Make the most of these summer garden favorites with expert tips for harvesting, storing and preserving.
There’s nothing like growing and preserving our own produce to remind us that supermarket convenience isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And after we’ve toiled all spring and summer to grow some of our own groceries, it’s a shame not to make use of it all. Unfortunately, much of the summer harvest comes on all at once, and it can be a challenge to deal with.
Check garden plants at least every other day in peak summer to see what needs to be harvested, keeping in mind that the smallest versions of fully ripe fruits and vegetables tend to be the tastiest and most nutritious. Once you bring the bounty inside, choose whichever method of storage and preservation seems most time-efficient for you. If you harvest produce on a Saturday morning, you may have time to try smoking your own chipotles or making pickles and chutney. If it’s a busy weeknight, however, you may be better off popping that produce in the freezer. And of course, enjoy as many juicy, ripe, fresh-from-the-garden, peak-nutrition gems as possible — while you still can!
Harvest: Cucumbers can be picked as gherkins when small, or kept on the vine longer for salads and pickling. Search the plants for cucumbers hiding under the foliage, and pick the fruits by twisting them from the plant or snipping them off with scissors.
Store: Cucumbers keep well at room temperature for three days or so. They can also be kept in a perforated bag in the crisper for about a week.
Preserve: Make pickles! Try easy refrigerator pickles (find a recipe at motherearthliving.com/refrigerator-pickles), canned vinegar pickles or home-fermented brine pickles.
Try Something Different: Roasted Cukes
Try roasting cucumbers. Peel them, cut in half lengthways and scoop out the seeds. Cut into pieces the shape of potato wedges. Lightly salt them and leave for 20 minutes or so to extract the excess water. Pat dry, toss with oil and herbs, and bake in a hot oven for about 15 minutes. Serve hot with a knob of butter.
Harvest: Pick bell peppers and hot chilies at whatever color stage you prefer. The sharpness of green peppers, which some people enjoy, disappears into sweetness as they change colors. If picking green, wait until fruits are full- size and just beginning to change color. Snip off with a small stem attached.
Store: Refrigerate peppers in a bag in the crisper for about a week.
Preserve: To freeze bell peppers, blanch them for 5 minutes, then put into a sealed container (or a bowl with a towel over the top) to steam as they cool. Peel off their skins, cut them in half and remove the seeds. Pack into freezer containers, removing as much air as possible, and freeze for up to a year. Bell peppers are also delicious oven-roasted with olive oil and garlic until nearly black. Allow them to steam and remove skins if you wish, then let cool and freeze. Small hot chilies can simply be frozen whole or chopped up and packed into ice cube trays.
To dry bell peppers, blanch them as for freezing, then dry completely. Place dried peppers on a wire rack set over a tray. Place in an oven heated to its lowest temperature with the door slightly ajar. Dry for about 12 hours, turning after about 5 hours, until brittle to the touch. Leave to cool in the oven, then store in a jar in a cool, dark place for up to a year, but check after a week to make sure there’s no condensation. If there is, dry in the oven a little longer. To make paprika from sweet peppers, grind dried peppers in a coffee grinder.
To dry hot chilies, use thinner-fleshed peppers, such as cayenne. Wash them in salty water to help combat mold. A string of chilies can be made with a needle and cotton thread, literally sewing through the chilies. (Wear gloves to protect your hands while doing this.) Put the string of chilies in a well-ventilated place out of direct sunlight to dry.
Try Something Different: Homemade Chipotles
Smoking red jalapeño chilies to make chipotle is an age-old Mexican technique. The flavor of the wet wood as it smokes permeates into the chili and adds to its complexity. The type of wood you use also alters the flavor. Hickory, pear, apple and mesquite are popular. To smoke chilies, get hot coals burning well in a wood-fired barbecue with a lid, then add large pieces of your chosen wood (pre-soaked in water). Put wire racks or baskets of de-stemmed, halved and seeded chilies (in a single layer) inside and put on the lid. (You can leave the chilies whole, but smoking may take longer.) It will take about six hours to smoke the chilies completely — they should be dry but still pliable. The cooled chilies can be stored in jars in a cool, dark place for up to 12 months.
