preserving some of the beautiful fall harvest by freezing, canning, dehydrating and storing, can help to sustain us, our community and our planet.

Sandra Tonn is a registered holistic nutritionist, natural health writer and speaker, whole foods nutrition teacher, and certified hatha, yin, and kids yoga instructor.
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