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.

Ferment
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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STRONGside
STRONGside
9 years ago

My wife and I started growing herbs in our garden this year, and are flush with thyme, cilantro and basil. We have already made enough basil pesto to last the rest of the year, and our basil plants are still growing strong!

Jessie
Jessie
9 years ago
Reply to  STRONGside

Make some basil salad dressing – a large handful of basil leaves plus equal parts of oil and vinegar and blend thoroughly to make a pourable dressing. Add a dash of sugar or honey and salt and pepper to taste. We use this as the dressing in pasta salad… yum!

STRONGside
STRONGside
9 years ago
Reply to  Jessie

Sounds awesome. I will be sure to do just that. Maybe even tonight. Thanks!

Nancy L.
Nancy L.
9 years ago
Reply to  STRONGside

You can also preserve the herbs by freezing them in ice cube trays. 🙂

http://www.gardenersworld.com/how-to/projects/herbs-ice-cube-trays/

indio
indio
9 years ago

Lots of good tips to save the harvest for the winter months ahead. I also oven dry tomatoes, and every other fruit or veggie that tastes good dehydrated, especially sugar snaps and apples. It’s looking as if we are going to have a lot of blackberries leftover after the jamming sessions, so I’m going to experiment making fruit leathers out of them. The natural sweetness of pumpkins and winter squashes can also make tasty fruit leathers without tons of sugar added to them.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
9 years ago
Reply to  indio

I hadn’t heard of using pumpkin in fruit leathers. Thanks for the idea!

No Debt MBA
No Debt MBA
9 years ago

We’ve been eating tons of strawberries lately. I love summer and in season produce.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
9 years ago

I don’t have much freezer space, so I tend to prioritize 🙂 For instance, bell peppers are inexpensive during the summer, so I stock up for the winter and raid my freezer for soup and stir fry.

Another one of my favourites is freezer jam because it’s perfect for using up fruit without the fuss of canning. (Kris’s post here on GRS got me addicted — and her idea of pureeing fruit works well too!)

Marcella
Marcella
9 years ago
Reply to  Elizabeth

How do you freeze bell peppers? Whole, or chopped up? Do these become mushy when you thaw out the frozen pepper? I wouldn’t want to lose the crunch of a bell pepper.

Lyn
Lyn
9 years ago

One of the best tricks I ever learned was courtesy of Larry Butler at Boggy Creek Farms in Austin: frozen tomatoes. Yep: you can just put the whole, ripe tomatoes on your freezer shelf to freeze solid, and when you have a few, put them in freezer safe gallon bags. In the middle of winter, there’s nothing better than popping a couple of these big boys straight into a stew or soup. The only fuss is the skins. If you’re not fussy, you can fish them out of the soup or even leave them in. If you are fuzzy, a… Read more »

Pamela
Pamela
9 years ago
Reply to  Lyn

I discovered the same trick for green peppers. I freeze them whole. When I’m ready to use them, I only slightly thaw them so they’re easy to slice (they get mushy when they thaw entirely).

The result isn’t good enough for eating raw, but it’s fine to add to recipes.

Mike
Mike
9 years ago
Reply to  Pamela

Peppers freeze and keep just as well if you slice them first, and they’ll take up a lot less space that way. But yes, only useful for a cooked recipe, not salad.

Jessie
Jessie
9 years ago

For those with the freezer space – running tomatoes through a food processor/grinder and then freezing really keeps that fresh summer taste, no cooking required!

sarahkincheloe
sarahkincheloe
9 years ago

smittenkitchen and epicurious are my go-to sites for figuring out what to do with a new vegetable or a ton of something. smittenkitchen’s “scalloped tomatoes” recipe is the most delicious thing I’ve ever had with tomatoes and I made it once a week last summer when my garden was in full swing. I know that people will argue it’s cheaper to eat ramen and buy bananas for 9 cents a pound at costco, but IF you care about local/sustainable/organic/fresh food, and a lot of people do, growing your own or doing a CSA is much cheaper than your typical organic… Read more »

C.Rivers
C.Rivers
9 years ago

This post has perfect timing for me! Our farm share started last week and we probably should have gone with a half share instead of the full share. Meal planning will be helpful, but I know we’ll need to figure out a preserving/freezing/giving away strategy to keep from wasting stuff.

Jason Shimko
Jason Shimko
9 years ago

Is freezing fresh produce really saving money? I’ve never done the analysis, but does the cost of an additional freezer and the energy to run said freezer still make the summer vegetables and fruits cheaper? We do the same thing you do, with food we grow and food we buy, but I struggle w/ the idea of buying fruits for ‘cheap’ now only to be be still eating them from the freezer in late spring early summer. My gut says my ‘cheap’ produce is now more expensive than had I bought it in the store. Canning though is a different… Read more »

Jennifer B
Jennifer B
9 years ago
Reply to  Jason Shimko

Well, I don’t have a freezer in my garage just for the fruits and veggies of summer. I also stock up on all sorts of staples throughout the year. I get cases of frozen sockeye salmon sides direct from the fisherman. When I buy them at the store they are $15/lb. I got 40 lbs of them them for free. That right there is justified cost for a freezer. Butter goes on sale here once a month and I buy enough and freeze to get me through. I bulk buy ground beef and chicken breasts at Costco and freeze in… Read more »

Marsha
Marsha
9 years ago
Reply to  Jennifer B

I’m envious of the salmon.

