Archive for Wednesday, July 10, 2002

Canning’s not worth the effort, cost

July 10, 2002


July is when gardeners really see the fruits of their labor. We may harvest such cool weather veggies as potatoes, beets, peas and cole crops earlier in the summer, along with the front end of our cucumber and zucchini, but the bulk of our summer crops will be picked this month.

That also means that we'll be spending plenty of time in both the garden and the kitchen during July. When sweet corn, beans, tomatoes, peppers and melons come on in force, picking should be a daily event.

Produce left on the vine too long becomes unusable, because it overripens, overmatures or the bugs have extra time to do their worst.

Overripening afflicts tomatoes in particular, and when it happens, bugs find new reasons to visit your garden. Also, many tomato plant varieties will shut down if fruit is left on the vine too long.

Vegetables that are prone to overmaturing include beans, whose seeds grow too large and pods toughen; corn, whose kernels toughen and turn starchy; and cucumbers and zucchini, which overnight can grow to the size of Popeye's forearm.

If we should be graced with a soaking rain, be prepared for the vegetables that have a high water content, especially melons, tomatoes, squash and cucumbers, to swell up. Melons and tomatoes are prone to splitting, and those that do should be picked as soon as possible.

In my experience, the most efficient way to contend with a harvest is to make a daily pass through the garden, bucket in hand. I like picking in the morning because the vegetables are at their peak of flavor, after enjoying cooler overnight temperatures.

The exception is sweet corn on days that we'll be eating it for dinner. As soon as an ear is pulled from the stalk, the flavor begins to recede. If you want optimal sweetness, pick the corn right before you cook it.

Preserving a large harvest is hard work, but it needn't be an ordeal. I spent two consecutive Julys canning beans and tomatoes and concluded that it wasn't worth the trouble. You lose so much flavor in the canning process. Even hot peppers in home-canned salsa lose their kick.

Canning is an incredibly hot and costly undertaking. Even if you already have a canner and are reusing jars and rings, which are ridiculously expensive to buy new, you'll jack up the temperature in your kitchen by at least 5 degrees at precisely the time of year that your air conditioner already is running non-stop.

The one benefit that I derived from my adventures in masochism was a greater appreciation for the hassle that preserving garden vegetables was for our grandmothers, many of whom had to can if their families were going to eat a balanced diet through the winter. For them, air conditioning was not a concern.

In any case, I have concluded that pickles and jelly are the only foods that might be worth preparing in a canner.

Happily, beans and tomatoes are easy to freeze. You'll need a large pot of boiling water and some sort of porous basket to submerge. For this purpose I use a pasta kettle that came with its own vented basket.

Pick the stems off your beans and blanch them in boiling water for two minutes then douse them in ice cold water to stop the cooking process.

Toss the beans in plastic zipper bags and freeze them. Done.

Tomatoes take a little more work. Blanch the tomatoes for a minute, or until the skins loosen, then dip them in cold water. You'll have to skin and seed each one, leaving you with a handful of tomato pulp, which you can freeze in bags or plastic containers. Through the winter, you can use these tomatoes for sauces and soups.

Be sure to wash the outside of the bags or containers before you put your tomatoes in the freezer. If you use plastic zipper bags, lay them flat in the freezer. If they're still damp when you put them in the freezer, separate them with wax paper.

When she's not writing about foods and gardening, Gwyn Mellinger is teaching journalism at Baker University. Her phone number is (785) 594-4554.

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