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Preparing for Willy Street Co-op’s First Ever Eat Local Challenge!

In my seven-plus years of working at this beloved natural foods store, few things have made me as happy as hearing the news that Willy Street Co-op has decided to initiate our very own Eat Local Challenge, designed to encourage and support our Owners in the endeavor to commit to eating completely locally for a period of time. That’s right—on staff we now have an official Eat Local Challenge Committee, whose purpose is to spearhead an effort among Owners to commit to eat locally for an entire month. This team is not only responsible for educating our Owners about the benefits of eating locally, but also for brainstorming ways in which we as a Co-op can best support your efforts in doing so.

What we have come up with is not only to stage the first ever Willy Street Co-op Eat Local Challenge, which will take place from August 15th through September 15th, but we’ve come up with supplemental resources, as well. My article is meant to assist you, and in addition, we will offer classes in our Community Room that will further support your efforts. The first of which is the MACSAC (Madison Area Community Supported Agriculture Coalition) food freezing class on June 6th; the second of which is a dehydrating class on July 18th. Each class has only 10 seats and will fill up fast—if you are interested in signing up for one or both of these, be sure to visit the Customer Service desk. Finally, we plan to coordinate these efforts with the Produce team so that they can plan sale prices and specials according to what you will want to preserve so that you can eat locally year-round on a budget.

Over the last couple of years I have advocated strongly on behalf of eating locally, and have written articles that range from increasing your familiarity with squash and root vegetables, to freezing pesto, to canning tomatoes, to home fermentation. These are all available on our website’s newsletter archives. You can search for my previous articles under the Produce department for the months of December2007, March and June, 2008; August, September, October, November and December 2009. In particular, you can read about my initial experience participating in an Eat Local Challenge in November 2008 (the challenge took place in the especially challenging month of October). See sidebar on the next page for specific web addresses.

The reassuring news is that we are beginning our first Eat Local Challenge from mid-August to mid-September. These are still really easy months for locavores—we have a literal bounty of local options that can keep our diets varied and inspiring. However, preserving is a good habit to get into if you are willing to allocate the time and money up front in order to ensure you will have later access to minimally processed, local convenience foods when times are leaner. This month, I will be educating you on the simple ways in which you can begin to prepare yourself for the upcoming challenge by taking measures to preserve the local harvest of June.

So many treasures! Asparagus, sugar snap and snow peas, rhubarb, and strawberries! When you begin to make plans to process foods for later use, it pays to take some things into consideration prior to delving right in; though, delvers, I do not mean to diminish your enthusiasm! I just want this to be the most successful and enjoyable endeavor possible for you and your family. Therefore, ask yourself some of the following questions:

  1. What are your favorite foods, and the ones you look most forward to enjoying after their season passes?

  2. Of these favorites foods, what do you want as the finished product? If you desire rhubarb sauce, for example, you’ll make different decisions than if you were looking to bake pies or rhubarb bread out of season.

  3. Do you have much freezer space?

  4. How much time are you willing to invest?

  5. Do some foods that you plan to preserve seem less negatively impacted by the canning process than others?

As an example, I can run you through my train of thought as I prioritize and plan for a local season. I know that I want to preserve strawberries for smoothies and jam. I also want rhubarb sauce; large quantities of pesto; tomatoes in the form of salsa, juice, and sauce; and lots of corn in the form of corn relish. I have limited freezer space, so I will have to make some choices. I will freeze whole strawberries for use in smoothies, and store them flat in Ziploc freezer bags. I will make strawberry freezer jam, because I much prefer its flavor when compared against its canned counterpart. I will make rhubarb sauce and freeze it in quart-sized mason jars, and do that with pesto, as well, though I will store that in a combination of pint and half-pint jars. The other remaining items, tomatoes and corn, I will can in a water bath and store at room temperature in the pantry. Now I have a game plan.

The two ways to best preserve asparagus are freezing and pickling. Freezing will be your best bet if you’d like to retain its spring flavor for use as a side dish or as an ingredient in another dish. For me, pickled asparagus has always been limited to use as a garnish in Bloody Marys. Unless you consume an unusually large number of Bloody Marys, I would not bother to pickle asparagus. There may be some other incredibly delicious uses for it of which I am unaware, however, so please prove me wrong! For our purposes in the Eat Local Challenge, however, I think it will suffice to stick to freezing.

Freezing Asparagus
Sort asparagus spears for size, and separate them into groups of slender, medium, and thick spears. Wash them thoroughly, and, using a vegetable peeler, peel the bottom 2-inches of the spear, taking care to remove tough ends by cutting or snapping them off, keeping the length of the spears as uniform as possible. You may also cut spears into 2-inch pieces if you prefer.

Blanch the asparagus according to thickness of stalks. Thin stalks should take 30 seconds, medium stalks should take 45 seconds, and thick stalks should take 1 minute. Blanching simply means plunging a vegetable into (already) boiling water for a specified length of time then immediately plunging it into ice-cold water in order to halt the cooking process. For the record, I think it is better to blanch something for too short a time than for too long. When overcooked, vegetables, and particularly delicate items such as asparagus, lose so much of their crispness and vibrancy. I think it’s important to keep a close eye on what you’re blanching, and pull it out immediately once it’s changed color. Over time you’ll experiment and increase your confidence. But know that if it doesn’t come out perfect or just the way you like it the first time, make a note in your cookbook or on the margins of this article and try to compensate next time.

