Kitty Scully tackles the perennial autumn problem: what to do with all the food you’ve grown this year?
As this tumultuous growing season gradually draws to a close, it is only natural that you might become obsessed with preserving the fruits of your labour.
To climb one step higher on the self-sufficiency ladder, the skill of converting surplus into stores for leaner months is essential.
After a summer of feasting on freshly picked vitamin-rich delights, the time has come to shift your energies from the plot into the pot and indulge your inner squirrel.
Whether you store or preserve produce depends on the crops grown, household facilities and you and your family’s eating preferences.
For example, some hardy crops can be stored in situ as they are known to sweeten when exposed to frost due to the conversion of starch reserves into sugars. Examples include parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes, celeriac and leeks.
But be warned, the chances of pest and disease problems are more likely with crops left in the ground. Other crops are simply harvested when fully mature and stored in their natural state in optimum conditions.
These include main crop potatoes, root vegetables, onions, garlic, squashes and apples.
The golden rule when it comes to storing is to harvest vegetables at the correct time; only store the best quality produce and always handle crops with care. Individual vegetables have individual storing requirements.
Potatoes must be stored in the dark in a frost-free place to prevent them turning green with optimum temperatures being between 5C and 10C.
Onions and garlic have similar temperature and light requirements but ventilation is essential, so they are traditionally tied up on strings or braided or stored in net bags.
Plaits make sense as they economise on space and can easily be transferred from storage into kitchen for ease of use while looking decorative as well.
Apples too like it dark, cool and frost-free and they do best when individually wrapped in newspaper and stacked carefully in crates.
For all stored vegetables and fruit, rodent-free housing is vital as is regular checks to remove any spoiled stores.
Preservation techniques encompass a multitude of options including drying, salting, bottling, fermenting and freezing. Freezing works well for lots of fruits, legumes and vegetables, retaining taste and vitamins, but freezer space can be at a premium.
Dehydrating is also an easy and low-cost way of preserving produce and retaining maximum nutrients. For this method, it is advised to invest in a good dehydrator and try your hand at making delectable delights such as dried apple rings and kale crisps.
Another preserving possibility, particularly pertinent to soft fruits, tomatoes and thin-skinned vegetables such as courgettes and cucumbers, is processing the crops into added-value products such as sauces, chutneys, relishes, pickles, jams, jellies, fruit cheeses, wines and juices.
The best thing about ‘adding value’ is that it allows plenty of scope for throwing in a personal touch to aged recipes but be aware that adding your own personal flair does not mean cutting corners, so that food becomes unsafe.
Processing works on the principal that spoilage organisms are rendered inert by heating, freezing, removing moisture, excluding air or adding a high proportion of vinegar, sugar or salt.
So, for example if you decide to reduce the amount of sugar in a jam recipe, the product will not keep as long and may not be safe to eat.
It is important to note that processing fruit and vegetables is not a way of getting rid of decaying crops.
Fresh, good-quality crops that are not decaying or diseased should always be used. Jars and equipment must be sterilised.
Once preserves are made, always store in a cool dark press and once opened they are best kept in the fridge.
When you grow your own food or go foraging, you’ve got some of the world’s finest ingredients at your disposal so it’s only right to fuse these with other fine ingredients — patience, care and lots of love, so that you, your family and friends can reap the benefits of your garden throughout the seasons.
Whatever happens, do not become a prisoner to your produce, regardless of the panic you feel waking up with courgette or cucumber-themed nightmares.
By harvesting veggies like courgettes when they are young and tender, you will cut down on the mountain of preserving work at the end of the season, so pick crops when young and tender.
When preserving, you might get totally overwhelmed by a giant amount of produce, so process crops in small, manageable batches rather than putting your whole life and kitchen on hold for jamming and pickling.
Only preserve what you want to eat and in quantities that you will use or give away before the next crop is ready.
With a cupboard full of preserves, you’ll never be short of handmade, personal gifts and apart from some wines, there’s no advantage in hoarding anything beyond a year, so make sure to use, enjoy and share the stored love.
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