Food Preservation: Nutrition

I have practiced food preservation for years, loving how it helps me eat local food year-round and practice permaculture principle 2: Catch and Store Energy. Writing more about preserving was already my plan before we entered this new coronavirus world of social distancing and grocery store shortages. Now, it seems even more relevant.

Our July 2019 Veggie Garden

I don’t think we are in great danger of running out of food. But, I do think the safety of shorter supply chains and of avoiding stores is appealing, the health benefits from real, nutritious foods can only help us, and that people taking stock of what they truly need and rely on is leading to a new appreciation of food

A Few of my Favorite Seed & Plant Catalogs

growing. Seed sales are booming, CSA memberships are selling out, and garden plots are in demand. It follows that soon, how to use and save what is grown will be the question.

Before looking at specific techniques for preserving in detail, I want to address the issue of possible nutrient loss in preserved foods.

The belief that raw plant foods are ideal is currently popular. I was taught differently. Years ago, driven by my own health problems and by environmental and ethical concerns, I researched human nutrition and experimented with a number of different diets. I can say that vegan, low-fat, and raw veggie diets only further worsened my health. But, along the way, I was lucky to discover some people who helped me learn and make choices that have served me well, especially brilliant Wise Woman Susun Weed, and The Weston A. Price Foundation.

I learned that animal products are generally best raw but not plants. Plants treated in some way to break their tough cell walls makes the nutrients, especially minerals, that they contain much more accessible to their animal consumers (that includes human animals). This is supported by looking back at how our ancestors ate, and at current research.

Plant Cell Walls

Cabbage

The basic idea is that the thick cell walls of plants hold in the nutrition we need.

Our teeth cannot break the cell walls, and our digestive juices are not strong enough to do so either. We didn’t evolve an internal cooking (fermenting) system, like ruminants have, so, if we want to get value out of plant foods external “cooking” methods become necessary.

When I say “cooking” what I am referring to are any ways that break those cell walls. Heat is one way – roasting, baking, grilling, etc. Other options are freezing, drying, lacto-fermenting, and covering in oil or vinegar (think salad dressing). You can actually see this process happen, when a crisp bright piece of kale turns limp and dark in your soup, when the lettuce starts to look weird and slimy sitting in the dressing a long time, when your frozen blueberries warm up and, well, are just not the same as fresh. These are all clues that you can now really benefit from eating these!

Carrots, filled with carotenoids!

Minerals & Vitamins

Minerals are elemental rocks which can have different forms but can’t be destroyed by anything in your kitchen.

Vitamins, especially antioxidants, are often enhanced by cooking. Research has shown this with lycopene, carotenoids and ferulic acid. Vitamin C is a less stable compound so will break down more easily, with heat, exposure to light or time. However, Vitamin C is in a lot of plant foods – not just citrus – and much does remain after cooking.

Cooking In Water

One reason people became worried that cooking meant less nutrition may be because of this fact: if you heat a plant in water, the freed nutrients can leach into the water. If you are a drinker of Nourishing Herbal Infusions you will also understand this, as we rely on the long, hot water treatment of the herbs to move those compounds into the water. Here’s the key – the nutrients haven’t been destroyed but transferred into the liquid. That’s why for herbal infusions we squeeze out the herbs and compost them then drink

Braising Garden Veggies

the liquid only. If you boil veggies and throw out the water – yeah, you’ve wasted a lot. So make sure not to do that! We prefer oven roasting in olive oil, and also braising on the stove top with oil and a little water. Whatever liquid is left we make sure to ingest as well.

What About Enzymes?

Dr. Pottenger’s research did show that the enzymes in raw meat and raw milk aid our digestive process, which is why raw milk is more easily digestible. However, the enzymes in fruits and veggies are mostly destroyed by our own bodies because we don’t need them.

Elderberries in the kitchen

Safety

There are a number of constituents found in plants that are toxic or anti-nutritional to us which cooking deactivate, like oxalic acid in spinach, and cyanide-inducing glycosides in elderberry and phytohaemagglutinin in kidney beans.

Uncooked veggies aren’t useless to us – we get fiber, and some of the vitamins and minerals they contain. But at a time when we are worried about feeding the world and many well fed people have specific deficiencies, it seems we should try to get the most we can from what we eat.

Harvest!

The good news in terms of food preservation is that most of these techniques also offer us more bio-available nutrition. The research shows that some methods of cooking and of preserving keep certain nutrients better than others which is an argument for a diversity of tactics. In my next posts I’ll go over the varied options we have for keeping our harvests year-round.

I do know that there are wildly differing opinions, experiences and even conflicting research results out there.  I’ve shared here my own experience and what I learned from people I trust for you to consider and make your own best choices for yourself!

