How to easily enjoy your garden produce all year

For a couple years I would tell myself that I was going to take a day and dedicate it only to preserving my foods. Then that day would come and go and it would go to waste. That is, however, until I got real about using the methods that work best for me.

Did you know that you can still preserve all of that garden goodness without fancy equipment? Admittedly, my husband cans pickles and I have a dehydrator, but that is all I have ever attempted to tackle.

With 4 kids and 2 jobs, I often run out of time and patience to set up special equipment, and I shy away from jobs that require a lot of hands-on time. To work within my preferences, I do most of my preserving with my freezer and a little help from my oven and microwave.

More often than not, the extra produce I find in my kitchen are piles of leftover herbs. There are times that I have purchased a bundle of fresh herbs for a recipe that only requires a tablespoon or two, leaving me stuck with either having to find another recipe using the same herb or throwing the leftovers out.

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That is, however, until I discovered that I could dehydrate fresh herbs in the microwave. That’s right: I said the microwave! I do have a dehydrator, but for small quantities of things, the chances of me digging it out of the cupboard are nil. Plus, in the microwave, I can have my fresh herbs dehydrated in a minute or two.

How to use your microwave to dehydrate fresh herbs

  1. Lay the herbs on a microwave safe plate between 2 paper towels. (you can chop ahead of time or leave as whole leaves)

  2. Microwave for 1 minute. Check for doneness to see if the herbs crackle/crunch.

  3. If they are not fully dry and “crunchy” yet, cook for an additional 30 seconds.

  4. Once fully dried, store in a sealed container or a resealable plastic bag until ready to use.

Another item that I find myself trying to save is tomatoes. The recipe that I use has long been a recipe for an almost effortless side dish to pair with fish or grilled steaks and chicken but is now also my go-to recipe for preserving tomatoes before the frost hits (or when I have had the package on the counter for a week too long). I prefer to roast them in the oven with garlic and olive oil, but, of course, you can omit the garlic if you like. Because most recipes that I use tomatoes in also include garlic, I figured I am just saving myself a step later on. The cooking times vary depending on the sizes and moisture content of your tomatoes, so keep an eye on them during the final hour of roasting. If you are using a smaller pan, the times could be greatly reduced.

To store the tomatoes, I let them cook and then divide them into quart freezer bags. Once I have added 2-3 cups of tomatoes to the bags, I lay them flat in the freezer so that once they are frozen, I can stack them and they won’t take up too much space in the freezer. Plus, it really makes the tomatoes easier to find!

To use the tomatoes, I add them into jarred pasta sauces or use them in my own completely homemade sauce. I also use them for quick Eggs in Purgatory or Shakshuka.

Roast tomatoes with garlic, olive oil and salt and pepper. Jessica Rerick / On the Minds of Moms

Roast tomatoes with garlic, olive oil and salt and pepper. Jessica Rerick / On the Minds of Moms

Ingredients:

Tomatoes

Peeled garlic cloves

Olive oil

Salt

Pepper

Directions:

Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Load your pan with tomatoes and fresh cloves of garlic. With large tomatoes, I give them a very large rough chop. I leave grape tomatoes whole. Fill the pan about half way up the sides. For a lasagna-size pan, add about 12-15 cloves of garlic and for smaller pans, use about 4-6 cloves. Use as much or as little as you like. Add a couple tablespoons of olive oil and season lightly with salt and pepper. When it comes to the salt and pepper, remember that you can always add more in the recipes you make later. Stir the tomatoes and garlic to make sure that they are all coated in the oil and place the pan in the oven for 1 hour.

Remove the pan from the oven and stir the tomatoes. Smash them a little with the back of a spoon or a potato masher. Place the pan back in the oven for an additional hour or until the tomato juices have started to thicken and have reduced by at least half.

Remove the pan from the oven and let cool. Store the mixture in resealable freezer bags. They can be stored in the freezer for up to one year.

Basil and Roasted Pine Nut Pesto can be thawed for a quick appetizer for dressing for pasta. Jessica Rerick / On the Minds of Moms

Basil and Roasted Pine Nut Pesto can be thawed for a quick appetizer for dressing for pasta. Jessica Rerick / On the Minds of Moms

My third way of preserving items is to turn my fresh herbs into pesto and to freeze it. For years I have read about mincing herbs and covering them with olive oil in ice cube trays, but I never did it. It just didn’t work with my style of cooking, and I didn’t like not knowing the amount of olive oil that I would end up having to put into my recipes. Then I discovered that I could freeze pesto. I much prefer this method, because to me, it’s the most “ready to use” way to store it. Anything to save time during meal prep later on down the road is definitely high on my list!

Realizing that I could freeze pesto was a real kitchen game changer for me. It doesn’t get much better than pulling out fresh pesto on the fly in the middle of winter to add to a flat bread for a quick appetizer or to make a seemingly indulgent pasta dish in only the amount of time required to cook your pasta.

After I finish making my pesto, I store it in freezer bags laid flat so that they can easily stack. Because the olive oil won’t freeze solid and as long as the amount in the bag doesn’t make it “too thick”, you will be able to break frozen chunks of your fresh pesto off year round. If a piece won’t break off for you, go ahead and scoop/dig it out with a spoon.

This is the recipe for my Large Batch Pesto, but feel free to cut the amounts in half to suit the amount of basil that you have on hand. There are also many other herbs that you can make pesto out of, so get creative!

Ingredients:

8 cloves of fresh garlic, peeled

8 cups packed basil leaves, whole

1 cup shredded parmesan cheese

¾ cup toasted pine nuts

¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

½ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon cracked black pepper

1 cup olive oil

Directions:

Place garlic, basil, cheese, pine nuts, red pepper, salt, and black pepper into your food processor. Pulse 15-20 times until well chopped and everything is even in size, brushing down the sides of the food processor every couple pulses as needed. With the food processor running on high, slowly pour in the olive oil. Turn off the processor and scrape the sides to make sure everything is even in texture. Pulse again a few more times if required. Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 days or freeze in quart bags, muffin tins, or ice cube trays to use later.

Once the corn is cooked, it's ready to be packaged. Jessica Rerick / On the Minds of Moms

Once the corn is cooked, it’s ready to be packaged. Jessica Rerick / On the Minds of Moms

My last method of preservation is again with the freezer, but this is how my family has saved sweet corn since I was a little girl. I grew up on a farm and we always grew sweet corn. At harvest time, I can remember husking what felt like a million ears of corn for my grandma and my mom so that they could freeze it for later in the winter. You can use a corn cob “zipper” to remove the kernels from the cob when they are raw, or you can use a chef’s knife. Either way, make sure you get in close to the cob. That’s where the “milk” of the corn is located and that part is key to the best frozen corn you can make! Note, you will also have to make mental peace with the fact that loose kernels of corn are going to fly all over the kitchen. Don’t worry about it during the process, it will all wipe up later!

To store the corn, I use the same lay flat freezer method that I used for the tomatoes and pesto. That way I can make sense of what’s in my freezer!

Freezer Corn “Off” The Cob (makes 2-3 quart bags)

Ingredients:

Corn kernels from 12 ears of corn

1 cup water

3 tablespoons butter

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon sugar

Directions:

Place corn kernels, water, butter, salt, and sugar into a large saute pan. Turn heat to medium high and bring the water to a boil, stirring the corn occasionally. Once the water boils, keep stirring the corn and let it cook for 5 minutes. Remove the corn from the heat and let cool. Store in quart freezer bags. Lay flat on a sheet tray and place in the freezer. Once frozen solid, stack together and store for up to one year.

Note: For my family of six, I add 2-3 cups of corn to each freezer bag.

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