MEALS-IN-A-HURRY are getting all the attention these days, and undeniably they deserve it. But for one who is fascinated by cooking, there is nothing like food that matures. You put up your summer peaches as a new bride, and serve them one day to your crawling baby. The jerky you dried on a winter Saturday sustains you on your autumn mountain climb.
Preserving foods allows you to contemplate your art beyond the next meal. An hour from start to finishing dinner is an accomplishment. Six months from start to finishing a batch of pickles is a satisfaction.
And there is the excitement of observing change: cucumbers become pickles, cabbage ferments into sauerkraut, mangoes thicken and darken into spicy-sweet chutney. Once I made an English spiced beef, marinated and turned it for six weeks, waited for its metamorphosis. When it was finished, I realized that I didn't like that particular flavor, so I gave it away. It didn't matter, because the process had been intriguing. Another time I made ginger beer, coddled and watched the bottles. They exploded and paved my garage with sticky ground glass. I saved not a bottle but regretted not a moment of the process.
For years I tried to figure out the secret of preparing olives, but nothing worked, and nobody could tell me what to do to render those bitter, hard fruits soft and saline.
Now Time-Life Books has. The newest of its Good Cook series is called "Preserving." It is a book to read and enjoy with the time you save from your meals-in-a-hurry. It not only tells you the secret of preparing olives, it does so with beautiful step-by-step photographs. It does so in a convenient way, pointing you quickly to the general discussion, the specific institutions and the varied recipes; you don't have to wade through pages of text to find the tricks of the trade you are seeking at the moment.
While "Preserving" is unique for its breadth -- it covers preparing caviar, confits and rillettes, beef jerky and salted anchovies -- it also presents, simply and conveniently, the more common home preservation methods, freezing and canning. With your zucchini and tomatoes threatening to fill your closets and drawers, it teaches in a hurry what you need to know about raw pack and hot pack canning, making juices, jellies, jams and fruit butters (and fascinating solidified fruit purees known as fruit cheeses). It can get you started on your Thanksgiving mincemeat, remind you how to dry or freeze your extra herbs.
The section on freezing, unlike those on canning, jellies and jams, vinegar and alcohol preserves, fat-sealing, drying and brining, is not followed-up by recipes, but is self-contained. Within the chapter are instructions for choosing, preparing, blanching and wrapping foods for freezing, enough to let you feel in charge of your burgeoning garden. Perhaps most important, it explains why each kind of fruit or vegetable requires a specific preparation method.
Some fruits, for instance, can be tray-frozen -- that is, frozen on a tray or pan with none of the pieces touching one another, with a sprinkling of sugar if desired, then packed loosely into an airtight container once frozen. This method is good for fruits with a firm cell structure, such as berries (except strawberries), grapes and rhubarb. Dark-colored, juicy fruits such as cherries, strawberries and plums, as well as pineapples and quinces, can be drypacked; layered with sugar in an airtight container. Most other fruits are best frozen as wet packs, covered with liquid (usually a sugar syrup, 1 to 2 cups of syrup -- made of 1 to 2 parts sugar to 2 parts water -- for each quart of fruit) to seal them from air. Pale-fleshed fruits such as peaches and apricots need ascorbic acid (vitamin C, preferably in crystal form) or lemon juice to keep them from darkening. Add 1/2 teaspoon ascorbic acid crystals dissolved in a little water or 1 teaspoon lemon juice per quart of syrup, then keep the fruits submerged in the syrup by putting a crumpled piece of waxed or freezer paper on top of the fruit in the freezer container. Wet-pack requires leaving headroom in the container, for the syrup will expand.
Vegetables, unlike most fruits, require blancing before freezing. Onions, peppers, herbs and -- with less satisfactory results -- mushrooms and tomatoes can be cut to desired size and frozen raw. Root vegetables like beets and turnips should be wet-packed, cooked and packed with butter or oil; mushrooms are also best prepared this way.
