How to preserve healthy, colorful, nutritious foods year-round

Hopefully you’re still enjoying the abundance of the Fall harvest this month. But when that finally comes to an end, there’s a good way to continue eating healthy, naturally grown foods throughout the winter months.

I’m talking about preserving your own produce—either harvested directly from your garden or purchased from your local farmer’s market. That way, you’ll avoid a winter full of bottled, canned, or packaged, processed grocery goods loaded with artificial ingredients and chemical preservatives.

In the September 2017 issue of Insiders’ Cures, I explained how to freeze your summer fruits and vegetables. The key is washing and flash-freezing produce as soon as it’s picked.

Clarence Birdseye actually created this technique a century ago at a large factory on the Gloucester, MA Harbor (where I grew up) before being acquired by the C.W. Post Company to form General Foods.

And now, a British study found that fresh produce can begin losing nutrients within three days of being harvested.

You can also dry herbs and spices: Thoroughly rinse the seeds or leaves, dry, place them in a paper bag, and wait a few weeks until the plants are thoroughly dried out. Then, seal the bag and store it in a cool, dry place until you need it for a recipe!

And, of course, home canning and pickling are time-tested options for prolonging the healthy bounty of the Fall harvest.

Pickling 101

Pickling has regained attention recently, but it’s an old tradition and technique. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Make a basic brine with cider or white vinegar and water. The traditional mixture is equal portions vinegar and water, but you can adjust for taste. You can also add salt or a little sugar to your brine, but I prefer healthier options. Instead of sugar, try using sliced ginger and/or cinnamon sticks. I also like clove, cardamom pods, and star anise. If you prefer a more savory taste, add bay leaves, celery seeds, chili peppers, dill, mustard seeds, peppercorns, sage, or thyme.
  2. Simmer your brine for about 10 minutes. This will dissolve the salt and spices and release the herbs’ essential oils.
  3. Pour the mixture into sterilized jars filled with tightly packed fruits or veggies. Make sure to leave about half an inch to an inch of empty space below the rim of the jar.
  4. Seal the jars, put them in the refrigerator, and wait at least 48 hours. This allows the pickling liquid to finish its work.

And voila! You’re left with healthy, natural, pickled produce that can be kept in the refrigerator for up to six months, or frozen for years.

My favorite pickling recipes

Here are a few of my favorite options for healthy, pickled foods…

Beets. Simmer scrubbed beets for 45 minutes, until tender. Cool the beets, peel the skins and roots, and dice them to fit into your jars. Cover with pickling brine, and seal.

Uses: Pickled beets are particularly tasty paired with dairy foods, like cream cheese or plain yogurt. I also like them in a crème fraiche sauce for salmon, herring, or sardines.

Blueberries or blackberries. Make a brine that contains cinnamon, ginger, and a little salt. Pour the mixture over jars filled with fresh, clean berries, and seal.

Uses: For an elegant holiday appetizer, serve a smorgasbord of pickled berries, cold cuts, and cheese. You can also use the berries as a garnish in cocktails or mineral water, or as a topping for ice cream.

Cranberries. Wash and freeze whole cranberries. Then, drop the frozen fruit right into your pickling brine as it’s cooking. Add spices like cinnamon and ginger, or diced oranges (with the peel), for added sweetness. After 10 minutes of cooking, cool the mixture, pour it into a jar, seal, and wait at least 48 hours.

Uses: Pickled cranberries are great in rice dishes, as a spread for ham or turkey sandwiches, or as a garnish for your holiday meals.

Pearl onions. Peel the onions and sprinkle them liberally with salt. Let the mixture sit for one day in a bowl. Then, rinse off the salt and pat the onions dry with a towel. Place them in jars and fill with your favorite pickling brine. They’ll be ready to eat in a month and will keep for a year in the fridge.

Uses: Pickled onions brighten up vegetable dishes like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, peas, and green beans. Or you can drop a pickled onion into your favorite martini (instead of a pickled olive) to add an umami taste—and call it a “Gibson.”

Watermelon. Cut the rind into strips, and soak them for one day in a brine of 3 to 4 ounces of salt in 4 cups of water. Then, take the rind strips out of the brine, rinse, and place them in a pot of fresh water. Boil for 20 minutes. Drain, return the rind to the pot, and fill it with pickling liquid. Simmer for 15 minutes, until the rind becomes translucent. Take the rind out of the pot, cool it, and pack it into jars. Fill the jars with the cooled pickling liquid, and seal.

Uses: Pickled watermelon rind is excellent in Indian dishes like curry and chutney. You can also use it in salads, along with goat cheese.

Cucumbers. When it comes to “real pickles”—that is, pickled cucumbers—your biggest decision is whether to cut or slice the cucumbers, or keep them whole. Pickling juices may contain black peppercorns, fresh dill, hot chili peppers, and/or garlic to taste.

Other foods “ripe” for pickling include asparagus, eggs, squash, many fruits, and just about anything permeable you can fit in a jar.

And of course, there are always pickled peppers, which can be picked by the peck…