It’s useful at this time of year (before we’ve completely dedicated our beds to much-missed summer vegetables and bouncy salads) to look back and review what were the most worthwhile ‘preservable’ crops last year. These flavour-packed fruit and vegetables often take the longest to grow, so it’s worth getting them going now.
Preserves are often made as the result of an abundance. But try to grow what will be tastiest preserved rather than preserve as a way of combating unwanted gluts. I love young courgettes but I don’t want them every day. One courgette plant will do us fine (although there is always the wisdom of ‘an heir and a spare’ should something untoward happen along the rocky road to fruition). Runner beans can also outlive their welcome if you grow too many plants. And I don’t want to preserve either of these. I’ve tried making bean chutney before (dull), and frozen beans are equally disappointing. As for freezing courgettes, or turning them into jam… no, thank you.
But there are some gluts that are very welcome. IF you have the inclination to PRESERVE.
Preserving is usually a lot of effort and annoyingly time-consuming. When the evenings are still long and the days are still warm, who wants to be inside all weekend inhaling vinegar or stirring hot sugar for hours? But there is something very wholesome and uplifting in the delayed gratification. Come mid-winter, being able to add flavour to a dish with something you grew yourself in the height of summer is deeply satisfying. And as for doling it out as Christmas presents… Well, ‘smug’ is the word I’m looking for!
Most of us probably start preserving by making jam and chutney. But last autumn I was thrilled to receive a dehydrator to try out from UK Juicers. Although a bit late in the season to start, I managed to dehydrate and store a decent amount of tomatoes, chillies, some herbs, and the less-than-perfect apples that fell off the tree. It wasn’t until I used the produce months later (you need a decent passage of time between Hard Labour and Grateful Consumption to really appreciate the transformation) that I found out just how packed with flavour properly dehydrated food can be.
I wasn’t too sure when dehydrating the tomatoes, as the smell of evaporating tomato essence is surprisingly unpleasant. But later on, adding just a few dried slices to a stew or pasta dish brought back the delicious, deep savoury punch of pure tomato (my tomatoes!). And so much nicer than using tinned tomatoes. I even used them to decorate a New Years Eve Bloody Mary. As I am a tomatoholic, I will be growing a lot more, and dehydrating a lot more, tomatoes this year.
In October, I made a rich, red cabbage chutney, most of which I gave away as Christmas presents. In anticipation of hard frosts, hung the remaining cabbages in the garage to use during the winter, but it was so mild that they started to sprout! Then they started to rot, so I quickly took them down, removed the rotten outer leaves, and popped them in the fridge. But red cabbages are pretty dense, and we just couldn’t get through them.
So at the end of January, rather than waste them, I did my ‘Random Ingredients Challenge’ raid on the larder and pickled them. I added the chopped up cabbages to a large pan, added fresh ginger, garlic, sugar, and the 1/3rd remains of a couple of bottles of white wine and cider vinegar. I chopped up and stirred in some of my own dehydrated chillies and apples. Salt and pepper. And I simmered it for about 40 minutes, stirring and tasting every now and then. It had a fresher, more vibrant taste and colour than the chutney (which had needed simmering for 2 hours) and still had a bit of crunch. Very nice indeed. So, I’m pleased to say I will be growing red cabbages again this year (doubly pleased, because they also look fabulous and can keep in the ground for ages).
Most of the apple rings that I dehydrated have either been consumed as sneaky-snacks by my daughter, or made up into quick puddings. Just by adding a little boiling water to a couple of handfuls, a sprinkle of cinnamon, and a few minutes in a hot pan to plump them up, makes an instant pudding base packed with real apple flavour! Now that I’ve got the fruit patch filled with berries, currants and rhubarb, my work is cut out.
(NB If you are thinking of getting a dehydrator, I would recommend getting a square-shaped model with as many racks as possible. Excalibur and Tribest Sedona are considered the best (reliable, well-built and capacious). They are not cheap, so it is worth keeping a look out on Ebay or similar for a second-hand one).
What are your favourite fruits and vegetable to preserve? Have you tried dehydrating food with a machine or in the oven?