Serendipity is a wonderful thing. Received this PM earlier today, from alert and hearteningly honest reader Sarah, who lives in the wilds of Cleveland, Ohio.
‘Recently saw the photos of your wife’s garden. It just so happens that I planted peas for the first time this year, and lo and behold, they actually grew! I ended up harvesting a big pot, and then realized that I really don’t know the step by step for preserving these things! Naturally, I though of you, so, what do I do?!’
Well, Sarah, first and foremost, I hope you know how much it thrills us that you thought of us first with such a great question. Secondly, good on ya for asking, and third, your timing couldn’t be better – Monica and our two lovely Granddaughters picked a whoppin’ big bowl full of fresh peas last night – They’ve headed for the park, and I’ve been tasked with pea processing – so let’s get after it!
Freezing really is the best thing to do with fresh peas. You didn’t mention the variety you grew, so first we’ll touch briefly on the three most common versions, shell, snow, and sugar snap. Shell, (also called garden, English, or Sweet), are thin skinned peas with an inedible shell. Snow peas, (also called Chinese pea pods), are smaller peas with a thicker, edible pod. Sugar snaps, (or just plain snap), peas are a cross between the former and the latter, with a very thick, edible pod and relatively large mature peas.
For both snow and snap varieties, while you can and should eat some whole when they’re just picked, it’s best to remove the fibrous strings that run along the seams before you do so.
Regardless of what variety you’ve grown, you’ll want to freeze them. Canning peas is laborious, and frankly, doesn’t yield very good taster or appearance. Shell peas must, of course, be shelled prior to freezing. Snow peas can be frozen whole, as long as they’re blanched first – If you don’t do that process diligently, you’ll end up with nasty, mushy results.
With snap peas, I’ve found that whole peas just don’t freeze very well; they’re really delicate things, which is why their freshness is so fleeting. For my mind, it’s best to eat and cook whole peas at the peak of their freshness, and to shell anything you’re going to freeze. Don’t toss the pods however; sauté them in a stir fry, or better yet, make a pea stock, which makes a phenomenal base for split pea soup. Here’s how.
Snap Pea Stock
10 Cups Water
4-6 Cups empty Snap Pea Pods
1/2 Cup Sweet Onion, rough chopped
1/4 Cup Carrot, rough chopped
2 Tablespoons Celeriac or Celery Leaf
1 teaspoon Lemon Thyme
1/2 teaspoon Sea Salt
1 Bay Leaf
Put everything in a large stockpot over medium high heat.
As soon as the stock begins to simmer, cover and reduce the heat until you’ve got a very slow simmer; cook for 45 minutes.
Pour the stock carefully through a chinoise, or a colander lined with cheese cloth into a clean mixing bowl.
Allow to cool to room temperature.
Transfer to clean glass jars, or a freezer bag. May be frozen for up to 4 months, or refrigerated for 3-4 days prior to use.
To preserve those peas, you’ll need to shell them. As with all production cooking processes, set yourself up an area where you can have everything arranged right at hand. To shell fresh peas, grab one and turn it wide seam side up, with the stem away from you. Grab the stem between thumb and forefinger, and zip it back toward you – that’ll remove the fiber along the seam. Now zip your thumb nail along the seam and viola, your pea will open up like a book. Push the peas out of the pod and into a mixing bowl.
Now it’s time to blanch. There are a lot of questions about blanching, and most, if not all of them are answered here at one of my favorite cooking sites, serious eats. Blanching is a short, high temperature cooking cycle done in boiling water, followed by an immediate plunge into ice water. We blanch for three reasons when – To
destroy enzymes that begin to break produce down once they’ve been harvested, to preserve great color, and to keep them crisp – All very worthwhile pursuits, indeed.
The fine print for blanching is that you want two things without question – First, you need water at a steady boil through the relatively short cooking time, and secondly, you need to plunge what you blanched into ice water immediately after cooking. Those things are non-negotiable for the success of the process.
The old adage about using lots of water to blanch really doesn’t translate all that well to home kitchens – The logic ran that a relatively large volume of water won’t lose temperature as drastically when food is introduced. That’s true for commercial stoves, but not so much for home cooks – If you’re blanching in small batches at home, a pot with one quart, (4 cups), of water will actually recover a boil far faster than larger volumes.
Second issue is salting. The sages say ‘salt heavily’, and to some degree, that’s true. You want water about as salty as the ocean, or about 3%. The wonderful website Pickl-It has a super handy brine calculator that’ll let you dial that right in, (and its 1 ounce of salt for 1 quart of water). Now, this requires weighing, because the fact is, all salt weighs differently. I can’t recommend a small kitchen scale enough – They’re cheap, easy to use, and if you get at all serious about baking, you’ll want to have one anyway. I’ll give you a cheat and tell you that 1 ounce of the most popular kosher salt is roughly 5 teaspoons. While Harold McGee notes in his epic reference volume, On Food and Cooking, that salt tenderizes veggies by interacting with natural pectins, this also means that too much can make your peas soft.
