Preserving Summer's Bounty
Air Date: Week of October 4, 1996
In this installment of the Green Garden Spot, Steve reminisces about his mom's grape jelly, and correspondent Evelyn Tully Costa advises on the merits and methods of hoarding the harvest.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It's harvest time. Across the country, gardeners are gathering fruits and vegetables into their larders. This year alone community gardens in New York City grew over a million dollars worth of produce. And with us now again from the wilds of Brooklyn is our Green Garden Spot correspondent, Evelyn Tully Costa, with tips on stocking up for the winter. Hello, Ev.
TULLY COSTA: Hi, Steve.
CURWOOD: Now, I want to tell you. When I was a kid my mom would spend this time of year boiling huge pots of grape juice and turning it into delicious grape jelly. All year long we'd save all kinds of little jars, it might be a mustard jar, it might be a pickle jar. Because we'd need them come the fall for the grape jelly. And it tasted great, and you know, now that I think about it, it must have been an awful lot of work for somebody who was also full time in graduate school.
TULLY COSTA: Wow. I'm sure it was a lot of work. But I'm sure you really appreciated getting a jar of homemade preserves and giving them away, too. This is an interesting point because it says a lot about modern culture and economics. You know, when we centralized our farms in this country through industrialization, we made a really significant cultural choice that does boil down to, in a way, a jar of jam that's homemade versus Welch's off the assembly line jelly. Now if you think about it, growing, harvesting, and stocking up on some food items is a really great way to keep the freshness, quality, and I think most importantly, self sufficiency going in our lives.
CURWOOD: And a sense of place. Because one of the most wonderful things about the jelly that we would make, some would come from grapes right in our back yard. You'd smell them as they get ripe, but all winter long we could have that wonderful smell of September on our toast. The trouble was, you know, I didn't pay any attention really to what mom did when she was making this stuff. So, um, Evelyn, I need your help. I could use some lessons here. What do I do first?
TULLY COSTA: Okay. Start off the best and the freshest.
CURWOOD: Okay. So you don't take the stuff that maybe you don't want to have that day and you put that by. You want --
TULLY COSTA: No. The freshest. If you want to put the freshest going in, it'll be the freshest coming out of the jar. And you should start with the crop that you are most overwhelmed with if you have a garden. And for your listeners without a garden but who really want to stock up, they could try maybe striking a deal with a neighbor who is overwhelmed. They could join a community garden, they could go to a farmer's market, they could buy caseloads of fresh fruits and vegetables, or they could even try harvesting their own from a nearby farm that encourages this kind of do it yourself harvesting. Then you have to choose your method of preserving. Now, there's freezing, pickling, drying, canning, or you can just throw everything down into the root cellar.
CURWOOD: (Laughs) Throw everything down into the root cellar, now that sounds easy, except -- I've got to tell you something, Evelyn, we've got a lot of basil and we've got a lot of tomatoes. I don't think it's going to work if I throw these tomatoes down into the cellar, that's just going to make a mess.
TULLY COSTA: Uh, no, you don't want to do that, let's try the freezing method. Now surprisingly enough, you can lay the tomatoes out on a cookie tray and treat them like cookies, don't let them touch. Put them in the freezer, let them freeze, and then put them into the bag, and by the way during this process, the skins of the tomatoes, they crack and peel a little bit, so that when you actually take them out of the freezer and cook them, the skin peels away very simply and very beautifully, okay? So, you know really, freezing is as limitless as your freezer is deep, so I would just tell people to go for it. This is the easiest way to keep your fruits and vegetables.
CURWOOD: Uh huh. Well now, how could I use that basement? I mean you said I could just toss stuff down in the root cellar?
TULLY COSTA: Root cellars, they've been around since we humans have been looking for cool, humid places to hide all that gathered stuff while we went off hunting. (Both laugh) Now, generally speaking, just think of it, caves, right? People storing food in caves. Or in urns that they put in the ground. Now generally speaking, the concept behind this is you want to keep produce as cold as possible without freezing it, so we're talking about, you know, below 40 degrees and above 32 degrees. So you could try out the cellar steps. You could try out in-ground containers, like a trash can surrounded by dirt. You can even put things in styrofoam ice chests. What most people do is they convert part of their basement by putting up a dividing wall, and then they use an open window during the winter to regulate the temperature. It's really easy but it's not foolproof.
CURWOOD: You've got to keep close tabs on what the temperature is, huh?
TULLY COSTA: Yeah, and the other thing, too, like I said before, you really have to store top quality, unblemished produce. Try apples, you could try cabbages, pears, parsnips, hardshelled squashes. These are really good choices for cold storage. They also seem to last forever. Keep an eye on them, remove anything that is starting to go bad, and really think of your root cellar as a humongous backup for the fridge.
CURWOOD: So, Evelyn, you're really smart about all of this, but you know, my memory isn't so great. So is there some place I can look up tips on how to do this, a good book?
TULLY COSTA: Well, there are a lot of great books on this, but I would have to say Preserving Summer's Bounty gives you a really good item by item list of what preserving methods each fruit and vegetable can handle. There's also a lot of really great recipes like green tomato chutney, dill pesto, garlic dill butter, rosemary pesto, creamy raspberry dressing, and cranapple jelly. And I think these recipes would convert any supermarket junkie into a master gardener.
CURWOOD: I'm already getting hungry.
TULLY COSTA: Okay, and I just wanted to mention, too, that from what I could see this summer at some county fairs that I visited, that this is not a dying art but a reviving one. I saw a lot of blue ribbons on a lot of tasty jams and preserves. So I would just say happy harvesting to all your listeners and good eating to everybody.
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