Fall harvest is the reward of a summer’s work in the garden. But what do you do with all this beautiful bounty? Pickling, canning, and freezing seem labour intensive but are worth the effort. On a cold wintery day in February, the taste of carefully preserved fruits and veggies will please the palate, and warm the heart.
For Tracey Wilmot of Ponds Country Kitchen and Gardens in Merigomish, preserving begins as soon as Mother Nature begins providing treasures. Along with her niece, Lynn Christie, who lives next door, they began taking their bottled delights to the local market in 2018.
Customers enjoy traditional favourites like strawberry jam, bread and butter pickles, and apple jelly. Wilmot provides these and strives to come up with things that are a little bit different.
After some research, Wilmot discovered dandelion jelly. She set to work making her first batch. “The petals have a lemon flavour,” she says. “You have to pluck the petals and be careful not to get any of the green as that’s bitter.” After three long hours one evening separating the tiny yellow pieces from the rest of the flower, Wilmot declared, “We’re not doing that again.” The petals are infused into a tea-like liquid and later made into jelly. “Once we tasted the jelly, we both said ‘Wow!’ and immediately went out the next day to pick more,” says Wilmot.
Lilac syrup is made in a similar fashion, plucking the tiny florets from the stems, infusing them, and then creating the syrup. It’s used on salads, in flavoured lemonades and cocktails, or baked goods, lending fragrant floral tones to a dish.
Pickled spruce tips are another delightful surprise. These tiny light green bits appear at the end of the branches each spring. They are tender and citrusy. “They can be used like capers or olives, great on a cheese board, and I’ve used mine in a frittata,” Wilmot says. “They’re great in gin and tonic,” she adds.
Cowboy candy (candied jalapeños), mustard pickles, and million-dollar relish are always popular. “We also try to add other things like brown sugar beans, sugar-and-spice beans.” Using 14 varieties of tomatoes planted this year they will be making salsas, chutneys, and sauces.
Mark Gabrieau, chef/owner of Gabrieau’s Bistro in Antigonish, strives to keep locally sourced ingredients on his menu. He grows many items himself and buys from several farms in the area. Pickling is a great way to extend the life of vegetables. “We pickle asparagus and zucchini. You pour the hot vinegar, sugar, herb mixture over them and seal them,” says Gabrieau. Don’t steam them afterward, or they will become too soft. The heat of the brine is enough to cook them and maintain a little crunch. “The zucchini comes out wonderful,” says Gabrieau.
“Another thing we have had a lot of luck with and is totally different, is pickling chanterelle mushrooms,” says Gabrieau. These earthy delights can also be partially dried and frozen or completely dried and ground into “autumn dust.” This is a powder that can be added to breadcrumbs and other herbs for a crust on fish or added to steak spice to give a hint of mushroom flavour without being overwhelming.
“We also make a lot of chow,” says Gabrieau. “We use it with our homemade crab cakes. We probably harvest more than 200 pounds of green tomatoes.” They also make pastes from herbs such as basil and cilantro which freeze well, keeping them available all year.
Plant-based riches are not the only bounty from the farm worth storing. Mike and Tricia Ward from Crossroads Valley Farm in Antigonish supply fresh-frozen, pasture-raised poultry and forest-raised pork to their customers. They also grow a huge garden to provide healthy food for their family. Proper storage is essential. “[Tricia] cooks almost everything from scratch and the ingredients are mostly from our farm or the Farmer’s Market,” explains Ward. “We have two large chest freezers for our meats, veggies, and fruits. Plus, we have cold storage for our potatoes, carrots, onions, beets, parsnips, and garlic.”
Likewise, Jason McCrimmon and Tarsila Stoeckicht of Way to Grow! Gardens in Ardness depend on hearty vegetables. “We grow lots of storage crops that keep through the winter. We store these in our cold storage room, and we put a small heater in there once the temperature drops to keep it just above freezing. We also grow quite late into the season in the field and in the greenhouse by protecting the plants with row cover,” explains Tarsila.
Sharing garden space with neighbours can extend the variety of fruits and vegetables you harvest. Potatoes from one garden can be traded for zucchini from another. Foraging can also lead to great finds. Blackberries, fiddleheads, mushrooms, and spruce tips are among them. Once discovered or grown, choosing a method to preserve your crop comes next. Don’t be afraid to try new things. “We experiment a little bit,” says Wilmot. “And we have fun with it.”
Twenty-one ways to savour the flavour long after harvest
10 Cold storage
18 Sugar packed
19 Herbed butters
21 Seeds for next year