Autumn is upon us and, of particular concern this year, winter is coming. Of course, winter comes every year, but this year is likely to be very tough for an awful lot of people. For the first time that I can remember, I am hearing people talking about ways they can stock up their larders with preserved foods to help to cushion themselves against the coming storm.
Seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness
If you are lucky enough to have access to outside space and managed to find the time and energy to grow some food this summer; if you have a friend with an allotment who has generously shared some produce with you; or even if you live near a street market where you can buy in bulk for a more reasonable price than the big supermarkets, there are lots of ways of preserving it.
Storing root vegetables
Hard crops like potatoes, onions, garlic, carrots, apples and pears can be stored in cool, dry dark places for months. Don’t wash them, the microbial life in the soil helps to preserve them.
Carrots can be left in the ground for storage, so long as they are covered with a thick layer of straw or compost which protects them from frost. Once dug up, the best way to store them is in a layer cake of sand, straw and soil, either in a hole in the ground, or a box. Put a thick layer of horticultural sand in the bottom of the hole (or box), take the foliage off the carrots (the leaves pull moisture out of the carrots and then rot) and lay the carrots on the bed of sand. Put on a thick layer of straw and then add a generous layer of soil or compost to the top. The carrots should stay fresh this way for several months.
Keeping tree fruit
Apples and pears should be loosely wrapped in paper and stored somewhere cool, dry and away from the light. Likewise hard skin squash and pumpkins. Only wash them once you take them out of storage to eat. Chillies and other peppers can be threaded onto a string and hung up to dry in a cool well-ventilated room.
Potatoes, garlic and onions need to be dried out a bit before they are stored. Once their skins have dried, potatoes can be stored in cotton or hessian bags somewhere cool and dry. When onion and garlic skins get papery you can twist them up into plaits and hang them, also somewhere cool and dry. But store your onions well away from your potatoes because onions exude a gas that stimulates sprouting in spuds.
If you have the freezer space, many fresh fruit and vegetables can be frozen, although you generally need to process them in some way first. If you have a glut of courgettes they can be chopped and part fried in olive oil with some garlic and frozen, or grated, squeezed to get rid of some of the liquid and then mixed with lime juice and frozen, ready to be added to soup, stew, or pasta sauce in the winter. Excess tomatoes can be cooked down into a pulp and frozen. You can sieve out the skins and pips if you want, but honestly, life is too short!
The Mason-Kilner line
A lot of things can be pickled, fermented, or turned into jam. There are loads of recipes out there, but one of my favourite ways of fermenting vegetables is unbelievably easy.
You will need a clean large Kilner or Mason style jar.
The kinds of vegetable that work well are radishes, celery, kohlrabi, cabbage (all kinds), onions, cauliflower, broccoli, garlic, beetroot (be warned, everything will turn purple), turnip, celeriac, carrots, peppers, mooli or daikon radish, sweetcorn, mushrooms, green beans, and fennel (although not too much of this one as it will overpower the flavour of everything else). Anything with a bit of substance to it: leafy greens will just go slimy and yuck. You don’t have to use everything in the list, but a good mix will give you a better end product because you will have a range of textures and flavours. Or you could do several jars with different mixtures in.
Rinse the vegetables that you decide to use and chop them into quite small pieces, scoop them all up and dump them into the jar. Give them a shake to pack them down a bit. Make sure the top layer of vegetables is at least five centimetres below the top rim of the jar.
Release the flavour
Add some spices. The kinds of spices that work well tend to be seeds which you can crush before adding them to the mix to release more flavour. Varieties include mustard seed, coriander seed, caraway seed, cumin seeds and dill seed but, as with the veggies, you don’t need to use all of them, or indeed any of them, you can use anything you like. And like the veggie mix, you can use different spices in different jars to give you some variety. Drop them in on top, they will gradually make their way to the bottom of the jar.
Make up a 3% brine, so, for example, one litre of water will need 30ml of salt, or around two level tablespoons. How much you need to make depends on the size of the jar. Pour the brine over the vegetables and spices until the veggies are completely covered.
Close the jar and store somewhere cool and dark. Fermentation produces gas which has to be released and so, for the first few weeks you will need to ‘burp’ the veggies every couple of days. The build-up of pressure can get quite extreme and, if the liquid level is too near the top, it can get pretty messy as the liquid fizzes up and bubbles over the edge. Never try to do this is a plastic box or ordinary jar, Kilner or Mason style jars are very strong and are built to withstand the pressure, ordinary jars are not.
The veggies should be ready to eat in two to three weeks. Once opened they need to go into the fridge. But if they are left closed (apart from burping) they can continue to be stored for up to 18 months.
And that timeline – store up to 18 months, once open put into the fridge, applies to most of the things that you can pickle, ferment or turn into jam.
Happy preserving, happy eating!