Last week began one of my favorite parts of the year, harvest time. In my small garden the tomatoes start falling off the plants in the middle of August — by month’s end I’m drowning in overripe fruits off the vine. What to do, besides give them away by the bagful? Start up the canner, and get all pioneer on that shit. After two days work I had almost 50 jars of red sauce and tomatillo salsa; I knew the steam and heat had gone to my head when I started formulating a “Call to Canning” column for this magazine. Sure, it’s not as hard as it sounds, but canning is a major undertaking, requiring food, equipment, and space that few of my city-dwelling friends have. Sayonara, sauce-making city folk.
Then, after my brain had cooled a bit, I had another thought. Long ago, I read that a fridge (the single largest consumer of energy in your house) runs most efficiently when the freezer compartment is full. Environmental types even recommend putting gallon jugs of water in your freezer if it’s empty most of the time — they’ll reduce energy consumed and give you a backup source of coolness should the power go out. But why waste all that space on water when there are better things to pack your freezer with?
Farmers’ markets are bursting at the seams with incredible produce right now, and depending on your level of culinary expertise, you could set yourself up for months with just a few hours of work. First, dust off those plastic take-out containers you’ve stashed in the cupboard, or bum some from a friend. Pints, quarts, whatever, just don’t go buy an all-new set of plastic from K-Mart; this is about conserving, not consuming.
Head over to Union Square, or any farmers’ market, with your biggest tote bags, and start shopping. Or make a weekend expedition with some friends and drive to a pick-your-own farm or orchard upstate. Tomatoes, tomatillos, berries, spinach, apples, pears and cider can all be frozen in various forms. Cook tomatoes into a simple sauce (i.e. cut them up, and stew), make salsa, freeze raspberries and blueberries whole or as a puree (you can add them to smoothies, yogurt, cereal, or muffins as the year goes on). Buy basil and make pesto in your blender. Cook peaches into jam (Goodsearch “freezer jam” for recipes) or freeze them in chunks in Ziploc bags.
Whatever you do, if you do it, it will help you eat better and cheaper through the year. Every bag of frozen local berries you stash away means one fewer bag of grown-and-frozen-in-China produce (I’m talking to you, Trader Joe’s junkies). Our local farmers benefit by selling more of their produce right when they have the most to dispose of — the more they sell, the better off they are, which means greater food security and a more robust regional economy. More land kept as farms in the region means better air and water quality for all of us.
I have a neighbor upstate who’s an apple farmer. He used to grow and sell pears too, but foreign-grown fruits undercut his prices, and he cut down the pear trees when he couldn’t break even. Now he struggles to find a market for the ten varieties of apples he sells — if New Yorkers all ate New York-grown apples, he wouldn’t have to be dipping into his retirement funds to keep his farm going. He has a hundred acres covered in orchard — those trees absorb CO2, make oxygen, and provide food and shelter to wildlife.
Once you’re comfortable with freezer-filling bulk-food processing, you might want to check out the freegan approach to food procurement (freegan.info), aka dumpster diving. If you don’t mind, err, digging a bit, huge quantities of food are yours for the taking — and freezing — all over the city. It sounds extreme, sure, but give it a whirl, you might find that you like eating, and feeding others, for free, while reducing your environmental impact. And if anyone wants to learn how to can, drop me a line…