By Nicole Montesano • Staff Writer • 

Tough to balance cooking, canning

Hearty vegetable soup with beans and pasta, and pesto — or pistou, since this particular recipe is French — stirred in, served with thick slices of buttered whole-wheat bread, makes a perfect summer supper. It would also make a perfect winter supper if I canned some of the soup and froze the pesto.

Summer, the height of harvest season, awash in fresh fruit and vegetables, is when preservers spend their time obsessively thinking about winter meals. Canning, drying and freezing ingredients for them. Contemplating how to preserve entire meals. Planting crops to hold through months of cold and rain.

It’s an odd juxtaposition, but a necessary one. December is far too late for thinking about how to get through the winter.

So the questions come thick and fast, all summer long. Will the weather be suitable for canning in the next few days? What’s ripe? What do we have enough of and what do we still need? Should I jam the apricots, eat them, dry them, or do all three? What other projects are on the horizon that might interfere with these? Really, the laundry still has to be done?

And the cooking. Because ironically, summer, the luxury season, is when I find it hardest to cook. I can cook or can — it’s hard to do both at once. They both mess up the kitchen, for one thing, and they both take time.

But there are some truly lovely things to eat, so it’s important to take the time to enjoy them. Warm bean salad with basil and tomatoes is on my list to try. And with tomatoes starting to appear in the market, it’s time — yippee! — to break out the toasted cheese sandwiches. With fresh thyme or oregano, and sharp Tillamook cheddar, which turns out to be virtually lactose-free. Great happiness. What do you mean eating your weight in cheese isn’t generally advised?

If you don’t have lactose issues, don’t overlook the delicious possibilities of fresh goat cheese, wonderful in green salads — add some minced fresh mint! — or spread on bread with strawberry jam.

Speaking of mint, now is the time to be drying it and other herbs for winter tea. You can also make fresh herb sun tea to enjoy right now.

Lemon balm, lemon verbena and lemon geranium are all on my list of favorite tea herbs. Other possibilities include anise hyssop, pineapple sage, lemon basil — too many to mention, really.

Don’t forget to give your culinary herbs frequent haircuts as well. To dry without a dehydrator, rinse them, roll in a towel or spin briefly in a salad spinner, then tie the stems together with a bit of string and hang upside down in the kitchen, a breezeway, or wherever you happen to have handy. Air circulation is important here.

Repeat the exercise several times over the course of the summer, and by the time winter arrives, you’ll have a fine supply of tea and cooking herbs put away.

Freezing offers a very simple way to preserve good things for winter. Tomatoes can be frozen whole for winter cooking. They will lose their wonderful texture, of course, but retain their fresh flavor for sauces and soups. Chop half-thawed, for easiest handling. Peppers also freeze well for winter cooking.

Another item I like to freeze is breaded and fried eggplant and zucchini slices. The eggplant — which I often bake at high temperature instead of frying, following a recipe from America’s Test Kitchen — makes wonderful eggplant Parmesan, a treat in mid-winter.

The zucchini, a summer supper treat, tastes marvelous in February, when you’re thinking that you simply cannot face one more serving of beets or kale or winter squash. Reheat in the oven until hot through, and crisp. Salt well.

Other treats are strictly summer fare, to be enjoyed in season only — in my book, anyway. Stuffed tomatoes, for example, and corn on the cob. Which would go really well with those zucchini fritters, incidentally, and maybe some steamed green beans on an evening when you’re choosing cooking over canning.

Just be sure to fry extra zucchini to freeze. A bit here, a bit there, and it’s amazing how much you can have done by the end of the season.

Happy summering.

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