We are well and truly at the end of the season of abundance now and staring down the long tunnel of winter scarcity.
You might not feel the pinch so much if you are a supermarket shopper, but if you are someone trying to eat seasonally, perhaps with an organic vegetable box, you’ll know the sinking feeling of seeing yet another red cabbage land on your doorstep.
Our ancestors couldn’t just pop down to the supermarket to buy whatever they want. They ate seasonally (and locally) and used time-honoured preserving techniques to make the taste of spring and summer last a little further into the year.
Although it fell out of fashion for a number of years, preserving is gaining in popularity again because it is a simple answer to complicated issues like food miles and food waste.
Homemade chutneys, pickled vegetables and flavoured oils and vinegars made from seasonal fruits, vegetables and herbs add a delicious dimension to everyday cooking, help us use up ever last bit of what’s in the fridge or the larder and can help fill the hungry gap, that comes towards the end of the winter, with variety, nutrition and flavour. They are also very eco-friendly – especially if you get together with friends and make them in big batches.
Preserving can be very fulfilling and doesn’t lengthy, complex recipes. Here are a few tips to get you started.
Chutneys are suitable for all vegetables and fruit that will cook down. You can use firm vegetables but you also need to have some soft vegetables or fruit in there too or it won’t have a sticky texture. Try using up tomatoes – red or green, courgettes, apples, plums and pumpkins.
The main thing to remember when making chutney is that you need to get rid of enough water during the cooking process or it will dilute the balance of the vinegar and cause it to ferment when stored.
Quantities of sugar and vinegar vary when making chutney, it all depends what you are using. But, as a rough guide, for every 2k (1 lb) of fruit or vegetables you need 500ml (16 oz) of vinegar, 350-500g (12-16 oz) of sugar and a couple of onions.
Dice your fruit and vegetables into small chunks and put in a big pan with the sugar, vinegar and any spices that you’re using such as fresh ginger, chillies, and cumin and coriander seeds.
Simmer the whole lot over a low heat, stirring regularly until the sugar has dissolved.
Then, turn it up to a slow boil and let it reduce down for about an hour. As the water boils off you’ll need to stir it to stop it sticking and burning.
It’s ready when you can draw a spoon through it and see the base of the pan. If it flows back when you do this boil it for a bit longer as there’s still too much water in it.
Pot up into sterilised jars and store in a cool dry place. All chutneys benefit from at least three months storage and will keep for a couple of years and more, usually tasting better as they age!
Suitable vegetables for pickling are cucumber, red cabbage, onions, shallots, mushrooms, turnips and beetroot.
To make a pickling vinegar take some malt, cider or wine vinegar and heat it gently with a selection of spices such as mustard seeds, cloves, mace, peppercorns and chillies. For a sweeter taste add some sugar, make sure it dissolves and then leave it to cool down.
When you fill the jars remember that the vegetables needs to be completely immersed so top up with more vinegar if necessary and use vinegar proof lids.
Hard vegetables, and those with a high water content, need to be prepared differently. Hard vegetables like onions, shallots and beetroot are best brined first.
To do this dissolve 225g (7 ½ oz) of salt in 1.5 litres (50 oz, or 1 ¼ quarts) of water, immerse the vegetables in the brine and leave overnight. Then, rinse and dry before pickling. If you don’t like your pickles too hard, boil them for a few minutes in vinegar before packing.
Vegetables with a high water content, such as cabbage, peppers and cucumber need to be dry salted first.
To do this, layer slices of the vegetables in a bowl with plenty of salt and leave overnight. Then, drain off the water, rinse off the salt and pat dry.
Flavoured oils and vinegars
Flavoured oils and vinegars make great gifts for Christmas so by thinking ahead now you’ll have some lovely gifts come December. Although they do not use up large amounts of spare produce, they are a great way of concentrating flavours in a bottle.
However, do be careful when making flavoured oils, since if you put anything containing water into oil and keep it there is a chance that botulism bacteria will grow, even in a sealed bottle.
So to make a herb vinegar start by washing your chosen herbs either under cool running water or by using a sterilising solution, (such as a commercial vegetable wash), to ensure they are thoroughly clean. Dry well on kitchen paper.
Lightly crush the herbs to release the essential oils and add to bottles of white wine vinegar. Seal the bottles and store in a cool dry place.
To make flavoured oils safely it is best to infuse the flavours into the oil rather than to leave anything in the oil. Garlic and chilli oils are easy to do this way.
Take your peeled garlic cloves or chillies and wash them in sterilising solution. Then pat them dry and thread them onto cocktail sticks or wooden skewers.
Meanwhile heat your oil to 180°C (325°F) and carefully pour it into sterilised jars. Drop the filled sticks into the jar, cover and leave to infuse for a couple of days.
Remove the sticks, seal the jars and store them in the fridge. They are excellent for dressings and stir fries or drizzled over bread.
It is possible to use herbs which you can leave in the bottle but you need to make sure that they are properly dried before you use them.
Oils you see in shops with things actually in them look great but have been prepared using commercial techniques which are far removed from anything you can achieve at home.
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