Row after row of jewel toned fruits and vegetables line the canning room shelves. Bags of halved peppers, green beans, peas, and corn fill the freezer along with foraged berries from the wild part of our land. Dried tomatoes, herbs, and shelled beans fill colorful jars on the kitchen counters. Our sour cherries are frozen, canned, and dried along with apples and peaches from a neighboring farm. Pesto and chutneys fill the shelves. Flavored vinegars and oils wait to add zest to our meals. Over 40 cured winter squash decorate my son’s music studio in our basement. While boxes of cured sweet potatoes and potatoes are stacked in cool storage. Our cold storage (a dedicated refrigerator) is overflowing with fall apples, winter radishes, turnips, cabbage, and rutabagas. I am ceaselessly amazed by how much of our produce we are able to enjoy throughout the year.
When we moved to our few acres of heaven thirteen years ago, I didn’t know a dehydrator from a pressure cooker. I’d never heard of blanching to stop enzyme activity. I’d never successfully grown anything but tomatoes, a few bush beans, and a single row of corn. I knew my grandmothers had gardened and canned, and I was close to aunts and cousins who still did so. I was pretty sure I could figure it out with a little help from family.
So I planted a garden – see Rule Breaking Gardening for that particular adventure! I bought a deep pan for canning in a boiling water bath. My husband surprised me that first Christmas with Ball’s Complete Book of Home Preserving. And I purchased canning jars, lids, and rings. I started with tomatoes because that is, after all, why we all really garden. Then I expanded out into fruit pie fillings and jams. Did you know that it is nearly impossible to get jam to “a full rolling boil” on a glass-topped electric range? I finally learned why when the appliance repair man explained that these types of burners sense when the pan is hot and cycle off periodically. Lots of ruined jam paved the way to that discovery!
Things got a little more expensive, and we became commensurately more committed to the process with the purchase of an outdoor gas camp stove. My sweet husband researched carefully and found a double burner stove used by beer brewers that could bear the weight of my canning pot. This gave me the added benefit of taking the heat outside instead of steaming up my kitchen. Then we were given a brand new pressure canner. We’d met some people who had over prepared for Y2K and found themselves with several still-in-the-box pressure canners in their basement. Now I could explore canning low acid vegetables, soups, and meats. If you find the thought of canning daunting, look at the Home Canning Guide for step-by-step instructions.
Along the way I experimented with both canning and freezing different vegetables to determine which method we liked best for each food. It often came down to how I used the specific crop after putting it up. At one point I gave up on freezing green beans even though we thought they tasted better. Turns out you need to blanch them for a couple of minutes in boiling water, quickly submerge them in ice cold water, and then dry them quickly prior to freezing them. We no longer can many green beans but our freezer is stocked with them. The variety matters as well. We now use Cantare bush green beans exclusively for our frozen bean harvest.
We also discovered, by trial and error, how much we needed of each food and which one we’d really use throughout the year. My first year growing turnips I got carried away only to learn that there really is a limit to how many turnips we care to eat. Then I stumbled on winter radishes which were a game changer. I still grow and store turnips, especially since we learned that Boule D’or turnips maintain a milder taste throughout their growth. But I preserve a much larger harvest of winter radishes. They are more colorful, cook up sweeter, and are tasty raw dipped in lemony hummus. We currently grow two Indian varieties: Pusa Jamuni with purple flesh, and Pusa Gulabi which are bright fuchsia colored. The Chinese Red Meat (also called Watermelon) radish and Shawo Fruit radish with its vibrant green flesh are both from China. We serve their colorful slices mixed together in crystal bowls to the amazement of our guests. To eat these radishes hot we cube them, toss them in olive oil and kosher salt, and roast them until just softened. This pretty green, pink, and red dish is sweet on the palate and lovely on the plate.
Tantalizing Tomatoes are another matter. I’ve yet to grow more than I could use! Once all the fresh eating is done, my husband’s addiction is my homemade Tomato Basil Soup. Once unfortunate year I only canned 30 quarts for the three of us which were long gone by February. Looking into my husband’s sad eyes, I opened all my remaining jars of canned tomatoes and quickly turned them into the soup, which I then re-canned. Lesson learned! Forty jars of Tomato Basil soup is our absolute minimum to make it through the winter and spring.
With so many greens (Swiss chard, kale, lettuce, and cabbage) growing into the winter and coming back early spring, I’ve stopped trying to freeze greens. During the month or two that I can’t pick them from my garden I simply buy them from the store or meet the need with sprouts and microgreens grown indoors.
What are your favorite foods to can? Which do you like better frozen? What uses have you found for dehydrated vegetables? Now is the time to start planning what you’ll grow and store next year.