This could very well be the most important post I have ever written, for myself. It is what Roberto and I have been working towards steadily these past 2 years, making changes and big decisions in our lives to get to the point of really practicing what I preach on this blog. Changing in our own lives what we see needs improving in the world around us. Getting back to a simpler existence, one that you depend on your own hands for.  The journey has had some hard moments, many moments of doubt, confusion and frustration. But it has been extremely rewarding, fascinating, satisfying on the soul level and let’s not forget – FUN. This reflective post all started with the act of blogging about food preservation, an old-fashioned, traditional way of making sure your family had enough food to survive a cold winter.

Last Year’s Pickled Peppers

The better part of this month has centered around preserving food for the winter and I have been wanting to post about it. Some of you might be seasoned preservers, while others have just dabbled. Some of you might have not preserved anything yet, but would like to learn. This post is an overview of various preservation methods, advantages and disadvantages to those methods and the method behind the madness of my own preservation this year. I have also listed some resources at the end of this post to get you started or deepen your relationship with food preservation. I also make the case for why we, as Americans should be preserving more food, and how by taking small actions, like this, WE can truly change the shape of our food system.

I will warn you, this is going to be a bit long. I could have posted on each aspect separately, but that would put me farther behind in posts than I already am. Not only that, but my kitchen has been a constant state of “work-in-progress” for the last several weeks, and I can justify all of the mess, by organizing this post! So I opted to share a lot with you in this one massive post! So grab a nice hot drink, relax and let’s talk about preparing food for winter storage.

English Style Red Cabbage

A few weeks ago, I, along with several other Vermont foodies, were featured in an article about canning and preserving in the Burlington Free Press. The interview really got me thinking about my views on food preservation, why I do it and how I choose the methods by which I do it. The article says: “Campus likes canning because it provides a homemade, lasting food supply that is not dependent on electricity”. That pretty much sums it up.

The weather has started to turn cooler here in Northern Vermont, and like an internal timer, my mind has become a bit like that of a squirrel, or my friend “Chippy” the chipmunk that lives in our garage and wood pile. I saw her/him the other day with cheeks packed full of seeds, foraging and storing for winter. In that instant, we had a lot in common. There is an almost instinctual drive to make preparations for hunkering down for the winter while the days are still warm, but the nights are getting colder, reminding and urging us all on with our tasks.

Maybe it is because we started homesteading this year. I have always felt that I had a close connection with nature and the changing seasons, but it has really become the focus of our lives this year, with a lot more to go. Our goal for this year was to start the process and gain some of the skills necessary for producing the majority of our food in the coming years. Meaning flora and fauna. Having a garden, and livestock really puts you in tune with nature on a very practical level and when you are responsible for the comfort and over-wintering of those animals, and need to prepare the grounds for next years garden, you can’t do it on the fly, there is planning involved. Kind of like food preservation.

Tomato Preservation Heaven

I have preserved little bits here and there during the summer. I would go to the farmers market, see what was in abundance, buy some for eating, and a little extra to preserve. But last week I started feeling antsy. I only had 30 jars of various foodstuffs, and that wasn’t cutting it for the squirrel in me. So I went and bought 25 lbs of tomatoes as well as 5 lbs of Roma tomatoes. I made 11 pints plus 3 quarts of crushed tomatoes and 6 cups of oven-dried tomatoes. We incorporate tomatoes into our menu pretty much daily, and so for us, it is important to have a lot on hand. I also supplemented these home preserved tomatoes with our favorite packaged Italian tomatoes – buying in bulk when they are on sale at the store. I also bought a large head each of red and green cabbage. I made 6 pints of winekraut with the red, and a big batch of lacto-fermented sauerkraut with the green.

Fermenting, Freezing, Drying and Canning:

Lacto-Fermented Pickles

This year was my first year fermenting foods. I started with the basics – pickles,  pickled daikon, and sauerkraut. Through all my book and online research, I have not yet gotten a clear understanding whether or not these fermented foods can be stored without refrigeration. I have a “test” jar in my makeshift root cellar as an experiment to determine next year’s preservation methods. I imagine since this type of food preservation has been done for a very long time, before refrigeration, that it should be fine. But I want to be sure that the exact methods I am using yields the same results in terms of longevity. Like I said, these things take time.

I love the idea of fermenting foods – a great way to preserve nutrients, since the food remains alive . I also like the fact that there are not many steps involved. No multiple steaming pots on every stove burner. The possible downside is, I do not like relying on electricity to store my preserved foods. In the country, especially where snow is prevalent, we have a high chance of losing power all winter long. If one relies on the fridge or freezer for all their preserved foods, one could lose their entire storage and all that hard work in a matter of hours. Not a personal risk I am willing to take at this point. This is why for this year, I have not relied solely on fermentation. One of my preservation philosophies – don’t put all your pickles in one crock.

This leaves you with oven drying, sun drying or traditional canning. Personally, I like to do a little bit of everything. Keeps tastes varied and interesting, even if your storage revolves around a few main crops. It also ensures that my fridge is not going to be made up solely of pickles and kraut (even though I do use an old dorm sized fridge for my pickles and other lacto-fermented foods).

