When I saw the Facebook ad for “Save Our Squash” and learned that there was a free food preservation class right here at Fletcher Allen, I was pretty excited to sign up. And then it turned out to be with organic gardening guru Henry Homeyer, and I was totally sold.
So last night, crankyGreg and the boys settled in for some quality bizarre comic book creation, and I trundled up the hill to the Davis Auditorium, where a small crowd was gathering. At the front was the featured speaker wearing purple high-tops and standing behind a table with a chinois, a food dehydrator, and other cool kitchen toys.
This was the way he introduced himself:
“I love to eat and am inherently suspicious of buying food in the grocery store. I’ve traveled across the country and have seen how food is grown. I want to grow as much of my own food as possible – and keep it as fresh and tasty as I possibly can.”
Cool. Hard not to get behind that.
Then he looked around at that room full of gardeners, warned us he was going to go quickly and launched in, starting with gardening advice:
- Get out there and pinch back those tomato suckers (the non-flowering/fruiting vines that are shooting out of the plants this time of year). This lets the plant put more energy into fruit production, and will keep indeterminate varieties from getting monstrously tall.
- Pick beans from pole bean plants often. July is not too late to plant beans (or any plant that will mature within 60 days) in Vermont.
- Thin carrots to 1″ apart or else he’s coming to your house to yell at you.
- Want to successfully grow eggplant in Vermont? Try a loaf-of-bread-sized dark stone next to the plant to raise the temperature around it and keep it a few degrees warmer at night.
- He discovered and recommends happy rich greens, which he grows instead of broccoli raab because of raab’s annoying habit of instantaneous bolting. He prefers the other because it’s much slower to go to flower, and also has tender stems and delicious leaves.
- He grows rutabaga instead of potatoes because it can be mashed in much the same way but is not as susceptible to bugs or disease.
- When it comes to peppers: don’t fertilize, and pick the fruit young (don’t let everything ripen completely or the plant will stop producing more).
- Both artichokes and broccoli produce what they should if their first central blooms get removed early. (I took note because mine had just produced a bud.)
- Mark your calendar for Labor Day, at which point he wants us to cut the tops off of Brussels sprouts and winter squash plants so they’ll work on their yummy parts instead of growing taller.
I was running out of room for notes, but he was just getting started talking about preservation. I was shocked that he really doesn’t do much canning, relying instead on freezing, dehydrating, and the use of a root cellar he’s created in his basement, and storage in a variety of unheated spaces around his house.
He brought out a cool big insert, a “blanching basket” that was his prop for his blanching technique. (Have I tired you out? I have to tell you I was completely on the edge of my seat.) Here’s what he said about the process:
- Blanching is necessary for almost any leafy green in order to kill the enzyme that ages and toughens the leaves.
- Most recipes call for twice the blanching time that’s required – 10 seconds for leafy greens, 1 minute for other things – just until there’s a color change.
- The vegetables that require blanching before being frozen: beans, broccoli & other cole crops, kale, chard, peas, summer squash. He says (and I agree!) to skip the spinach since it wilts away to practically nothing.
- The way to blanch vegetables to get the best result:
- Boil enough water in a kettle to cover completely.
- Fill a large bowl or 1/2 of your sink with water and ice.
- Blanch your vegetables for 10 seconds (leaves) or 1 minute (beans, broc, summer squash).
- Plunge into the ice water, then strain, spin in a salad spinner, dry in a towel, and place in a container or ziploc bag to freeze.
- Tomatoes, leeks, peppers, and peaches can be frozen without blanching.
- Freeze tomatoes by placing them in a freezer bag. (And he demonstrated removing air from a freezer bag with a plain old drinking straw.)
And then he explained that he either freezes or dehydrates tomatoes because canning’s high temperatures kill the vitamin C in them. Whoa. And he doesn’t really like canning because of the time it takes and how hot it is and how scary botulism is. (As I had just come from a batch of delicious gooseberry jam, I couldn’t really get behind the no-canning plan.) But he then did admit to making a few jars of sauce every year.
He showed us his fancy dehydrator and talked about how he uses it for tomatoes and hot peppers (the latter of which he subsequently grinds to powder, incidentally). And he talked about simple storage: how beets, carrots, and potatoes like to be somewhere cool and humid like a root cellar, and other roots like to be somewhere cool and dry, and how winter squash and onions like it dry.
After more specifics and questions and answers, we all crowded forward to check out the cool stuff and talk.
And then, my head swimming, I went home to pluck that artichoke and plan this week’s preservation.