Get it while you can

by Ari LeVaux

Anyone can eat local in summer. The farmers market is in full bloom, edible weeds are sprouting from even the most abandoned gardens, restaurant menus boast of local ingredients, and neighbors are dumping wheelbarrows of extra zucchinis on your doorstep.

The true test of your local eating skills comes down to what you eat in winter, when slim pickings force many aspiring locavores to throw in the napkin. But by the same token, the dregs of winter present an opportunity for motivated practitioners to step up to the plate. Doing so takes preparation, because in winter you can’t just buy your way to a local diet. You need to have made some hay while the sun was shining.

Summer has just begun but it will sail by quickly, and seasonal fruits like apricots, cherries, peas and strawberries are already on their way out. The peak of harvest for any given crop is when it’s cheapest, thanks to the bountiful supply. So now is the time to acquire in bulk by any means available to you, be that your farmers market, local u-pick farms, grocery stores that market local produce, your garden, your neighbor’s garden, wherever. Your duty is twofold: enjoy these fresh fruits of summer to the fullest while you can, and stash some away for later. Meanwhile, keep your eyes open for what’s going to be in season next.

My neighbor’s apricot tree is already full of ripe fruit, and he told me to come get some if I want. Heck yeah I want apricots! They’re one of my favorite fruits, and I love snacking on dried apricots in autumn when I’m hunting. So Shorty and I hit that tree like a plague of locusts and brought home a big sack, which we washed, pitted and put on the dehydrator. I’m munching on some right now, half-dried and warm. There’s hardly a better flavor, and the whole house smells like sweet sunlight. In much of the Southwest the cherries have already come and gone, but not before we packed some in jars in a light sugar syrup.

Some people are philosophically opposed to canning fruit in sugar syrup. “It’s already so sweet,” goes the argument, which assumes that adding more sugar will make it even sweeter. Wrong. If you don’t add sugar to the water in your jars, the imbalance between the sweet fruit and the unsweetened water will pull sugar out of the fruit and into the water, leaving you with fruit that’s less sweet than what you put in. So I recommend at least a light sugar syrup. It will vary with the type and sweetness of your fruit, but a ballpark figure is 3 cups sugar per 10 cups water. Don’t hesitate to consult a comprehensive canning source for detailed instructions on canning fruit and syrup recipes.

If you want some fruit in jars but are dead-set against adding sugar, I recommend making jam. Most jam is thickened with a plant extract called pectin, which reacts with sugar and solidifies. While most jam recipes call for sugar in order to activate the pectin, there is a brand of pectin, Pomona’s, that thickens without sugar, so you can make your jam to taste with as much or as little sweetener as you like.

Speaking of jam, strawberries and raspberries are dripping off the vines right now, and if you can get your hands on enough to outlast a few rounds of shortcake, daiquiris and smoothies, putting some in jars – or the freezer – will brighten the dark days of winter.

Many of summer’s greener fruits are also soon to wane. So after you’ve gorged on raw snap peas and stir-fried your share with garlic and oyster sauce, consider putting some away for later, as follows: To a pot of boiling water, add about two cups snap peas at a time. (The exact quantity will depend on how much water is in the pot – you want to add as many peas as you can without losing the boil.) After two minutes, fish out the peas with a slotted spoon and plunge them into an ice bath. Then drain and freeze. The boiling, also called blanching, kills enzymes in the peas that would make them rot in the freezer, while the ice bath ends the cooking process abruptly and fixes a nice bright green color. The same process, with varying blanching times, can be applied to many other veggies, like broccoli, kale or cauliflower.

Shelling peas are also in season, and your first priority should be to make the following pea and mutton salad: Braise mutton (or the meat of your choice) until tender. Let cool, and cut or shred to small pieces. In a salad bowl, combine shelled peas, braised meat, sliced sweet onions, sliced cucumbers, chopped dill, and chopped romaine lettuce. Toss in a dressing, made in a blender, made of two parts mayo to one part yogurt, grated horseradish and garlic, shredded cheddar, curry powder, salt and pepper. Make extra, because this salad is better the next day.

Then, shell a bunch more peas and freeze them. Few things are more convenient and uplifting than a bag of frozen shelled peas to add a little summer green to your winter dish. Whatever you’re making – squash, potatoes, soup, fried rice – you can liven it up by tossing in a handful of peas. Those bright green drops of summer in your winter meal are magical. Even the motion of tossing them in, done with the correct flick of the wrist, looks like you’re casting a spell. •



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