Sweeter than leather

by Ari LeVaux

Dogs bury bones. Squirrels hide acorns. Farmers make hay when the sun shines. Seasonal rhythms of scarcity and abundance are responsible for many such animal behaviors and human clichés, because stashing food when the stashing’s good is as natural as sleep, love, and running from wild animals. A stockpile of grub provides a sense of security like having money in the bank.

Over the years, storing food has become as much about art as survival, as people figured out ways to maximize flavor and beauty as well as nutrition. Thus we can thank winter for pickles, prosciutto, kimchi, jam, jerky, sausage, fruit leather, and many other examples of delicious foods with long shelf-lives.

Now that the growing season is on, these farsighted gastronomic opportunities are available by the bushel. But most of the herd tends to wait until the traditional end-of-summer harvest season to make their pesto, salsa and chili paste. In some respects this makes sense: The great supply of food during harvest season can saturate the market and push down prices. And sometimes the product is better having waited – kale and collards boast more sweetness after a frost or two have fallen, for example.

But if you’re serious about stocking your pantry with an abundance and diversity of food, it pays to follow a season-wide strategy rather than put off your stashing until the end. Stocking up early and often will save you from being overwhelmed during harvest season, while ensuring a select group of short-season produce makes it into your winter diet. Peas, corn, apricots and cherries, for example, are long-gone by the time the frost is on the pumpkins, so you lose if you snooze on these treasures.

A fun way to put away cherries, apricots and other fruits and berries is to make fruit leather. This technique has a special place in my heart because I remember watching my parents make it from apricots during some formative years we spent in northern Utah. The image of our Mormon neighbors’ pickle-packed pantry is nearly as vivid as the memory of their three cute blonde daughters as I followed them to school in my 4-year-old birthday suit. But the sight of our backyard table full of cheesecloth-draped trays of sun-drying leather seared itself even more deeply into this dog’s bone-burying soul.

Fruit leather is fun, tasty, space-efficient, and can last longer than a Twinkie without spoiling. One misplaced sheet of mine was lost for years, having found its way behind a filing cabinet until I did a deep cleaning. I gave my long-lost leather a thorough inspection, found no mold, picked out some dust and dog hairs, and gave it a taste. It hadn’t changed a bit.

This is partly due to the fruit’s concentrated sugars – it’s counterintuitive, but sugar discourages food spoilage – as well as the presence of honey, a potent antibiotic. Honey might seem like a surprising addition to something that’s already sweet, but fruits that carry a sour element, like apricots, cherries and even raspberries, tend to concentrate their tartness.

Wash, pit, core, cut and otherwise prepare whatever fruit or combination of fruit you like. Put the prepared fruit in a big pot with two inches of water on low heat and cover. Add more water as necessary until the fruit is obliterated into mush.

Stir often to prevent scalding. If it does scald, do not pretend it didn’t happen. Do not convince yourself you nipped it in the bud as you scrape the burnt bottom bits into your fruit. Don’t scrape, don’t stir, just pour the pot’s contents to an alternate vessel, clean your pot, and continue.

When it’s fully cooked to mush, let the fruit cool and run it through a food mill. If you don’t have a food mill you can use a blender or food processor, which will produce a chunkier leather because those machines don’t filter.

Stir in a cup of honey per gallon of fruit puree. Pour the mixture onto wax paper, or the shiny side of freezer paper, or plastic wrap. Let the leather dry outside in the sun over a few days, draped in cheesecloth to keep the flies off, and bringing the trays in at night. Or you can do it in a dehydrator, especially if you have one with sliding trays.

Another early-season crop worth inserting into your winter diet is peas, both snap and shelling varieties. You can scatter a handful of shelled peas into a potato salad like a magician saying “alacazam!” Snap peas will add flashes of green to a winter stir-fry, and you can almost taste the sunshine. The method of choice for preserving peas is to blanch and then freeze them.

Like leather-making, this technique requires no special gear, and is one that you can use again and again, as the season unfolds, to put away zucchini, corn, leeks, broccoli, collard greens and kale.

Blanching, or briefly boiling, denatures plant enzymes that would otherwise spoil your frozen food. Blanching also softens and shrinks the food, making it easier to pack, kills bacteria on the food surface, and gives it a final rinse. Each vegetable will have a different blanch time, which you can find at The National Center for Home Food Preservation (http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/how/freeze/blanching.html). Peas should be blanched for two minutes, a pound at a time, in at least two gallons of boiling water. After blanching, immediately plunge them into ice water, which halts the cooking process and fixes the bright green color. After a few minutes in the ice bath, drain and pack the peas into quart bags, squeezing out as much air as you can before freezing.

This method, also called parboiling, is used in many recipes, like stir-fry. In these cases, the parboiling step is already out of the way when you thaw the peas. As summer spins away on the seasonal carousel, salting away some sweet and savory stash is like grabbing a few brass rings along the way. If you start working on it soon, it will feel less like a chore and more like fun. You’ll enjoy the ride all winter long. •



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