Growing for your Freezer

The Ins and Outs of Freezing Your Produce

by Sandy Swegel

The avid vegetable growers on my gardening email list have noted that alas, despite trying to plan well, their freezers and pantries are almost bare despite the fact that there’s still snow on the garden. We’re fortunate to live in times with well-stocked grocery stores.

We’re also lucky to live with reliable electricity. I know how to can and make preserves, but the freezer is still the easiest way I know how to easily capture garden produce at their peak. I keep a baking pan in my freezer and bring in surplus I’ve picked that I won’t use today and after washing, spread the beans, peas, corn, cherries or strawberries on the baking pan for a kind of home flash freeze. Later when I have time, I bag up the frozen item to protect them from freezer burn. Easy and fresh. And despite what all the books tell us, we’ve had really good luck with freezing produce without blanching it first.

Suggestions on what items are good for freezing: Tomatoes of course…Sauce or diced, roasted or stewed. We agree tomatoes are the most versatile item in your freezer.

Prepared meals:  ratatouilles, bean stews, chilis, lasagnas, stuffed peppers.  Who isn’t delighted to find a home-grown, home-cooked meal in the freezer on a cold January evening ready to thaw and eat.

Individual vegetables, loose.  Here I take inspiration from the freezer section of the grocery and make small Ziploc bags of everything the grocery store freezer section supplies:  beans, corn, peas, okra, black-eyed peas, baby limas, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, red and yellow peppers. Basically, anything that would make a quick side vegetable to balance out a meal or something to give a soup or stock some extra zip. One great suggestion I’ll try this year is to freeze poblano peppers whole ready for stuffing.

Pre-cooked foods. Here’s where I’ve learned that pre-cooking some foods turns ordinary vegetables sublime.  Frozen cut spinach isn’t too impressive, but frozen spinach previously braised in olive oil and garlic is sublime.  Likewise, braised mixed kale with a splash of tamari is welcome.  A great way to freeze these greens is to lay them on freezer paper in a long thin log and wrap them up.  Cut off a section of what you need and return the log to the freezer. Cooked and seasoned beans.  I love green beans fresh but there’s something about them frozen plainly that is unimpressive.  But I like heartier beans like broad beans that have been cooked and seasoned.  Potatoes. I’m still experimenting with potatoes, but I’m so crazy for mashed potatoes that frozen individual servings of mashed potatoes with a little gravy disappeared by December.  The texture wasn’t as great as fresh…but they’re still mashed potatoes!  Shredded potatoes for hash browns are pretty good too. Roasted eggplant slices….ready to go for lasagna. Baby beets, well-cooked and seasoned. Stir-fry mixes of favorite vegetables pre-cooked to almost doneness.

Fruit. You can’t make enough of this. Keep trying, but whether dried or frozen, cherries, raspberries and peaches just disappear.  There’s still applesauce and a few strawberries in my freezer and some dried cherries I didn’t see.  Freeze more next year!

Now that my freezer is almost empty, I know how to plan for this year’s garden.  Plant more of the foods that disappeared by December and fewer of the foods that are still frozen from the year before last.

Hundreds of Vegetables

Preparing Your Garden for What You Really Need

The holiday season always involves lots of cooking. Each time I’m shopping for food I find myself thinking, I could have grown that.  A big winter squash cost me $5 the other day. And paying $2 for parsley that practically grows itself suddenly seems crazy.  As I think about January resolutions for dieting and really like the Plant Nutrient Dense Diets, I’m kicking myself for not having more vegetables still harvestable or in the freezer. So next to my grocery list on the refrigerator, I’m making my list of the vegetables I’m buying so that I have a more rational way to make a list of seeds to buy to grow for next year’s vegetable garden.

Things I wish I coulda woulda shoulda grown more of:

Beets.  Several parties I’ve been to have had roasted beet dishes. So yummy and easy. And beets are nutritious and great juicers. With a little extra mulch protection, they survive most of the year I should have at least two beets per person per week of the year. I need at least a hundred beets for me.

