There is a little panic in my DIY heart. Time’s running out; frost will be here all too soon. Farmers markets and my own garden plot are overflowing with the most glorious fruits and vegetables. My fellow preservers and I know that putting up the season’s best will return big dividends come February.
In my house, some summer weekends have been devoted to dilly beans, peaches in jars and tomatoes (crushed and sauced). But every weekend, I make time to stash away plenty of other seasonal foods in the freezers.
I have two of them: a small one in the basement and a roomy compartment in my kitchen refrigerator. Still, there is only so much space available, so I am judicious about what makes the cut. Foods that store well in jars do not go into the freezer and vice versa. Foods we eat regularly make the cold cut.
Over the years, I’ve tried freezing almost everything. Some foods emerged tasteless and without texture. (Hello, cubed eggplant.) Some foods were fresher-tasting and in better shape than similar items purchased at the grocery store. (Love you, blueberries.) I’ve learned to consider the freezer an extension of the pantry, filling it with ingredients I use frequently. And I love to stock it with ready-to-eat meals.
This has been a sensational season for greens. They’ve been available right through the summer because of regular rain and moderate evening temperatures. I freeze steamed, chopped leaves of spinach, chard or kale to use later in stratas, soups and frittatas and in ricotta for pasta fillings. I preserve chard stems a different way — pickled, with red onion — and they taste great atop tacos.
String beans are plump and meaty and made for freezing; varieties include Kentucky Wonders, Romanos and yellow stringing beans. Red Bud Farm in Berkeley, W.Va., grows haricots verts in three bright colors: yellow, green and deep purple. (I buy them at the Broad Branch/Chevy Chase Farmers’ Market in the District, temporarily relocated to the Chevy Chase Community Center.) Once I manage to get just five pounds of these tender beauties in the freezer, I’ve got several quick side dishes to serve during those monotonous root vegetable months.
Blueberries freeze especially well. I use the IQF (individually quick frozen) method of chilling them separate and solid, on baking sheets, before storing them in jars or zip-top bags. The same goes for pitted firm plums, peeled peach slices, halved apricots, raspberries and blackberries, which I pull from the freezer for cobblers, muffins, clafoutis and pies.
Corn is quick to freeze, steamed or roasted on the cob before I remove it with a sharp knife. I add it directly to corn bread, stir-fries and black bean salsas. The freezer provides an antidote to a perennial summer overload; I grate zucchini or spiralize it, then package in amounts just right for making fritters and quickbreads.
When you’re planning what to freeze, consider your wintertime grocery shopping. Which freezer-section foods do you regularly purchase? Now’s the time to buy that extra pint of fresh blueberries or beans, at their flavor peak, and freeze them for later.
To halt ripening, to preserve the food at the height of its texture and flavor and to keep its colors vibrant, all vegetables should be blanched — quickly scalded in boiling water or steamed — then shocked in ice water.
Some low-acid (high-pH) foods require pressure canning but turn to mush when exposed to the high temperatures and the long cooking necessary to safely preserve them. I’ve tried pressure-canning beans, for example, but never liked the results. (Don’t even ask me about pressure-canning spinach.)
To make sure foods emerge as tasty as they went into the freezer, remove all the air from the packaging. When air gets in, ice crystals form. That’s freezer burn, and it’s ruinous. For the best results, use a vacuum sealer or a drinking straw to suck the air from a zip-top bag. I’ve found that bags stack well and, with the air removed, take up less room than freezer containers. Wrap everything in serving sizes appropriate for your household.
The freezer can be a short-term storage solution as well. If your garden’s trickling tomatoes, simply pop them, whole, into a zip-top bag and freeze until you have enough for water-bath canning or sauce-making. And if you hate blanching and peeling tomatoes, the freezer might be your new best friend: The fruit comes out of the freezer with loosened skins.
This year, eggplant has been bountiful and inexpensive. I’ve taken advantage of that by making what I call “stacks,” in casseroles with sauce. With a dedicated day in the kitchen, I can fill several small-serving, freezer-ready dishes or three large casseroles. At the holidays, I know I’ll give thanks for a vegetarian side that’s already done.
So one day each weekend, I’m working my way through the roster of foods I hope to tuck away before first frost. Yes, my busiest DIY time comes when the kitchen’s at its hottest. My strategy is to enlist help, to serve cold beverages and to divvy up the bounty.
Barrow is the author of “Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving” (W.W. Norton, 2014). She blogs at www.mrswheelbarrow.com. She will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at live.washingtonpost.com.