Keeping Your Produce So Fresh (and so clean, clean)

Since summer’s getting into full swing and you may be coming home with more veggies than you know what to do with, today’s theme is keepin’ it fresh. Here’s a little mood music:

That’s right. I think my veggies look so fresh so clean when they’re all used or preserved within a timely fashion, rather than rotting or becoming mushy in the back of the fridge. Listen carefully, and you just might hear your veggies singing to you too.

Don’t you think I’m so sexy, I’m just so fresh so clean?

It’s tempting, when the farmer’s market is just bursting at its seams with seasonal produce, to snatch up everything in sight that looks good. And then you waddle back to your car, holding your bags at arm’s width (with biceps flexing so that the bag won’t bump up against your body and risk bruising the berries balancing precariously on a couple pounds of peaches which, in turn, may be smothering the carton of eggs you also scored).

And then you get home.

And you think, what on earth am I going to do with all this stuff?!? 

(Which is exactly what Mrs. G is thinking here about the ginormous zucchini that showed up in her garden! Maybe she’ll try these fritters or these cookies?)

And especially when you only have two people in the house to feed (and one of those people is more skeptical of vegetables than he should be), a fruitful day at the market (pun intended) means you are suddenly faced with the dilemma of using everything you have and consuming more than you thought possible, or, wasting your money as you throw out things that have gone bad from not using them in time. Neither of which are ideal options, in my humble opinion!

I really think that as a whole, my generation, give or take a few years, marks the start of a generation of individuals who are missing a certain food preservation knowledge set. For the most part, having grown up within close proximity of the convenient supermarket and increasingly farther away from the farms themselves, we had no need to preserve food, because we’d just cook it, eat it, and go back to the store when we needed more.

On the farm, though, (and I’m speaking here of the idealized, agrarian farm of Americana where you grew your own food, not the industrialized factory farms of today) when it’s ready, it’s ready. And if you didn’t put up for the winter, well, it would be a mighty trying time.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that since I have periodically picked up a couple’s produce share from a local CSA this summer, I have forced myself to learn what to do with the fresh bounty I receive. Not in terms of new dishes to cook, but more in staying organized about using the foods before their time is up–whether that’s by eating them or preserving them.

My technique, when I come home with my produce share or from a successful day at the market, is to take inventory of everything that I came home with. Eggs go in the fridge, meat goes in the fridge (if using soon) or freezer (if using later), fresh flowers in a vase. But fruits and veggies take a bit more planning. I consult the introductory pages of my copy of Simply in Season by Mary Beth Lind and Cathleen Hockman-Wert (one of the cookbooks to which I refer quite frequently). The authors list nearly every fruit or vegetable that is readily available in the U.S. (that is, they don’t include tropical things like bananas, for example) and describe when they’re available (i.e., in the normal cycle of nature), how to pick a good one, how to store it, simple ways it can be prepared, and nutritional content.

Based on their advice and my own experience, I’ve condensed the information into a handy chart which you can download and print for your own reference, if you’d like.

Keepin’ it Fresh Chart

It lists the season of availability for the fruit/veggie as well as how to store it and for how long. (I keep mine on the side of my fridge for easy reference).

So back to my produce inventory… I consult the chart and store each fruit/veggie as suggested. On a little post-it note, I calculate the date by which I should consume (or preserve) each food and stick that in plain sight on the front of the fridge.

This seems to provide me the little extra motivation I need to make sure to plan out our meals carefully.

And even if the day arrives and I still haven’t used the item of produce in question, I turn to panic mode (not really) and just preserve it. This might mean slicing up peaches and freezing them. Or spreading the berries out on a tray to flash freeze them and then piling into freezer bags for longer storage. Or slicing up that cucumber that I should have used by yesterday to make some refrigerator pickles:

So, yes. Even figuring out how to preserve the produce whose “expiration dates” are quickly approaching involves a little bit of research. (I won’t go into too much detail in this post but will defer to a future post instead. In the meantime, I’ve found The Busy Person’s Guide to Preserving Food by  one of the most useful resources, and encourage you to check it out).

Ultimately, I’m hoping to convince you that you can take advantage of a CSA successfully (if it’s something you’re considering), and/or to empower you to actually use everything that you come home with, even if you don’t have enough energy to prepare the ratatouille you had planned to make tonight for dinner and opt to eat out instead. That empowerment begins with knowing how long you can store your fresh veggies before you do actually need to do something with them.

From a cooking perspective, this is an exciting and creativity-stimulating way to cook. It involves problem-solving and risk-taking, but also taking advantage of the freshest produce you can get. From a farming perspective, this is one way to help support your local farmers to whom this type of eating is a way of life. From a health perspective, well, I’m no expert, but I’d venture to say that your body needs certain nutrients in cycles, that is, at certain times of the year when the foods containing those nutrients are shoving themselves into your market bags. In all, this is a lifestyle that is working for me right now, and it’s one I hope to continue in the future.

So I hope you’ll find my Keepin’ it Fresh chart useful. It’s not a be-all, end-all–if you eat something a day after the chart says you should, you will likely be fine. But I’d appreciate it if you don’t hold anything over my head… Even if you’re not a farmer’s market shopper, use the chart as a refresher to see approximate months of availability of certain foods so that when you see them in the store, you can feel more assured that the vegetables are indeed fresh, and haven’t been shipped thousands of miles and coated with gasses to ripen on the store shelves (you can always ask a manager to be sure–many chain grocery stores are starting to offer locally grown produce as available).

Let me know what you think. Do you have a system for organizing your produce? Is this information common knowledge or is there indeed a knowledge gap among generations? Do you already subscribe to a CSA or come home with more than you know what to do with? Are you growing your own food this year and worried that 50+ pounds of tomatoes are going to be ripe all at the same time and you’ll pass out from tomato-overdose if you don’t figure out what to do with them? Are you giving away squash like it’s your job? Will my handy chart help you feel more confident about preventing the discovery of unidentifiable food items from your fridge? What do you think is the most exciting thing about eating fresh produce? Were you as big of an Outkast fan as I was? Are these enough stimulating questions for you? Do tell.

P.S. Thanks again to my friend and awesome photographer Jenni for the blueberry photo she took during our blueberry picking adventure!

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