Once blanched, dry the spears on a clean dishtowel and lay them in a single layer on a cookie sheet, with space in between each spear. Allow to freeze. This method prevents you from having to deal with a large block of frozen veggies later. Once frozen, pack into your container of choice. For asparagus I would use a Ziplock freezer bag for space efficiency, taking care to remove any excess air from the bag prior to sealing. When ready to use, simply open the bag and remove as many spears as needed.

In all my years of gardening and working in the Produce department, I have never had enough snap peas left over at the end of their season in order to freeze them, which is the only preservation method I would use for these delicate items. Sugar snap peas are so much like candy to me that I consume literally every last one. And, though I feel a little bit as though this is a scandalous confession, I will admit that I am not a fan of snow peas. This left me in a unique position in writing this article—I was being asked to write about something I’d never done. So, just like any other time in life when I find myself swimming in unfamiliar waters, I glance around on the Internet for information, but remain skeptical until I hear the advice of friends. I decided to call upon the expertise of my dear friend and canning maven, Sarah Elliott. She has successfully frozen snap peas, but admits that she’s never frozen snow peas, though now she’s wondering why she hasn’t ever tried! Her advice confirmed my previous experience with other vegetables. Wash them well, and destring them. Give them a very, very quick blanch (I would trust your judgment while looking at them, and remove them from the hot water immediately when they begin to change color into a brighter green, which I think would only be a matter of seconds) and plunge them into ice cold water. Dry them well on a clean dishtowel, then freeze them in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Once fully frozen, remove cookie sheet from the freezer and transfer peas into Ziploc freezer bags, taking care to remove excess air from bag prior to sealing. Once again you will have easy to access peas in whatever quantity you need.

Few things are as beloved in my kitchen as rhubarb. Hopefully you love it as much as I do, and treasure many a fond memory of pies and jams and other rhubarb-y delights. If not, however, I have converted many a skeptic, and in fact pride myself on showing people that they love a food they previously hadn’t found very interesting or appealing.

Freezing rhubarb is really similar to the methods we’ve discussed previously for freezing asparagus and peas. Wash the stalks of rhubarb, and remove any leaves, since the leaves are inedible. Remove any blemishes and stringybits, and then chop rhubarb into pieces of your desired size, taking care to keep them as uniform as possible. You may have to halve thicker stalks the long way before cutting crosswise in order to make them uniform with more slender pieces. I think one-inch pieces are ideal for versatility.

Blanching the rhubarb is not necessary, though you may want to in order to best preserve its color and flavor. If you choose to blanch it, do so for one minute before plunging it into ice water. Remove rhubarb from ice water and allow it to drain. Dry thoroughly with a clean dish towel, then place pieces in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Place in freezer. Once frozen, remove and transfer into an airtight container like a Ziploc freezer bag, which will prevent freezer burn, loss of moisture, and the absorption of odors or other flavors.
My personal favorite method of preserving rhubarb is in the form of rhubarb sauce. I clean and chop rhubarb into one-inch pieces, and cook on stovetop in a medium saucepan with a small amount of water. (This is inexact and completely safe for improvisation.) For those of you who prefer measurements, toss eight cups of chopped rhubarb and 1/4 cup of water into a saucepan and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently. You can opt to add sugar if you like. I typically do, but not much. I allow the rhubarb pieces to break down and then I add sugar to taste. Once it looks like the consistency of sauce, remove from heat and pour into mason jars, allowing ample headroom for inevitable expansion due to freezing. I make countless quarts of this each year, and thaw a jar each weekend for use atop waffles (with homemade whipped cream, of course) during leisurely brunches. I’ve also made a sort of rhubarb shortcake with this sauce, pouring it over biscuits with whipped cream and a fresh spring of mint.

I intentionally listed our June items in alphabetical order just so we could end with strawberries. Sigh. Is there anything more promising than a June strawberry’s deep reds and cheerful leaves? If there is, I certainly can’t think of it right now. My two preferred methods of preserving these early summer gems are freezing them whole and in the form of freezer jam. I think those two methods best retain that intense strawberry flavor that I so desire once they’re long out of season.

To freeze strawberries whole for use in smoothies, you will likely want to do so without sugar. Use fully ripe berries. Wash and dry berries, then remove stem and caps. Arrange in single layer on a cookie sheet, and allow to freeze overnight or until frozen solid. Then you may place them into a Ziploc freezer bag, taking care to remove any excess air from the bag prior to sealing.

My other favorite treat is strawberry freezer jam. It is not quite effortless, but as close as it gets! This recipe will yield between five and six 8-ounce jars of jam.
Strawberry Freezer Jam

  • 2 cups prepared fruit (approx. 1 quart ripe strawberries, washed and hulled)

  • 4 cups sugar

  • 3/4 cups water

  • 1 box powdered fruit pectin

Directions: Crush 1 quart of ripe strawberries. I use a hand held kitchen chopping tool for this. It is relatively easy; just take care to chop thoroughly. Measure 2 cups of the crushed berries into a large bowl. Add the sugar to the fruit and let it stand for 10 minutes. Meanwhile, mix water and pectin in a small saucepan, and bring to a boil for 1 minute while stirring constantly. Remove saucepan from heat; stir pectin into fruit, and continue to stir for 3 minutes. Ladle this mixture quickly into sterilized freezable jars, leaving 1/2 inch of headroom to allow for expansion. Seal immediately with sterilized tight-fitting lids. Let jars stand at room temperature overnight, then freeze. Move to refrigerator when ready to use. This is my favorite jam.