Carrots. Such a good juicer as well as cooked vegetables…I need at least three carrots per person per week.  150 carrots just for me.

Onions.  Duh, Another easy to grow plant that I use almost every day….4 onions per person per week is 200 onions.

Tomatoes.  It wasn’t a great tomato year so it’s not surprising I’ve gone through most of my stored tomatoes already.  I didn’t notice how often I rely on diced or stewed tomatoes in my recipes.  I need at least 2 16 ounce cans of chopped tomatoes per week.  100 “cans” of chopped paste potatoes.

Cooked Greens.  This year I preserved kale and chard and collards by steaming them and then freezing them already cooked.  I’m eating twice as many greens now than usual because they are already cooked and ready to be served as a side dish or added last minute to soups.  Cooked, frozen greens:  At least 3 pounds per person per week. 150 pounds of greens.

Peas.  I love peas. Why don’t I have more in the freezer or dehydrator? One pound of peas per week. 50 pounds of peas.

Fruit.  Frozen and dehydrated fruits are my favorites in winter.  I’ve gone through all but two jars of my tart cherries.  I was tired of picking and pitting cherries in the summer….but now I’d happily do that work since I can’t buy any tart cherries now.  I should have a pound per week of fruit preserved for the winter per person.

 Parsley and Celery. I love cooking and juicing with both of these. I’m completely out of both and they are just great sources of nutrients.  I need at least 50 “bunches” of parsley and celery chopped and frozen or celeriac in the frig/root cellar.

Rosemary. For the first year, I have enough rosemary. I bought one of those rosemary Christmas trees.  I love to roast vegetables with rosemary….so now I pick up the plant and use the scissors to keep snipping the plant back into the Christmas tree shape.  I get at least a couple of tablespoons per trimming…finally enough rosemary.

So that’s my lesson this week.  If I want a diet full of plant nutrients and I don’t want a huge grocery bill, I need to think of my vegetable garden as a source of HUNDREDS of vegetables and plants. I’ve never really noticed how many vegetables it takes to have a nutritious diet.

Another way to think about it is…let’s modestly say you need five vegetable and fruit servings per day.  Here in Colorado, we have about 4 months of non-growing seasons. So five servings per day x 30 days x 4 months means I need to have at least 600 servings of vegetables and fruit PER PERSON preserved in cool storage, cans or the freezer by December 1st if I want to grow my own food. WOW. All I can say is thank you to all the farmers who have been providing this for me my whole life!

Heirloom Tomatoes 2012

Picking Your Favorite Tomatoes for the Year

by Sandy Swegel

What were your favorite tomatoes this year?  Or should I say who were your favorites since we do have relationships with our plants!

We had a killing frost so it is officially the end of the tomato season, although just the beginning of the “what to do with green tomatoes” season.  My neighbor, Leah Bradley, is a gifted local artist who works in oils and had an Open Studio yesterday. What a delight it was to walk into a room full of paintings of heirloom vegetables.  Tomatoes everywhere and vivid kales, eggplants and pears. Even gnarly tomatoes that had viruses and blights this year were remarkably beautiful seen through her eyes.

There were lots of tomato diseases this year, so be sure to clear all that diseased foliage out of your garden beds and into the garbage (not back into your compost).

Who were the garden award winners in your heirloom tomato category this year?  Some of my buddy gardeners have been voting for Juliet, Red Beefsteak Heirloom, Brandywine, and Sweet 100 Cherries.

Grilled Eggplant Parmesan ~ Fresh Garden Style ~

Heirloom Vegetable Recipe

From the gardens of Mike Scott of Eagle Rock Backyard Farms

2 eggplants (1 1b. each)
1 & 1/2 cups heirloom tomatoes cut into 1-inch pieces
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/3 cup mozzarella cheese grated
1/3 cup parmesan cheese grated
3 large cloves garlic chopped or crushed
1 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons of fresh basil chopped (extra leaves for garnish)
1 lb. cooked spaghetti
Salt and pepper to taste

Cut tomatoes into small 1-inch pieces and place in a large mixing bowl. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil, basil, oregano, garlic, and salt and pepper to taste. Toss with hands. Put aside. Do not refrigerate. You want it room temperature.

