Pickling, freezing, and remembering

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Washing cucumbers before brining.

Each summer I promise myself I’ll put up some of the amazing produce that shows up in our farmers’ markets here in San Francisco. And why wouldn’t I? Some of the fruits and vegetables have such short seasons – figs, for example – that it’s worth the effort to keep them around a little longer. In truth, however, I rarely ever get around to it. This year, I promised myself, would be different.

I promised myself the same thing last summer, too, as I recall and then promptly left the country for three months, pretty much missing the entire summer growing season. Given my track record so far, I’m impressed with what I’ve been accomplishing so far this summer. I’ve been making pickles and freezing strawberries. OK, that’s not exactly a pantry full of staples for the year ahead but, hey, it’s a start.

I made my first batch of pickles a couple of weeks ago. Let me clarify this: I made my first batch of pickled cucumbers a couple of weeks ago. Yes, I cook for a living, have written a great deal about cooking over the years, and have put up a fair amount of other pickled vegetables and kimchi over time, as well, but I’ve never gotten around to making a simple pickled cuke.

My experimental batch – two jars – is sitting in the refrigerator as I write this, and I was pretty pleased with them over all. Pleased enough, at any rate, to plunge ahead even farther. Right now, as I write this, a stock pot filled with pickling cukes and brine, weighted down with a heavy saucer, is sitting in the refrigerator, brining away so that its contents can be turned into flavorful pickles for later on.

Somewhere along the line, as I planned that first batch, it occurred to me to flavor them with lemon grass, the long, citrusy herb so favored in Southeast Asian cuisine. I added coriander pods to the mix, as well, and the results are lovely. Fresh and light tasting, I have to admit however that I wanted them to have a bit more punch. With this new batch, a larger batch, I’m going to add ginger, garlic, and chilies to the lemon grass and coriander mix.

Pickles aside, I’m also preparing strawberries for freezing. I have one one-gallon bag of berries already tucked away in the freezer, awaiting their future as ingredients in smoothies and muffins, or whatever else occurs to me, as the strawberry season fades away (In California, it never really fades away, as locally grown strawberries continue to show up in the market pretty much throughout the year, but they lack much flavor and certainly aren’t worth bothering with).

Freezing produce, however, brings a multitude of memories. When I was 11 or 12 years old, my family moved back to Arkansas from California, after buying my grandmother’s tiny farmhouse and land. My parents, eager to escape the crush of life in urban California, had visions of getting back to the land and, with a copy of the book “Self-Suffiency” and a subscription to Mother Earth News, we jumped into small scale farming, replete with livestock and what seemed at the time like an enormous garden.

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Strawberries drying on a rack before being frozen.

Eager to put up much of what was coming out of the garden, my mother spent hours blanching and freezing vegetables. Corn, beans, and probably quite a few other things, as well, made their way into the freezer while my mother sweated it out in the humid Arkansas summer heat. I live in San Francisco now; it’s a little less intense. Still, I seem to remember her choosing to freeze our harvest rather canning it because it seemed easier. On the other hand, freezing is actually better at preserving flavor and nutrients. Whatever her motivation, it was the better choice nutritionally.

I bought three pints of berries at the farmers’ market today and brought them home, where I washed and trimmed them, cutting them in half. They’re drying on a cooling rack right now. When they’re completely dried, I’ll arrange them on baking sheets so that they’re not touching one another, and then pop the whole tray into the freezer. Once the berries are frozen solid, I’ll pour them into another gallon zip-lock bag and stash them back in the freezer for the months ahead. Freezing them individually this way insures they don’t clump together into a large, unmanageable clod. I can pull out a handful of individual berries, to be tossed into whatever dish I want them for.

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