Otherwise, vegetables need to be blanched -- boiled briefly in a large quantity of water -- to stop their enzyme action, which would otherwise discolor, toughen and develop off-flavors in them. Peas, snow peas and summer squash or zucchini are to be blanched only 1 minute, spinach and other greens (best steamed rather than boiled) for 1 1/2 minutes, limas and green beans 2 minutes, asparagus 3 minutes (their tips steamed for 2 minutes), brussels sprouts and cut carrots 4 minutes, broccoli and cauliflower 5 minutes, corn on the cob 8 minutes (4 1/2 minutes if to be cut off the cob for freezing). After blanching, foods must be cooled quickly by plunging in ice water or cold running water. After draining and drying, the vegetables are frozen on trays and then bagged once frozen, or frozen directly in rigid airtight containers.
How long foods can be kept frozen depends how well they have been wrapped, how quickly they were frozen and how low and how even the freezer's temperature is. In any case, the time limits are a matter of losing quality -- deteriorating flavor, texture and appearance -- rather than of safety. Frozen foods do not become dangerous to eat, merely unpalatable. Fats, however, do become rancid in the freezer, so fatty foods should be used fairly rapidly.
Fruits and vegetables should be frozen as quickly as possible after harvest and, as for canning, they should be fully ripe but firm and unblemished. They should be carefully washed, particularly those such as spinach and broccoli that harbor grit and sand. Then they should be peeled, pitted, stemmed, cored, diced, whatever would need to be done before using, since they are considerably more fragile after freezing. Label and freeze as quickly as possible (the book even discusses your freezer's capacity for quick freezing).
But all that is plain practicality. The sleeper in "Preserving" is something everyone needs to know in order to lead a fully civilized life in Washington: how to make your own corned beef. CORNED MEAT (Makes 5 pounds)
Any touch cut of meat can be used for this recipe: beef round, chuck, blank, plate or brisket; pork Boston shoulder, picnic shoulder or blade end; lamb shoulder or neck. Goose or duck, cut into serving pieces rather than slices, also can be corned by this method. 5 pounds meat, sliced 1 inch thick, pricked all over with a metal skewer 1 cup coarse salt Brine (recipe below)
Rub the slices of meat with salt. Put a layer of salt in a large glass or ceramic bowl, and add a layer of meat. Alternate layers of salt and meat, ending with a layer of salt. Cover, and place the bowl in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
Make the brine, strain, and let it cool. Rinse the meat under cold running water to remove the salt and coagulated juices clinging to the slices. Place the meat in a clean bowl and cover it with the brine.Set an inverted plate on top of the meat and weight the plate with a jar full of water to keep the meat submerged. Refrigerate for 24 hours, then use a spoon to lift off any scum that has risen to the surface. Refrigerate again and repeat the skimming daily. The meat will be ready in 9 or 10 days. BRINE (Makes 4 quarts) 4 quarts water 3 cups coarse salt 2 3/4 cups dark brown sugar 1 bay leaf 1 sprig thyme 10 juniper berries, crushed 10 peppercorns, crushed
Combine all of the ingredients and bring to a boil.Boil for 5 minutes. Let the brine cool before using. From "Preserving" PEACH LEATHER (Makes about 1/4 pound)
Apple and quince leathers are made in the same fashion.Only a little flavoring of spice or lemon is added to them. 1 pound peaches, peeled, halved, pitted and cut into pieces 1/2 to 1 cup sugar
Add 1/2 cup of the sugar to the peaches. Cook gently, stirring and mashing the fruit, until the peaches are thick and dry -- about 15 minutes. Cool the peach mixture, then spread it in thin sheets on greased boards or large platters, and set it in the sun. When well dried, sprinkle the peach leather with additional sugar, roll up the sheets and store them in thick paper bags. Peach leather will keep perfectly from season to season. Adapted in "Preserving" from the Woman's Auxiliary of Olivet Episcopal Church, "Virginia Cookery -- Past and Present." BLACK OLIVES IN BRINE Olives Noires en Saumure (Makes about 4 quarts)
