Published January 2005

Gardening has always been a useful, table filling, and satisfying activity, but when you’re good at it, what do you do with the excess?  A standard tactic in recent years has been to freeze extra produce, and I routinely freeze green beans, cabbage, sweet corn, and similar vegetables along with some fruit.  It works well, at least until some disaster like a major ice storm hits and takes your power out for a week, rendering frozen food useless.  Luckily, there are alternatives to cover your bets and make sure at least some produce survives any winter.

One is canning.  Back in the good old days my mother, with help from my sister and I, canned everything you can imagine.  We picked blackberries and huckleberries by the gallon and canned them, filled innumerable jars of tomatoes, green beans, even kale and dandelion greens which were treasured in late winter when little greenery could be found.

Since canned goods should be kept in a cool, dark place, most of ours ended  up at my grandmothers house who had a fruit cellar cut into the side of a hill and extending well back into the ground.  It was always cool there, even on the hottest days, and I can remember well occasional expeditions that started with opening a heavy wooden door and ended with gathering up a couple of jars of whatever was needed.  Or a few dozen potatoes from various bushel baskets.  I remember too, checking very carefully to make sure no copperheads had taken up a cool, comfortable residence among the jars on very hot days.

We did some drying too, since dried foods are light, durable, tasty when re-hydrated, and take up little space.  Many a young cowboy has feasted mightily on dried apple pie on long trail drives, and I remember well the rich, almost nutty taste of dried leather britches.  We made these by the simple expedient of stringing green beans on heavy thread with a needle and hanging the strings in the attic each summer. 

By winter they’d dried almost brittle, and it was a treat to remove a few strings, add onions and ham, and boil the lot to tenderness.  Even today, I often do the same to habana or jalapeno peppers, and hang the clusters in my kitchen, bright red and picturesque, until needed.

Some people get into drying in a serious manner, drying everything from apples and pears to tomatoes and bananas, or making fruit leather for sweet, fairly low calory snacks.  And there are lots of ways to do it.  The absolute best way to dry anything, even meat into jerky, is to buy a big, high powered dehydrator, at least if you’re going into the activity full bore.  Such as an American Harvester will cost around $170, and can dry up to 30 trays at once. 

You can buy much smaller, simpler, and less costly dehydrators too, or even use the sun or your oven to do the job at no extra cost at all.  Herbs from your garden, for example, whether they be chives, oregano, basil or whatever, can be air dried in two or three days, especially if you pick sunny, low humidity days.  You’ll want to stir them occasionally until very dry, then store in small, air tight bags.

Those same herbs can be oven dried, as can various fruits and vegetable slices, in just a few hours sometimes, depending on water content and size of pieces.  You should keep the oven at 140 – 160 degrees, and leave the oven door open slightly so moisture can escape.  Rotate the trays and stir each half hour for even drying, and consider them done when those banana chips break, rather than bend.  Then again, keep them in small containers and store in a cool, dry dark place until used.

There’s no satisfaction whatever in buying expensive dried tomatoes, apple chips, or other offerings, but lots in making and using your own.  You’ll make mistakes at first, and ruin some produce or have it mold from inadequate drying.  But once you’ve the science down pat, ice storms will be no real problem.  You’ll still have at least something to be used after the disaster.

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