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Thursday, July 17, 2014 12:01 am

Saving summer’s bounty

Summer’s harvest brings an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables. Freezing and canning can preserve the bounty well into the winter months.
Not so long ago, almost every family – rich and poor, country and city dwellers – preserved much of their own food. From late summer until first frost, kitchens were even more a beehive of activity than usual as cooks made jams, jellies, pickles, sauces and condiments and canned vegetables and fruits. That began to change in 1925, when Clarence Birdseye introduced the “Quick Freeze Machine,” revolutionizing food preservation.

Birdseye must have been quite a guy. Lack of money forced him to drop out of Amherst College in 1912. He became a fur trader on the Canadian Labrador peninsula, where he discovered the keeping qualities of foods frozen at very low temperatures. Back in the States, Birdseye invented his freezing machine, then founded a company (which ultimately became General Foods Corporation) to sell it. Birdseye didn’t stop there. He held more than 300 patents in his lifetime, including advancements in food dehydration and the first heat lamp.

The Quick Freeze Machine took a while to catch on because it required a considerable investment for both homemakers and stores. By 1930, however, the first “Birds Eye” product, frozen peas, had been introduced. Long-term food storage would never be the same.

In the last few decades, it seemed as if home food preservation was headed for virtual extinction. But lately there’s been a resurgence of folks who are discovering the satisfaction that comes from creating a cache of warm weather’s seasonal goodness for colder times ahead. Master Food Preservation classes given by the University of Illinois Home Extension – including the Sangamon County Bureau – fill quickly. The long-standing bible of home canning, The Ball Blue Book has had a resurgence in sales. And a new generation of home-canning equipment is on the market that eliminates much of the guesswork and/or need for experience from home canning. The most sophisticated of these, the Ball FreshTECH Automatic Home Canning System retails for $299. Expensive for sure; even so, I was enthused about its capabilities until discovering that the Ball company specifies that it should be used only with recipes that accompany it and are on the Ball website. For me, that was a deal breaker.
For even the most dedicated home-canning enthusiasts, preserving summer’s bounty isn’t the all-consuming summer ritual it used to be. But it’s possible to capture some of that bounty at its most flavorful with little or almost no effort. You don’t have to stock pantry shelves with home-canned goods or fill freezers with massive amounts to preserve a bit of summer’s bounty. Why not buy some extra, or utilize leftovers – from those cobs of corn or tomato slices remaining on the platter, or fruits that are getting a bit soft? Following are just a few possibilities:

Corn – Boil or microwave extra ears, or use leftovers from a meal. Cut the kernels from the cobs and put them in heavy freezer bags. Add a little cooking liquid or water, then squish out as much air as possible and seal the bag. For flat, easy-to-stack packages, use the next biggest size bag for the amount (e.g., a quart bag for 2 cups of corn).

Berries – Freeze berries in single layers, then put them in plastic bags or containers and return them to the freezer. To make a fresh-fruit coulis (an uncooked fruit sauce), purée thawed berries in a blender or food processor, then press the purée through a fine mesh strainer. Add sugar to taste.

Peaches and nectarines – These are the easiest of all: Simply put them, unpeeled, into plastic bags and freeze. To use, hold the frozen fruit under running water for a few seconds. The peel will loosen and easily slip off. Cut the fruit after it’s thawed slightly, but is still icy.

Bananas – Yes, I know bananas aren’t exactly local summer produce. But it’s worth noting that the same principle applies: If they’re getting a bit over, instead of throwing them away, throw them in the freezer to use for smoothies or banana bread.

Tomatoes – Fresh tomatoes contain so much water, they usually don’t freeze well. Unthawed, a tomato becomes a little island of red surrounded by a lake of liquid. To minimize the mushy factor, I devised a method of salting tomatoes before freezing them as a way to add the flavor of fresh tomatoes to soups, stews and baked dishes.

Salted frozen tomatoes – Peel ripe tomatoes and remove the seeds. Cut the tomatoes coarsely and put them in a nonreactive strainer. Toss the tomatoes with salt (preferably kosher), 1 teaspoon per cup of tomatoes. Let the tomatoes drain, stirring them periodically until they’ve reduced in volume by at least half. This will take between 1 and 3 hours, depending on the tomatoes’ water content. They should still be moist but not juicy. Most of the salt will have drained away, but the amount of salt in any recipe in which they are used should still be reduced or eliminated. Freeze the tomatoes in 1/2 to 1-cup portions.

Last, here are two recipes for tomato condiments that do require special effort but that I’ve found are well worth it. Seared and roasted tomatoes have many uses: Try them as a quick pasta sauce, a topping for bruschetta (remember, it’s bruSKetta, not bruSHetta!), a salad dressing or component, or as a condiment for sandwiches or grilled or roasted meats.

Seared and roasted tomatoes
• 1/4 c. of extra-virgin olive oil
• 8 ripe but firm medium tomatoes, regular or Roma, halved and seeded
• Salt (preferably kosher) to taste
• 1 T. fresh thyme leaves or 1 tsp. dried thyme leaves (do not use ground thyme)
• 8 or more peeled garlic cloves

Preheat oven to 400 F. In a large skillet, heat oil over moderately high heat. Fit as many tomatoes in the skillet as you can, and cut the sides down. Sear the tomatoes without moving them, until the bottoms are dark and caramelized. This will take 5 to 7 minutes.

Remove the tomatoes from heat, turn them over, sprinkle them with salt and thyme, and tuck the garlic cloves among the tomatoes, turning the cloves so they are coated with the pan juices. Bake for 15 to 30 minutes (this will depend on the kind and size of the tomatoes you are using) until the garlic is soft and the tomatoes are a deep, dark red-brown in color. Freeze or can the tomatoes in 1-cup portions.

As a child, I always knew when my grandmother was making chili sauce; I could smell it as soon as the school bus let me out in front of our long driveway. Nana’s chili sauce has countless uses. It’s a wonderful replacement for catsup in general. My three favorite catsup-replacement ways to use it are for a steak sauce (mix the chili sauce with an equal amount of melted butter, then add minced fresh garlic and Worchestershire sauce to taste); to turn an ordinary seafood cocktail sauce into something extraordinary (add bottled grated horseradish and fresh lemon juice to taste to the chili sauce); or mixed with equal parts mayonnaise to make Thousand Island dressing. For true authenticity, use the old Springfield standard spelling that has two l’s instead of one; it’s almost certainly modeled after the British spelling.

Nana’s prizewinning chilli sauce
• 3 qt. very ripe peeled, chopped, drained tomatoes
• 5 diced red bell peppers
• 3 c. diced onions
• 1/3 c. kosher salt
• 4 c. cider vinegar
• 1 T. whole cloves
• 1 T. celery seeds
• 3 c. sugar

Put the cloves and celery seeds into a mesh tea ball or square of cheesecloth tied into a bag with string. Simmer all ingredients, except the sugar, in a large pan until thick, about 3 hours. Remove the spice bag. Add the sugar and simmer about 20 minutes more, stirring frequently to avoid sticking. Can immediately or freeze when cooled. Makes approximately 3 pints.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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