Green olives may be used for this recipe.Instead of being pricked with a needle, each green olive should be tapped with a mallet to crack the flesh without crushing it. 4 pounds black olives, each pricked in 3 or 4 places with a needle 3/4 cup salt 1 bay leaf 2 sprigs fresh fennel 24 coriander seeds 1/2 orange, peel only, pared in thin strips
Place the olives in a large crock or jar, and cover them with water. Allow the olives to soak for 10 days, changing the water every day. In a saucepan, combine 2 quarts of fresh water with the salt, bay leaf, fennel, coriander and orange peel. Boil this brine for 15 minutes, then let it cool. Drain the olives. Cover them with the cold brine. Store them in a cool place for at least 1 week before using them. Refrigerated, the olives will keep for 1 to 2 months. Adapted in "Preserving" from "Cline Vence Encyclopedie Hachette der la Cuisine Regionale" DRIED TOMATOE PASTE (Makes about 1 to 2 pounds) 20 pounds tomatoes, quartered 5 large onions, chopped 10 celery ribs with leaves, chopped 10 garlic cloves, finely chopped 1 bunch fresh parsley, chopped 10 sprigs oregano, chopped 10 sprigs thyme, chopped 2 bay leaves 50 black peppercorns, crushed (about 1/2 tablespoon) 20 whole cloves 3 tablespoons salt
Simmer everything together (do not add water -- just mash the tomatoes a little so they make their own juice) for an hour or so, stirring it every time you pass the stove. Now, 2 to 3 cups at a time, puree the sauce in the blender, and then put it through a sieve if you wish.
Put the pot of pureed pulp back on the stove, but turn the heat to low so that it does not scorch. Stirring occasionally, simmer very slowly, uncovered, until the pulp is reduced by half and quite thick. This will take several hours.
Next, spread the pulp 1/2 inch thick on plates or stainless steel baking sheets and put out in the sun. As it starts to dry, cut through the paste in a crisscross pattern, to allow air to penetrate as much as possible. Protect the paste from insects with a storm or screen window, a piece of cheesecloth or netting. A day or two of hot sun will dry the pulp to the stage when you can scrape it off the plates or baking sheets and form it into small nonsticky balls.
If you do not live in a sunny climate, you can dry the paste in a 140-degree oven; this will take 6 to 8 hours.
After the paste is rolled into small balls, let them dry for a day more at room temperature, and then store them in a tighly lidded jar. To use, dilute with a little boiling water or stock, or add a couple of balls to a batch of minestrone or spaghetti sauce. Adapted in "Preserving" from Carol Hupping Stoner (Editor), "Stocking Up" FABULOUSLY GOOD MINCEMEAT (Makes about 8 quarts) 3 pounds lean beef brisket or rump 3 pounds fresh beef tongue 1 1/2 pounds suet, finely chopped 2 pounds muscat raisins 2 pounds seedles white raisins 2 pounds dried currants 1/2 pound candied citron peel, cut into thin shreds 1/2 pound candied orange peel, cut into thin shreds 1/4 pound candied lemon peel, cut into thin shreds 1/2 pound dried figs or pitted dates, chopped (optional) 2 cups sugar 2 cups strawberry jam 1 tablespoon salt 2 teaspoons grated nutmeg 2 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon 1 teaspoon ground allspice 1 teaspoon ground mace 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves 3 1/4 cups sherry About 1 1/2 quarts cognac
Cover the beef and the tongue with water, and cook them over low heat until tender, about 2 1/2 to 3 hours. Cool the meats, peel and trim the tongue, and put the meats through the coarse disk of a food grinder or chop them by hand. In a deep crock, combine the meats with all of the remaining ingredients, adding enough cognac to make a rather loose mixture of the fruits and meats. Mix the ingredients thoroughly, cover the crock, and let the mincemeat stand for a month or so before using it.
Check the mincemeat each week to see if absorption necessitates adding more sherry or cognac, or both. Adapted in "Preserving" from James Beard, "Delights and Prejudices"