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COVID-19 Cooking Tips: Preserving Your Food…and Your Sanity

By Chef Linda

Preparedness, not panic, is the mood that will sustain us through the current COVID-19 crisis, especially when it comes to eating. Let’s assume your pantry is full of canned and dried goods; from beans to grains, pasta to sauces, vegetables to cereal: stay-at-home-survival for several weeks is secure. But what about the fresh elements of eating? In most places, we still have access to fresh food, albeit on a limited basis. Making the most of a trip to the grocery store means ensuring that what you do buy gets stored properly and lasts as long as possible to minimize shopping.

I’ve gathered some tips from a variety of sources and combined them with my own knowledge to help you keep fresh food…well…fresh! These tips, along with some proven methods of freezing produce for use at a later time, can help you feel better prepared and reduce anxiety when it comes to eating or feeding the people with whom you are sharing four walls and a roof for the foreseeable future. This is not a comprehensive list of fresh foods, but rather, a list of some commonly used foods and somewhat seasonal produce. I was also reminded of the many local farms that will be struggling along with other businesses during this time. Considered essential businesses, many are open and selling to the public so if you need to get out of the house, visit your nearest farm and see what they have to offer. Best to call ahead first. Local Harvest is one site you can use to see what farms are nearby.

Asparagus
This vegetable needs water to stay fresh so unless you’re planning on using it right away (maybe in our Roasted Asparagus with Balsamic and Hazelnuts or Asparagus with Garlic and Ginger to keep your immune system kicking?), the best method for storing is to trim off about a half-inch at the end of each stalk and place the bunch standing up in a bowl or container with about an inch of water in it: a wide-mouthed mason jar works well. Not ready to eat them yet? Loosely cover the tops of the upright stalks with a plastic bag to preserve your asparagus a little longer.

Bread
One of our favorite comfort foods is bread but how do you stock up on it if it doesn’t stay fresh? According to Epicurious, if you want your bread to go stale fast, put it in the fridge! The best way to actually keep bread fresh is to keep it at room temperature on your counter, in a drawer, or in one of those vintage bread boxes. If you do want to stock up on an extra loaf or two (no judgment!), freezing your bread will actually keep it fresh for up to three months. Cut the loaf into slices or sections first so you can use it in portions without defrosting and refreezing which will diminish the bread’s flavor and texture.

Celery
Here’s one I didn’t know about: The Kitchn suggests tightly wrapping whole celery bunches in aluminum foil before putting them in the vegetable drawer/crisper of the fridge. Don’t cut or wash before storing it. You can cut a few stalks off first: chomping on them is actually a healthy way to reduce anxiety!

Coffee
oat milk cappuccinoIsolation without caffeine? I don’t think so. I definitely stocked up on this one. In fact, one silver lining of working at home for many of us means an afternoon pick-me-up-pot…but for the sake of everyone else at home, only if it doesn’t contribute to anxiety or nervousness, please. In years past, conventional wisdom had us storing coffee in the freezer but according to the National Coffee Association, this is not recommended. Instead, the association recommends using coffee as soon as possible after it is roasted and ground for the freshest taste. But if you can’t drink it fast enough, the best storage method is in an air-tight container in a dry, dark place, away from a heat source (maybe away from your housemate who’s had too much?): so the cabinet next to the stove where many of us keep our coffee might not be best. And if you haven’t tried the barista-style oat milk to make cappuccino, it wouldn’t be a bad time to try one.

Cucumbers
It seems that as soon as spring comes, we crave fresh salads but one common ingredient, the crispy cucumber, doesn’t take well to cold temps for too long. To get the most out of yours, wash and dry it thoroughly then loosely wrap it in a paper towel or dishtowel. Put the wrapped cucumber in a ventilated plastic bag somewhere in the fridge where it’s warmer than the rest: toward the front of a shelf or even in a door shelf. And for an alternative to chips and bread, use thick slices of cucumber to scoop up some homemade White Bean and Artichoke Dip made straight from the pantry.

Greens
Fresh greens provide a big bang for your nutritional buck. They can help boost our immune systems and keep us feeling alive even if we’re stuck inside. If you can get to the store or farm for varieties like kale, chard, collards, and lettuce, here are some of the ways you can help them stay fresh. First, wash, dry, and wrap the leaves in a slightly damp paper towel then store them in a large, loosely-sealed plastic bag. Lettuce can be a little more delicate so if you’re not going to eat it right away, a better storage method is to layer the leaves with paper towels in a glass or plastic container. Seal and store in the fridge. Running low on paper products? Clean dishtowels work just fine and they’re better for the environment. And if you’re looking for something salty and crunchy to satisfy your cravings? Make a batch of our Smoky Kale Chips and you won’t have to worry about storing your kale!

Herbs
spinach walnut pestoSince many of us are using lots of pantry ingredients to sustain us now, simple, fresh herbs can brighten and freshen a dish. Many sources recommend storing bunches of fresh herbs, like parsley, basil, sage, in a small jar or vase filled with water, like fresh-cut flowers. While you can keep them on the counter for ease and aesthetics, they won’t last as long as if you refrigerate them. If you don’t have room in the fridge, I’ve found the best way is to wash the herbs so they aren’t gritty or dirty and let them dry for a bit on a towel. Then I gently roll them up in the towel and store them in the crisper/vegetable drawer of the fridge. Most of my herbs last a good, long time that way but if you’ve got some herbs and even some greens, like kale or spinach, that are a little past their prime (the leaves have yellowed and they’ve begun to wilt a bit), make a batch of pesto to brighten up yet another pantry pasta dish. Pesto is forgiving: use what you have but try to keep the ratios the same.