My freezer costs about $60/year to run. I keep it fully packed with bulk buys, so it easily saves me $60 each month. One of my recent bargains was 40 pounds of ground chuck for $1.25/pound. I figure the savings on this alone more than paid the electricity for the year.

I’ve also been slowly using up the several frozen turkeys I bought at Thanksgiving for $0.29/pound. I have two teenage boys that are starving all the time.

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
9 years ago
Reply to  Jennifer B

Me too. I live in a maple syrup producing region, so guess what goes in my freezer every spring? 🙂

Rosa
Rosa
9 years ago
Reply to  Jason Shimko

I don’t think the freezer saves enough money on frozen veggies to make that much difference, but my freezer pays for itself in other ways – making ice for long trips or parties instead of buying it, and being able to accept free meat from hunting & farming friends.

I save some money by emptying the freezer starting in January and keeping it turned off from about March-June, too – part of what we use it for is to put off canning until October or November when we appreciate the heat in the kitchen more and aren’t so busy.

chacha1
chacha1
9 years ago
Reply to  Rosa

I don’t have a garden (yet) or skills (yet) but I love the idea of canning/preserving. I have always been put off by the prospect of doing something so heat-intensive in the middle of summer, though. Rosa, your method makes so much sense to me!

Rosa
Rosa
9 years ago
Reply to  chacha1

Thanks, Chacha. About 8 years ago we did some grape picking on shares, and came home with 50 gallons of grapes to make into jam & juice. After that I declared I was never making jam in July again, so help me God.

the other Tammy
the other Tammy
9 years ago
Reply to  chacha1

My mom always cans on the most God-awful hot day of summer, and the pressure cooker is going and everything is steamy…ugh! She’s got a great big oscillating fan and her ceiling fan going like gale force winds to keep the smoke detectors from going off…but canned homegrown pears and peaches and homemade spaghetti sauce is totally worth it!

Jem
Jem
9 years ago
Reply to  Rosa

What we do in the hot summer is use a propane burner outside in our netted gazebo/tent to keep the wasps away. It is one that we bought on sale and is supposed to be one of those big turkey deep fryer things. We use our large canning pot on it instead and it works wonderfully! I too freeze a lot of produce because we usually grow over 800 lbs of tomatoes alone. We can a lot of salsa, tomato sauce, and tomato paste. My friends and relatives also do their canning here. Peppers are diced, pickled, and frozen or… Read more »

Heather
Heather
9 years ago
Reply to  Jason Shimko

We have a freezer about the size of a dorm fridge. Relatively easy to keep full (empty space is harder to cool) and less energy-sucking than a full-size. If you want to watch your energy usage, it’s better to keep it in the house than in the garage, as garages as typically hot which means the unit has to work harder to stay cool.

Sandra
Sandra
9 years ago

Another great cookbook is an oldie but was still in print the last time I looked. The Victory Garden Cookbook is from the 80’s I think and is based on the old PBS show of the same name. It is all veggies. Vegetables are in alphabetical order and there is a lot of info on storage and basic prep as well as fancier recipes. My copy no longer has a cover and it is one of my most used “go to” cookbooks especially since I joined a CSA a year and a half ago.

Rebekah
Rebekah
9 years ago
Reply to  Sandra

Another cookbook that has helped us so much with our CSA share is Simply in Season by Cathleen Hockman-Wert. It has an ingredient index for when you have a vegetable you have no idea what to do with.

Crystal
Crystal
9 years ago

Thanks for the herb tips Sierra! We just planted our first herb garden this year and I didn’t know if I needed to bake the basil to dry it out or if hanging it would work…you saved me a Google trip. 🙂

Pamela
Pamela
9 years ago

Sundried tomatoes are a great suggestion that so many people don’t try. But I didn’t want to run my oven in the summer. Or splurge on an electric dehydrator. I put the tomato slices on a cookie tray and sprinkled them with a little coarse salt and pepper. Then, I moved my car to the sunny side of the street and put the cookie tray on the dashboard with cheese cloth over it to keep bugs away. They weren’t quite dry enough at the end of the day so I brought them in for the night and did it again… Read more »

Tanya
Tanya
9 years ago

Thanks for some good ideas and great links. I’ll be visiting Food in Jars and Smitten Kitchen a lot!

euda
euda
9 years ago

Hello,
I first want to say that I enjoy your writing very much but I do have a criticism on this particular piece about preserving food. I am curious about your thoughts on organic food. I notice you never mentioned the advantage of securing organics for our children if possible – particularly berries which tend to be impossible to wash clean of pesticide residue. I appreciate your reply.

