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GARDENING

Preserving Produce: Reaping the Fall Harvest in Wintertime

September 27, 1997|From Associated Press

Not too many weeks ago, you might have been standing impatiently next to your tomato plants, tapping your foot and waiting for the first fruits to ripen. Those plants are probably now yielding more tomatoes than you can eat. How can you deal with this garden surplus? You could orphan zucchinis on unsuspecting neighbors' doorsteps. Or you could preserve some of the harvest for winter.

Prevent enzyme action and attack by microorganisms, both of which eventually make fresh foods taste bad or poisonous, by canning, freezing, drying, pickling, juicing, making jelly or fermenting.

Here are some tips on preserving garden produce commonly in excess at this time of year:

* The only vegetables many gardeners will can are tomatoes. Tomatoes are acidic, so they pose little threat of food poisoning. And canned tomatoes, in contrast to many other canned vegetables, taste good.

* If peeling or straining tomatoes, as is often suggested, seems like too much work, don't do it. Instead, cut each tomato in half to get the juices flowing, and drop them into a big cooking pot.

Or, even easier, just squeeze each tomato over the pot to break the skin, then plunk the squished tomato into the pot. Cook down the mass by about a half to thicken it, let it cool, blend it, and pack it into jars for canning.

* For best-quality vegetables to be frozen, you need to have their enzymes deactivated first. Do this by briefly heating vegetables in steam or boiling water, a process known as blanching.

Steaming is preferable to boiling because there you have less water to boil, and because steaming dissolves away fewer sugars, vitamins, and minerals. Two vegetables--peppers and onions--do not need to be blanched before they are frozen.

* Many vegetables can be dried even without a food dehydrator. Run heavy thread through a needle, and then run the needle through whole string beans or slices of summer squash. Hang the strings up near your kitchen ceiling and they should dry quickly. At this time of year a century ago, ceilings of farm kitchens were commonly festooned with drying apples and beans.

* For some of the vegetables that are ripening now, all you have to do is to give them the right environment and they will keep for months.

Cure ripe onions by laying them out in the sun until the tops are fully dry. Then pack them into mesh bags or braid them together and hang them from the garage or basement ceiling. Potato leaves die down as potatoes mature. These potatoes are the easiest vegetable to store--just leave them in the ground to dig when needed.

* Buttercup, butternut and Hubbard are winter squashes that are ripening now. Pick individual ripe squashes off the plants as their rinds harden. Cure them at warm temperatures for a couple of weeks, and then store them where it is cool and dry.

Winter squashes will provide hearty, warm fare until Christmas and beyond, and you can be slicing the last of this season's onions into a salad just as you are sowing seeds for next year's garden.

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