Flash in the Pan: Notes from the stash master
Vail CO, Colorado
In summertime, eating local is easy. Even if the fish aren’t jumping, your garden sucks, and you don’t have time for berry picking, it’s easy to eat local these days because the ingredients are being packaged, marketed and celebrated as the local foods they are. Restaurants are going local on their specials boards, friends are doing it at pot-lucks and farmers markets have become so shmoozey that some folks just show up for the party and eat something local because it’s there.
The increasing hipness of local food is encouraging. But there’s a difference between socialites, passive consumers and other lightweights who dabble their toes when the water’s warm, and those to whom eating local is a lifestyle choice, not a menu choice. The distinction between locavores and trendivores lies in what they eat during winter.
While the prospect of eating local in the offseason may seem daunting, it can be as simple as buying a sack of potatoes at the farmers market to store in your garage. Maybe next year you’ll dig a root cellar. Meanwhile, there are two simple baby steps you can take toward turning your home into a domestic food storage unit: Acquire a stash, and stash it.
How and what you stash depends on local conditions and your resources. It requires the flexibility to roll with the tides of availability, and boils down to developing a stash hunting frame of mind that’s ready to go at a moment’s notice. I’ve got a neighbor who catches more fish than he can eat, and I’ve trained him to bring fish home. But when he does, I have to drop what I’m doing and dive arm-deep into fish guts. Such moments are the stash hunter’s burden and joy.
With fresh fish it’s easy to jump at the urgency of getting them cleaned and frozen ASAP, but with many vegetables the same rule holds true: the fresher it is when you process it, the fresher it will be when you eat it.
When it comes to stash hunting, farmer friends are key”or at least farmer acquaintances, which can be upgraded. Perhaps the folks you’ve been buying basil from all summer at farmers market are candidates.
At a certain point, those basil plants will begin to flower so vigorously that most farmers will stop harvesting them, as the stalks no longer bunch nicely. You, meanwhile, want pesto all winter, and offer to come over and clean out the basil patch for a good price. If it’s a go, this adventure may lead to other opportunities. Perhaps you can glean the side shoots of their cauliflower or broccoli plants, which usually get left behind after the main heads are harvested. The side shoots are smaller, but store fabulously frozen (after getting blanched for two minutes in boiling water, plunged into an ice bath, drained and bagged).
Your afternoon picking adventure might turn into iced tea on the porch, or even dinner. Or not. Maybe the farmer doesn’t want visitors but will offer to bring you a box of flowering basil or side shoots next week for a good price. This would be a baby step for your friendship, and a giant leap for your stash.
I don’t make pesto, exactly, I make pistou, a simpler version that leaves more options on the table for when I use it (I can add parmesan cheese and pine nuts later, if pesto is what I want). For pistou, start with chopped garlic and olive oil in the food processor. With the blades going, add basil leaves as quickly as possible. It will thicken into a liquid paste that pulls itself through the blades in a smooth green vortex. Don’t skimp on oil or it will turn brown; you can also give a squirt of lime for extra bright green. Before it thickens to the point where it won’t pull smoothly through the blades, whizz in salt to taste, and freeze your pistou in quart bags.
Toward the end of market is when the best deals are, and the hardcores have their favorite methods for preserving whatever remains unsold, and is thus on sale. Score a deal on tomatoes? Go for salsa, or oven-roasted tomato sauce. Got peppers? The small, fleshy ones are great pickled, alone or in combination with cauliflower and/or carrots.
For most pickles, I use a brine that’s half water, a quarter cider vinegar, and a quarter white wine vinegar. As the brine heats, add enough sugar to take the edge off the vinegar, but not enough to sweeten it. To each empty jar add a tablespoon of mustard seeds and a teaspoon of salt. Pack the jars with veggies, pour in the simmering brine, and either hot pack or process in a water-bath. (Note: If you’re new at pickling, you should consult a reference like http://www.howtopickle.com for step-by-step instructions.)
With some farmers I’ll do a pickle-swap, trading their end-of-market surplus for a share in a batch of pickles I make with the produce they gave me. You can make friends real quick with a jar of pickles, and most anything, from kohlrabi to watermelon rind, can be pickled.
Pickling has one of the steeper learning curves among preservation methods, and requires material investments like a large kettle, tongs, a funnel, and the jars, rings and lids. But the jars and the gear are re-usable, and no freezer is necessary, so the investment quickly pays for itself.
In addition to chutneys, sauces, jams, and pickles, a balanced stash includes minimally processed components as well, either frozen or in simple cold storage. Carrots, onions, garlic, potatoes, beets, winter squash, and many other veggies can last for months with the temperature somewhere between cold and freezing. So before you dig a root cellar, investigate your house for possible stash-spots like crawlspaces, unheated basement spots, or the garage.
Even if the local portion of your winter diet consists only of a sack of potatoes from the farmers market stashed in a corner of your garage, it’s good to stash something. And after a winter spent wishing you’d stashed more, next summer you probably will.
Ari LeVaux writes a weekly food column for the Vail Daily. E-mail comments about this column to email@example.com.