Cut eggplant into half inch round pieces. Brush with olive oil, salt and pepper and place on hot grill. Cook until tender. Add a mixture of mozzarella and Parmesan cheese to the top of eggplants and cook until cheese is melted.

Drain tomatoes in a colander to get rid of the extra juices before adding the tomatoes to the dish. You can stack the eggplant, tomatoes, and extra cheeses to your desire. Enjoy!

From Mike’s summer garden: eggplant, heirloom tomatoes and sweet basil.

Slow Braised Beef Ribs with Heirloom Tomatoes Served on Garlic Mashed Potatoes

Heirloom Vegetable Recipe

From the gardens of Mike Scott of Eagle Rock Backyard Farms

1/4 cup olive oil
6 pounds beef short ribs
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 large onion, finely chopped
1 red bell pepper, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves finely chopped
1 cup cherry tomatoes sliced in half
1 lb. cooked tender green beans
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup red wine
3 cups low-sodium chicken stock
2 cups diced plum tomatoes finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary finely chopped
3 thyme sprigs
1 bay leaf
1 orange, zested
1-tablespoon fresh basil chopped, for garnish
2 tablespoons butter (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350. Heat about 2-tablespoons of the olive oil in a large Dutch oven over high heat.
Season the ribs well with salt and pepper. Over medium heat, brown ribs for 5 to 6 minutes on each side. You may need to brown them in batches. Remove the browned short ribs to a plate and repeat with remaining ribs and more oil if necessary.

Add onion, red pepper, garlic, and salt and pepper to the Dutch oven and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add plum tomatoes and sauté for an additional 4 minutes. Add the wine, chicken stock, and tomato paste to the vegetables and cook, stirring, about 1 minute. Add the thyme, rosemary, and bay leaf. Return the browned short ribs and any juices that have accumulated back into the Dutch oven. Add the orange zest and butter (optional). Cover with a heavy lid and place in the oven and braise for 3 hours or until the meat is very tender and falling off the bone.

Once the ribs are tender, remove the ribs to a platter. Taste for seasoning. Add salt and pepper, to taste. Serve the short ribs over garlic mashed potatoes, if desired. Add cooked tender green beans, sliced cheery tomatoes, and drizzle some juice on top. Garnish with fresh chopped basil. Enjoy!

From my Mike’s garden: heirloom cherry tomatoes, plum tomatoes, green beans, red bell pepper, onion, basil, rosemary, and thyme.

Get More Tomatoes THIS Year!

Becoming a Stronger Tomato Grower

It’s time to prune your tomatoes if you live in Zone 5 and almost time in Zone 6.  Sure there are great recipes (and movies) for fried green tomatoes, but you and I both know we much prefer red tomatoes ripened by the sun. So it’s time to take your pruners out to the garden. We now officially accept that tomato season is almost over, so we’re going to prune off the top of the tomato plant…even the cute yellow flowers that would make tomatoes if frost didn’t descend upon us. It’s going to feel brutal, but you need to cut off leaves that are shading the green tomatoes from the sun.

But if your average FIRST frost is about a month away and you notice that nighttime temperatures are a bit cool, you want to make sure that all those green tomatoes are getting sunlight. And you want the plant to focus all its energy ripening the green tomatoes currently on the vine and filling them with the sugar that makes a red tomato (or black or yellow or orange if you grew those) so yummy.

One more late summer tomato task.  Taste test your own tomatoes.  We pick the varieties we grow because we liked the picture in the catalog or because a friend told us we just HAD to grow a certain heirloom.  Now you can decide.  Make a note of the tastiest varieties in your journal or put it on next January’s calendar for seed ordering time. Make note too of which tomatoes got too many diseases or did poorly in your conditions.  Some tomatoes will grow better and taste better in your garden than others. Your job as a tomato grower is to get a little better each year so you can get more tomatoes this year and have even more and better tomatoes next year!

