Ask Chef Hosch and Ann
Q: Chef, do you have any ideas on what I can do with an overly abundant harvest from my garden this year?
A: Congratulations on your green thumb! Harvest time is when all of the hard work planting your garden in the spring and tending it throughout the summer is beginning to pay off. Everyone should take advantage of the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables available this time of year. Whether the produce is from your own garden, a generous neighbor or from a farmers market that sells fresh, locally grown produce, make sure you don’t miss out. Here in central Pennsylvania, harvest time, like Christmas, only comes once a year.
My first suggestion is to plan your menus around the fresh produce you have available. Old standbys like steamed broccoli, cucumber salad and sauteed summer squash or zucchini are old standbys for a good reason. Try this quick recipe for a very simple cucumber salad:
2 large cucumbers, peeled and sliced thin
1 medium red onion sliced very thin, separated into rings
1/2 cup champagne vinegar
1/2cup diced fresh basil
Pour the vinegar over the cucumbers. Toss to coat cucumbers. Sprinkle with fresh basil and arrange onion slices on top. Chill overnight.
You probably have a lot of tomatoes, onions and peppers on hand. Chop them up; add some cilantro and salt; squeeze in some fresh lime juice and you have a basic salsa. Salsa is delicious, nutritious, low calorie and easy to make. There are many variations on the basic salsa recipe but here is one of my favorites.
4 large heirloom tomatoes (preferably different colors) diced small
3/4 cup diced red onion
5 serrano chili peppers (or your favorite hot pepper) diced
1 cup of diced cilantro
2 teaspoons sea salt
Mix all ingredients together and chill. Serve with tortilla chips or as topping for meat, poultry or fish.
Another idea is to mix up a batch of fresh bruschetta. Tomato, onion, olive oil, garlic and basil are common ingredients for bruschetta but there are many variations. It is typically served on crusty bread but don’t stop there. Like salsa, it can be used as a topping (or base) for chicken, steak or fish.
8 tomatoes, diced
1/2 cup fresh dried basil
1/2 cup diced red onion
1/4 cup parmesan or asiago cheese
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil or your favorite nut oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup diced grilled red, yellow and-or orange pepper. Grilling the pepper before adding to the bruschetta adds a unique, smoky flavor.
Double or triple the recipes and freeze for later on in the year when fresh produce is not as plentiful. Sweet and hot peppers, onions and raw tomatoes are among the few foods that freeze well without blanching.
Freeze your harvest
Freezing is a fast, easy way to preserve the harvest from your garden. Almost all of the fruits and vegetables that are in season this time of year can be frozen. Freezing preserves the texture, taste and nutritional value better than canning.
When preparing fresh vegetables to freeze, basically prepare them as if you are going to cook and enjoy them right away. Remove any woody stems, shells, seeds etc. Trim off leaves. Wash. Cut into smallish, uniform pieces. Blanch.
Blanching vegetables is very important. It stops the enzyme action that causes the food to lose flavor, texture and color. A quick plunge in boiling water cleans the surface of the vegetables and eliminates dirt, mold, pesticides and organisms.
There are basically two kinds of blanching that I recommend, water blanching and steam blanching. Blanching in the microwave is not effective in stopping the enzyme action.
In water blanching, the vegetables are immersed for a few minutes into boiling water using a wire basket or metal colander. You can also purchase pots that are specifically made for blanching. Use about a gallon of water for each pound of vegetables. Bring the water to a boil. Lower the prepared vegetables into the water using the colander or wire basket. Cover the pot with a lid. The blanching time begins when the water returns to a boil. This shouldn’t take much longer than a minute or so. If it does, you are trying to blanch too many vegetables at one time.
This method takes longer than the water method. For steam blanching you will need a wire basket and a pot with a tight lid. Place the prepared vegetables in the basket over two inches of boiling water. The basket should be at least three inches above the water. Cover tightly and start timing as soon as you put the lid back on the pot.
A caution – timing is crucial. If you blanch too long it will compromise the quality of the food. If you don’t blanch long enough, it can actually accelerate the enzyme activity and is worse than not blanching at all. The length of time varies depending on the type and size of the vegetable so consult a cookbook for specifics. The National Center for Home Food Preservation (nchfp.uga.edu) gives you specific instructions for many fruits and vegetables. There is also information about canning, drying, smoking, fermenting and pickling if you decide to try your hand at a different method.
Shocking and cooling
After blanching, vegetables bound for the freezer must be shocked. Shocking is a cooking term that means to plunge the vegetables into a container of icy water called an ice bath. This abruptly stops the cooking process and preserves the flavor and nutritional value of the food. Cool the vegetables in the ice bath for about the same length of time that it took to blanch them. If they are still warm, cool a little longer. Drain the vegetables well. Place on a clean towel to dry. Pat them dry with a clean dish towel or paper towels.
There are two ways you can freeze produce. After blanching, shocking and drying the vegetable; place them in heavy duty freezer bags or plastic containers. Place in a 0 degree freezer. This method is quick and eliminates a step, but you are likely to end up with a frozen clump of vegetables. I prefer a variation of a method popular in the commercial food service industry called IQF.
Those initials stand for “individually quick frozen.” There is a specific process in commercial food preparation that requires flash freezing and special equipment but you can apply the basics at home with nothing more than a cold freezer and a large wax paper lined baking sheet. Simply spread the vegetables out in a single layer, not touching. Place the baking sheet in the freezer making sure it lays flat. Freeze for at least a few hours or overnight. Then place the individually frozen pieces of vegetables in freezer bags or plastic containers. You might be familiar with this method because it is often used for freezing fruits like strawberries and peaches.
Freezing fruit is even simpler than freezing vegetables.
– Rinse fruit clean and pat dry
– Peel if desired (peaches, plums and nectarines should be peeled)
– Remove pits and cores
– Depending on the fruit; slice, quarter, halve or cut in chunks.
– Fruits that brown should be tossed with a bit of lemon, vinegar or ascorbic acid
– Strawberries can be sliced or frozen whole.
– Smaller berries such as blueberries or blackberries should be frozen whole
– Sprinkle fruit with sugar, if desired
– Freeze on a wax paper lined baking sheet and then place in heavy duty freezer bags or plastic containers
– Fruit can also be frozen in a sweet syrup or fruit juice
– Puree individual fruits or fruit blends and freeze for use in recipes or blended drinks
Some produce does not freeze well. Lettuce, cucumber, bean sprouts, radishes and avocado (unless pureed) are not good candidates for the freezer.
We would love to know how your cooking adventures turn out!
Chef Hosch and Ann’s column prints on the first Wednesday of each month.
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