Foods like peas, peaches and corn are great additions to healthy winter dishes, but it’s easy to miss your window to “put up” those items, as we say in the South.
Here are some easy ways to get produce into the pantry or freezer to preserve peak freshness.
If you keep it well watered through hot summer days, basil will grow in Tennessee through October or the first freeze.
Beets are often thought of as a winter food, but they’re actually at their peak in Tennessee in June, and then again from September to November. Pickled beets are popular, but if you’re not proficient at canning, freeze them — just make sure you cook them all the way through first.
Put them up: Boil or roast whole beets, then cool, peel and chop them. Spread them on a paper towel or parchment paper on a small sheet pan. Freeze them for several hours (preferably overnight) and then pack them in a freezer bag for long-term storage.
2-step freezing: Spreading fruits and vegetables out on a sheet pan ensures they will freeze uniformly and retain their structure when you bag and freeze them.
Blackberries and raspberries are good from July through October. Before preserving berries, some people core them using a drinking straw, though that’s only necessary for really big ones.
Put them up: The 2-step freeze works great, but jam is probably the tastiest way to put berries up for winter. If you don’t have canning equipment on hand, make jam and freeze it until you’re ready to use it. It will stay good for several weeks in the fridge once thawed.
People rarely preserve melon, but if it’s done properly, you can enjoy their fresh, sweet taste year-round.
Put them up: Freeze fresh cantaloupe on its own or pack it with sugar for added sweetness; just make sure you leave a little extra room in the bag for expansion when the water freezes. Cantaloupe juice is also easily made with a juicer or food processor and is a refreshing drink or smoothie ingredient.
Peaking late from August through October, cucumbers can be preserved in lots of ways.
Put them up: Cucumbers are ideal for making “refrigerator pickles,” the kind you don’t have to jar hot or need any equipment to make. They’ll keep in the fridge for up to a month. You can also 2-step freeze them, juice or dry them, or turn them into relish or salsa.
In Tennessee, corn is best if frozen in July and August when it’s at its sweetest.
Put it up: Cut the corn off the cob, put it in a quart bag and squeeze out all the air before freezing. You can blanch or cook it first, but the freshness you get from raw corn is a nice change in winter. Be sure to freeze the cobs separately, too — corn stock is a fresh, amazing way to flavor soups, sauces or grits.
Garlic is usually at the grocery store year-round, but if you get the local stuff, it’s best in July and August.
Put it up: Freeze whole, peeled cloves in a plastic bag or container. You can also blend fresh garlic in a food processor with oil and freeze that. The oil will keep it from freezing solid, which means you can scoop out a spoonful whenever you need it.
The okra window is short: late July through early October.
Put it up: Okra freezes best if it’s been blanched first, then cooled. If you’re going to use it for gumbos, cut it up before you freeze it. If you’re going to fry it, dredge the blanched and cooled pieces in your mix so it will be ready to cook right out of the freezer.
June to mid-September is the sweet spot for peaches, and they peak in the middle of that window in early August.
Put them up: If you use the cold pack method, you’ll be able to can peaches without needing all the equipment (though it does still take some effort). To freeze peaches, try the blanch-chill-peel method so you can peel them before you complete the 2-step freeze.
Peas & beans
English, lady, black-eyed, crowder — Tennessee gets lots of fresh peas from July through September, as well as pea-like beans such as lima.
Put them up: Freeze them! Peas and loose beans are the best-freezing produce of all time. They hold their shape, are a snap to defrost and add protein and fiber to any meal. You can add them to soups straight from the freezer to make a hardier meal.
Hot peppers are at their best from July through October.
Put them up: Cut peppers in half lengthwise and remove the seeds and stem. Freeze them in a thick plastic bag, and don’t thaw them when you go to use them — they’re easier to cut while still hard. Frozen peppers will lose some of their crunch, but if you’re chopping them for stews, sauces or stir frys, they will work just fine. You can also dry them with a fun fishing-line method that doubles as festive decor.
Squash & zucchini
Summer squash and zucchini are best from June through October.
Put them up: Because squash is high in water content, it’s best to make your end product and freeze that. Think zucchini bread or squash casserole. If you’ve gotten into squash or zucchini noodles, you can go ahead and spiralize your squash and freeze that so all you need to do is cook them for 2 minutes straight from the freezer and add sauce.
Tomatoes are best during the hottest months, though they’re technically in season from mid-June through mid-September.
Put them up: Can them if you have the equipment, or make a simple tomato sauce and freeze that. You can make sauce with any kind of tomato — cherry, grape, plum or full-sized — and it’s a great way to preserve tomatoes that have gotten too soft to eat raw but are still packed with flavor. If you come across any green tomatoes, pickle them.
Watermelon is at its sweetest from July through September.
Put it up: Juicing is the best way to get all the fresh flavor from watermelon. It freezes well and it’s a beautiful, bright pinkish-red color. Use it to make drinks or smoothies, or drink it straight — watermelon juice is 92% water, so it’s low in sugar and full of vitamins and antioxidants.
For ideas on how to cook with all your produce — fresh or frozen — click here.