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Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2006 12:49 pm

Preserving the bounty of summer

Here’s how to deal with corn, berries, peaches, and tomatoes

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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 Corp.) 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.

Few people these days make preserving summer’s bounty the all-consuming summer ritual it used to be. It’s possible, however, to capture some of that bounty at its most flavorful with minimal effort. The following are just a few possibilities:

Corn —Why not boil or microwave extra ears, then 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 and run them through a fine mesh strainer. Add sugar to taste.

Peaches and nectarines — 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 until the peel loosens and can be slipped off. Cut the fruit while it’s still icy.

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. I devised a method of salting tomatoes before freezing them as a way to add the flavor and texture of fresh tomatoes to soups, stews, and baked dishes.

These last two preservation methods require a little more effort but are well worth it. The seared and roasted tomatoes are one of my pantry staples. My grandmother’s chilli sauce is fantastic by itself and makes an extraordinary seafood cocktail sauce or Thousand Island dressing.
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 one and three 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-cup portions.

Seared and roasted tomatoes — Assemble approximately eight ripe but firm medium tomatoes, regular or Roma, halved and seeded;
eight or more peeled garlic cloves, 1/4 cup of extravirgin olive oil, salt (preferably kosher) to taste, and 1 tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves (or 1 teaspoon dried thyme). Preheat oven to 400 degrees. 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 five to seven 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. These have many uses: Try them as a quick pasta sauce, a topping for bruschetta (remember, it’s bruSKetta!), a salad dressing, or a condiment for sandwiches or grilled or roasted meats.

Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.

Nana’s Prize-Winning Chili Sauce

3 quarts very ripe peeled, chopped, drained tomatoes
Five diced red bell peppers
3 cups diced onions
1/3 cup kosher salt
4 cups cider vinegar
1 tablespoon whole cloves
1 tablespoon celery seeds

Put the cloves and celery seeds into a mesh tea ball or square of cheesecloth tied into a bag with string. Simmer all ingredients in a large pan until thick, about three hours. Remove the spice bag. Add 3 cups sugar and simmer about 20 minutes more, stirring frequently to avoid sticking. Can immediately or freeze when cooled. Usually makes 3 pints. Add horseradish to taste for seafood cocktail sauce. Combine with an equal portion of mayonnaise for Thousand Island dressing.

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