Preserving the Vegetable Garden Harvest

July is the month where just about everything in the vegetable garden is ready to pick and enjoy. Oh, how we wish we could enjoy these fresh vegetables more than the few months we have in summer.

The good news is you can. Saving extra fruits and vegetables for out-of-season enjoyment can be easier than you think and provide for out-of-season enjoyment.

In July, those juicy tomatoes we have been waiting for all year turn red and many times, they ripen all at once. It is often impossible to consume that many tomato sandwiches or tomato salads. Luckily, there are many options to store extra tomatoes to enjoy later.

One easy option is to blanch whole, washed tomatoes in a large pot of boiling water for about 4-5 minutes, drain them in a colander and let them cool. The tomato skins will easily slip off to be removed and discarded. Next you can choose to leave tomatoes whole or chop them in desired sized pieces. Now they are ready for storage and can be used in soups, chili, stews, sauce, etc.

Canning is one option, but an easier option is to place tomatoes in zipper freezer bags, remove any excess air in the bag and zip the bags shut. It is always good to label and date the bags before putting them in the freezer.

Another option is to make ready-made meals for convenience with the tomatoes. Prepare unbaked casserole or lasagna recipes and freeze ready-to-bake entrees for those busy days. Another prepared food option for tomatoes like plum tomatoes or large grape tomatoes is to use a food dehydrator to make “sundried” tomatoes. The final product out of the dehydrator can be easily stored in the refrigerator or freezer. Most dehydrators come with directions on how to dry vegetables and other foods.

Another popular garden vegetable that works well preserving is zucchini squash. Those of you who have grown zucchini squash know it can come on strong and leave you with more squash than you bargained for.

Squash can store in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks and stay fresh. However, over a 3-week period you may find your vegetable drawer full of squash that may not be possible to cook all at once. Good news again – find a way to store it for out of season enjoyment.

If you wish to just freeze squash alone, it can be done by a process of “flash blanching” by placing squash slices or chunks (desired serving sizes) in salted boiling water (about a ½ tsp of salt per quart of water) for about 1-2 minutes. Then drain the squash in a colander, let cool and place in zipper freezer bags labeled with contents and date.

One thing with freezing squash is it can become very soft and not hold its texture. Therefore, making ready-made meals with squash can be a great option. Squash casseroles, zucchini bread, squash quiches, and using larger squash to replace noodles in a squash lasagna are all solutions to preserving excess squash from the garden into the freezer.

Replacing zucchini in place of lasagna noodles is an easy and low-carb option. However, there are some tricks to make it a successful meal. Zucchini squash has a high-water content and can make the tray of lasagna water-logged if not pretreated.

First, slice the zucchini longways (about 1/4” thick) to resemble lasagna noodle sheets. Next liberally salt (regular table salt is fine) both side of each zucchini strip and place in a baking pan by stacking salted zucchini strips on top of each other in a pan. The pan of salted squash strips can be left on the counter for 3-4 hours or overnight in the refrigerator.

You will notice a great deal of water will come out of the squash strips. Discard the excess water, rinse each squash strip with water, and pat dry with paper towels. Now your squash is ready to build your lasagna.

Create the lasagna in the same manner as you would if using noodles and use an oven-safe baking dish or aluminum disposable lasagna pan. Once constructed, the zucchini lasagna can be wrapped tightly and placed in the freezer for up to 6 months. The frozen tray can be baked from the freezer right to a 350-degree oven for about one hour, depending on size of the tray.

Green and red bell peppers are another easy-to-freeze garden vegetable. Traditional green pepper varieties will turn red if left on the plant to mature. There are other colored peppers available to grow (yellow, orange, purple and others) and all will begin as green peppers, turning colors when matured.

Unlike some other vegetables, peppers do not need blanching or other preparations to freeze. Simply, peppers can be picked, washed, chopped in desired sizes, and placed right into freezer bags for storage. They then can be cooked in the same way fresh chopped peppers would be used – with sausage and peppers, for use in fajitas, added into soups/chili, stir fry dishes, etc.

To make prepared dishes to freeze, one popular option is to stuff peppers. There are numerous stuffed pepper recipes to follow and just like the zucchini lasagna, stuffed peppers can be made, left unbaked and then frozen for later baking.

Preserving excess vegetables from the home garden can provide an abundance of food and sense of accomplishment for your gardening efforts. And, if you find your garden treasures are not enough, there is always the option to visit the wonderful local farm markets throughout our towns to find what you are looking for to stock the freezer for winter.

By Michelle Casella

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