The abundance of locally grown fruits, vegetables, and herbs can be overwhelming in late summer. Carol Fenster, author of 10 cookbooks, offers practical tips to make the most of summer’s bounty by eating some and then preserving the rest for delicious dining throughout the year.
“Most of us don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables,” says Fenster, “so late summer is a good time to add more plant-based foods to our meals.” Fenster suggests making fruit cobblers, crisps, or pies with stone fruits such as the peaches, apricots, and plums that are in season now. Grilling heightens the sweetness of these fruits, making a light, but nutritious dessert. Fruit that is past its prime but still edible is perfect for no-cook jams and morning smoothies.
Certain vegetables are over-abundant in late summer, especially tomatoes, so Fenster serves many tomato-based dishes such as the bread-tomato salad Panzanella, Mexican salsa, gazpacho, and marinara sauce for pasta.
Fresh herbs are usually used in main dishes and vegetables, but Fenster also uses herbs for chimichurri (an Argentian sauce of herbs, olive oil, garlic, and vinegar) or flavored oil by pureeing a fresh herb with olive oil in a blender, then straining it to remove the solids. Served on top of grilled meats or vegetables, chimichurri and herb oil jazz up even the simplest dishes.
Vegetables, especially tomatoes, are easily dried in a convection oven (or a food dehydrator). Although any size tomato can be dried, Fenster prefers the smaller plum, grape, and cherry varieties because they have fewer seeds and dry more quickly. Sliced in half, tossed with olive oil and salt, she bakes them on parchment-lined baking sheets at 200°F until completely shriveled and dry. Throughout the winter they go into soups and casseroles or dips and sauces where their concentrated flavor lends a taste of summer.
Fruits can also be dried, but work best when sliced fairly thin so they dry faster. Smaller fruits such as blueberries and cherries dry quickly while stone fruits and pears take longer. Vegetables such as carrots and zucchini can be dried into chips for snacking but work best when sliced very thin with a mandolin.
“Whether herbs are purchased in stores or snipped from garden plots, the amount is usually more than we can use. Their shelf-life is fleeting and it’s a shame to let them wither in the refrigerator,” says Fenster. She uses what she needs―especially thyme, oregano, and rosemary―within a day or two then dries them in the microwave (layered on a paper towel). Depending on the moisture in the herb, they dry in about 2 to 3 minutes and can be stored in jars for use throughout the winter.
Both freezing and canning are time-honored methods for preserving, but canning is more time-consuming and requires special equipment so Fenster prefers to freeze her produce in resealable freezer bags. Herbs―especially soft herbs like basil, chives, cilantro, dill, mint, and parsley―freeze well in small freezer bags for six months. They will look a little bruised when thawed, but their flavor is still intact.
Fruits can be frozen, but Fenster takes the time to freeze the fruits―such as blueberries or cherries―in a single layer on the baking sheet before transferring them to a resealable freezer bag. The fruits freeze faster this way and don’t clump together, helping to maintain their quality after thawing.
Marinara sauces freeze exceptionally well in Mason jars or resealable freezer bags. Fenster makes the sauce, transfers it to clean containers and refrigerates it for a day to meld the flavors. The sauces can be frozen for up to 6 months and thaw easily in the refrigerator overnight.
“Taking the time in late summer to preserve fruits, vegetables, and herbs brings a taste of summer to our foods―even in the dead of winter when it is most welcome,” says Fenster.