Prepare Now for a Delicious Winter Kitchen

– By Andrea Gaines

While the summer season is slowly coming to an end, our farms and gardens are still filled with fresh fruits, herbs and vegetables – seasonal delicacies we’ll sure miss come January.

Instead of simply letting your garden go to seed, harvest as much as you can from your vegetable and herb garden. When, your neighbor says, “Need some basil?”… take her up on the offer. And, as your pass your favorite farm stand or pick-your-own, remember that although you’ll be able to buy tomatoes, berries and more in the grocery store this winter, they won’t taste the same. In other words, plan ahead for that delicious winter kitchen.

  • Tomatoes: Save fresh tomatoes in paste, crushed or whole form. Freeze them whole in sturdy, re-sealable plastic bags, cutting them in half and de-seeding if that’s what you prefer. For crushed tomatoes, blanch them, peel them and crush them with your fingers, adding a little lemon juice for freshness. Freeze crushed tomatoes in small-portion plastic containers so you’re not dealing with a big frozen block when using. For paste, follow the same process as with crushed tomatoes, cook them down on the stovetop and/or finish them off in a baking pan in the oven before putting in containers and freezing. Here, smaller containers work best as the tomatoes are used in concentrated form.
  • Basil And Other Leafy Herbs: These can be preserved for later use by drying and storing in an airtight container or bag, or mincing and freezing in water or olive oil in ice trays. If you are drying the herbs, use stems that have not yet flowered, and hang them in a dry, dark, well-ventilated place for about a week. Strip the leaves from the stem before storage. Consider pre-mixing your favorite herb combinations. And, don’t be afraid to combine freshly-dried herbs with store-bought items. Great combinations: lavender + fennel + basil + thyme (Herb de Provence), basil + oregano + rosemary + thyme + red pepper (Italian), parsley + chives + tarragon + chervil (Mediterranean Fines Herb).
  • Berries And Seasonal Fruits: Apples you can get all year long, but berries, peaches, plums and other fruits need to be picked and prepared for later use when at their seasonal peak. For these beauties, follow five simple steps: 1) wash and dry thoroughly, 2) for peaches, peel off the skin, and for all, cut off spots and bruises, 3) cut into bite-size pieces/slices and pat dry a second time, 4) spread out on a pan, cover in plastic wrap and freeze overnight, 5) transfer into freezer bags the next day.
  • Squash: For yellow summer squash and zucchini, follow three simple steps. 1) trim the two ends and cut into 3-4 inch wedges, 2) blanch the squash for approximately 5 minutes – this stops the plant’s enzyme action, preserving color, taste and texture, 3) immerse the wedges in cold water to stop the cooking process and then spread out the squash and let it cool completely. It is then ready for freezer bags or containers.

Three deliciously simple ideas – casseroles, crumbles and fancy butters: Frozen vegetables are fantastic made into a casserole with a basic white sauce, grated cheese and a bread-crumb topping. Fruits and berries are wonderful as the base for your favorite crumble – just sweeten and flavor your portions with sugar and spices, etc. before you freeze. Herbs can be blended with softened butter, pressed into individual butter molds and/or rolled into a log and frozen for later use. For your beautiful, fresh and flavorful winter kitchen.

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