Preserving the Harvest

Reprinted from Orange County Bounty, local foods cookbook, available at the Wallkill River School in Montgomery.

By Shawn Dell Joyce

We’re in peak tomato season, and if you’re a lucky gardener or farmer, you probably have tomatoes coming out of your ears. So what’s a lycopene lover to do with an over abundance?

My favorite preservation method is dehydrating fresh produce. You don’t use up all your freezer space, and there’s little chance of improper processing. Also, nothing beats the intensified flavor of a sundried tomato in mid-winter. I use an inexpensive dehydrator, but you can also dry tomatoes in an oven set on “warm” for several hours, or on your roof in a “solar powered” dehydrator made of clean window screens.

To process, make sure you wash the tomatoes well, and lay them out to dry on a dish towel. In the meantime, set up your dehydrator or screens. I coat each tray with a nonstick cooking spray to keep dehydrated produce from sticking. This is essential if you are using window screens. Quarter the tomatoes, and slide your thumb along the inside to remove the pulp. Lay tomato quarters evenly spaced on the trays so air will circulate around them. When one tray is filled, lightly salt the tomatoes with sea salt. Fill all the trays, and then drape a dish towel over the top tray (or sandwich another screen on top) to keep gnats away.

My dehydrator uses a tiny fan and very little electricity, so I fill it up before bed, and leave it on all night. In the morning, I take out the first few trays and store the crispy dried tomatoes in a jar or waxed paper bag in the pantry. If you like your tomatoes a little softer, take the next few trays out as well. I am leery of soft dried tomatoes spoiling, so I store the softer ones in a small container in the freezer. I have a Greek friend who stores soft dried tomatoes in a jar with garlic cloves and olive oil in the refrigerator.

Toward the end of August, I keep the dehydrator fully loaded and running night and day. It becomes a ritual to gut tomatoes, and trade out the shriveled little morsels for fleshy red wedges. It’s a little work and takes about as much time as a phone call to a friend. You also have the added benefit of a warm tomato smell infusing your home.

Tomatoes are not the only fresh produce that is exceptionally tasty in its dried form. Zucchini is exquisite when crisped in a dehydrator. Peaches make a wonderful dried fruit snack. Strawberries, blueberries and raspberries are also good, but I puree them in a blender and spread the pulp on waxed paper in the dehydrator tray. A few things that flopped were green beans, corn, bell peppers and cucumbers. A big hit from the dehydrator was homemade organic, pasture-raised beef jerky. It’s an expensive treat, but much better for you and the environment than its store-bought counterpart.

Preserving the harvest is one way to ensure your family gets the best local produce year round. Canning or freezing are equally good ways to savor the abundance of summer, long into the winter. Whatever your favorite preserving method, do it now, while produce is at its peak in nutrition and flavor. For a little extra time and effort today, you can have a higher quality, better tasting alternative to winter imported produce. Processing the harvest now is also better for the environment. Precious little fossil fuel is burned by home preserving compared to the barrels of fuel needed to haul imported fresh produce from overseas or across the country.

Shawn Dell Joyce is the director of the Wallkill River School in Montgomery, N.Y.

Tags: ,

Leave a Reply