by Russ Cerocke, Farm Manager
Since farms can’t grow food around here in the winter, how can we still eat locally? That’s easy, put food in your mouth, chew, swallow! I guess that covers the how to eat part, but where does that food come from? Well, that’s easy too – from your local farm! Ok, ok, let’s get serious here, you know where the food is coming from, and how to eat it, so the only problem is: How do we get food from our summer and fall harvests into our winter diets without it all going bad? This is where it gets fun!
There are many ways to preserve food, and people have gotten quite good at this over the years for reasons that should be obvious. Every animal needs to eat, even when the food isn’t growing. For us Northerners that means winter. For others, it is the wet or dry season. Whether it is due to temperature or rainfall extremes, places around the world experience times in which food is hard or impossible to grow. When the food doesn’t grow, we still need to eat. Enter: human ingenuity.
Most vegetables can be preserved, or “put-up” for an extended period of time, even meat and dairy (cheese). Some plants are naturally adept at holding out for the long season. Winter squash, namely butternut, has lasted us through April, and those were kept on our closet floor in our apartment. Onions and garlic are also natural storage powerhouses that need little to no effort to prepare them for storage, a cool dark place is all you need, like a dry basement. Many root crops like turnips, beets, and carrots can be stored as-harvested in a root cellar or refrigerator for months with almost no preparation. This is all nice, but what about the more delicate vegetables?
Freezing is another great way to store crops for winter and is best used for foods that are difficult to store for long periods, like greens, which are generally preserved best by freezing. With most greens it is best to blanch (briefly boil) the leaves for only a moment and then dunk and stir them in an ice water bath to stop the cooking process. This step deactivates enzymes that would otherwise taint the flavor and nutrient profile of your greens over time. Once blanched, the leaves are softer so we shake them, stack them, and roll them up like a big cigar to squeeze most of the water out before freezing. I have found sweet peppers are great frozen fresh, and garlic scapes also freeze well without preparation. Foods that freeze raw are great but freezer space is generally limited, for these situations there are other options.
The granddaddy of all storage methods in our modern world is canning. Canning is the process of using glass jars, sealed lids, heat, and water to sterilize and preserve food. Canning allows for long term room temperature storage of pretty much anything. Hot-water canning only requires clean mason jars, lids, and rings, and a large pot to fit several jars overtopped with water. There are a lot of great references online and in books (Ball) to help you get started canning. Hot water canning is how we do our tomato sauces and salsas, many fruit jams and jellies can be done this way as well. However, be aware that some foods (based on pH levels) need to be canned in a pressure cooker instead.
A pressure cooker is a heavy-duty stock pot that holds pressure, allowing increased temperatures inside the pot to sterilize and seal the contents of the jars. For veggies that are not acidic, like sweet peppers, carrots, or beets, a pressure canner is required unless you lower the pH to the appropriate level using additives like citric acid. Altering the pH always seemed riskier and more likely to change the flavors of the foods, so we adopted a pressure canner and now we just run with it.
Finally, I must mention fermentation. Fermenting foods is probably the oldest food preservation technology. All food grown in the open is going to have a mix of microbial tenants. These microbes are not all harmful, some are even beneficial. For instance, when fermenting cabbage into sauerkraut, lactobacillus species that naturally colonize cabbage are encouraged to grow by placing the cabbage in salty water. The salty water makes conditions unbearable for most other bacteria but lactobacilli thrives and acts to preserve the food, keeping all of the bad microbes away. Fermented foods generally taste a bit acidic and tangy due to the biological processes happening. However, there has been lots of research linking fermented foods to healthy digestion and generally improved health. I suggest if you haven’t given fermented foods a try, to give them a chance, your belly will thank you!
With all of the food grown and now diligently put-up for winter, what is there for a farmer to do you ask? Mostly fix things. Pipes, equipment, electrical issues, pampering the soil, planning for next year, and spending time enjoying the fruits of our labor now that we have the time to do so. Good thing we put up all that food!