August 28, 2014

Preserve precious produce

Originally published in the Portland Phoenix on August 14, 2014

Hunt & Alpine Club's pickled pantry
In his preserving cookbook Saving the Season, University of California Master Food Preserver Kevin West writes, “nature’s bounty is abundant, but fleeting,” and encourages preserving as a means of capturing edible nostalgia in a jar. That’s all well and good in California, where a bygone season just means a different bounty at the year-round farmers’ market. But in Maine, the end of the growing season means we’re staring down the decidedly unsexy barrel of local produce like potatoes, carrots, and beets from storage. That is, unless you add one more thing to your already-full summertime agenda: preserving.

Entrepreneurial hipsters have driven the cost of a quart of pickles up to the $10 mark, so making your own is not only economical, but immensely satisfying. You can preserve your vegetable pickles in jars by canning them (visit UMaine Extension’s website for recipes, instructions, hands-on classes, and videos at or you can skip the food safety concerns and make quick refrigerator pickles. At Salvage BBQ, Jay Villani douses thinly sliced cucumbers and onions in a sweet “bread and butter” brine flavored with mustard seed, turmeric, celery seed, salt, and plenty of sugar. The sweet yet tart pickles balance out the fatty smoked meats and the spicy barbecue sauce.

Portland Hunt & Alpine Club’s chef Ricky Penatzer pickles any produce he can get his hands on, sourcing sunchokes, blueberries, beets, green strawberries, and cabbage (just to name a few) from Dandelion Springs Farm, Alewive’s Brook Farm, and FarmFresh Connection. Penatzer serves his pickled concoctions on the various “børds” at the Scandinavian-themed craft cocktail bar, using the pickles’ texture and bright flavors to offset the richness of the cheese plates, deviled eggs, and smoked trout with brown butter mayo.

At Piccolo, Damian Sansonetti pickles zucchini, onions, and fennel slices in vinegar, then covers the vegetables with a layer of olive oil. He serves the zucchine sott’olio alongside salumi and says the pickles have a silky, “confit” texture. Sansonetti aims to preserve fruit jams and sauces with his wife, Chef Ilma Lopez, for later use in her intricate desserts.

While wild Maine blueberries and apples are available nearly year round, local strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and peaches are precious commodities. While all of these can be preserved in jars in jams and jellies, freezing whole berries or fruit slices offers a more versatile product. Would-be preservers may balk at the prices per quart at the farmers’ market, so seek out “Pick Your Own” operations. An afternoon spent at Snell’s Family Farm in Buxton or Fairwinds Farm in Topsham can yield pounds of raspberries and blueberries at a fraction of the cost.

Standard Baking Co.’s bakers freeze blackberries and raspberries in the summer to use in buckles (baked fruit with a cake topping) and buckwheat scones. Abby Huckel at Local Sprouts Cooperative freezes fruit sauces and cut fruit for the café’s bakery. The fruit is baked into muffins, pies, and scones, while the catering crew makes berry frostings and filling for wedding cakes. Huckel even freezes vegetables at the café, using previously frozen snap peas, corn, and peppers in their vegetable mix, served alongside scrambled eggs, home fries, or in a stir fry. Huckel says that by late winter, the vegetable mix is fairly cabbage-heavy, so “anything that can break up the cabbage is welcome.”

Between two seasons of light and dark, bounty and scarcity, create a little time to master simple preserving techniques to brighten your plate, whether it’s pickled or sweet. Should you posses the know-how to preserve, but not the equipment, such as canning pots, dehydrators, jar lifters, and funnels, support the fledgling Portland Tool Library. The organizers aim to create a lending library of home and garden tools, including preserving supplies. Donations to their startup fund can be made at