What to Do with Fresh Produce

During the summer, there’s an abundance of high-quality fruits and vegetables. You get better quality for lower prices than you do buying off-season produce during the cold winter months. I always want to freeze this moment so I can enjoy the fruits of the season all year long. So I do.

Every year, I freeze some produce, and I can some, and I use a variety of methods to make the bounty last. Last week, I wrote about smart ways to acquire your seasonal produce. Today, I’m going to talk about how to use it to get the best value for your food dollar.

Eat well
First (and this is obvious): Eat a lot. When fresh vegetables are in season, I try to shift my diet towards dishes that focus on the food being grown in my own backyard and on local farms. That’s more challenging than it sounds. There might be nothing better than a fresh garden tomato. But twenty pounds of fresh tomatoes can become overwhelming even for the most avid fan.

The thing is, when something is in season locally, it’s all pretty much ready at once. All the peaches ripen within a few weeks of each other. Every ripe tomato you’re going to grow all year will happen in late summer. No matter how much you love a food, you can get tired of it.

If you’re growing a vegetable garden or participating in a CSA, you’ll have an abundance of those veggies whether you feel like having them for dinner or not. To keep up your appetite, I recommend investing in a few good cookbooks and exploring the food blogosphere. There are books and blogs dedicated to celebrating vegetables in season. They’ll keep fresh ideas coming your way along with all the fresh vegetables.

Some of my favorites include:

  • Farm to Fork by Emeril Lagasse. This book organizes the recipes by the type of food you’re cooking. There’s a whole section on herbs, and another on leafy greens, etc. This makes it easy to find inspiration for what’s coming up in your garden. All the recipes I’ve cooked from it have been delicious.
  • Greens, Glorious Greens by Johnna Albi and Catherine Walthers. This book is exactly as advertised, an entire cookbook devoted to green leafy vegetables. It’s my go-to resource in early summer, when my farm share is providing me with two heads of lettuce a week plus an array of kale, chard, spinach and other greens.
  • The New Moosewood Cookbook by Molly Katzen. Really any cookbook by Molly Katzen will stand you in good stead. She’s the master of crunchy vegetarian cooking, and her cookbooks are fun and approachable. They’re full of simple recipes anyone can make, that rely on whole healthy ingredients.

In addition to my bookshelf, I often look online for inspiration, and find it at Smitten Kitchen, 101 Cookbooks, and Eclectic Recipes.

Preserve the harvest
Of course, you can’t eat everything your garden or local farm has to offer. You wouldn’t want to. One of the joys of summer’s abundance is preserving the produce so you can have it in the cold winter months. I especially love canning my own peaches. Opening up a jar of home-canned peaches in January is like opening a jar of sunshine. I can taste the summer.

To preserve my garden harvest, I like to:

Throw a canning party
Home canning is fairly easy, and doesn’t require much in the way of specialized equipment. Yes, you can invest in a canner, but you can also do the job with a large pot. Canning parties are a fun way to spend a summer afternoon, and make the work lighter for everyone. You’ll need glass jars, lids and a bulk amount of whatever you want to can. We always order a box of tomatoes and a box of peaches from the farm we get our CSA share from. Add those to the tomatoes from our garden and there’s more than plenty.

In addition to simply preserving peaches and tomatoes to use later, I’ve had great luck making tomato sauce and salsas at canning parties. Everyone brings their own recipes and we each get a few jars of different homemade sauces. It’s a fun way to try out new things.

If you’ve never done any canning before, Food In Jars is a great resource to get started. They’re a great resource for any home canner, actually, with lots of creative ideas for everyone from beginners to experts.

Fill my freezer
Some things work better frozen. We always make a few pints of fresh pesto with our garden basil and freeze it. A great way to do preserve pesto is to put it in ice cube trays. That way, you can thaw just the small amount you want to use. The ice cube trick works great for many herbs. Just chop them up, mix with a little water and freeze the mixture in ice cube trays. We’ve enjoyed basil, parsley, cilantro and mint this way.

Dry things out
I grow a lot of herbs in my garden. I mentioned freezing my basil and cilantro, but I also like to dry out herbs for use throughout the year. I simply gather them in bunches and hang them in the kitchen. When they dry, I put the dried leaves into little glass jars in my spice cabinet. This works well for thyme, oregano, mint, sage, lemon balm and many other herbs.

I’ve also experimented with making my own “sun-dried” tomatoes by slicing my garden’s cherry tomatoes and putting them on cookie trays in the oven at a low temperature. It takes about four hours, but the tomatoes do dry up beautifully and make a great addition to salads and pasta dishes. I don’t know how long they keep because we always eat them right away.

Making your own sauerkraut and pickles is another easy way to preserve garden vegetables. You can make great dill pickles at home, in your fridge or even on your kitchen counter. There’s no need to stop with traditional cucumber pickles, either. I’ve pickled radishes, hot peppers, green beans, and even eggs. Wild Fermentation is my go-to resource for these projects. Sandor Katz can teach you how to ferment just about anything.

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