Mushrooms
According to Food Network, the best way to store fresh mushrooms is to brush off excess dirt, wrap them in paper towels, and store them in a paper bag in the refrigerator. Storing them in the container they came in, which is often sealed in plastic, can cause them to get slimy and moldy before their time. Have some you need to use? Toss them with a little oil, soy sauce, a dash of maple syrup. Stir in about 1/2 cup of breadcrumbs and roast in the oven at 400ºF for about 15 to 20 minutes. Eat them as a snack or use them in a grain or pasta dish. I like to use them as croutons in soup or salad.

Onions and Garlic
roasted garlicWhole onions should be kept in a dry, cool place like a pantry, cellar, basement, or even the garage. They should not be refrigerated unless they’ve been cut. Another tip is to store onions in an open container, alone, away from other fresh foods. Onions produce gas which can make them–and other foods nearby–spoil faster. (So that’s why my potatoes, stored right next to my onions, go bad faster than they should!) Whole heads or cloves of garlic should not be kept in the fridge either. Store them in a well-ventilated container or mesh bag on the counter or cool, dry place. One delightful thing to do with whole heads of garlic is to trim about 1/4-inch of the tops off, place them in a foil packet or small baking dish, drizzle a little oil, seal, and roast on 400ºF for about 45 minutes. When done, squeeze out the cloves and spread them on that bread you have stored in the bread box.

If you generally buy bags of pre-peeled garlic, mince it all in the food processor then store it covered in a little olive oil in a sealed container in the fridge, that way it’s ready to go when you are. Consider how much you use garlic before mincing the entire quantity: minced and covered with a layer of oil, it should last several weeks. You can also freeze garlic! But don’t shy away from liberal use of garlic right now: it can boost your immune system…and help to ensure social distancing.

Potatoes
Most of us know that potatoes should not be kept in the refrigerator because the cold turns the starches into sugar which changes the taste and texture. A bin in the pantry or other cool, dry place works best. And if you purchase them in a plastic bag, transfer them to paper bags to get the longest shelf life. If you’re like me, you bought a 5-pound bag, thinking you would stock up, and you still haven’t used them. Some ideas to try before they start sprouting: Mediterranean Artichoke and Potato Ragout, Fully Loaded Potato Skins, or Crispy Oven Baked Latkes. Or when in doubt, does anything comfort us like a big bowl of mashed potatoes? Using olive oil or vegan butter in place of dairy butter as well as vegetable broth or unsweetened nut or oat milk for cream easily “veganizes” this family favorite vegan.

Freezing Fresh Produce
If you’ve bought lots of fresh produce because there’s been a run on the frozen kind but don’t think you’ll be eating it all before it spoils, you can turn to a tried and true method of preserving food: freezing. Most vegetables can be frozen but need to be blanched or fully cooked beforehand. (Vegetables and fruits that don’t freeze well because of their high water content are celery, cucumbers, lettuce, radishes, and melons. Onions and peppers can skip the blanching process and can be frozen raw.)

Photo: wikipedia.org

What’s blanching, you ask? According to the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Center, blanching is essentially scalding vegetables in boiling water or steam for a short period of time then quickly cooling them in an ice bath to stop the cooking process. Blanching slows or stops the action of enzymes that can cause loss of flavor, color, and texture. Blanching also cleanses the surface of dirt and organisms, brightens the color and helps slow the loss of vitamins. Getting the timing right is crucial and it varies depending on the vegetable and its size. Under-blanching stimulates the activity of enzymes and is worse than no blanching. Over-blanching causes loss of flavor, color, vitamins, and minerals.

Since each vegetable has a specific blanching time, it’s best to check a trusted source ahead of time to see how long to blanch. The most common way to blanch at home is to use a large pot filled with one gallon of water per pound of vegetables. Be sure to have an ice bath prepared before you start blanching (see below). Using a blanching basket, large slotted spoon, or wire spider is a safe way to place the vegetables in the rapidly boiling water. Start counting blanching time AFTER the vegetables are in the water and the water returns to a boil.

To make an ice bath, fill a large bowl with roughly 50% water and 50% ice. When the blanching is complete, lift the vegetables out of the water and plunge them into the ice bath (or use a bowl of cold water but keep it running because the water will quickly heat up without ice). Cooling vegetables should take the same amount of time as blanching.

Blanched vegetables should be dried thoroughly on paper towel-lined sheet pans then snuggly packed in airtight containers or heavy-duty packages (heavy-duty freezer bags, not plastic sandwich or snack bags), forcing out as much air as possible. A few hours before adding food to the freezer, set the freezer to its coldest setting. Note that overloading the freezer will slow the freezing process.

When you’re ready to cook, most vegetables can go directly from the freezer to boiling water or sauté pan. Frozen fruits can be stored for about a year; vegetables, about 8 to 12 months.

With fewer trips to the store and possibly more time on your hands, I hope these tips help you to keep calm and cook on during this crisis! If you have cooking questions, feel free to reach out to me…I’m lonely, too!

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1 Comment

  1. I have just been searching for tips to help preserve my food, as I am currently working on my cooking skills. Thanks for the ideas that you have here and I hope to get more from you.

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