Preserving the Harvest (so far)Posted: July 12, 2015
We’re a bit less than a quarter through our growing season in southeastern Wisconsin. Our freezer is 90% full already, much of that from our pig purchase back in March, but there’s also some produce in it as well. The dehydrator is current humming, and I’m already pining for a second one to reduce the processing bottleneck. A pressure canner would be nice too. But what have I accomplished with the tools at hand?
Fresh fruit is the best – when it’s fresh – but we all know there’s huge stretches of time when the only “fresh” fruit is supermarket fare trucked in from many, many miles away. Cashflow and the desire to spend on our future selves via debt and investing rather than food is going to prevent a 100% local food year, but 2015 has drastically reduced our ‘food miles’ already compared to last year.
- Strawberries: If I had enough dehydrator space, I would have dried 100% of it. Alpha, Beta, and the Alchemist all took turns helping me lay out slices on trays. It takes roughly 2 man hours to fill an Excalibur up with ~10 pounds fresh berries and then another 12 hours or so to dry them. The nice thing about dried strawberries is that you can’t overdry them. And they’re incredibly delicious. I canned some jam but, to be honest, I hate canning and fruit stays most nutritious when frozen or dried – in which case, you can make small bath preserves at your leisure throughout the year. Next year I will aim to dry 100% and then make batches of my “strawberry sauce” as needed. Barthel’s Fruit Farm is my preferred local supplier.
- Blueberries: The closest they’re grown is Michigan. Next year I’ll try to track down a good way to buy them in bulk. We tended to visit my grandparents in MI during the season and would regularly buy 10lb crates for a fraction of the supermarket rates. I did nab a good sale ($1/pint) a couple weeks ago and tried them in the dehydrator. I won’t do that again. They take a long time, even after you ‘check’ the skins by blanching them and they dry to a crisp, crunchy form that’s not even that yummy. Freezing, small batch canning, and fresh eating will be my plan for any future bulk purchase or supermarket sale.
- Cherries: Tart cherries are incredible. Cherry season here is very short. The orchard we went to (Steffen’s) had a bumper crop this year and hoped to last a week before being picked clean. This year was our first year going there, and we were very impressed. We picked 2 gallon pails and had pre-ordered 7 more pails. Both the Montmorency (light) and Baloton (dark) cherries were delicious and surprisingly sweet compared to tart cherries I’ve had from other vendors. The fruit price, whether u-pick or pre-pick, was incredibly reasonable (~$1.35lb). The real kicker was the nominal fee to have them all run through an automatic picker. No way in hell am I going to pit 70 pounds of cherries! Because we’ll be leaving on vacation soon, I have elected to freeze some for jam and butter use later and drying what I can. Drying cherries for eating without reconstitution is a bit annoying. If you overdry them, they get brittle and hard, so you have to check the trays every few hours after the first ~12 hours to pick through them to remove the ones already at raisin consistency.
- Rhubarb: I haven’t had enough harvest at once to justify running the dehydrator, so I’ve just been freezing for later use in baked goods and as small batch sauces/jams.
- Still to come: I may not be able to get to this orchard in 2015, but there’s another semi-local place that carries more unusual things like gooseberries and currants. I’d like to try some. And of course there’s the big apple season. There are lots of apple orchards here, but Barthel’s is our favorite. Depending on the processing bottleneck, I will probably dry 100% of the preserved harvest. We don’t have a root cellar (it’s a big want of mine, not sure if we will ever do it in this house) to store them fresh, and applesauce is very easy to make from dried apples. (In fact, 19th century books like the Laura Ingalls books almost always refer to it as “dried applesauce”.)
- Snap Peas: I froze nearly all of it. Dehydrating them whole takes a very long time and I’m not convinced they’ll be tasty when reconstituted.
- Green Beans: I’m hoping dehydrated green beans are tasty when cooked, because I’m doing that for 100% of the harvest. Except for the thickest ones, they dry quickly.
- Kale: I’ve had a few excess harvests where I tried the leaves and crumbled into powder for winter smoothies. In that use it’s okay. Some folks use kale powder as a parsley substitute in garnishes.
- Zucchini: Dried “chips” of these are incredible. Zero seasoning required and absolutely delicious. If all I made in the dehydrator were strawberries and zucchini chips, it would still be worth the $200 price tag.
- Still to come: Winter squash of the varieties we grow can store up to a month in our basement after field curing before starting to lose quality. Helpfully, that 1 month window ends after apple season, so that’s when I’ll start prepping them. I’ll experiment with leathers, but I’m expecting to dry most of them in raw slices for later reconsitution in soups and puree form. And of course tomatoes. Barring disease (touch wood!) we should have an excellent crop from the garden whenever it gets hot enough to ripen. I’ll dry what I am able to (cherries for eating, paste and slicing for reconstitution or pesto duty), but the spoilage window on ‘maters is very short, so whatever can’t fit in the dryer will get canned as basic crushed tomatoes.
Huh, now that I’ve written all of that out, I can’t believe I’ve done so much already and the growing season is only a quarter through! Besides learning the best approaches for each food, I’m learning what I want to make the process even better in the future. I think a second dehydrator is a lock, though I’ll use my personal $ to buy it, since this local food quest is really mine and I don’t mind funding it with my allowance. I’m looking at the meat stocks taking up space in my freezer and wishing I had a pressure canner, but I also don’t make many soups even in winter. I’m far more likely to get a second freezer, possibly also via personal $. When I researched sizes, 7 cuft was the best for $/cuft, and I figured we’d ultimately need a second one anyways (especially if we want to buy more variety of meat instead of just pork), so this is not surprising. The advantage of two medium sized freezers instead of one large 20+ cuft model is that we can eat them down enough to merge the two together, then defrost and turn off the empty one as our stores dwindle in late winter/early spring.
Another thing I’ve pretty much decided is that we will not do a CSA again, unless the later boxes revise our opinion. While it represents wasted money, I’m glad I at least tried it once. But there are three huge flaws with our CSA (Tipi Produce), which on research was the most price competitive option locally:
- Getting overwhelmed with produce that either can’t be preserved or not easily preserved. I’ve hit salad fatigue dammit! We couldn’t keep up with the greens from the CSA and gave away 25% of it, plus nearly 100% of the mesclun I grew.
- Receiving things I’m just not that wild about. I like experimenting, and have discovered we do like a few new things (sweet salad turnips, yum!), but I’m receiving more ‘meh’ veggies than I anticipated when I was researching their past boxes.
- Plain-ol’ lack of value. To my mind, a CSA share should fall in between the price of the farmer’s market and the supermarket. In my tracking spreadsheet to date, that just has not been the case. We’re actually paying a premium over the farmer’s market for produce that’s ranged from good to mediocre, and has been sloppily washed compared to the FM. It’s not particularly more convenient, either, to pick up a box rather than brave the crowds at the FM. Where we live, there are bikeable markets (two very close, one that’s further away but well worth the longer ride for larger selection and better prices) 4 days a week, so there’s lots of flexibility if I needed more veggies than what the garden was providing at a given time.
I don’t want to rag on the hard-working folks on the farm too much, but that’s just how I see it personally.