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2019 On the Homestead

Garden in July

We just finished up our most productive season on our homestead yet, a year that showed how abundant permacultural systems can be. The bounty also kept us very busy with picking, drying, freezing, canning, and root cellaring.

Winter in New England provides a natural space to review, reflect and plan ahead. During the rush of the growing season, it’s a struggle just to keep up with daily chores. I’m grateful for the down-time that lets me practice the first principle of permaculture: Observe and Interact and the fourth principle: Apply Self-Regulation and Accept Feedback. Some of what I note I can’t necessarily plan for – such as how much rain we get – but other information will change what I do – such as I planted too many bush beans for what we need or what my back feels good about.

I’ve begun to think of our years here less as numbers and more by conditions. Like, 2018 was the Year of Rodents & Clouds and 2016 was the Year of Drought. This year, 2019, stands out to me as the Year of Enough Rain, Weird Nectar Flows & Overabundant Veggies.

Last year’s review focused on the gardens. Here I will expand that to include our animals and other projects.

Let me begin again with speaking to problems, starting with the issues I identified in my 2018 Review and how I fixed them or saw them evolve.

Seedlings in April

Starting Seedlings

Having learned from my 2018 reflections on our seedling trouble, I did go back to a commercial blend. I found a company called Organic Mechanics that has peat-free seed starting mixes, so at least I was able to address that ethical issue arising with these mixes. It still came in a plastic bag. It worked well, though, so I got off to a good start with lots of healthy new plants.

Rodents, Pests and Diseases

Fewer Chipmunks Mean More Strawberries!

Rodent pressure was SO much less this year! It’s basic population dynamics – if a group grows beyond it’s ecological limits, it will crash. After 2018’s nearly unbelievable numbers, we had our easiest year yet dealing with chipmunks, squirrels, and voles, our usual competitors. I see this with insect pests and diseases often as well. It’s why I take my time and observe carefully before reacting, especially with any kind of drastic intervention.

We did have a groundhog appear mid-season, hanging out in our lower garden. We failed to figure out how it was getting in and out of the fenced area so we had some damage – it loved my broccoli and cauliflower plants and took bites out of many of our winter squash in that section. Honestly, for a groundhog, it was well-behaved to only make that much of an impact. It just kept me holding my breath for the day I’d go down to devastation! I’ve exhaled mostly by now.

Healthy Cucumber Vines in August

The cucumber disease that I and many others were affected by in 2018 was not a problem this year. In fact, I had way more cucumbers than I felt ready for! Luckily, the chickens and goats are fans of the overgrown ones. The only change I made from previous seasons was to space the vines far from each other around the garden, making it harder for disease to spread. I’m not sure that mattered, though, as so many others reported great yields from their cukes. I think it was a problem that came and went by factors larger than we control.

Pulling Parsnips

Roots

After a few years of germination problems with carrots I seem to have found the right combination for success. First, I planted later. Although carrots, beets and parsnips as “cool season crops” are happy to grow in cool weather, they don’t necessarily germinate well in cold soil. Especially since I am a committed mulcher, seeding carrots in March meant weeks before seeing them, and keeping them consistently moist that long was tough. So, I waited for some warmth and exercised patience, which I really needed given what a cold spring we had. It was May 26 when I finally seeded the root crops. I also put up a shade cloth over the carrots to keep them from drying out as the sun strengthened. It worked! In fact, my carrots came up

Carrots for the Root Cellar

thickly, and it had been years since I had needed to thin, so my first planting had it’s share of weird twisted, multi-legged roots from being crowded. I was on top of thinning the later plantings which gave me gorgeous results and 195# just of carrots to eat and pack in the root cellar.

 

Labor

The one big problem we experienced this year was a labor shortage. This should not have surprised me, as it is a very common problem on farms. When you are putting a lot of work into a product that is comparatively undervalued financially, there are going to be problems, even with the many labor-saving techniques used in permacultural systems. Steve needed to take more off-farm work this summer, leaving me to do more than I expected and than I was really up for. Any real solution to this needs to be addressed at a societal level, but, meanwhile, I am going to have to rethink some of my choices and be more realistic about my time. I am a great solar-powered, renewable resource, but have my energy limits!

Good Soil, Big Plants

Success in the Gardens

At this point we have about one acre out of our 7 in garden beds full of organic matter, built from the countless truckloads of reclaimed resources we have brought in since we moved here in 2008 (seaweed, coffee grounds, manure, hay and wood chips). The majority of the beds are planted in perennials such as rhubarb, asparagus, berries and fruit trees, most still too young to be very productive. Between the young trees, and in our 3,300 square foot sheet mulched main garden, we plant our annual crops.

Peaches!