Jennifer B
Jennifer B
9 years ago
Reply to  euda

I am not the author, but in my opinion, this wasn’t an article about organic vs. non organic fruits and veggies. This was an article about how to save money and eat well year round. Organic or not in this context is irrelevant. The same techniques mentioned regarding fruits and veggies work just as well with organic foods as non-organic foods. Whether you grow your own food, buy at farmer’s markets, use a CSA or just purchase at the grocery store whether you choose organic or not you can preserve what’s in season and less expensive now in order to… Read more »

retirebyforty
retirebyforty
9 years ago

Our freezer is pretty small so that’s out. Canning and pickling sounds good though! We dry out many herbs last season and that worked out quite well. I like eating fresh produce right away the best though.

mike
mike
9 years ago

Instead of buying the books, and I’m sure they’re great books, is to go to Youtube.

Anytime I want to learn to cook anything, I’ll go to Youtube and type in what I want to cook. Not only a lot of great ideas, but it’s instantaneous and free.

Rosa
Rosa
9 years ago

I am pretty happy with my electric dehydrator, but for even cheaper running costs, there is a lot of recent work by people making solar dryers for humid climates. This blog post has some great links:

http://smalvic-greenrecipes.blogspot.com/2011/05/solar-food-dehydrating-in-humid-climate.html

and this one has a picture:
http://www.rootsimple.com/2008/10/build-solar-dehydrator.html

Vanessa
Vanessa
9 years ago

I don’t want to preserve food for the long-term, I just want to learn how to extend it’s life in my fridge a bit longer. I’ve wasted a lot of strawberries because I don’t know how to store them. Same with freshly cored pineapple. There’s no one around I can split groceries with but if I could extend the life by a week or so, I could consume most of what I buy. I also throw out a lot of food because I don’t know whether it’s still good. Food poisoning terrifies me and I figure it’s better to be… Read more »

Elizabeth
Elizabeth
9 years ago
Reply to  Vanessa

I refer to the Food Safety Network: http://www.foodsafetynetwork.ca/aspx/public/publication_detail.aspx?cID=449&id=85 (This page focuses on storing fruits and vegetables — complete with a chart for the most common items.)

The CPMA also has a downloaded guide available from this page: http://www.cpma.ca/en/fruits-and-vegetables/UsingFruitsAndVegetables/FruitAndVegetableStorage.aspx

There sites are Canadian, but I think others will find them useful too.

katie
katie
9 years ago
Reply to  Vanessa

you might also want to check out http://stilltasty.com/

Tara@riceandbeanslife
9 years ago

Thank you for the great suggestions and resources! I’ve always wanted to try my hand at canning. I feel very motivated to do it this summer! Now I just have to figure out my best resource for decent produce out here in the desert darn it!!

Gabriel Vanrenen
Gabriel Vanrenen
9 years ago

Wow, I can’t believe that you mentioned my mom’s (Johnna Albi) book, Greens, Glorious Greens! It was published so long ago and it’s great to see that it’s still helping you eat healthy 🙂

Ariana Vanrenen
Ariana Vanrenen
9 years ago

Agreed, I’m so happy to see this here 🙂

fetu
fetu
9 years ago

My father would freeze plums whole like the comment about tomatoes above. Freeze them on a tray then throw them into a zip lock bag. When he felt like stewed plums with custard or ice cream he would take some plums out and heat them up in a saucepan with a bit of sugar. He would also thaw a whole bag out and make jam with them…removing pips after cooking. The best plum jam I have ever had.

El
El
9 years ago

I made cantaloupe pickles last year and they were terrific. I hadn’t had them for years, but we used to have them at the holidays, and the house smelled like Christmas when I opened the jar and the cinnamon and nutmeg filled the house. Ahhhh …

Cathy Moran
Cathy Moran
9 years ago

I gave up canning tomatoes when I bought a dryer and experienced how I could reduce 10 lbs of tomatoes to sweet, chewy dried tomatoes overnight.

Beats working over a tub of boiling water on the hottest day of the yeaer!

Michael Moore
Michael Moore
9 years ago

We just found strawberries for less than $0.50/lb at a discount grocer and bought 200 pounds of them. We now have 40+ quart jars of strawberry jam, a freezer packed full of berries and a gallon bag of dehydrated sliced. Mmmm..

Kelleigh2
Kelleigh2
9 years ago

I freeze a lot of fruit for smoothies in the winter. There is an organic delivery service in my area (SPUD) that I order from each week and a local fruit stand right next door that’s open every day, so when things are in season, I buy enough for myself for the week and some extra which I chop up (or freeze whole in the case of grapes) and put into bags. By summers end I have lots of summer fruits and berries to last me during the winter. I’ll have to try more veggies now after seeing all these… Read more »

Mary Swanson
Mary Swanson
8 years ago

An E.G.G., Ethylene Gas Guardian, absorbs that ethylene, and preserves the freshness of your produce. You’ll be amazed at how much less food you’ll waste, and how much money you’ll save.

Check this for more info
http://fresh-fruits-and-veggies.com/

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