"If you’re reading this in midwinter and that is your solution, put the thought away. Just never mind, come back in six months. Eating locally in winter is easy. But the time to think about that would be in August." - Barbara Kingsolver on eating locally, in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle
Do any of you lovely readers keep a zero waste kitchen? Aside from a few condiments in my fridge, I no longer really bring home packaged foods. If I can't find something unpackaged or in bulk, I tend to do without it. This system has its personal benefits, too - I rarely eat processed foods and I mostly eat seasonally, which I love because it helps me slow down and appreciate each month of the year, and because in-season food is the most delicious, bar none. But man, it’s hard to go the winter without berries, isn’t it?
If you're trying to keep a zero waste or sustainable kitchen and thus avoid produce packaged in plastic or trucked in from far away places, here are a few very simple ideas of ways to put up some food for the fall, winter, and spring. In my dreams I would have the tools and the time to can and dehydrate all sorts of things, filling my shelves with preserved bounty. Of course, my real life looks nothing like that, and that's okay.
I hope this offers you some easy inspiration and encouragement to do a little something. You don't have to can tomatoes and freeze berries and make pickles and and and and and - putting up food isn't an all or nothing proposition, and it doesn't have to be a huge production. In fact, I've found that if I think of it in those terms I won't actually get any of it done, so I've made an effort to remind myself of the ways in which it can be easy, even lazy.
So, this summer, consider just choosing your two favorite kinds of seasonal fruits or vegetables (the ones that you pine for all winter) and put them away for later months using one of the simple methods below:
Freeze as is.
Some things, like berries, peaches, apricots, or nectarines, can be frozen whole (or, halved, pits removed, or chopped) and raw. It's really easy to lay them out in a single layer on a cookie sheet or plate in your freezer. Once they're frozen, transfer them to sealed glass jars (or, stainless steel containers, which won't break and take up less room in your freezer). That's it, you're done!!!! Hooray! Pats on the back all around.
Cook, then freeze.
Want to make jam but don't want to can it? Freeze it. Tomato sauce? Freeze it. Got a vegetable surplus? Blanch it, then freeze it. Making your favorite jams or sauces when their ingredients are ripe, local, and package-free at your nearest farmers market isn't too hard, and then you can just pop in them in jars or containers in the freezer. As for plain vegetables, most keep best if they're quickly blanched and drained before being frozen in a single layer on a baking pan, then transferred to their more permanent freezerly homes. I often do a quick Internet search to find the best way to cook a vegetable before freezing it. Corn, tomato sauce, jam, compote, and broccoli have all met their fate this way in my kitchen.
Most refrigerator pickles (that is, foods preserved in a vinegar brine but not canned per se in a boiling water bath or pressure canner) will last a few months in the fridge. Look for a recipe on the Internet (search "insert vegetable name here refrigerator pickle") - most recipes will tell you how long you can expect your pickles to last. Cucumbers make a classic pickle, of course, but asparagus, green beans, and beets are also delicious. Have you ever had pickled beets? I typically don't like beets but I will be first in line for fresh pickled beets. Yum.
Buy big bundles of in-season herbs cheaply at the farmers' market. After you've used all you want fresh, dry the remainder by hanging it up in a dark, well-ventilated spot or (carefully letting it dehydrate) in a very low oven. You can chop or crumble them into pieces, store them in jars, and enjoy locally grown, inexpensive herbs in your cooking all year round.
Okay, what do you think? Sound possible? No matter where you are, one or two of these preservation methods would be doable, right? It's berry season in the midwest right now, and on my walks I've been picking handfuls of raspberries and black raspberries. When I have more than I can eat that day, I slide them onto a cookie sheet in the freezer. After a day, they're ready to transfer to glass jars, where they'll keep until I'm in the depths of a berry-less winter and ready to eat them. Preserving them this way takes five minutes, tops, and I know I'll be glad I did in the months to come.