With the regular rain, low rodent numbers, and the soil we’ve built, it was a great year for growing. The trees are also becoming mature enough to begin to bear and we had our first real harvest of peaches, 219#, juicy and delicious.

Here are the veggie and fruit numbers, hopefully presented in an useful way (feedback on that welcome!):

Alliums – garlic – 165 hds; garlic tops – 161; leeks – 96#

Beans & Peas – 96.75# snap beans; 17.5# dry beans; sugar snap peas – 11.5#

Brassicas – broccoli – 3.75#; brussels sprouts – 12.5#; cauliflower – 3#; kale/collard – 29#

Celery – 1.5 #

Corn, popcorn – 9#

Cucumber – 195.5# (ack!)

Eggplant – 70.25#

Greens – lettuce – 9#; nettles – 3#, beet greens – 1#

Herbs – basil – 6.25#; dill – 1#

Melon – 21.5#

Potatoes – 166.5# (from 22# seed potatoes, a solid 1 to 7.5 ratio)

Roots – beets – 30.25#; carrots – 195.25#; parsnips – 38#; radishes – 82

Squash – summer – 53.75#; winter = 686#

Tomato – 55.75#

Fruit:  beach plums – 1#; crabapples – 12#; currants, clove – 16.75#; currants, red & white – 21.5#; elderberry – 1#; grapes – 12#; honeyberry – 3 ½ cups; jostaberry – 3.25#, nanking cherry 1/4#; peaches – 219#; rhubarb – 15#; strawberry – 20.5#

This bounty kept us eating well and was preserved to last for months to come.

Bees Making Honey in June

Bees

My two hives from 2018 came through the winter strong, ready to take off in the spring. It was a slow start with the chilly weather, but once they had the opportunity they were wonderfully productive. Usually we have a dearth (lack of nectar) in July, but this year that did not happen. Instead, they just kept on filling their combs, to the point that we pulled honey in order to avoid towering hives toppling over, or late season swarms. I also split the overwintered hives to create two more, plus a small nucleus hive. Strangely, though, the fall nectar flow never came. I have no idea why. I gave them back some of the honey frames I’d pulled plus some sugar syrup and hope they were able to build up enough of a population to survive the winter.

We were able to take 165# of honey, so despite the weird season, I consider it a good one.

Goats

Goat Kids: Zan & Jayna

We had another year of healthy, happy goats, including two successful births in the spring. All four kids were sold to other homesteads with natural goatkeeping practices. We helped Gagnons Mountain Homestead start their herd with Luna’s little girl, Jayna, and her whethered brother to keep her company. We love helping others get started, especially folks we resonate with on animal keeping.

I have been milking three animals since the spring, this year’s moms, Cocoa and Luna, and 2018 mom, Lily. We brought in 107 gallons of milk over the course of the year, most of which I turned into yogurt, chevre cheese, and mozzarella.

Young Dominique Chickens

Poultry

All went smoothly with our Dominique chickens. From the incubator and one broody hen we raised 41 chicks, some of which we added to our own flock, some of which we sold, and some of which we harvested to eat. We added to our number of move-able chicken houses and yards to keep the growing birds protected but rotating pasture. It is tricky to make the structures strong enough to withstand predators but light enough to actually move.

Day Old Ducklings

Our Indian Runner duck flock had some turnover this year. We still had our “old grey duck” from the first batch we brought home back in 2012 but she was showing her age. Over the winter she had seemed arthritic, walking stiffly at times. I thought it kinder not to ask her to go through another cold season. We really liked her and her big blue eggs and wanted to keep those genetics in our flock. So, I put her and our drake together by themselves for a week, took her seven eggs, and put them in the incubator. We find duck eggs much harder to hatch successfully so were delighted when six of them hatched out 28 days later! And, in a poignant, bittersweet coincidence, Old Grey curled up in the pasture the following day and peacefully died, probably not – but maybe on some level – knowing that she had

Our Current Duck Flock

completed her basic biological imperative to pass on her genes to a new generation. Four of those ducklings did turn out to be female and are now part of the flock!

At that point, though, our drake became too related to everyone else in the flock to breed from, so we are ordering some spring ducklings from Sand Hill Preservation Center to add new genetics to our operation.

Our poultry harvest came to: 1,683 (140.25 dozen) chicken eggs; 593 (49.4 dozen) duck eggs; chicken meat about 100#; duck meat about 5#.

Other Homestead Projects

Packing Parsnips for the Root Cellar

The root cellar is up and running after about 7 years of intermittent work! This is a free-standing cellar since our house doesn’t have one. Lots of rock moving and masonry was involved, slow and heavy work. We also continued to expand the orchard and garden areas enough that I can order about 10 more trees for spring planting.

