By Monica Marcu

A (very) short guide on how to enrich your diet, preserve vital nutrients and nourish your body during the harsh wintertime with delicious and wholesome meals

Historically humans have employed numerous methods to preserve plants and meat: drying, canning, curing, fermenting, pickling but also the less known potting and burial (the root cellar, a great way to preserve root and hardy vegetables, is a form of burial). Modern times have brought us convenient methods such as freezing that preserve the food for a limited time. Plenty of choices but it is not easy to select the best methods to preserve and enhance absorption of the many nutrients, especially those derived from plants.

The richest and safest arsenal of anti-aging, anticancer and anti-inflammatory substances is provided by fruits, vegetables, seeds, roots and other parts of plants. Numerous chronic diseases stem from lack of nutrients in our diets due to agricultural soil deprived of minerals (resulting in crops containing much less minerals and vitamins than 20-30 years ago), overcooking or over-processing of our food, or just simply poor diet habits. Even poor eye-sight, which is more and more common nowadays, is linked with a lack of certain vital nutrients, while old-age blindness (macular degeneration, a disease of the retina) can also be delayed or inhibited by natural compounds from plants.

It is important to consume plants every day since they contain numerous disease-fighting substances. Thus, the goal of a successful harvest preservation is not only to provide off-season meals, but also to sustain health. Some of the most important nutrients necessary for the body to function well, fight disease and premature aging are heat or light sensitive, for instance many vitamins (C, B1) and specific antioxidants from plants. Try to freeze or bury part of your harvest whenever possible instead of boiling or canning it. Most of the time canning and boiling destroy many vitamins or make the absorption of minerals such as sulphur more difficult. Protect canned food from direct sunlight and keep it cool!

Let’s review a few more common methods and best ingredients to use.

Freezing is surely easy and fast and appropriate for most crops. Dark leafy greens (parsley), beans, corn, carrots, berries, cauliflower, peppers, spinach are suitable for freezing. You know the basics: only use crop in excellent condition, blanch for 3-5 minutes, then fast cool and pack into bags or jars (if possible with a vacuum sealer). If you are concerned about chemicals leaching from plastics into the food you can use glass containers.

Frozen whole tomatoes are convenient but they can take too much space in the freezer. An alternative method is to stew them gently (chopped or cut in half) in their own juice for about 10 minutes. Cool off, separate the juice (which can be separately frozen) and freeze the tomato pieces. We can also include other veggies and stew them together in the tomatoes juice.

Interestingly, by cooking we enhance the absorption in the body of lycopene –the red pigment in tomatoes. This is a powerful substance proven to prevent certain cancers and chronic diseases.
I always try to preserve raw if possible. I found that by chopping raw parsley or other herbs, then mixing in alternative layers with sea salt in a jar is a great way to preserve the flavorful taste. I still store the jar in the freezer and then add the herbs at the very end of cooking, instead of plain salt.

Canning is the best known method of food preservation at home, and it involves processing by water bath (for high-sugar jams, jellies, tomatoes, pickles) or pressure canner. The latest is a must for non-acid foods such as vegetables, potatoes, fish and meats in order to avoid dangerous bacterial presence.

Pickling uses an anti-microbial brew made of water, vinegar, salt, alcohol and natural preserving substances from herbs and spices. Pickling is also a form of fermentation for kimchi and sauerkraut. The lactic-acid type of fermented foods (obtained without vinegar, just by using brine) is healthier but less known in North America. We all love pickles from cucumbers, but my favorite is a complex pickled mixture of cauliflower, red cabbage, carrots, garlic, beets, apples, unripe tomatoes, dill and other herbs. Have you ever tried pickled watermelon?
Well, this is an Eastern European délicatesse.

Best (and some creative) ingredients to use:

SALT- possibly the oldest ingredient in food preservation, is used to brine or dry meats and fish. The best salt to use is definitely not the common table salt (providing only sodium chloride) that can contain anti-caking agents affecting the taste of the food, but rather the natural sea salt, coarse kosher, or Himalayan salt. These contain much needed micronutrients (copper, selenium, etc) and diverse minerals (magnesium, calcium) not found in the common table salt.

SUGAR – is frequently used with preserving jams and jellies, but I prefer to preserve without added sugar if possible. Try honey one part to one part of raw, crushed fruit; mix well and keep in jars, cold dark places! Sugars can come in many forms but granulated white sugar produces the clearest and hardest-set jams and jellies. On the other hand, white sugar is “empty sugar”, being deprived of all other natural nutrients and minerals found in cane or beets. If you want to be creative use molasses, maple syrup, and brown sugar, these add special flavors to preserves and create softer jams.

Although modern diets and commerce provide most nutrients even in winter, the wise home preserver prefers to control the quality of foods for the family. By mastering of a few simple techniques and striving to cook healthy while preserving beneficial substances, you can enjoy homegrown goodness all year long.