This is the time of year I start getting a little nervous. The days are shorter, the slant of the sun is a little different and Saturday, Oct. 29, seems just around the corner. That’s the last Napa Farmers Market of the year, which means all the wonderful fresh fruits and vegetables we’ve been enjoying will disappear until next summer. And that makes me nervous.
The only thing to do is to preserve the bounty. The fresh farmers market fruits and vegetables that you preserve now will likely be tastier than those you can buy in grocery stores in the months ahead.
Labor Day weekend is usually the start of preserving season for me, and tomatoes are always first in line. Walking through the Napa Farmers Market recently, I saw wonderful tomatoes at The Patch, Big Ranch Farm, Sun Tracker Farm and Gauchito Hill Farm just waiting to be preserved.
Canning is probably the most familiar method for preserving tomatoes. But if you don’t have the time, it’s easy to freeze them.
The process is so simple that even if the kitchen is the scariest room in your home you can still preserve tomatoes by doing the following: Wash tomatoes, place whole in freezer bags, then place bags in freezer. Voila, you’re done until you’re ready to make soups, stews or sauces this winter. When you defrost them, the skins will slip right off.
Strawberries, raspberries and blackberries from Rodriguez Farms are also easy to freeze, as are the grapes you can find at J & J Farms, Schletewitz Family Farms or Hamlow Ranches. When you want to make a healthy smoothie this winter, toss your frozen fruit into a blender along with buttermilk, yogurt or whatever else you like.
Herbs such as basil, tarragon, parsley, oregano and sage can be preserved several ways. One simple method is to take a bunch of herbs, tie the stems together and hang with leaves down. To prevent the bundles from collecting dust, place them in a paper bag and hang in a warm, dry place.
You can dry herbs in a dehydrator in hours — or even faster in a microwave oven. If you have rinsed the herbs, remove all excess water; otherwise, they will cook, not dry, in the microwave. Place no more than four to five branches in the microwave between two paper towels. Microwave on high for two to three minutes. If herbs are not brittle and dry, microwave on high for another 30 seconds. Let cool on a rack. Once the herbs are dry, store them in an airtight container.
When it comes to my favorite produce for preserving, hot peppers (chiles) are second only to tomatoes. Grant Farm has serrano and habanero chiles, both suitable for drying and using when you want to add a big kick to your winter recipes. Green Anaheim chiles can be roasted and then frozen. If they’re ripe and red, you can dry them. Compared to serranos and habaneros, Anaheims deliver less of a kick.
Corn and potatoes can be frozen; figs and mushrooms can be dried; and there’s nothing like homemade apple sauce from farmers’ market apples with that winter pork roast. The time has come to preserve.
I’m looking forward to making the recipe below with feta from Achadinha Cheese Company and lamb from Preston Point Lamb, two of the Napa Farmers Market’s new vendors this year.
Lamburgers with Grilled Red Onions and Feta
From “Eating Local” by Janet Fletcher.
2 pounds freshly ground lamb shoulder
1 Tbsp. plus 1 tsp. dried oregano
2 Tbsp. kosher or sea salt
1/2 tsp. hot red pepper
Freshly ground black pepper
6 half-inch-thick slices red onion
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1/3 pound crumbled feta, at room temperature
6 hamburger buns
Ground sumac (optional)
2 tomatoes, cored and thinly sliced
Prepare a moderate charcoal fire for indirect grilling or preheat a gas grill to medium (375 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit), leaving one burner unlit for indirect grilling.
Put the meat in a large bowl and add the oregano (crumbling it between your fingers as you add it), the salt, hot pepper and black pepper to taste. Work the seasonings in gently, then, with moistened hands, shape the meat into six patties about 3/8-inch thick. They should be a little wider than your hamburger buns as they will shrink in diameter when cooked.
Use toothpicks to skewer the onion slices and hold the rings together. Two toothpicks per slice, inserted from opposite sides, will do the job. Brush the onion slices on both sides with some of the olive oil and season with salt and pepper.
Grill the onion slices first: Place them directly over the coals or flame and cover the grill. Cook until nicely colored on both sides, about 5 minutes, then move to indirect heat until they are softened but not limp, about 5 minutes longer. Keep warm while you grill the burgers.
Grill the burgers directly over the coals or flame—lid off on a charcoal grill, lid on for a gas grill. Cook until they are done to your taste, which you can best determine by touch. A rare burger feels soft, with no spring-back. A medium burger will offer some resistance to the touch, but will not feel firm. A well-done burger will be firm to the touch. Cooking time depends on the heat of your fire, but a medium burger will take about 10 minutes. A couple of minutes before the burgers are done, top with feta, dividing the cheese evenly.
Toast the bun halves on the grill, cut side down.
To assemble the burgers, sprinkle the bottom halves of the buns generously with sumac. Top with sliced tomato and sprinkle with salt. Remove the toothpicks from the onion slices and put a slice on top of each tomato. Top the onion with a burger, sprinkle with sumac, then cover with the top half of the bun. Serve immediately.