Grilled Fish Taco with Heirloom Tomatoes and Roasted Jalapeno & Lime Mayo

Heirloom Vegetable Recipe

From the Gardens of Mike Scott of Eagle Rock Backyard Farms

Grilled Fish

•      6 (4 ounce) fillets tilapia
•      ¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
•      ¼ tsp. cumin
•      1 tsp. olive oil
•      sea salt and black pepper to taste
•      2 cups sliced heirloom tomatoes
•      2 cups chopped cabbage

1. In a small bowl, combine cayenne pepper, cumin, ground black pepper, and salt. Brush each fillet with olive oil, and sprinkle with spices.

2. Arrange fillets on grill grate, and cook for 3 minutes per side. Place fillets on a warm corn tortilla, add chopped cabbage, tomatoes, and drizzle with roasted jalapeño and lime mayo.

Roasted Jalapeño and Lime Mayo

**This mayo goes with just about anything. Try putting in on a grilled chicken club sandwich, turkey burger, or as a dip for crispy french fries.

•      2 jalapeno peppers or any mild to hot peppers
•      ½ cup of mayonnaise
•      2 cloves garlic
•      1 green onion
•      1 lime, juice and zest
•      1 tbs. cilantro
•      1 large basil leaf
•      sea salt and black pepper to taste

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place jalapeño peppers on a backing sheet and drizzle with a little olive oil.  Roast for about 20 minutes, until the skin is slightly blistered. Remove from the oven, and place in a ziplock bag. When the peppers are cool enough to handle, peel them, and discard the skin, seeds and core.

2. Place all ingredients except salt & pepper in a food processor, or blender, and puree until smooth. Season with sea salt and pepper. You can refrigerate in an airtight container for up to 1 week. Enjoy!

From Mike’s summer garden: jalapeno peppers, heirloom tomatoes, green onion, cilantro, and sweet basil. 

“Summer Pie” ~ Heirloom Tomato & Gruyere Cheese Galette

Heirloom Tomato “Summer Pie”

From the gardens of Mike Scott of Eagle Rock Backyard Farms

•      1 12” Pie Crust (store bought or your favorite recipe)
•      4 cups heirloom tomatoes, preferably cherry to small sized
•      1 cup of grated gruyere cheese
•      5 large chopped basil leaves
•      2 cloves minced garlic
•      1 tsp. olive oil
•      ½ tsp. minced fresh rosemary
•      ¼ tsp. sea salt

1.   Place oven rack to the center position and preheat the oven to 375°F.

2.   Slice tomatoes in halves and add to a medium bowl. Add a half cup of gruyere cheese, 4 chopped basil leaves, 2 cloves minced garlic, 1 tsp. olive oil, ½ tsp. minced rosemary, and ½ tsp. sea salt to bowl and toss with hands.

3.   Roll out pie crust and place on parchment paper on a cookie sheet. If you don’t have parchment paper, a greased cookie sheet will do. Spread the other (almost) half cup of grated gruyere cheese over the piecrust. Make sure to save a little cheese for the top of the galette after it has slightly cooled.

4.   Spread mixture over piecrust leaving about 2 inches on the sides.  Fold the sides up and over the mixture. I brushed the sides with an egg mixture and sprinkled a little sea salt on the crust. So good!

5.   Bake until crust is a golden brown. Usually 35 to 40 minutes. Let pie slightly cool. Sprinkle the remaining gruyere cheese and sweet chopped basil on top. Enjoy!

From Mike’s summer garden: heirloom tomatoes, sweet basil, and rosemary. 

Get Your Diseased and Gnarly Tomatoes OUT!

Saving Your Garden

It’s August and hot, not the most fun time in the garden, but you’ve got to get your diseased and gnarly tomatoes out and EVICT all the diseased and dying stuff out of your garden.  You’re not doing for this year’s produce…you’re doing to save your garden next year.