Finally, there’s time. I don’t know how many folks I’ve heard say that you ‘blanch for about a minute,’ and frankly, that dog just don’t hunt. Blanching time varies depending on what’s being blanched, and you should pay attention to that. The Reluctant Gourmet has published a great blanching time list, so head over there, read and heed.
OK, now we’re ready. It’s possible I just made blanching sound really laborious, but it’s not at all. Set up a station so everything is close at hand. You’ll want a stock pot of salted water, a large bowl with ice water, and a single mesh strainer handy.
Shelled peas do indeed blanch for about a minute. For peas, corn, and a whole lot of veggies that are small individual things, I add about a half tablespoon of butter to the blanching water. It doesn’t impart much taste, and it helps them freeze without turning into a block of peas or whatnot.
Once your water is boiling merrily, throw in those shelled peas and count off a minute. As soon as the time is up, carefully pour the peas into a single mesh strainer and immediately into the ice water. Work the peas around gently with a slotted spoon to help them cool. Let them sit in the ice water for about 3 minutes, until they’re thoroughly cooled. Scoop off any remaining ice, pour the peas back through the strainer, then transfer them to a clean mixing bowl. Viola – bright, crisp blanched peas.
Now it’s time to package for freezing. A vacuum sealer is the bomb for such things, but not everybody has or really needs one. Next best thing is a nice, heavy freezer ziplock style bag. Portion the peas into bags based on your anticipated use – I portion for two, as you can always whip out an extra bag for guests. Seal about 90% of the bag, then suck all the air out that you can, and zip it all the way closed while you’re still sucking. That’ll do about as good a job as possible to deter freezer burn and keep things fresh. Label your stuff with the date, pop them in the freezer and you’re good to go.
So, there you go, Sarah – Maybe more than you asked for, but hey – You got me started! Happy preserving.
Question – Got a freezer? Of course you do. And even if it’s part of a fridge/freezer combo, wanna bet it has a tendency to act kinda like a junk drawer? S’truth. Next question – How often do you clean and organize that fridge and freezer? Typical answer – ummmmmmmm…. Thought so. In that case, my friends, it’s Spring Cleaning Time!
Just as we spring forward and fall back, it’s a great time to throw in a genuine cleaning of your primary cold food storage vessels, ( and change the batteries in your smoke alarms while you’re at it.)
Grab a cooler or two, pull everything out of said freezer and fridge, and get crackin’. If you’ve got ice build up in your freezer, unplug it. Don’t use any kind of sharp tool to break ice loose – That’s a busted appliance waiting to happen, or a hand injury. Very hot water, drizzled over the build up will loosen the ice and let you remove it by hand. Then move on to hot, soapy water, and give everything a good scrub. Use a clean kitchen towel to remove any detritus and toss that into the trash. In the fridge, remove the shelves, baskets, etc and clean everything thoroughly. Next comes more hot water with a capful of bleach – give every surface a good wipe down with that, then dry everything off with another clean towel. Let the appliances air dry for about 10 minutes. If you’ve unplugged to clean, plug it back in.
While your appliances are air drying, go through the stuff in the freezer. Take a look at this handy guide from the FDA – fresh meat and poultry, properly wrapped and sealed, can be safely stored for up to a year, while raw ground meat and sausage is more in the 3 to 4 months max range. Lean or cooked fish, properly packaged can last for 6 months, fatty fish more like 3 months. Cooked meat, soups and stews are 3 months or less. Frozen veggies and fruit will depend on how well their packaged and sealed, but 4 to 6 months is about the longest they’re still gonna taste good. Pretty much of anything that’s over a year old should probably be tossed – Remember that freezing radically slows bacterial growth, but does not stop it, so better to be safe than sorry. And yes, it does need to be said – If you can’t identify it, chuck it.
Once you’re ready to reload, it’s time to think about FIFO – That’s First In First Out, and it’s what we do every day in the cafe. It’s how you organize your stuff so that things don’t go to waste. Now, you’re probably thinking, ‘OK, but I’m not a restaurant, so why would I need this?’ Lemme answer it with a few questions of my own.
Do you throw out what could and should be good leftovers out ’cause they didn’t get used in time?
When you did that cleaning of your your fridge and freezer, did you have to chuck a bunch of stuff that didn’t get used in time?
Can you afford all that waste?
If you answered too yup, yeah, and no, then it’s FIFO time in your house. A little discipline will go a long way toward correcting those problems.
In restaurants, every time we prep, open, use or otherwise handle food, we slap a label on them that says what it is, when we opened or made it, and how long it’s good for. If you have a food waste problem, here’s a big part of the solution. This simple manifestation of FIFO at home is so often not done, it’s scary; how often have you looked at a leftover and asked ‘When did we make that; is it three days or seven?’ Sound familiar?
