Finishing Up Last Year’s Food

Waiting for ‘Spring Enough’ to spend real time outdoors to clear and dig beds for this year’s spring crops can be maddening. I’ve folded up dozens and dozens of newspaper seedling pots, have some of them filled halfway in preparation for planting – which can be done as soon as the local garden supply outlets get their annual allotments of potting soil. They’re not used to doing that before Valentine’s day, I’m guessing the USDA’s recent re-figuring of our planting zone took them by surprise.

I’ve gone through the seed basket to see what I’ve got, what needs planting first, and what I need to order. I’ve pulled the crispy brown leavings of last fall’s crops, and turned the compost. I’ve dug several 5-gallon buckets full of old compost out for adding to the beds and covering the perennials (asparagus, strawberries, artichokes). And I’ve planned what will go where while trimming the dry stalks of last year’s herbs and splitting root systems to spread them out a bit.

But it got cold again, and too rainy to ignore. So I figured it was a good time to do what I’ve been putting off all winter long – finishing up the processing of last year’s crops.

Sure, most has been eaten by now, though there’s still a pumpkin (MUST bake that thing soon for stew!) and some potatoes I’ll cull through for this year’s crop. But it’s the frozen and dried bounty that now needs to be finished up so I can clean out the ‘fridge and freezer in preparation for the coming bounty. That’s the jars, strings and coffee cans full of dried celery/celeriac, beets, kale, tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic and leeks, plus the many more jars of dried herbs and flowers. All of these were dried hard in my solar dryer last summer/fall and have been kept refrigerated until I got around to “the rest of the work.”

Once dried, these foods take up very little room. For instance, I still had what amounts to more than a bushel of tomatoes that only half filled a single 2 pound coffee container. Pounds and pounds of beets, carrots, celery, onions, leeks and garlic filled just three quart-size canning jars. But unless you’re making some serious soup or stew from dried ingredients, the food isn’t very palatable in that very brittle form. So for the past week I’ve been doing what needs doing to get all of it into easily consumable form – the way my family likes it, and will serve to add lots of extra tasty oomph to all sorts of foods we’ll be consuming this year from the garden and farmer’s market.

So I got my old Braun coffee grinder out from under the cabinet, cleaned it up good, and put it to work. Washed and removed labels from the many 3 and 5 ounce spice jars I’ve saved (always buy in bulk, glass jars). Some of those have been reused year after year, kind of like Ball jars – they can always be relabeled using paper and Scotch tape. My spice race is full of home-packed and labeled goodies. With my trusty grinder, a strainer and my favorite Japanese lacquer rice bowl I do the time consuming but satisfying job of grinding all those dried goodies into fine powder. I have some nice 8-ounce Tupperware cup things with tight lids I picked up at a yard sale a few years ago, put the powders into these as they’re ground. Tomato powder, beet powder, leek powder, carrot & celery powder, onion and garlic powder, pepper powder (for that I need to wear a kerchief over my mouth and nose, as the powder is quite irritating if you breathe it), greens and herbs powders. These make fine flakes for general use so I save some for that, but for a good table salt, bullion or soup stock, or sprinkle blend they need to be as powdered as the rest of the ingredients. Then from these I concoct my ‘blends’.

People are actually getting quite used to flavoring blends, I see them at the store and these have helped to give me some ideas for my own blends. Sometimes I go ahead and buy some powders if I don’t have enough to round out the collection. You might be surprised by some of the good deals at places like Dollar General or the Family Dollar Store on things like garlic and onion powder, kosher and sea salts, white pepper and whole black peppercorns in quantities larger than what’s along the spice aisle (and outrageously priced) at the grocery store.

The whole trick is to get all the ingredients to the same consistency so they will truly blend together instead of separating into layers. The strainer helps to ensure that. I pour what I’ve ground into the strainer and shake it over the bowl so the finest powder comes through. What’s left goes back to the grinder for more. Eventually just about everything is fine powder (this takes awhile, so be patient), including the salts. I also powdered some dried kelp flakes, and use that in some blends where I don’t really want straight salts (as for a salt substitute table blend) because it is naturally salty because it’s a sea vegetable.

Finally, when everything’s been carefully powdered and sifted into its container, it line up the jars, funnel, measuring spoons, paper, Sharpie pen and Scotch tape for labeling. I like to label ingredients in order of appearance, which gives me a quick idea of what each blend is good for and what else might be added to a dish to round out the flavor I’m going for when cooking.

Had enough tomato powder to bottle 6 ounces into a jar of its own. It will end up going faster than any of the blends, as it adds a very nice tomato punch to just about anything. Straight tomato powder is powerful stuff, you don’t need much to sprinkle on a casserole or salad or dip. Experimentation is a good idea before you go hog wild on this very concentrated powder. The rest has been divvied up. Most as the base powder for my veggie soup broth blend. Which also includes beet, carrot, celery, onion, kale, kelp and basil powders plus salt, black pepper and a bit of red pepper powders. A tablespoon of this blend in boiling water makes a fine vegetable and/or bean soup broth, more for straight beans, or a teaspoonful in a cup of hot water for bullion. I’ll usually add another teaspoon of straight tomato powder, but again you’ll have to experiment.

Leek and garlic salt powders are nice for the table, good on most cooked veggie dishes or cream soups. Tomato with salt and basil flower powder is tasty on any kind of pasta or salad. Tomato with garlic, onion, red and black pepper, lemon rind, tarragon, kelp and salt powder is a must for shaking onto grilled, baked or broiled fish before cooking and at the table. A hot blend of peppers, tomato and salt powder is a great flavoring base for a good barbecue sauce, just shake a spoonful in a jar with a little olive oil and a jigger of vinegar and an equal amount of water, let it sit for a couple of hours before brushing onto what’s being grilled. Some people like a sweet barbecue sauce, you can always add a spoon of brown sugar or blackstrap molasses. Another good additive when you’re barbecuing is a spoonful of mustard, or a half a teaspoon of mustard powder. Barbecue is a strange thing – everybody’s got their favorite sauces and some are definitely way better than others. Again, this is something to practice with. Don’t worry, friends, family and neighbors will invariably be impressed when you brag that the primary base ingredients came from your own garden!

I put off this last step in the dry processing of last year’s bounty because it is quite a lot of work, but when I finally get around to it I enjoy it almost more than I enjoy any other stage of food preservation. It’s fun to feel like a sort of mad scientist or old-timey apothecary mixing up blends and tasting them and adding a little of this or that and then being happy with it. The best part of all is that all this bounty that you took the trouble to grow and dry and grind and mix adds real, honest to goodness nutritional value to anything you use it for, in a much more significant way than commercially processed powders and table blends can boast. And it’s always a good feeling to know that all your work to plant and grow and preserve the food pays off – the nutritional value for you and your family doesn’t go to waste.

Not everyone will want to go to all the trouble to preserve foods this way, but drying keeps much more of the original food value than canning or freezing. Plus, well dried foods have a much longer shelf life – years as opposed to months. Oh, yeah. That brings me around to what was in the freezer that I finished up today… the last of last year’s grapes. I’d frozen them in quart size bags because I didn’t have time to properly process them into jam, thinking I’d get around to that sometime before Christmas. Which I obviously didn’t. So I took out a bag, thawed it a bit and put it into a gallon glass jar with a quarter cup of sugar and filled it with boiling beet water (water with ascorbic acid in it, in which I soaked the sliced beets I finished harvesting last week – beautiful red, slightly sweet. It’s now steeping and cooling on the counter. Tomorrow morning I’ll strain out the grapes, add a little lemon juice and more spring water in two gallon jug and have it for a refreshing iced drink for company this weekend.

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