Preserving your summer harvest

Alberta’s growing season may be short, but that doesn’t stop our community gardens and urban farms from producing bountiful summer crops. In fact, ask any member of a local CSA and they’ll tell you how much their weekly delivery boxes are over-flowing right now! 

Herbs, like basil, are easy to grow, and even easier to preserve. Photo: Elyse Williams
Herbs, like basil, are easy to grow, and even easier to preserve. Photo: Elyse Williams

While having “too much produce” may sound like an eye-roll-inducing complaint, it can be a struggle to get through all your greens while they’re still fresh during the peak of harvest season. Imagine being able to press time-out on your turnips, pause your peas and suspend your spinach? Well, you can, through preservation.

Preserving produce at its peak freshness allows you to take a bite out of summer, even in the middle of our long Edmonton winters. Plus, some preservation techniques, like freezing, are highly effective at maintaining the high and diverse nutrient levels found in fresh produce. That’s good news for our bodies when the variety of fresh food slumps in winter.

So, if you’re finding yourself engulfed in summer bounty, here are four easy methods to preserve your harvest:

  1. Drying: Drying or dehydrating garden goodies prevents the growth of bacteria and mold by removing water. Traditionally, water is removed by drying food with sun, wind or smoke, but today we can speed up the process using food dehydrators or by freeze-drying. Recently, I discovered a top-speed method of dehydrating herbs using the microwave: lay herbs flat between paper towel, microwave two or three times at 30-second intervals, then store in an air-tight container. Now I can get through an entire basil plant in no time, without taking up any space, leaving me with a nice stock of dried leaves for winter pasta sauces. 
    homemade sundried tomatoes
    “Sun dried” tomatoes are easy to make in the oven. Photo: Elyse Williams
  2. Freezing: Freezing produce now makes for quick meals later. It’s easy to pop frozen Saskatoons or raspberries into your breakfast oatmeal, and takes little effort to stir-fry some frozen kale and vegetables for dinner. Plus, a full freezer is more economical to run — bonus! While freezing raw food doesn’t kill the yeast and bacteria that causes food spoilage, it does slow them down. Cooking produce before you freeze it will make your food last longer. Keep your packages small for meal-sized portions, or try to freeze food on trays before bagging to prevent it from sticking together (saving yourself from the ceremonious “smashing of the frozen raspberry block”). 
  3. Pickling: Anaerobically fermented food, anyone? Pickling — by fermenting your food in brine or immersing it in vinegar — preserves food by lowering its pH to 4.6, a level of acidity which kills most bacteria. The addition of antimicrobial herbs and spices, like garlic, cinnamon and cloves also helps to prevent the growth of mold while adding more flavour. Unlike canning, pickling does not require food to be completely sterile before being sealed. While it does take some patience waiting for your desired flavour to be reached through the pickling process, just a single bite of your homemade sauerkraut will convince you it was worth it.
  4. Jellying/Jamming: Jams and jellies are easy to make, and are probably the closest thing to dessert you can sneak into your breakfast without a hint of guilt. They can be as simple or creative as you like, produced in big or small batches, and made out of most any fruit or berry found growing in Edmonton. On a recent blog research trip to the kitchen of Fruits of Sherbrooke (a local not-for-profit that makes unforgettable preserves from forgotten urban fruit — watch for a blog post on them later this fall!), I learned just how quick and easy it is to make the delicious, fruity treats. We juiced donated apples, added some rosemary, boiled in the pectin and sugar and voila! An outstanding apple-rosemary jelly (the same jelly you’ll find on the charcuterie boards at The Cavern, one of the organization’s partner restaurants). 
Learning to make jelly in the Fruits of Sherbrooke kitchen. Photo: Elyse Williams
Learning to make jelly in the Fruits of Sherbrooke kitchen. Photo: Elyse Williams

Hot tip: label your preserves! What looks easily distinguishable now may not be in a few months. Imagine wanting to put raspberry-saskatoon jam on your toast one morning but accidentally opening up a jar of raspberry-pincherry. The horror! But really, label your food — it will save you lots of guessing.

If gardening isn’t your thing, or your master garden plan didn’t work out quite the way you expected, plenty of vendors offer their preserved summer goodness for us year-round at Edmonton’s many farmers markets. Check out Mojo Jojo Pickles and Preserves for “pickles yo mama don’t make”, Fruits of Sherbrooke and Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton for sweetly saved fruits-turned-jams, jellies and ketchups, and Strathcona Country Kitchen for marmalades and condiments (and pie!).