Tina Weikert: Plan ahead now for garden-fresh meals next winter

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In the summer, dinnertime is regularly blissful. We saunter out to our garden, find a perfectly ripe tomato, cut some greens, a sprig of basil, and happily trot into the kitchen. A meal of caprese salad and garden greens is ready in minutes with the addition of farmer's market mozzarella and bread. 

Wintertime meals need a little more planning, and usually a little more inspiration to get something to the table. For me, motivation is still found in my garden when planning a cold-weather dinner. I simply harvest it from the pantry or freezer, rather than from the yard. What follows are five steps I use to ensure that even beyond the outdoor growing season, I have garden produce on my plate.

- Choose the correct type of seeds and starter plants for your needs. Seed catalogs are beginning to arrive in our mailboxes. Now is a great time to think about what produce you yearn for in the middle of next winter! My family loves potatoes, so I'm ordering and planting enough to feed us through the summer and into winter. Cilantro and basil are also on my list of garden herbs.

- Decide how to preserve your produce. The height of the gardening season feels so far away right now. Still, an important question to ask yourself as you're planning your garden is how will you preserve your produce at harvest. I received "Pickled Pantry" by Andrea Chesman as a gift a few years ago and found it to be an excellent pickling resource. I especially like the chapter on single-jar pickling, because I'm more likely to pickle when the process won't take all day, and when I only need to deal with a small amount of produce. I don't have a cold cellar, but I do have a cool, dark area in my basement, which is where I store my potatoes and onions.

The easiest method I have found for freezer preserving is with zip-close plastic bags. I wash and slice raw peppers, then add them directly to the bag, squeezing out the air as I seal it. The same goes for kale, and blueberries, strawberries, and raspberries. It's recommended to freeze them on a tray first so that they do not stick together in the bag, but honestly, I tend to skip that step because I've found that a firm tap on the frozen bag usually loosens everything up. Admittedly, I'm not a fan of plastic, but it has ended up being the most reliable method and a reusable resource.

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My freezer is also lined with quart size bags of blanched carrots and green beans from the garden, and all my favorite herbs. I harvest them in the summer, rinse with water, pick off the fragrant leaves, and lay them on a towel to dry before placing them into a bag.

- Label everything. Label the bags before you place them in the freezer, and I suggest making a freezer inventory list to stick on the fridge so that you know what you have on hand.

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- Use it up throughout the winter months. If I'm serving peppers and broiled sausage, all I need do is open a bag of frozen pepper slices, heap the sausage links on top, season and send to the oven. It's quick to begin with a cup of frozen blueberries and end with a berry cobbler. The bags of frozen, precut vegetables lining my freezer make serving a vegetable side for dinner fast and economical.

- Put that kitchen equipment to good use. Most of us have nifty kitchen equipment and gadgets, but we don't always use them efficiently. Maybe you received an Instant pot over the holidays but haven't had the moxie to use it. Is there a crockpot buried deep in that cabinet above your refrigerator? My crockpot was hiding too, until the book "Make It Fast, Cook It Slow" by Stephanie O'Dea changed my perspective. My copy is dogeared, and sauce splattered from the number of times I've used its recipes to swiftly pull together a crockpot dinner-usually with some garden produce included in the pot.

I also have a pressure cooker that intimidated me far too long. Last year I made it my mission to learn how to use the thing. I began by purchasing a well-regarded cookbook on the subject, "Cooking Under Pressure" by Lorna J. Sass. Then I called up my husband's Gram, who was the original owner of the pressure cooker I had. I asked her for tips; she said, "Make a stew! It makes a good stew!" and that's as far as I got with her because she is a member of that group of stellar grandmother cooks who:

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A) don't write down their recipes.

B) believe that no recipe is too hard to make, from Jell-O to beef Wellington.

C) follow up a week later to ask their granddaughter how the stew was because they also believe that anyone can cook what they cook.

In this case, she was right! I used the stew recipe from "Cooking Under Pressure," and it was not only delicious, but swift to make since pressure cookers can save lots of time in the kitchen. It was the initiation I needed to fully embrace the magic of cooking fast and flavorful with a pressure cooker and a freezer full of garden produce.

Tina Weikert contributes to Southern Vermont Landscapes from Bondville.


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