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Preserving the Bounty: Freezing Blueberries, Peaches, Spring Onions and Zucchini

Posted Jun 07 2010 12:00am
 Quick plug before I get to the actual blog: don't forget to "Like" my Facebook page ! You can keep track of what I am up to in the kitchen there, as well as let me know what you're up to and what you'd like to see on this blog!

Can I tell you how much I love this time of year? It's amazing how much more widely available fresh produce is now than during the winter. Even in these days of hothouses and imported (sometimes from as far away as Asia) produce, it's still the spring, summer and early fall that finds us abounding in all kinds of vitamin and mineral goodness. More and more people are realizing the importance of buying their produce fresh, local and organic, and local farmers are responding - with enthusiasm!

There are a lot of ways to procure local fresh foods, but that's another topic for another day. Suffice it to say that I have been stalking my local farmer's market every week and have been taking advantage of local grocery stores' cooperation with local farmers (although I admit their definition of local is sometimes a stretch!). Whenever I can, I also go to the closest organic grocery store (which, unfortunately, is not as convenient as I might like) and am able to find local organic produce, occasionally for the same price as the convention, imported kind in a regular grocery store. I am still waiting on my garden-in-pots to produce, but it's coming along nicely, so in a few weeks I should have some fresh veggies on my balcony as well!

The question is, what to do with all this bounty? As people are stocking up on the local produce, they're realizing two things: 1.) they want to enjoy it all year long, not just in the summer, and 2.) there's no possible way to eat it all at once before it spoils. These realizations are leading to a revival of the old-fashioned arts of canning and drying. I'm very interested in both of these, and plan on at least attempting to can some things this summer, but for now, I want to talk about a more modern method of preserving the precious bounty: freezing.

My mom actually was the first to introduce me to this idea. Every summer when I was growing up, we would go to a local blueberry farm, and fill literally every container in our house with blueberries. Then we'd go home and clean and freeze the blueberries, and eat them all year long, usually in blueberry pancakes. I had a little overload on frozen blueberries growing up, so it took me awhile to regain my taste for them, but now I am doing the same thing - on a much smaller scale! My mom also made freezer jam and freezer pickles.

I am attempting to follow in my mother's frozen footsteps, but she had a definite advantage over me: a chest freezer. I, probably like many of you, only have the freezer that is attached to the top of my refrigerator.  Trust me, if I had a place to put it, I'd buy a deep chest freezer in a heartbeat, but that is not currently an option. Thankfully, my family of 3 is much smaller than my mom's family of 13, so we don't need to freeze quite as much! I just save a little extra from each week's gathering of produce, and we enjoy it well into the winter and sometimes beyond.

Frozen, like canned or dried, produce does lose some of its fresh texture and flavor, but that doesn't render it useless. Some frozen fruits and veggies can be enjoyed fresh or raw in salads and the like, but most of the time they are better when baked or blended into homemade goods, like breads, pancakes, and other goodies. Frozen fruit is also perfect for smoothies or ice cream, or sometimes even sprinkled over cereal or granola (thaw first); it also makes great sauces and syrups as toppings for desserts or pancakes.

Freezing, in general, is pretty easy, but just in case you've never attempted it and like some guidelines to follow, here's a brief primer on the produce I've frozen so far this season
1. Blueberries
Blueberries are so easy: just rinse them carefully and remove any remaining stems or - yuck! - worms. Blech. I actually did find a worm in one of my packages of blueberries, which is really quite disgusting. Anyway, make sure the berries are clean, then spread them in a single layer on a small pan covered with a clean dish towel, making sure as much as possible that the berries are not touching each other
Place the pan in the freezer and leave it there until the berries are frozen hard. Remove the berries from the pan and place them in a freezer-safe bag or container. I personally prefer containers because they're easier to stack in my space-deprived freezer, but bags work very well, too. Label the package clearly so there's no confusion later on as to the contents (although blueberries are hard to confuse!).

Use the same method for any kind of berry. Strawberries you may want to slice first, in which case, cover the pan with plastic wrap instead of a dish towel.

2. Peaches

First, the peaches have to be peeled, which is the hardest part. Set a pot of water to boil and mark an X on the bottom of each peach with a knife. Drop them into the boiling water for about 30 seconds and then remove them with a slotted spoon to a bowl of ice cold water. When they're cool enough to touch, use a knife to pull off the peel, starting with the X slits you made earlier. The peel will slide right off. This method is best to use when you have a bunch of peaches to peel at one time.
Cover a pan with plastic wrap and spread the peach slices on it, taking care not to overlap them:
Place the pan in the freezer until the peaches are frozen hard, then remove them and place them in a freezer-safe bag or container, once again remembering to label them. 
Note: Sometimes peaches will brown slightly when frozen. You can avoid this by using a dash of lemon juice if you'd like. The browning doesn't affect the taste, but it does affect appearance and possibly texture. 
3. Spring or Green Onions  These are some of the first vegetables to arrive on the scene at the farmer's market. They're also very easy to freeze! Simply wash them thoroughly and then slice them up, bulbs, stems and all. Freeze in a freezer-safe bag or container. They might get mushy when they thaw, so they're probably not perfect for salads or other fresh dishes, but they'll go great in soups, broths and casseroles, even dips.
4. Zucchini  Zucchini is famous for its, um, shall we say availability? Lots of creative cooks find all sorts of ways to use zucchini throughout the summer. It's so easy to freeze for use in the winter, too: all you have to do is shred it. If you have a food processor with a grating blade, that job is super simple and takes only seconds. Otherwise, it takes a little bit of extra time and elbow-grease, but it's definitely worth it if you've run out of ideas for what to do with all that zucchini! Once you've grated it, simply freeze it in freezer-safe bags or containers. If you can, it's best to freeze the grated zucchini in 1-cup portions because otherwise you'll have to defrost the entire package, only to use a small portion of it.
Freezing is QUICKer than canning, so if you have ample freezer space, it's the ideal way to save all that bounty of produce for use in the winter. Some types of produce require a little extra time and preparation for freezing, but the time spent on the front end will be worth it on the other end when all you have to do is pull it out of the freezer to use in your baking and/or cooking. 
It is very EASY, too. Most fruits, and some vegetables, simply require cleaning and possibly slicing before being put in the freezer. Other vegetables might require blanching, but that's pretty easy, too.
Freezing produce yourself is much CHEAPer than purchasing it already frozen, especially fruits. I can't remember the last time I purchased frozen fruit, because it's too expensive and rarely goes on sale. Vegetables are a different matter, but it's still cheap to freeze your own. 
It's certainly HEALTHY, especially if you buy the freshest local organic produce you can find. Unlike canning, freezing actually helps to preserve the vitamins and nutrients found in the fruit, so it's the best way to save them for future use.
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