It’s only mid-October. Deep breath. It’s not winter yet. But the other night while some friends and I were enjoying the first pumpkin pie of the season, we reminisced about freak October storms. In Chicago last year, October 31 decided to dress up as January 31, wrapping itself in a ghoulish costume of sleet and bitter wind. In Eastern Pennsylvania in late October 2011, snow blanketed leafy trees and even fresh apples and pumpkins in orchards!
But let’s think positive here. It’s mid-October, and that means we still have plenty of time to harvest local fruit and veggies, which means we will have a chance to think about the best ways to preserve them for our hopefully short and mild winter that brings just enough snow so we can get outside and enjoy all our favorite snowy day activities.
Right now, apples and pumpkins make obvious candidates for preserving, but you can even prepare hearty greens to keep long into the winter.
General Notes on Freezing and Canning
Freezing: Label and date everything, and check maximum storage times to maintain the highest quality. If your freezer can’t maintain the recommended temperature of 0 degrees F, be sure to use any frozen food before it reaches the maximum storage time. Also, remember also that all the microbes that cause fresh food to deteriorate will be active in thawed food, so don’t keep thawed food around any longer than you would fresh food.
Canning: Always follow current USDA guidelines. After canning, wipe and dry the jars and label and date them. Store in a cool, dark, dry pantry, away from any heat sources. If you notice any signs of spoilage in your home-canned foods (such as a bulging lid, mold, odor, leakage or, when opened, a burst of liquid), discard immediately.
Nineteen varieties of local apples fill the market right now, so snatch them up and preserve them at their peak! The multitude of ways to preserve apples promises to lift your spirits in January and February.
Dry Them: The Penn State Extension recommends selecting ripe, high-quality fruit to make the best end product, and gives detailed instructions on the best way to dry apples. When storing your dried fruit, be sure no moisture will get in.
Freeze That Apple Cider: Purchase fresh-pressed apple cider throughout the season and then freeze it for later! Many sites recommend pouring a glass of apple cider out of the gallon before you freeze it, just so the container won’t expand too much as it freezes. And then, of course, you’ll want to store the jug upright to prevent leakage.
And did you know you can even use and preserve crabapples? I just have to send that public service announcement out there because I recently made this crabapple onion jelly, which I made with dried thyme instead of fresh sage, and can’t get enough of it.
Pumpkins and Winter Squash
Freeze It: Freezing pumpkin and winter squash will give you a high quality product, whether you mash, puree or cube it, or turn it into pumpkin butter. To mash or puree and freeze pumpkin:
- Choose a richly colored pumpkin with moist, not-too-stringy flesh. (Wolff’s will help you select the right variety.)
- Wash the pumpkin, cut it into manageable sections, remove seeds and strings (kitchen scissors work well here), and then either boil it until soft, steam it, pressure cook it, or roast it. Peel away the rind and mash, or puree using a food processor, adding water if needed.
- Pack into a plastic or glass container with sufficient headspace, label and freeze.
DON’T Can It: Although cubed pumpkin and winter squash packed in water can be preserved in a pressure canner (and only a pressure canner, not a water bath!), mashed or pureed pumpkin and squash can’t be. The acid level of pumpkins and squash is too low to prevent the growth of botulism-causing bacteria, so that is why a water bath canner, which doesn’t get hot enough to kill the bacteria, won’t do the trick. And when it comes to pumpkin mashes and purees, their density makes it difficult for even the pressure canner to heat the center of the pumpkin concoction enough to kill the bacteria. The same goes for pumpkin butter, so freeze your way to success!
So why do you see pumpkin butter for sale from commercial producers? They acidify it and test it in ways that go above and beyond what a home cook can manage.
Dry It: Thinking of drying pumpkin? The National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP) has all the tips you need for drying your pumpkin and its seeds and for making a delicious pumpkin leather. And if that isn’t enough reason to click over to this site, maybe their guidelines on pickled pumpkin will tempt you!
Frozen greens boost the flavor and nutritional content of soups, stews, casseroles and more, and it’s easy to freeze kale, chard, spinach, collards and other hearty greens while they’re in season.
The NCHFP recommends blanching the greens before freezing. Blanching, says the Joy of Cooking, not only destroys surface microorganisms but also slows and sometimes even halts the enzyme processes that make plant tissue deteriorate. It only takes a few minutes and enriches the color and flavor of frozen vegetables.
To blanch and freeze greens:
- Select tender leaves, wash them well and remove any woody sections from stems.
- Prepare a pot of boiling water (with a tight lid) and a bowl of ice water.
- Place the greens in a blanching basket or tie them up in a big square of cheese cloth.
- Submerge the greens in boiling water, replace the lid, and set the timer for 2 minutes (or 3 for collards) once the water is boiling again.
- Once the greens have boiled for the allotted time, remove them immediately and plunge them into the bowl of ice water. This interrupts the cooking process.
- Cool, drain well, pat dry and package the greens. Leave 1/2-inch headspace. Seal, label and freeze.
- Cook before serving.
Does it really make that much of a difference? Why not just wash the greens and throw them in a freezer bag? This summer I blanched green beans, fresh from a friend’s garden. When I thawed and cooked them to serve for dinner a month or two later, the flavor was so much better than any frozen green beans I have ever tasted. This gives me hope that fall flavors will indeed carry me through the winter.