By Laurie Casey
Tomatoes are popping. Apples are bursting with sunny juiciness. Peppers, string beans, eggplants and raspberries are abundant. We find the fruits of this harvest everywhere: in our gardens, at the farmer's market, in the grocery stores or even in our neighbor's yard or the local forest preserve.
By gathering food when it is abundant, free or cheap, we can preserve it for the upcoming lean months ahead. Come the dregs of winter, rather than buying bland, tasteless tomatoes grown a half-globe away, we can enjoy tasty, ruby gems from our freezers or canned or dried on our shelves. This is a central idea of Barbara Kingsolver's provocative book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. If you haven't read it, we highly recommend it. Kingsolver and her family spent a year eating what they could grow in their yard or buy from farmers in their county. The book is full of easy recipes and ideas that can make locavore eating a reality in your pantry.
For a local spin, we turned to Michelle Hickey, co-founder of the Naperville-based Resiliency Institute, a non-profit educational organization devoted to growing food security, building the local economy, increasing biodiversity and fostering community. She follows the ideas of Permaculture design, a system of living based on self-sufficiency, such as growing your own food and strengthening your ties to your neighbors and local community.
For the past three years, Michelle has fed herself primarily only what she grows in her yard and gleans from her community, supplemented by pastured egg and organic apple CSA shares from area farms.
"I follow Permaculture, which is a big difference between Kingsolver and me. In her book, she was doing traditional farming, which means growing annuals," said Michelle. "I do grow annuals, such as garlic, onions, and tomatoes, but I also grow about 43 fruiting shrubs, four hazelnut shrubs, 18 fruit trees, and one almond tree, as well as perennial vegetables. I also forage and glean in my neighborhood and public spaces.”
To sustain this lifestyle, she routinely gathers food and preserves it during the growing season through freezing, canning, dehydrating or pickling food.
Michelle has been canning for about five years. On the day we talked to her, she had just finished canning six quarts of grape juice and drying three quarts of apple chips in her oven.
"I grew the grapes myself," explains Michelle. "The apples came from my neighbor. They weren't the sweetest or most flavorful apples, but when you dehydrate them, the sweetness gets concentrated. You also have the option of doctoring them up by sprinkling them with cinnamon and sugar before you put them in the oven."
Later in the week, she planned to can pears in a sugar syrup. Earlier in the month, she canned five quarts of peaches.
For canning recipes, Michelle recommends www.pickyourownfruit.com. The authoritative site offers step-by-step instructions for canning just about anything.
"When you are canning, there's a process with critical steps that you need to follow, just like baking," says Michelle. "Canning is based on chemistry. This is not the time to experiment with recipes. Acidity is important to prevent spoiling. You don't want that hard work to go to waste."
Michelle uses the water bath canning method, which doesn't require special equipment like pressure canning does. "You only need a pressure canner for certain things, such as soups, meat stocks, vegetables, green beans, and other foods that aren't acidic. With water bath canning, you can just use your stock pot."
When you first get into canning, the amount of sugar called for in recipes can be discouraging. Many recipes call for one cup of sugar to one cup of fruit. One workaround Michelle uses is Pomona's Universal Pectin, which requires 50-80 % less sugar and allows the use of honey or fruit juice as a substitute.
While she enjoys canning, she really depends on freezing. "I love to make freezer jams, since I usually just have a small quantity of fruit to work with." She also freezes whole or sliced fruits, whole or sliced vegetables, as well as stocks and soups.
But in the depths of winter, what she really loves to reach for are her frozen pestos. "There is nothing better in the winter. It's a taste of summer. I make it out of kale and lots of wild edibles and different kinds of nuts. I experiment with lots of herbs and oils. Whatever you have in abundance. Just don't add cheese before freezing: add it after you defrost it. I spoon pesto by the tablespoon onto a cookie sheet, freeze it, then put it in jars or bags in the freezer."
She also relishes her refrigerator pickles, made from cucumber pickles she grows in her garden. Fermentation is the last frontier for Michelle. She is reading up now, before diving into this rich area of food preservation.
While many of us may not be ready to give up our grocery store, Michelle has a lot to teach us about the joy and value of preserving this season's harvest. Inspired by her lead, perhaps we might try canning applesauce or freezing some pesto this September?
Local u-pick orchards are offering raspberries, apples and pears as well as many vegetables right now. Farmer's Market and grocery store shelves are filled with beautiful produce. And there just might be a friendly neighbor with a pear tree just asking to be picked...all you might pay is a bag of the juiciest ones or a few jars of sweet canned pears in return.
An afternoon spent in the sunshine and an hour in the kitchen now just might inspire some happy memories and tastes come January. What are you planning to harvest and preserve?
Michelle Hickey's Recipe for Apple Chips
Using a mandolin or an apple peeler/slicer/corer, slice apples thinly. You can peel or leave the skins on (I leave the skin on for added nutrition). If apples have blemishes, just cut those spots out. Chips can be any size or shape. Place slices in a single layer on parchment lined baking sheets or grid cooling racks. Aim for filling the oven with 3-4 trays (10+ apples). Option to top apple slices with cinnamon & sugar before baking. Bake at 200º for 2-3 hours. You can flip them over halfway through. Once they are crisp, turn off oven and let sit in oven until cool. Store in glass jars.
Michelle and The Resiliency Institute co-founder Jodi Trendler and their instructors offer food preservation classes in Naperville. Check them out at http://www.theresiliencyinstitute.net
Other places to find food preserving classes include Sugar Beet Food Co-op and Green Home Experts.