Looking Ahead

And now it’s time for me to do an inventory of our seeds and send in my order to Fedco, as well as orders for trees, bees, and ducklings. Now is also the season to find new and interesting ways to cook and bake all the food we have put up from this abundant year, and thus enjoy eating what’s still fresh and completely local. Watch for me to get back to the topic of food preservation in coming posts.

Happy 2020 – it’s a year of auspicious anniversaries including the 100th year of US Women’s Suffrage and the 50th anniversary of Earth Day… we’ll see what it brings for us all, on the homestead and beyond!

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Eating Locally Year Round

At a sustainability gathering I attended this summer, someone asked: “How can we eat locally in New England when our growing season is so short here?”

It’s a good question – in August it’s easy but what about January?

There are also good answers!  The top two being: eat seasonally and preserve the harvest. Both of these were the norm for most of human history and make sense permaculturally. Permaculture principle 2 instructs us to Catch and Store Energy which is exactly what food preservation does. Principle 9 tells us to Use Small and Slow Solutions, such as eating what we have when we have it then turning to home or community-scale food saving.

A July Strawberry

Eat Seasonally

There is no reason we have to eat the same foods every day of the year. In fact, I think it’s boring to do so and can lead to taking things for granted. When a food comes in to season I am more excited for it because I haven’t tasted it for awhile. Salads are for spring and summer. Fresh strawberries in July. Leeks are for fall and winter. By March I am getting tired of roasted potatoes, but when I start digging for them in September my appetite for them has returned. Eating this way also reconnects me to the land and seasons of the place I am rooted with awareness and appreciation.

Preserve the Summer Harvest

Lucky for us, making it through the winter without relying on a vast distribution network was the only option until just recently. People had to develop the skills and technologies to do so or they didn’t survive. We can do these again: drying, canning, freezing, lacto-fermenting and root cellaring. There are also quite a few foods that come to us in a shelf-stable form, such as dry beans. I use all these techniques, finding different foods a good fit for each. Let me touch on each method here…

Drying

Drying Fruit

As soon as the stinging nettles are ready to harvest in the spring, I start drying some for winter use. Most leafy herbs just need a little heat, like a sunny window in the house or car. I put them in paper bags to protect them from the intense light and it just takes a few days. Then I move on to using my electric dehydrator for foods with more  substance.  I find greens such as kale dry well and reconstitute nicely in a soup, stew, or for pan-roasting with other veggies on the stove. I especially love making my own dried fruit: peaches, pears, hardy kiwis, and grapes (raisins) are so yummy!

 

Canned Peaches

Canning Peaches

Canning

I taught myself to can from a Ball Blue booklet back when I had to special order supplies at the hardware store. What a resurgence of interest since then!  I only water bath can so use high acid foods like fruits. This year I put up peaches, blueberries, strawberries, currants, and tried a new pickled beet recipe with vinegar to raise the ph.

Freezing

Freezing Beans

This a newer technology which needs a continuous electricity supply to work, so has vulnerabilities. However, it successfully stores many things that are tricky to do in other ways, such as meat and low-acid veggies which don’t dry well like broccoli and eggplant.

Lacto-fermenting

Lacto-fermenting not only preserves food, but the microbes that take up residence are so good for us. With all the new discoveries about the importance of our microbiome, especially in our digestive tracts, I aim to eat something fermented every day and it has improved my health. Lots of veggies can be prepared this way, cabbage and cucumbers being the most well-known as sauerkraut and pickles, and since we have dairy we also make yogurt and cheeses.

Root Cellaring

Carrots

Burying foods, especially ones that grew in the ground, is an ancient practice. The more modern walk-in root cellars date back a few hundred years. The idea is to take advantage of the cool temperatures, high humidity and darkness underground, like a refrigerator passively powered by the earth. Since we don’t have a basement in our house, we had to dig a big hole and spend a few years doing stonework and other construction. This is the first year we’ll use it. Carrots, beets, parsnips and celery root currently growing in the garden will soon be packed in sand for this trial run!

Long Keepers

Curing Garlic in July

Quite a few foods are happy to stick around a long time with just a little help from us. Grains, beans, nuts and honey are great examples. But quite a few veggies can last longer than you might think. “Curing” certain crops – which essentially means further drying them – helps them last much longer without a fridge or root cellar. Spending a couple of weeks after harvest somewhere dry and warmer than storage temps will give potatoes, garlic, winter squash, and onions a shelf life of many months and better flavor. Sunflower seeds, dried beans and popcorn are currently hanging in our living room near the wood stove as well.

Using these techniques it’s not hard to stretch this year’s bounty through to spring harvests, like people throughout history and around the world do as a matter of course.

In my next few posts, I’ll look deeper in to each of these technologies while I’m finishing up using them for our own local winter eating.

Corn Hung to Dry

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