Eat well, spend less: Heaven preserve us
Preserving is a bit of a lost art. We revive it here and show you how to make the most of abundant seasonal produce.
Preserves are quite trendy these days. Have you noticed in cafés, virtually every meal comes garnished with a dish of chutney or savoury jam, while dried tomatoes, preserved lemons, conserve, jellies and cordials have all made a comeback. Yet home preserving is thought by many to be an outdated craft. It's almost something we don't admit to, and home preservers have to acknowledge each other with a secret handshake lest we be mistaken for housecoat-wearing, nana types.
But preserving really isn't a nana-ish occupation. Home preserving and freezing are simply the easiest ways to store the seasons' surplus.
Preserving doesn't just mean bottling and jams. If you really want to make the most of peak of season produce then the freezer is going to be one of your greatest assets. Properly used, the freezer enables us to store a wide variety of foods safely for a long period of time. Many people don't make the most of their freezer and freeze the barest selection of foods, while for others the freezer is simply a staging post between the oven and the bin.
We must be practical, though. A pantry full of pickles for a household that never eats cold meat will be a waste of effort, but a batch of homemade chutney for a household that enjoys curries, picnics, toasted sandwiches, cheese boards and antipasto is a whole different thing.
Your stocks of home-prepared 'frozens' and preserves will not only save you money. Lovers of good quality foods will appreciate access to peak of season food, preserved at its best, all year round. So go on – spend less on groceries and preserve yourself.
- You need a home orchard or substantial vege garden to make it worth bothering.
- It takes days to do.
- It requires a lot of special equipment.
- Frozen food and preserved food is less nutritious than fresh.
- People will run away from you when they see you in the street.
The real deal
- Kids love preserves! In yoghurt, for baby food, on cereal and in desserts. And the well-stocked freezer is an asset when you are always rushed off your feet.
- 1.5kg of fruit or vegetables is sufficient for 3-4 jars of chutney or jam, a kilo of stone fruit yields approximately one preserving jar of bottled fruit and will make a sumptuous crumble, tart or breakfast topping in the depths of winter.
- Much of the time involved in preserving is cooking time rather than 'hands on' time, so chutney cooks while you read or listen to your kids' spelling words or catch up on Coro St.
- A big saucepan or stockpot is fine for blanching foods for the freezer and for bottling fruits. A preserving pan is useful for jams and chutneys but it is not essential. Preserving jars and jam jars can be purchased in hospice shops and garage sales for next to nothing.
- Peak of season produce is the cheapest and freshest. Freezing and bottling slows the process that causes food to break down, holding it in suspension, and retaining the colour, flavour and nutritional content of the food.
- Far from running away from you, you'll be beating people off with a stick, as culinary crafts are the new 'cool'. Everyone will be in awe of your artisan skills.
- Fruits or vegetables with high water content or a delicate cell structure don't freeze well. These include lettuce, tomatoes, watermelon, citrus fruit sections and cucumbers. Most other foods can be frozen with varying degrees of success; some foods will change in texture but are still very much useable. Tomatoes and frozen capsicum halves, for example, will be soggy when defrosted but are excellent in pasta sauces, goulash or pizza.
- Some foods are significantly improved by blanching before freezing. Pop them into boiling water for 2-3 minutes to arrest the enzyme activity that causes food to ripen, then plunge the item into cold water and drain. Blanch vegetables such as sweet corn, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, peas and beans.
- To freeze fruit, prepare it quickly in small quantities and wash it in cold water, a little at a time, to avoid bruising. Antioxidants like lemon juice or ascorbic acid dissolved in water will help prevent discolouration. Prepare as you require it for serving – stewed, sliced, mashed, whole. Then pack in appropriate serving sizes and freeze promptly, or cover fruit in a sugar syrup made from 1 cup of sugar to 3 cups of water and freeze fruit in the syrup. If using rigid containers, allow room for expansion.
- Freezer burn is a brownish discolouration caused by moisture loss; it's not dangerous but does make the food less appetising. To avoid freezer burn, squeeze or suck (if you dare) excess air out of plastic bags and seal them tightly. If using containers, eat the food within a reasonable timeframe or freezer burn will occur on the surface.
- Use good quality, unblemished ripe fruit for jams and preserves.
- A crop of tomatoes that won't ripen will make excellent chutney, and recipes abound for using things that you might not otherwise fancy eating but make great pickles or chutneys – marrows, chokos and the like.
- Don't forget marmalade when you are offered citrus fruit from the neighbour's tree, and juices can be frozen for future use.
- Pectin is a carbohydrate found in fruit that aids in the gelling or setting process. Citrus fruits are high in pectin so adding lemon juice to jam helps it gel.
High pectin: cooking apples, blackcurrants, cranberries, damsons, gooseberries, citrus, redcurrants, loganberries and quince.
Medium pectin: apricots, eating apples, blackberries, grapes, greengages, peaches, plums and raspberries.
Low pectin: bananas, cherries, elderberries, figs, guavas, melons, nectarines, pears, pineapples, rhubarb and strawberries.