Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Harvesting and Preserving Garden Peas and Strawberries

This unusually rainy spring clearly agrees with the peonies which are putting out a lush exuberance of deep-pink blooms and vibrant foliage.  Though their flowers last for just a couple of weeks, and what a splendid show they are, peonies also provide a luxuriant green presence throughout summer--as long as I remember to water them!

Healthy and happy peonies exulting in their ruffled pinkness

Lavender, roses, and peonies filling a corner in the front garden

The rain has stopped enough for the preparation of the tomato beds to commence which is good because the seedlings are close to getting root bound in their pots.  The bed is worked free of weeds, compost is forked into the soil, and then it is raked level.  The potted tomato plants are plopped into the approximate planting hole as a guide to determine proper depth, that is, so most of the lower stem will be buried.  Tomato stems will sprout roots when underground, encouraging a robust root system to form.

Lower leaves are removed before final planting, as well as the pot!

Tuteurs, rather than wooden stakes or metal cages, are very popular here in France.  They are just metal spirals on which tomatoes can be trained.  As the tomatoes grow, they are twirled around the spirals with no staking required.  The last foot of the spiral is straight and is driven by hand rather easily into the soil.   The tuteur can become slightly skewed through use, therefore it is necessary to check first if they are positioned correctly before drilling them into the ground, sometimes requiring the straight part to be inserted via an appropriate angle.  Before using them each season, I disinfect the lower part so as not to transfer any possible disease.

Carefully placed tuteurs and a bag of invaluable oak leaves

Our long, hot growing season is very hard on organic mulches like grass clippings; they usually last six weeks before they breakdown completely.  Last season it was impossible to keep the tomato beds moist and weeds suppressed.  So, I planned this summer to be hopefully different.  I located a small copse of oak trees within walking distance and last autumn hauled home one full leaf bag after another as we are car free.  Leaf mould, which is what results when leaves decompose completely, is unusually moisture retentive, way more than regular compost.  Leaves decompose slowly as the process is facilitated by fungus.  It seems that in our climate, oak leaves become leaf mould in one year.  This autumn I will incorporate the leaf mould into the soil and top up with new dead leaves, rinse and repeat.  Eventually the structure of our soil will improve.

Peas and strawberries are the main harvest stars at the moment. For both strawberries and pea pods, I cup my hand under them while snapping the attaching stem between my first finger and thumb, letting the berry or pod fall into that waiting hand.  The strawberries should be mostly red and the pea pods moderately full, not bursting at their seams.  I usually harvest in the morning which is fairly cool.  It is a joy to share with Monsieur and Madame M some of the best strawberries.  In return, we get some of their cherry harvest.

Dappled morning shade is well appreciated by me when harvesting.

Nicely plump pods

We eat as much of fresh strawberries and peas as we can.  The surplus strawberries I freeze in their lightly sugared juices and also make jam with them.  I freeze the peas.  Most vegetables--celery, onions, and tomatoes are some of the exceptions--require blanching to eliminate flavour-destroying enzymes.  There is detailed information on the web regarding blanching vegetables as preparation for freezing, but what I find is way more simple than worrying if two minutes isn't enough or three minutes is too much for a particular vegetable, is just think of undercooking them.  If it takes five minutes to cook fresh peas, then blanch them for a minute or two. 

After shelling, peas are washed and then placed in boiling water for a couple of minutes, and then taken out and put under running cold water to stop cooking.  Alternatively, they can be dunked in an ice bath.  They then go right into freezer bags.  Sealing the bag almost completely, I insert a straw and suck out air as I pull it out, gliding my finger on where the straw was and finishing sealing the bag.

Sucking air out via a straw is fun!

Not exactly a vacuum, but good enough

For the strawberries, wash, trim, and slice, then place in a bowl with sugar to taste and put in the fridge until juice develops, usually within a half an hour.  Voilà!  Instant syrup.

Adjust the sugar according to the natural sweetness of your berries.

Laced with a bit of cream, these will brighten up any wintry day

Dated and ready to go into the freezer

Why freezing instead of canning?  Canning can result in loss of flavour and nutrition, but it is great for big surpluses as canned food will last several years while frozen food will keep well for just a year.  Though it is still safe to eat, you will not want to eat it unless totally tasteless food turns you on!  I grow close to what we two eat in a year, so at present I opt for freezing.  If you want to limit the contact your food has with plastic, then certain glass jars can be substituted.  Recycled quality jam jars are usually strong enough for freezing.  Be careful, because not all glass jars can take the stress of freezing and could crack.

Even if you do not have garden produce of your own or a neighbour's and if you have the freezer space, you can still preserve if you watch out for a good deal at a farmer's market.  At the very least, you can freeze all those unwanted-for-the-moment stalks of celery rather than watching them go limp and brown in the fridge.  All celery needs is a wash and to be sliced, no blanching required, and into the freezer bag they go for future stews and soups.

Remember to start always with the freshest and unblemished as freezing will not heal damaged food, just keep it nearly at its best until you are ready for it.  Freezing does change the texture of foods so most produce will not be able to be used as they would be if they were raw.


Sowing tomatoes indoors