Preserving the Harvest

Back in the days before refrigeration, freeze-drying, vacuum-pack processing, aseptic packaging and even canning, savvy cooks invented ways to store food for future use. Salting, smoking, pickling, confiting, canning and drying were the most common methods of food preservation, especially on country farms. Root cellars for storing vegetables like potatoes, parsnips and carrots, and fruit like apples, were also common, and a necessity.

Today, in some sense, we’ve come full circle, seeking greater flavor, taste and control of what we eat and how it’s raised, grown, processed and preserved. Happily, we can take advantage of the freezer – it really works now. We’re rediscovering methods of preserving foods that were common over a century ago. Preserving the harvest dovetails perfectly with the concept of sustainable cooking, since it’s all about using what is produced or raised locally, what’s in season, and storing it so it can be used in the future.

Here are some of my favorite ways of storing, preserving and extending seasonal foods.

Pickling is common to almost every type of world cuisine. In pickling, a preserving liquid, based on either a strong salt solution to make brine, or on vinegar to make an acid-based liquid, covers the food being pickled and acts to prevent enzymes and bacteria from breaking it down.

For The Pickling Liquid
½ cup water
½ cup red wine vinegar
¼ cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 tablespoon whole black peppercorns
1teaspoon yellow mustard seed
½ teaspoon crushed hot red chili flake
2 allspice berries
1 bay leaf

To Prepare the Pickling Liquid: Combine water, vinegar, sugar, salt, peppercorns, mustard seed, chili flakes, allspice berries and bay leaf in a medium-sized stainless steel saucepan. Place saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and allow the pickling liquid to  simmer for 10 to 15 minutes.

Drying removes the moisture from the food so bacteria, yeast and mold cannot grow and spoil the food. Drying also slows down the action of enzymes (naturally occurring substances which cause foods to ripen), but does not inactivate them. Two important rules: dry as soon as possible after harvesting and Drying must not be interrupted. Canning and freezing foods retain more nutrition than dried foods, however dried foods are space efficient and it is easier to dry foods than it is to can them

Dehydrators for the home are actually very inexpensive and extremely energy efficient. At my restaurants, my dehydrator was working non-stop, 24-7. The key is buy in season, buy in bulk and take advantage of farmers’ markets. Would you rather dry your own wild mushrooms at $15 a pound or purchase prepared dried wild mushrooms at $40 a pound.

Oven Drying is a version of a dehydrator. Although not every product works well in a oven, by combining the factors of heat, low humidity and air flow, an oven can be used as a dehydrator for most items.

Mushrooms are perfect for drying since over 90% of a mushroom’s mass is water. First, remove all visible dirt from the mushroom using a moist towel or brush. Do not rinse or soak the mushrooms in water. If the mushrooms are large, slice them into fairly thin slices. To dry mushrooms in an oven, place them on a rack and make sure the mushrooms do not touch each other during drying. Place the rack in an oven set on the lowest setting: 110°F to 120°F. Leave the door open about two inches so fresh air can come in and moist air can flow out. The total drying time will be between 15 to 24 hours. When the mushrooms are dried, place them in plastic bags or sealed containers, where they will last up to a year, if kept dry. Mushrooms should be checked every month or so for evidence of bugs. Dried mushrooms can also be stored in the freezer,  indefinitely. Before they can be used, soak mushrooms for at least 30 minutes in warm water, stock or wine. The benefit of using dried mushrooms is that the soaking liquid can be part of the liquid called for in the recipe or, if reduced slightly, as a sauce on its own.

Bag Drying herbs in brown paper bags is a tried and true, age old method. Dehydrators work extremely well, but bag drying is simple and just as effective. Rinse the herbs thoroughly and dry completely. Tie small bunches of herbs by their stems and place the herb bunches inside paper bags, leaves down, and tie the top of the bags closed with strings. Hang the bags in a warm, dry area with good air flow until the herbs are dry. Do not dry herbs in a microwave or an oven. Dried herbs are stronger than fresh herbs: 1 tablespoon of fresh herbs equals approximately 1 teaspoon of dried herbs.

Confiture is the French name for a jam or a preserve. For those french food devotes, a confit refers to:

the specialty of Gascony, France, is derived from an ancient method of preserving meat (usually goose, duck or pork) whereby it is salted and slowly cooked in its own fat. The cooked meat is then packed into a crock or pot and covered with its cooking fat, which acts as a seal and preservative.

The New Food Lover’s Companion, by Sharon Tyler Herbst

My favorite fruit is Black Mission figs. In fact, my secret comfort food are Fig Newtons. That being said, I love making fig jam to savor all year. Here is a recipe from one of my French culinary mentors for a chutney-like Fig Jam or Confiture de Figues.

For the Sugar Syrup
½  cup water
1 pound granulated sugar
½ vanilla bean, split and scraped
2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 pounds figs, preferable Black Mission

To Prepare the Fig Jam: Make sure you choose figs that are ripe. Gently clean the figs by wiping the skin with damp cloth and try to keep them whole.

To prepare the sugar syrup, combine the water, sugar, vanilla bean and seeds, lemon juice and vanilla pod. in a non-reactive sauce pot . Place over medium heat and bring to a boil. Add the figs, reduce the cooking temperature and let stew for 1½ to or 2 hours.

Remove the scum from top of syrup as the fruit cooks. Once the fruit is cooked remove the vanilla bean and can according to proper canning techniques.

For more information on Preserving Foods:
Drying Fruits and Vegetables, by the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Services
Home Food Dehydrating: Economical “Do-It-Yourself” Methods for Preserving, Storing & Cooking
Preserving Summer’s Bounty
Kicking the Habit: Dehydrating Produce

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