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Savor your summer produce all year long

Dave Helmuth of Atwater talks about his family's history with freezing and canning vegetables and fruit during the mid-week market at the Kandi Entertainment Center parking lot in southeast Willmar. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

Ready to harvest those fresh fruits and vegetables from your summer garden?

This year, don't let any of your hard-earned produce go to waste: Freeze it so that you can enjoy the taste of summer during the bitter cold winter months — which, despite the current heat wave, will be here before we know it.

Freezing is a popular, less-intensive alternative to canning produce. Almost every fruit and vegetable can be frozen to use at a later time, said David Helmuth of rural Atwater, who organizes the weekly Mid-Week Farmer's Market in Willmar.

"I've been freezing for many years," Helmuth said. "The only thing I haven't figured out how to freeze are potatoes. I know you can do it, but I just haven't figured out the trick."

According to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, vegetables that don't freeze well include cabbage, celery, cress, cucumbers, endive, lettuce, parsley and radishes. These will become limp and water-logged and develop oxidized color, aroma and flavor after thawing, the NCHFP warns.

While most produce does freeze well, some worry that freezing won't keep it as fresh. To keep vegetables at their highest quality, it's important to blanch them beforehand, Helmuth said. Blanching involves boiling the vegetables in water, and then letting them cool completely before freezing.

"Blanching breaks down enzymes so that when you freeze, you don't lose that flavor," Helmuth said. "It helps retain the flavor and color of the vegetable."

It's also important to have the right materials for freezing. Helmuth prefers to use freezer bags. He uses quart-size ones and puts about 2 cups of produce into each one.

You can also use plastic containers or jars, Helmuth said, but "make sure to leave room for expansion" as the produce freezes.

While every gardener has their own "tips and tricks" for freezing, it's a fairly straightforward process, and many find freezing more convenient than canning.

Mary Dahline of Willmar has been freezing and canning her summer produce for about 45 years. While she prefers to can her fruits, she said that freezing is generally easier because it doesn't take as long and it's "less messy" than canning.

"I freeze all summer, just as I go," Dahline said. "You want to make sure you're freezing everything when it's fresh. It's nice because it's a little faster than canning, and you don't need to set aside as much time for it."

To maintain freshness, fruits and vegetables should always be stored in a freezer at 0 degrees and should be sealed completely in airtight containers or freezer bags. Both fruits and vegetables should be used within eight to 12 months of freezing, according to the NCHFP.

"I generally have enough in my freezer to get me through to the next growing season," Dahline said. "By spring, I may have to pick up a few things at the grocery store. But I prefer my own frozen vegetables much better."

Despite the time it takes to freeze and can the produce from her garden every year, Dahline said it's always well worth the effort.

"I don't use chemicals in my garden," Dahline said. "It's fresher than what you can buy in a store. Most importantly, I know what we're eating and where it came from, and I like that."

Do's and don'ts for freezing fruits and vegetables:

• DO blanch most veggies before you freeze them. Blanching time will vary from just 1-2 minutes for zucchini and spinach to 7-9 minutes for artichokes.

• DON'T store your food in cheap plastic bags. Use freezer bags, which offer more protection.

• DO make sure your bags and containers are tightly sealed, and try to eliminate excess air from freezer bags. Your produce will last longer.

• DO use parchment paper to layer veggies like broccoli and cauliflower in containers.

• DON'T forget to label! You might easily be able to tell carrots and peas from beets and beans right now, but in a few months from now, all bets are off. Be sure to put the date on the label, too.

• DON'T freeze veggies that are too ripe or mature. You'll get best results when you freeze younger ones—small potatoes, crisp-tender peppers, young corncobs.

• DO ask at the farmers market if you can buy in bulk when it comes to freezing. A vendor will probably be happy to sell you a whole bushel of tomatoes to make puree.

• DO take a class. This time of year, many garden clubs, rec departments and Master Gardener groups offer classes on food harvesting and preservation. Look for one to learn the ropes from a local expert.

• DON'T be afraid to try freezing in jars. Freezer jam is a nice way to preserve fruit. Instead of sealing the jars, you just freeze, thaw and serve. But fruit isn't the only thing you can do this with. We recommend finding a good book for a little more guidance. You can also get some good resources online.

• DO store your foods in a freezer that maintains 0 degrees and is two-thirds full for the best quality.

--Information from Birds & Bloom Magazine,

Ashley White

Ashley White is the community content coordinator for the West Central Tribune. Follow her on Twitter @Ashley_WCT.

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