Fast forward two seasons and visualize the produce aisle. Hard pink mealy globes in the tomato bin and peaches about as succulent as a kitchen sponge—this is produce bred to travel across the hemisphere, rather than selected for texture and flavor. With pristine, local summer fruits and vegetables flourishing in the greenmarkets right now, it’s easy to squirrel some away in the freezer for a shot of sun-ripened flavor come January.
If you have a big pantry and a knack for sterilizing jars—praise to you. For the rest of us, freezing is a splendid way to take advantage of the fruit, vegetables and herbs that are abundant now. The freezing process itself does not destroy nutrients, and although the texture might not translate exactly the same after thawing—the flavor of farm stand strawberries in the middle of winter is a thing of beauty. By preserving local products you cut down on imported produce off-season. This means that you are doing more to support your local economy and importantly, cutting down on your food miles—the number of miles that food travels from the farm to consumer.
On the average, produce in the United States travels 1300 to 2000 miles before it reaches your table; the connection between lowering food miles and decreasing greenhouse gas emissions is obvious. But taste and nutritional value are at stake as well. Local varieties are rarely grown for their travel durability or shelf life, and since they are allowed to ripen on the vine, they are more nutritious and flavorful.
• Use the freshest produce you can find, and freeze it as soon as you can—the quicker the better.
• Make sure to wash and dry everything thoroughly. Remove pits and cut into uniform sized pieces.
• Use containers, freezer bags or a vacuum seal system—and remember to leave headroom for expansion.
• When ready to use, defrost in the refrigerator.
There are several approaches to freezing fruit: packed in sugar, packed in a simple sugar syrup, or (my preference) naked. Many experts suggest that freezing with sugar helps to better preserve the flavor and texture of fruit. While once defrosted much of the sugar can be carefully rinsed off, but pure-and-simple still works wonderfully. To pack in sugar you only need to gently combine the prepared fruit in sugar, let stand until the fruit begins to release their juices, then pack for freezing. To make a simple sugar syrup, heat 3 cups of sugar with 4 cups of water over medium-high heat until sugar has dissolved, about 5 minutes. Let cool and pour over prepared fruit to cover, and pack for freezing. The best method for freezing fruit au natural is to prepare the fruit and spread out on cookie sheets to freeze. Once frozen, pack in freezer bags.
Freezing vegetables is not quite as straightforward as fruit. Although just as easy, different vegetables respond to different methods; some do better cooked, some better raw. There are several excellent web sites that provide specific advice for different vegetables. Garden Guides has one of the most comprehensive guide to freezing vegetables.
Drying herbs perhaps comes to mind before freezing them, but herbs do quite well when frozen. The most basic method involves removing the leaves from the stem, then rinsing and drying. Place the leaves on a tray in the freezer, and when frozen gather them in a freezer bag for easier storage. Freezing pesto in ice cube trays and then popping the pesto cubes into a bag for easy dispersion is a handy and popular trick, but Jacques Pepin has an interesting take on this. In his book Chez Jacques: Traditions and Rituals of a Cook (Stewart, Tabori & Chang) Pepin says that he prefers not to freeze finished pesto and opts instead for freezing a basil puree that he then transforms into pesto after defrosting. (This method can be used for any leafy herbs.)
Jacques Pepin’s Method for Freezing Basil
1. Submerge basil leaves in boiling water and cook until soft, about one minute.
2. Drain in a colander and cool with cold water.
3. Drain again and press gently to remove excess water.
4. Place in a food processor with a dash of salt and some olive oil.
5. Process until pureed and freeze in small packages.
Buying Frozen Food
When all else fails, buying frozen fruit and vegetables from the super market has its advantages—in addition to ease and convenience, you can actually still get local and/or organic produce. Just be sure to look carefully at the package to determine where the produce was grown, not just packaged.