As we sink deeper in to the tail end of summer, the hard work and patience put in to greenhouses, allotments and kitchen gardens is finally starting to pay off. The time has finally come to harvest those fruits and vegetables planted months ago with so much soil and hope. As mouths across the country alternate between being stuffed with fresh produce, and exclaiming how it “tastes so much better than what you buy at the shops”, eyes will be taking in the bowls and buckets spilling over with an endless supply of tomatoes, plums, courgettes with a growing expression that says “what the hell am I going to do with all of these?”
So before you start shovelling armfuls of radishes on unsuspecting friends just to get rid of them, here are a few tips for prolonging the life of your successful crops.
An obvious one to begin with – freezing your produce ensures they last longer and retain flavour and vitamins. Unfortunately freezing and thawing vegetables can result in a loss of texture, with many turning soft or mushy, but they’ll still be suitable for cooking with, chopping in to sauces or blending in to smoothies and juices. For best results they should be frozen as quickly as possible – lower temperatures create smaller ice crystals as the water inside freezes, which will cause less damage to cell walls and keep the produce firmer. They should also be packed in air tight containers or freezer bags containing as little air as possible to prevent extra moisture on the outside.
When freezing, fruits and vegetables should be blanched in boiling water first, then submerged in ice water before they start to cook. This will kill off any micro-organisms on the surface and prevent enymes from damaging flavour and colour through the freezing process. Your frozen vegetables should last up to 18 months, allowing you to continue enjoying their home-grown flavour much longer.
Once looked down on as “those weird jars in Grandma’s cupboard”, home-made pickled vegetables have seen a resurgence in recent years, with sales of Kilner jars and preserving spoons growing by up to 400 percent in 2015. So there’s never been a better time to join the pickling craze and discover a delicious new (old) way to enjoy your home-grown vegetables.
Everything from carrots to beetroots to lemons can be easily pickled and enjoyed for weeks and even months after the fresh veg would have gone bad. There are thousands of recipes online with ideas for mixing spices and vegetables, but part of the fun is simply using what you’ve got and experimenting with different flavours.
At its most basic level, all you need is to chop your chosen vegetables and spices in to slices and pack in to a large Kilner or mason jar, leaving about an inch of space at the top. Heat one part water, one part vinegar, one part salt and two parts sugar until boiling, and pour the mixture carefully in to your jar of vegetables. Press down on the mixture with the end of a wooden spoon and add more vegetables until the jar is full, with about half an inch of liquid at the top. Leave to cool and place in the fridge. It only takes a couple of days to have a delicious pickle – though you may find that some flavours improve with age.
Preserve them in olive oil
Similar to pickling, though without the harshness of the vinegar, vegetables preserved in olive oil will take on a more Mediterranean flavour and add a delicious twist to salads, sandwiches and pasta dishes. Peppers, beetroot, green beans, garlic and cherry tomatoes all work well with this method – though again it’s always good to experiment with anything else you’ve been growing.
For best results the vegetables must be cooked first. Grilled, roasted or simply boiled – different cooking methods will bring out different aspects of flavour. Cover all cooked vegetables with a mix of 2 parts olive oil to 1 part vinegar, ensuring everything is fully submerged in the liquid. Add salt, pepper and herbs to taste and stir to remove air bubbles, then refrigerate. As long as your fridge is suitably cold, the olive oil should slightly harden after 24 hours. As long as they remain completely covered, the vegetables should last 3-4 months.
Turn them in to drinks
Use the delicious fresh flavour of your homegrown fruits to create your own infused spirits – a great way to enjoy the flavour of your summer growths or a delightful gift for friends and family.
Any spirit can be infused with extra flavour, though you’re likely to get best results with vodka, gin or white rum. Vodka particularly has the most neutral flavour so will work well with almost any addition. Start with just a quarter of a bottle, until your confident you can get the flavours just right.
The method is simple – pour the spirit in a sterilised Kilner jar, bottle or other airtight container; and add a good serving of your chosen fruit or veg. The amount will vary depending on the strength of the flavour you’re using – one chilli or a couple of slices of lemon for example is likely to be plenty. Seal the container and leave the mix to infuse. Strong flavours like chilli, citrus or herbs will only take a day to infuse; berries and strong tasting fruits like damsons and peaches should be left for 3-4 weeks; and milder flavours like apple, melon and lemongrass may take over a month. Again, it’s best to experiment with this – take a sip every so often and determine if the flavour is to your liking. When ready, strain the mixture and pass through a fine muslin to remove any solids or sediment and keep in a clean bottle until you’re ready for a drink. If stored well, it can last up to a year.
Serve over ice with sparkling water or tonic, or try mixing up your own homemade flavourful cocktails.
Let us know in the comments what you’re doing to make your late summer harvest last longer, or share your own top recipes for pickles, preserves and infused spirits.