Plums, Dried Plums in Syrup and Canned Plums in Vanilla-Cardamom-Rum Syrup

Traditional canning is fun. I always love a good steaming pot in the kitchen. There is something comforting and homey about it. This year I canned carrots, English style red cabbage, bread and butter pickles, beets in wine, crushed tomatoes, raspberries, blueberries and plums in a vanilla-cardamom-rum syrup.

There is nothing better than the taste of slow oven roasted tomatoes. This method brings the natural sweetness out – making essentially candied tomatoes. I just drizzled Roma halves with olive oil, and spices and let them go in a 200F oven for about 8 hours. I also oven roasted plum halves. I sprinkled those with maple sugar and cinnamon. They came out like the best tasting prunes you’ve ever had! I don’t have a dehydrator. So for now, I have been oven-drying. We will see about a dehydrator down the line, if I end up feeling like I need one. Probably will once I (hopefully!) have a deer to process. And don’t forget to dry your herbs for winter use! Hanging in my outdoor shed I have rosemary, sage, thyme and oregano.

Herbs Drying in the Shed

The thing I love about freezing, is if I have leftover produce from any of the above methods, I can just throw it in mason jars or freezer bags, and put it in the freezer for later use. There is no method easier than that. But it is my last option. This year I froze beet greens, corn, berries, frozen tomato juice (nothing from my tomato processing went to waste), homemade pesto, red cabbage, soaked beans and grains, etc. We are in the process of buying half a lamb from a local farm. Another way to save money on your meat bill. Want to know an even cheaper way to get the best, most healthy meat you can? Join me this season and try hunting for your own.  I hope to soon be stocking my freezer with fresh venison before the end of October!

Food preservation doesn’t stop there! This year we used the majority of our garden space to grow storage vegetables – 75 feet of heirloom potatoes and 75 feet of dry beans, 3 varieties of winter squash, turnips beets and carrots for our root cellar. We might not have enjoyed the huge harvests of tomatoes and lettuces this summer as much as some, but in the winter when local produce is scarce it will all be worth it.

When I was a little girl, I loved my grandparents basement. It was filled with shelves all stocked with food stuff, paper products, etc. When you needed something, you got it from the basement on most occasions. After living for 3 years in hurricane country, Roberto and I have been well versed in emergency preparedness. That combined with this nostalgic memory from my childhood, and the fact that we live in the country, we decided to buy dried goods that we use all the time in bulk. Items like organic beans and lentils, buckwheat, quinoa and oats as well as whole wheat and spelt flours can be pricey when you are purchasing only a small package at a time. Buying in bulk not only saves tons of money (almost 1/3 of the costs) but all the extra time and gas it would take to make all those trips to the store for smaller re-fills. So I finally have my own pantry in the basement, just like my Nana did.

All of this was done in an effort to save time later in the year, because now I have a pantry and freezer stocked with all the components to make easy and nourishing meals all fall and winter long, with enough variety to keep it interesting!

Crushed Tomatoes

This post is pretty much the cumulation of what I write about on this blog – the ability to have healthy, flavorful, organic and local foods on a budget. YES, it can be done. I have taken great pains to show that, I wanted to prove that it is possible. It takes some good old fashioned work, some crazy days here and there, and it does cut into TV watching and reading time but in the end you have something to be proud of, and a healthy larder to eat from all winter long. What is more important?

Which brings me to my final point. Our food system in the USA is very sick, and it is making our people very sick – our children, spouses, parents, siblings, neighbors and friends. Take a moment and think of one person that you care about in your life that should be eating differently for their own health.  I am sure we all know a few. By doing just a little bit of raising your own food, or if you really truly can’t (and look at the book list below before you say you can’t), support your local farmer who does and we can all make a difference, together. But WE have to do it. The people. It is up to us. There is no magic wand or fairy godmother to do it for us. It is about the small decisions and choices we make in daily life and we vote with our money and where we spend it. We need to stop complaining about how sick we feel, and about the behavior problems in our children, and the affordability of good food, and really look at what we are doing to contribute to this nightmare, and then do something to change it, in our own lives. I came across an article the other day, and it has a lot of good points. I don’t agree with everything, but it does delve deeply into some very important issues, and puts the owness on the individual, which is vital.  So ask yourself, do you have the balls to change the food system?

Most of the recipes and inspiration that I used this year came from these three books:

The Joy of Pickling: 250 Flavor-Packed Recipes for Vegetables and More from Garden or Market (Revised Edition)

Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving

Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats

For information on Root Cellaring, this is THE BOOK:

Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits & Vegetables

If you want to learn more about homesteading on just 1/4 acre of land, this book is jam packed full of information on how to raise your own food (plants and animals) and then recipes, for when the harvest is in. Did you know you can harvest 1,400 eggs, 50 lbs of wheat, 60 lbs of fruit, 2,000 lbs of vegetables, 280 lbs of meat and 75 lbs of nuts on just 1/4 acre?? This book tells you how:

The Backyard Homestead: Produce all the food you need on just a quarter acre!

Another great book for the library of anyone who wants to be more self-sufficient in food, energy and household skills, this is a good one to have:

Back to Basics: A Complete Guide to Traditional Skills, Third Edition