The easy fix is to label it every time and it’s problem solved. Use a non-permanent marker on storage containers in the fridge. Use a permanent marker in the freezer and in your shelves. Get some little stick on labels for anything else. Do it with spices, herbs, and stuff from your dry storage that tend so last a long time.
The next manifestation is to physically FIFO your fridge, freezer and cabinets; oldest stuff goes to the top or the front and gets used first, before it goes bad and before anything newer is opened or bought. You spend a bunch of money, time and effort on food and cooking; spend a little more an incorporate FIFO practices in to your menu planning. If you don’t menu plan, start. There’s simple, easy, smart food management. Get your family involved so the effort isn’t wasted.
Do you buy stuff in bulk like we do? Do you sometimes cook a bunch more of something than you need for than next meal, to save time and energy? Does it always get used in time when you do that? If not, think about it and start FIFOing your leftovers. If you did a bunch of chicken and it needs to be used in three days or so, stack that container front and center where it can’t be missed. If you don’t want to eat chicken for three days straight, portion and freeze what won’t get used right away. Food and money not wasted = good practice.
Again, we do this in the cafe every day without fail; it’s how we keep you well fed and safe. Do the same at home and you’ll save money and eat better.
I’ve written here on the FIFO principle before; standing for First In, First Out, it’s a core concept to adopt in any kitchen. FIFO is critical to food safety, and the best way to reduce waste in your kitchen.
This weekend, I was cooking at my Sister’s, when… Well, I’ll just let her tell the story – Check it out here.
Frankly, even if you’re for some version of GMOs in your food chain, you shouldn’t be for a federal legislative body that feels it can dictate things like this. The arrogance of this decision and statement is intolerable; even if you believe the subject isn’t, that should outrage you. This is a blatant example of corporate power buying legislators, enacting laws that benefit them, and not U.S. citizens. It’s bullshit, and it needs to stop – And that requires us to take action.
If ever there was a siren song for reform of our food production and distribution system, this New Yorker piece is it. Read it, and get involved. Start by buying local whenever you can. Know your sources for what you put in your body every day. Take a stand on the system that allows this kind of thing to exist and multiply, and make your voice heard. I don't know what our governments spend most of their time doing, but it isn't properly regulating this. Let's light a fire under 'em.
Follower Christy sent another great question, “Which oils/fats need to be refrigerated and which do not. Also, shelf life. I'm always looking at that little bottle of sesame oil and wondering…”
Heres another topic that simply doesn't get the attention it should, from both a food quality and food safety perspective, so let's have a look.
Air, heat, light, and age all can and will negatively impact the quality of most edible oils. High storage temperature and oxygen exposure are the primary causes of spoiled oil. Rancidity will result rather quickly if not properly stored. The same compounds that provide the smells and flavors we like in a given oil will cause unpleasant changes if we're not careful. That means, naturally, you should store your oils in a cool, dark, dry place, and in an airtight container. As such, cruets or open top pour spouts are not the best choice, even in a busy home kitchen. Additionally, exposure to direct sunlight causes a substantial loss of antioxidants, especially tocopherols, meaning many of the benefits of healthy oil choices are lost as well.
Rancid oil generally won't do you serious harm; nonetheless, it's obviously not a desirable pantry guest. When your oil looks, smells, or tastes off, it is, and should be discarded. Smells described as winey, metallic, or skunky are clear signs that something is amiss.
As for shelf life, the method of production for the oil in question has a bearing. Most unrefined oils, (cold or expeller pressed), will keep for 3 to 6 months, properly stored. They may be refrigerated, and will last a bit longer as a result, though they'll tend to solidify and will need to return to room temperature to liquefy again. Too many such cycles can impact the chemistry of the oil, and the need to re-liquefy might inhibit spontaneity, so you're probably best served buying smaller quantities and storing carefully at room temperature. If that sesame oil Christy mentioned is older than 6 months, it's time for it to go. Refined oils, (oils obtained from heat and solvent extraction), tend to keep twice as long as unrefined oils; at least 6 to 12 months if stored properly. Oils high in polyunsaturated fat, (walnut, safflower, and hazelnut oil, for instance), have a much shorter shelf life than high monounsaturated, (think peanut), or saturated fat oils, (like canola). Again, refrigerated storage is an option, but small containers of fresh oil at room temp is best.
Most solid fats traditionally used in cooking are animal based, (lard, ghee, duck fat, schmaltz, etc), however tropical plant oils such as coconut oil, (one of my favorites), are also solid or semisolid at room temperature, as are vegetable shortening and margarine, (made from plant oils and solid due to the hydrogenation process). Many solid fats also contain a higher proportion of saturated fat than liquid fats do; as such they're generally quite stable and will keep well for at least 6 months. Solid fats will absorb the flavor or scent of other foods readily, so should be kept in airtight containers.
Our industrial food system has lead us all, to some degree, toward keeping things longer than we should. Just because something can last 6 months doesn't necessarily mean that we really want to cook with it. I'll guarantee that, whether the ingredient be oil, fat, spice, or even flour, fresh will always taste better than many moons old.