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Flash in the Pan

The perfect stash


Anyone can eat locally during summertime. Even if your garden sucks, like mine; even if your friends and neighbors aren’t generous with their surplus, like mine; and even if you can’t tell the difference between a wild chokecherry and a chicken potpie, there are many ways to eat local. Restaurants are doing it on their specials boards, friends are doing it at potlucks, and farmers’ markets have become such a party that people who show up just to schmooze end up buying some raw materials to cook at home, or buying some hot finished product to eat on the spot.

The rising hipness of local food is great. But there’s a world of difference between the local food tourists who dabble but don’t commit, and those who make the lifestyle choice—not just a menu choice—to eat locally. The difference between the hardcore locavores and the fair-weather trendyvores is what they eat in winter.

While eating locally in the off-season may seem daunting, it can be as simple as buying a sack of potatoes at the farmers market and keeping them in your garage. I’m not espousing a return to the pioneering homesteader days, when all we had was what was in the pantry and root cellar. I’m talking about baby steps in the right direction, toward home.

There are two basic steps to year-round locavory: acquiring a stash, and then stashing it.

The stash should be large, because it doesn’t pay to set up a processing operation to process a tiny amount of food. Don’t just make a jar of pickles—make a load of jars. Don’t make a quart of pesto—make a gallon.

How and what food you acquire depends on your local conditions and resources. It requires the flexibility to roll with the tides of surplus and availability, and boils down to developing a stash-hunting frame of mind.

When it comes to stash hunting, farmer friends are key. Or even farmer acquaintances, like, say, the folks you’ve been buying basil from all summer long at the farmers’ markets. Perhaps you greet them with mutual recognition or even by name. Maybe it’s time to take that relationship to the next level.

At a certain point, those basil plants will begin to flower so vigorously that most farmers will stop harvesting them, because the stalks no longer bunch nicely. You, meanwhile, want pesto all winter. Make the farmer an offer to clean out their basil patch for a bulk price. Or glean the side shoots of the cauliflower or broccoli plants, which usually get left behind after the main heads are harvested. The side shoots are smaller, but are awesome frozen (after being blanched two minutes in boiling water, plunged in an ice bath, drained and bagged).

Your afternoon picking adventure might turn into iced tea on the porch or even dinner—but, realistically, remember that many farmers do everything they can to prevent visitors and might prefer to keep their interactions restricted to the market. So if they say as much, don’t take it personally. There are other ways to acquire a big stash at the market, including arranging for bulk purchases—maybe they’d be more willing to pick you a box of side shoots or a trash bag full of clipped basil plants for you to pick off the leaves, etc. 

I actually don’t make pesto; I make a simpler version known as pistou. I start with chopped garlic and oil (olive or sunflower) in the food processor, mix that first, and then add basil leaves until it’s one unified green liquid pulling itself through the blade smoothly. Sometimes I’ll give a small squirt of lime or vinegar to keep it bright green. When I’m done adding basil, I mix in salt to taste, and store it in plastic bags. I prefer pistou because it offers more options than if I’d frozen it with Parmesan cheese and pine nuts, which I can always add later.

Another option with farmer friends involves a pickle-swap, where you trade whatever they have leftover at the end of market for a share of the pickled peppers, cauliflower, radish, kohlrabi or whatever. 

Each storage method, including freezing, pickling and dehydrating, has its own learning curve and material investments. Pickling, for example, requires a large kettle, tongs for grabbing hot jars, a funnel and, of course, the jars, rings and lids. While canning is one of the more complicated and expensive preservation methods, foods like carrots, onions, garlic, potatoes, beets and winter squash can be purchased, gleaned or otherwise acquired in bulk during harvest season and kept for weeks or months in cold storage with no processing. Cold storage alone could double the locavore window from three to six months out of the year.

The end of market provides the best deals, and the hardcore locavores have their favorite methods for preserving each item. Deal on tomatoes? Go for salsa or oven-roasted tomato sauce. A box of plums? I’d say dehydrated, chutney, or plum tortes, baked and frozen.

Even if you start with just one stash of something, anything, take note of the rewards. You’ll be back for more next year.

Ask Ari: Bountiful green beans

Q: Dear Flash,

Do you have a good recipe for pickled green beans? I’m swamped.

—Jolly Bean Grower

A: What I can give you, JBG, is my generic pickle recipe, which works on everything, even beans. What I can’t give you is my endorsement to pickle beans.

The pickling flavors often overwhelm the delicate flavor of beans—same with asparagus—and while the finished product tastes good, like any pickle, that’s also the problem. They don’t taste like beans anymore, just pickles. I assume that since you grew so many beans you must really like their flavor, so why not preserve that?

If they were my beans I’d heat a big pot of water while I trim the ends, and blanch them in batches small enough that the water continues boiling when they’re dropped in. Boil for two minutes. Remove the beans with a wire basket (keeping the water boiling for the next batch), and plunge them into an ice water bath for five minutes. Drain, bag and freeze. This technique works for many veggies, like corn, broccoli or kale. The blanching times vary, but this information is widely available online.

For pickles, I tend to stick to more strongly flavored veggies, like peppers (with or without cauliflower or carrots) or radishes.

I don’t have space to explain the pickling process, but these instructions are also widely available online. My recipe, however, is not so easily available:

The brine is half water, one-quarter cider vinegar and one-quarter white wine vinegar. As it heats, add enough sugar to take the edge off the vinegar, but don’t make it sweet. Before packing the jars, add a teaspoon each of brown and yellow mustard seeds, and a teaspoon of salt. Pack jars, pour in simmering brine, and either hot-pack or process in a water bath.

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