In Colorado with our warm winter and early hot Spring, we are inundated with pest problems.  Most on our minds today is the spotted wilt virus on tomatoes which makes pretty concentric circles on the tomatoes, but leaves the fruit tasteless and mealy…and kills the plant long before frost.  As depressing as it is to toss plants you’ve nurtured since they were just baby seeds, they’ve got to go. They aren’t going to get better and the virus will just get spread around your garden.

So get out there with your wheelbarrow and do some decluttering.

Tomato plants with spotted wilt virus or mosaic virus or even some nasty blight:  OUT! And not into your compost pile…they go right in the garbage.

Other plants with serious disease problems:  OUT!  You’re never going to eat those gone to flower broccoli covered with powdery mildew.

Weeds that have grown four feet tall when you weren’t looking are now going to seed.  Somehow huge prickly lettuce and thistles keep appearing out of nowhere with big seed heads.  OUT!

It won’t take long to clean up the big stuff….this is one of those 15-minute projects.  15 minutes now will make a huge difference later. 15 minutes now gives the good healthy tomatoes more light and space and water to make lots of fruit before frost.  15 minutes now means you pull all the diseased fruit and leaves out easily now instead of trying to retrieve dead rotting fruit and diseased leaves after frost has caused leaf drop.

And while you’re at it:  those big huge zucchini bats:  OUT.  Pull ’em off the plant so that nice tender young zucchinis can grow.  You’re just not likely to eat as much giant zucchini as you’re growing.  Let go of the guilt and send them to enrich the compost.

Ignoring what “they” say.

Keeping An Open Mind

by Sandy Swegel

I visited a garden yesterday tended by my friend Lou.  Lou has gardened for other people for many years and the heavy shade garden I visited has lots of color despite being in shade and the fact that we’ve been in high temperature, drought conditions.

As we walked around and she told me some of the secrets of the garden’s success, I found myself thinking, “But “they” say not to do that.”  Things like “they” say native plants don’t want rich soil and shouldn’t be fertilized like other garden plants.  Hah. Her well-fed natives were twice the size of mine.  Or “they” say dahlias don’t do well in shade and need full sun.  She had twenty magnificent blooming dahlias that begged to differ.  And she used all kinds of plants the opposite of what the labels say:  Euonymous species, sold as shrubs, were tough interesting reliable groundcovers when kept short by pruning.

My favorite gardeners have always been the ones ignoring what “they” say and think about what might actually work.  My first experience was an older gentleman who had grown tomatoes for 70 years by the time I met him.  He had tried all the tomato techniques I ever heard of.  “Epsom salts,” he guffawed…”don’t do a thing except make the tomatoes taste salty.”  “Water has to be consistent.”  He had watered every day with soaker hoses since they had been invented.  So as I watched him fertilize, I expected some down-home advice.  Instead, I watched in horror as he just spooned tablespoons of dry Miracle Grow crystals right next to the tomato stem.  “But, but…” I stammered, “Aren’t you going to burn the plants and kill them?”  Nope….they just got watered in slow-release-like with each soaker hose watering and he had the best tomatoes in town.

That still didn’t match the shock of watching my friend Barbara.  She definitely walks her own path and is agreed by all to be the best gardener we know.  She never fertilized with fertilizers. She composts and mulches and puts goat manure and earthworm compost on everything, but she has never bought a bottle of something and put it on her yard. Geraniums bloomed in containers for fifteen years with only compost and maybe grass clippings in the bottom of the pot for the earthworms to eat. The most startling part of watching her garden was that she never treated pests.  Sawflies came two years in a row and ate every single leaf on her six-foot-tall gooseberries. They looked terrible.  She made sure the plants were watered and had lots of compost, but said the plants needed to figure it out if they wanted to survive. It was up to them to figure out how to defend themselves.  She just made sure the garden environment was good.  To my amazement, the plants survived and put out new leaves, and the third year the beetles didn’t return.  Who knew?

I still do lots of things “they” say because much is based on someone’s research and experience.  But I keep an open mind. Every time somebody gives me a lecture about the right way to garden or what “they” say I should be doing, I ask myself, “Who is this ‘they’?” “And who gave them all the power?”