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GARDENING : Preserving Produce: It's Cut and Dried


The ancient rite of preserving the garden harvest still is widely practiced today. The subject always seems to provoke debate about what produce should be canned, dried or frozen. In some kitchens, the discussion is even more basic: Should we preserve garden-fresh vegetables in the first place?

After more than 20 years of using all available methods of preserving garden harvests, I have some pretty definite opinions about what works and what doesn't.

Even though finding fresh herbs year-round is easier today than it once was, there is good reason to preserve herbs. Most dry well if properly stored, retaining their pungency for many weeks. And drying herbs is about the most painless method of preserving fresh produce.

Garden herbs that dry well include basil, thyme, cilantro, oregano, rosemary, sage, marjoram, savory, dill and tarragon.

This list may surprise those who have sampled store-bought herbs whose essential oils--and flavors--largely have dissipated before they reach the consumer. The flavors of home-grown herbs will remain intact for about six months if leaves are left whole and dried correctly.

Herbs for drying are best picked before flowers mature and divert the plant's flavor and vigor to seed production. Clip off any flower heads and begin harvesting.

The best method for drying is to cut off individual leaves, spread them out on a tray or screen and put them aside for about a week. Herbs can be dried in bunches, but it will take longer, and they will be more inclined to moldiness. Quick drying is one way to ensure the quality--and therefore the longevity--of the dried herb.

It will take about a week before the foliage becomes papery, indicating it is fully dry. After the leaves have dried, put them in sealed plastic bags and store them in a cupboard away from a direct heat source.

Preserving vegetables can be more challenging.

I have given up trying to save the surfeit of string beans I harvest each year: My family won't eat them canned or frozen. Shell beans, including pinto, kidney and navy beans and the misnamed black-eyed peas, also are quite marvelous--and to some may be a revelation--when eaten fresh.

But these varieties are among the most familiar to us in their dried form, perhaps because they lend themselves so readily to drying. Preserving them is worthwhile if there are too many in the garden.

I like to leave them on the vine to dry. The plants eventually dry up too. The entire plant can be pulled, the dried seedpods that contain the shell beans removed and the remaining plant debris added to the compost pile.

Bean plants, like so much garden debris, are rich in nutrients that will serve the soil well.

The beans then are removed from the shell. They can be stored in jars by variety or in combinations--most require very similar cooking methods.

Smaller varieties of hot peppers are readily dried by hanging them from the ceiling indoors. I either tie their stems together with string or run a thin wire through them.

The tiniest varieties, such as Thai hot pepper, can be dried right on the plant: Just pull the entire bush at the end of the growing season and hang it by the root from a rafter. In about a month, the pepper can be plucked from the dried plant.

Another way to preserve fresh hot peppers is to put them to work: Add them, freshly picked, to a jar of vinegar or oil, where they will impart their pungency, resulting in hot sauce or hot oil. The oil or vinegar also preserves the peppers for later use.

Tomatoes can be dried in the oven, made into sauce, canned whole or chopped. After I have exhausted my family's tolerance for tomato soup, tomato salad and stuffed tomatoes, I use all of these methods to preserve what's left.

Drying preserves the most with the least amount of labor. The traditional method in predictably hot and dry Mediterranean climates--sun-drying outdoors--is one option.

To oven dry, slice the tomatoes and lay them on a length of tightly woven cheesecloth stretched over a couple of oven racks. Set an electric oven on warm; with a gas oven, the pilot light will do the drying.

If tomatoes are sliced in rounds, each one-quarter- to one-half-inch thick, it will take three days of constant heat until they are dry enough to store. Thicker slices could require as much as a week of heat.

Dried tomatoes traditionally are stored in olive oil but will be fine if kept in plastic zip bags. Used in thin soups or stews, they don't even need to be reconstituted.

If used in thick sauces, they should be soaked in warm water for a couple of hours: Use the soaking liquid as well as the tomatoes in the sauce.

Dried tomatoes should not be reconstituted until they are ready to be used or they will lose flavor and might spoil.

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