TO AVOID committing the deadly sin of gluttony, one has to find a solution to the glut. At this time of year, the vegetable garden begins producing an abundance of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and so on. Efficient storing and preserving go hand in hand with vegetable gardening, ensuring that nothing goes to waste.
One solution to a glut is freezing, although it does have very real limitations. It can only be used for vegetables that are to be cooked (the thought of eating a thawed cucumber is somewhat disturbing). Often, thawed and cooked vegetables are very poor substitutes for the fresh product, as well as being inferior to frozen vegetables bought in shops.
One solution I have found, is to follow recipes for a wide range of vegetable soups and freeze them, either in plastic bags or empty water bottles. When thawed and reheated, many soups (pumpkin, courgette, tomato and so on) taste as good as they do fresh and certainly a lot better than tinned or packet soups. There is something very satisfying about eating a tangy tomato and basil soup in the middle of December.
For me, this is the best way of preserving tomatoes, not only enabling you to eat them right through the winter but actually enhancing the flavour.
The tomatoes should be picked when still quite firm and sliced very thinly. They should be lightly sprinkled with salt and laid out on a clean surface, where they will be in full sunlight all day. A piece of netting can be arranged over the top to stop flies and other creepy crawlies landing on them.
If the weather appears to cool off at night, the tomatoes should be brought inside until the following morning. They will be dried within a couple of days. You can store them in an airtight container, but I prefer to put them in a jar of olive oil – the flavour becomes incredibly intense. Simply cram the jar full, then cover completely in olive oil. Take tomatoes out as you need them throughout the winter, as you can use them in pasta dishes, stir-fries, casseroles and so on. As you work your way through the jar, you can start dipping into the olive oil too – it develops a deliciously rich tomato taste.
Cucumbers, carrots, onions and cauliflower can all be pickled. The secret to good pickling – I have learned from eye-watering, bitter experience – is to get the pickling mixture right. If it is too vinegary, the end product will have you, and your dinner party guests, wincing and weeping (presuming you pass round the pickled onions at your candle-lit suppers). Half wine vinegar and half water is about right, with spices of your choice: black pepper, cumin, coriander seeds, mustard seed, piri-piri and so on. Sugar can be added for sweeter pickles and a little curry powder with pickled onions makes those sweet, tasty Amstadammer pickles.
The vinegar mixture should be heated until boiling, while the jars (used to sell beans are perfect for this) are boiling away in a pan of water to sterilise them. The vegetables are then put into the hot, sterile jars and the hot pickle mix poured on top. The lid should be put on immediately. As the mixture cools, you will hear the lid pop as it is drawn inwards, and the contents will be sealed. This method seems to work well, with the pickles still tasting good nine months later.
by Paul McKay