Harvest: Some varieties ripen almost all at once. Others, such as cherry types, bear throughout the season. Inspect plants every few days or daily at the height of harvest, picking ripe ones as you see them. Keeping the short stem attached will help tomatoes keep longer.
Store: Fresh tomatoes store best at room temperature (never refrigerate!) and should be kept away from other fruits such as bananas, which accelerate their ripening. They should keep for at least a few days. Eat any fruits with damaged skin right away.
Preserve: Small tomatoes can be frozen whole — place them on a tray lined with parchment paper. When they are frozen hard, transfer into freezer containers, removing as much air as possible. Freeze for up to a year. You can cook them straight from frozen.
Tomatoes are also delicious oven-roasted with herbs, olive oil, salt and pepper until completely soft. Once cool, scoop the mix into jars and store in the freezer for up to a year. This makes an excellent base for tomato sauces, soups, chicken cacciatore, chili and much more.
To dry tomatoes, cut them in half and spread them skin-side down over fine-meshed wire racks set on trays. Sprinkle a little salt over the tomatoes. Place in an oven heated to its lowest temperature with the door slightly ajar. Dry for 6 to 12 hours, depending on size, until tomatoes are leathery. Leave tomatoes in the oven to cool before putting in jars. Check after a week to make sure there is no condensation. If there is, dry the tomatoes in the oven a little longer. (In warm, dry areas, you can dry tomatoes in the sun with a layer of muslin/cheesecloth on top to keep off bugs, but this takes 1 to 2 weeks of sunny weather, and the trays need to be brought in at night.) Dried tomatoes should keep in a cool, dark place for up to a year. Add them to soups and stews or cover with olive oil to rehydrate and serve as an antipasto.
Try Something Different: Tomato Seasoning
When peeling tomatoes, you don’t have to waste the ultra-nutritious skins — use them to make tomato powder. Put the skins on a tray lined with parchment paper and place in an oven heated to its lowest temperature, with the door slightly ajar. Dry until crisp, then cool and pop into a spice grinder to blitz to a powder, or use a food processor. Store in a jar and use as you would paprika, only to add a tomato zest.
Harvest: Look carefully for zucchini, as they hide behind those enormous leaves. The smallest fruits have the best flavor and most nutrients. Give the squash a gentle twist to remove it from the plant.
Store: Zucchini will keep fresh in a perforated bag in the crisper for a week.
Preserve: To freeze summer squash, cut them into thin rounds and blanch for a few minutes. Drain and cool in ice water, then drain again and spread on a clean towel to dry. Pack into freezer containers, removing as much air as possible, and freeze for up to a year.
Try Something Different: Squash Blossoms
Pick some of the bright yellow flowers in the morning or evening, and pinch out the pistil or stamen before cooking. Squash blossoms are delicious sautéed, stuffed with cheese and baked, or battered and fried. At least once each summer, give yourself a treat and dip squash blossoms, plus other favorite garden treats, into a tempura batter, fry in sesame oil and serve with soy sauce or ponzu.
Harvest: When skins are smooth, glossy and richly colored, snip ripe eggplants from the bush with scissors to avoid damaging stems.
Store: Eggplants can be stored at room temperature for a few days, or put in a bag in the crisper to store for up to a week.
Preserve: To freeze eggplant, cut it into thin slices, plunge into boiling water with some lemon juice added to prevent discoloration, and cook for 4 minutes. Drain and cool quickly in ice water. Drain again, spread on a clean tea towel to dry, and store in freezer containers with as much air removed as possible.
Try Something Different: Easy Eggplant Chutney
Chop up an eggplant, an onion, a sweet pepper, a hot pepper and some garlic. Fry for 5 minutes in olive oil, then stir in 1/4 cup each of honey and vinegar, plus a chopped mango if you have one. Sprinkle with salt, coriander and cumin. Simmer until very thick, about half an hour. Remove from heat, allow to cool and then refrigerate in a sealed container. Serve chutney in sandwiches, with roasted meats, alongside curries and on cheese plates.
Adapted from The Produce Companion by Meredith Kirton and Mandy Sinclair (Hardie Grant Books, 2015).