Reaping the rewards of preserving
by Lee Lawrence
From the March, 2018 issue
Every year, my brother's neighbor plants a substantial garden--mostly rows of strawberries, raspberries, and corn--that he carefully cultivates, weeds, and waters but hardly harvests. My brother, whose own space is shaded, wishes he could annex the sunny plot. He wonders why the man bothers.
I suppose that, for some, gardening is its own reward. But for those who tend produce, the harvest is usually the bigger compensation, especially if they preserve some of it. They get to taste, with special enjoyment, their labor in their food, the way a furniture maker must sigh with particular appreciation when settling into a chair he fashioned himself. Conserving the surplus only extends that pleasure.
When I was growing up, preserving was a matter of frugality and necessity, and our mother taught us how to garden, can, and freeze. As my interest in food widened, so did my interest in growing and preserving. Mom preserved the basics--frozen corn, green beans, and blueberries; canned tomatoes; peaches and pears in syrup; cucumber pickles of all types; strawberry jam; and grape juice. I still do some of that, but I've been able to follow my culinary inclinations further afield.
My husband and I have always enjoyed beans. Fresh limas, particularly the smaller butter beans, were a revelation the first time I ate them as an adult. And fresh garbanzos, often available at Middle Eastern markets in the summer, have none of the chalky starchiness of their dried counterparts. Once we found sources for interesting bean types--Italian borlotti, the New England yellow-eye baking bean, French flageolets, marrowfats--we began growing and eating them fresh, as shell beans and as dried ones. A third of our garden now is devoted to beans, and my husband spent much of last summer planting, picking, and shelling beans. We freeze what fresh ones we don't consume immediately, and store, in old, blue-green canning jars, those that have dried.
Tomatoes often go into our bean soups and stews, and I put up plenty
of pints of those. We usually have such a surplus of tomatoes, though, that I also preserve them in other ways. Quartered and roasted tomatoes--baked till almost chewy and delicious in sandwiches, salads, pizzas, and pasta--go into little freezer packages. I also puree some of the baked wedges with garlic, lemon, thyme, and olive oil to make a condiment that keeps forever in the fridge and brightens all the dull vegetables and starches of winter. And if the baskets of tomatoes really pile up, I make an Indian pickle that is delicious with lamb or lentils.
Tomatoes also figure into sides or entrees I can stack in the freezer. I'll slowly braise string beans that have hung too long on the vine with tomatoes, onions, and garlic into silky disintegration. Accented with cumin and smoked paprika, the stew is a wonderful base for baked eggs or to mix with pasta or as a side for most anything. Roasted poblano peppers, sliced into strips, get a similar treatment, though I usually mix in cubes of cheese when reheating, and we spoon the mess into corn tortillas.
That really is the fun of preserving--not just storing the summer bounty, but also using it to enhance and enliven everyday meals with the flick of a lid. Crisp, bright orange coins of curried carrot pickles add a real punch to hummus and avocado wraps, and grilled ham and cheddar sandwiches taste all the better with zucchini bread and butter pickles tucked into their centers.
Fruits don't have to become just jams, or be canned only in syrup--though we thought the quince off our three-year-old tree, poached to a gorgeous rose-pink color, special enough to be part of our Christmas dessert. Pickled peaches, a southern favorite, are delicious with roast pork or ham. Every year a glut of red currants--it's astonishing how much one bush can produce and how tedious it is to pick the damn things--drives me to look, yet again, for new ways to use the seedy, iridescent berries. Besides juice, jelly, syrup, and a Scandinavian cake, two recipes have become favorites. Red currant mostarda--an Italian concoction that marries fruit and mustard--is a wonderful spread for sandwiches and a condiment for charcuterie and/or cheese platters. And a perfect partner for duck, to my mind, is currant chutney, given body with lots of onions and zest from generous doses of hot pepper and vinegar.
One year another glut, this time of eggplant, reminded me of a recipe I'd cut out of a London newspaper for a salted and pickled eggplant antipasto. Over a year we slowly consumed the four jars of tightly packed, chewy strips, scented with fennel and anointed with olive oil, pulled out of the fridge, along with labna (Middle Eastern yogurt cheese), olives, and pita, whenever we needed an instant but special hors d'oeuvre. Sadly, we haven't had another eggplant surfeit since.
I venture out of our own garden for one category of preservation. Though we have some fruit trees and shrubs, we've had mixed success with our orchard. Our soil is heavy with clay, meaning blueberries and cherries, favorites of mine, don't thrive. And our two beautiful, soaring apricot trees have yet to bear fruit. So I buy those fruits but I no longer bother to make jam; each year our single row of Concord grapes produces more jelly than the two of us and all our relatives and friends can ever eat. Some of the tart cherries I buy go into syrup to eat with yogurt, and others are brandied or made into an extract to flavor cocktails or into vin de cerise--cherry cordial. Macerating apricots in brandy and wine produces bottles of ratafia (a fruit-based, sweetened cordial)--a recipe I adapted from an Alice B. Toklas cookbook. Many of our peaches and plums get shunted off to alcoholic duty, along with rhubarb. The rhubarb, which predates us in our garden, is also poached into compote that I freeze, canned as syrup, and macerated in vodka. The latter two products go into a house cocktail my sister dubbed the "Summer Solstice," a gorgeous sunset-hued drink lethal in dosage if not lightened with a splash of sparkling water.
So now, as my husband and I are getting older and wondering how much work we want to do every day, we weigh the undeniable pleasure of the Summer Solstice and the marrowfat beans and the roasted tomato oil against the physical labor required. Sometimes, at the end of the harvest, when all the jars and containers are lined up on their shelves, neatly labeled and segregated by type, I stand, admiring them, and think, fiercely, no one better touch a one. But then I pull down a jar of roasted tomatillo salsa, which, by some magical alchemy, makes a fabulous sauce from just four ingredients--tomatillos, garlic, chipotles, and salt--and I know I'll put more away next year.
[Originally published in March, 2018.]
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