Preserving the garden

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I am getting ready to head back to University of Louisville where I teach two courses so I really need to get organized. The garden is still producing and time needs to be spent on turning some of the bounty into things that can be enjoyed during the winter months. I have had the dehydrator going everyday this last week drying apples, peaches, berries, cherry tomatoes and potatoes.  Plus, predictions of rising food costs (ironically current reports indicate that grain and sugar prices are affecting prices now and I don’t eat much of that!)
During the summer our vegetable garden- along with a bounty from other local farms- keeps us well-supplied in fruits and vegetables; the focus is shifting now to “putting” up the garden. Most preservation methods are remarkably easy: pickling, freezing and canning are the three techniques most utilized. There are some basics to learn but all in all anyone can do it.  I am here to encourage you to try some standard food preservation techniques, it is really quite gratifying especially if you grew the produce yourself.

Blanching, harvesting

Technology means that we can freeze just about anything now. Our great grandmothers did not have this luxury.  The most important thing to understand: if you choose to freeze your overflow of vegetables from the garden you need to blanch. Blanching is a quick cook method that stops enzyme activity in the vegetable so it will stop ripening. Once a vegetable is harvested it produces enzymes that continue to push it past peak; blanching stops this.  
Most vegetables can be dropped into a pot of boiling water for two minutes to arrest the enzyme activity; then stop the cooking process by plunging the vegetables into an ice bath for two minutes; drain well and pat dry with a towel and package your servings in air tight containers.  
I do not have a pressure cooker so all the canning I do employs the hot water bath process. A large pot of simmering water will kill bacteria and seal jars but this is not suitable for all vegetables (low acid vegetables must be pressure cooked). Tomatoes are the easiest to can.  Their natural acidity means that all you have to do is cook them a little and pack them in sterile jars, add a teaspoon of salt, seal and process in a hot water bath for about 15 minutes. You can peel and seed or not. I don’t because I like my canned tomatoes chunky.

In a pickle or jam?
Pickling uses vinegar to add the acidity needed for preservation. Cucumbers, peppers, green beans, beets, onions, carrots and any combination there on can be pickled with a vinegar, sugar and spice syrup.  Recipes abound representing variations on the theme. A basic pickle recipe calls for about eight ripe cucumbers, half a cup of salt, one and a half a cups of sugar, three and a half cups of vinegar, a teaspoon each of celery seed, mustard seed and turmeric. Soak the cucumber slices in salted ice water for at least four hours; you can either pack the soaked cucumbers in jars or cook them first for a couple of minutes in vinegar before filling jars. Top the jars off with syrup made from your vinegar, sugar and spices.  The more you reduce the syrup the sweeter the pickles will be. Once the jars are packed and the syrup is added seal the sterilized jars and place in a hot water bath (at a low simmer with about two inches of water covering the jars) for about 15 minutes. Pretty easy, yes?
Fruit, sugar and pectin are all you need. I just follow the directions on the Sure-Jell package and I have turned blueberries, blackberries and raspberries into enough jam to get us through next May when the blueberries ripen again. If you want to learn to “put up” food then I recommend picking up an old canning book at the flea market. It really makes sense to use these methods to extend the usefulness of the garden into the winter months.
(Jeneen Wiche is an avid gardener from Shelbyville. She can be reached at Jwiche@shelbybb.net. or at  www.SwallowRailFarm.com)