Extension Report: How to deal with your ‘raw panic’

Tomatoes herald the true start of summer. Gardeners, farmers, food bloggers, chefs and regular eaters like me all sing the praise of the ripe summer tomato, whose juicy warm flesh can practically take your breath away.

The first fresh cherry tomatoes are so eagerly anticipated that they rarely even make it inside the house — their abrupt path travels merely from vine to mouth. Creativity abounds initially as we turn tomatoes into a variety of forms by slicing them, drying them, caning them, freezing them, saucing them, crushing them, adding them to salads, sandwiches, and burgers, stuffing them, freezing them and turning them into salsa.

But this creative fervor rarely lasts; within a few weeks, many people will be overwhelmed by their tomatoes. Brilliant red piles will cover countertops and hang heavily off the vines, begging to be picked.

So it goes with so much fresh, seasonal produce. The first sweet cherries, the first crisp cucumber, the first summer squash — are such a welcome sight and flavor after subsisting on store produce whose taste pales in comparison to summer’s rich bounty.

But eventually cherries, cucumbers, summer squash and tomatoes have us feeling overwhelmed and we stop using them — stop eating them — stop picking them, even. Each year, I watch tons of fruit hang on the trees or see piles of summer squash in the break room that people offer up because they can’t stand the sight of another zucchini in their kitchen.

What changes in the lazy, hazy days of August and September that makes us forget the mouth-watering anticipation we felt leading up to summer?

A recent article crossed my desk numerous times in the last month, forwarded to me by several friends and coworkers, called “Raw Panic.” The article was published in The New York Times this July, and chronicles the anxiety we experience when fresh, delicious food goes to waste because we don’t know what to do with it. The author, Julia Moskin, suggests roasting vegetables as soon as you get them home:

“Already-cooked vegetables are the key to a refrigerator filled with usable, tamed ingredients that can immediately be turned into other dishes: pasta sauces, pizza toppings and composed salads, to name just a few. Raw, they are just slouching toward rot; cooked, they are tools you can use.”

Moskin goes on to explain that “greens should be washed in lots of water before storing (not running water; fill the sink, swish the greens and let the dirt float away to the bottom). But soft herbs like basil and soft produce like berries and mushrooms shouldn’t be washed until just before they are used; the water will speed deterioration.

“Vegetables and fruit should be stored separately, because the ethylene emitted by ripening fruit can damage vegetables.

“Some produce will continue to ripen if left out on the counter: stone fruit (not cherries), melons, mangoes, apples, pears, avocados and tomatoes. But some will not: bell peppers, grapes, citrus fruit and berries only deteriorate. Bananas not only will ripen quickly, but their presence will speed the ripening of nearby fruits, so check the bowl often.”

In addition to Moskin’s suggestions, I’d like to add preserving to the list. Many times freezing is the quickest, easiest way to put up fruits and vegetables this time of year. In fact, freezing can preclude other methods of preservation that you can tackle this fall or winter when the thought of standing over a hot stove, isn’t, well — horrifying.

For example, strawberries can easily be frozen now and turned into jams in November to be given as Christmas gifts. Green beans can be frozen and then pickled or canned when you have long, dark evenings to preserve. Squashes freeze well in grated form and work perfectly in breads when thawed later.

Tomatoes also freeze extremely well. In fact, you don’t even have to slice, core, or peel them first — just remove the stem and store in freezer bags until you are ready to use. Come January, when you are longing for that taste of summer, you can pull out your tomatoes and make some fresh salsa from the onions, pepper, and cilantro you froze too!

Dehydrating is another great option for preserving summer fruits and veggies. Overripe fruits can be blended and turned into homemade fruit leather for pennies on the dollar you will pay for store-bought leathers. Squashes can be dehydrated in slices and added to lasagna, soups and casseroles.

Tomatoes and peppers freeze well and are delicious as added seasonings to other dishes. Fresh herbs and spices with a short life on the counter or in the fridge can be easily dried in a cooling oven, hung from a hook on the porch or dried in minutes in the microwave using 30-second bursts of heat.

Whatever you do, don’t become victim to Moskin’s “Raw Panic”; whether you roast your veggies right away as she suggests or freeze them for later use in eating and preserving, just be sure to make use of them!

Summer usually doesn’t last long in the Pacific Northwest and within a few months, we’ll be craving the sweet, juicy, pop of a cherry tomato. With that, I’m off to the farmers market to go buy some myself!

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