Since returning from my holiday at the end of July, I’ve spent a considerable portion of my time freezing fruit and vegetables. My husband has been growing produce for several years, a neighbour having generously allowed him to fence off part of a paddock for the purpose. This year is the first year that we’ve had a glut, so, in the interests of both quality of life and thrift (quickly skating over the cost of a new freezer and pasteuriser and their running costs!), I’ve taken up food preservation on an almost industrial scale. I wasn’t going to mention this, as I thought it might bore you, but now I am, since today’s newspaper contains half a page of tips from the wife of the new Governor of the Bank of England on how to avoid spending too much on pencils, folders and pencil cases when preparing for ‘back-to-school’ (she recycles everything: I’d have hated her if she’d been my mother, as I loved buying stationery at the start of a new term, the more colourful and expensive, the better; besides, imagine her embarrassment if one of her kids were to flaunt a pencil with ’10 Downing Street’ inscribed on it! I recommend that she visits Poundland – of which more anon).
So, here are my top five dos and don’ts for successful freezing. I’ve included some advice on harvesting the crop as well – think Nigella Lawson (I wish!) with a touch of Alan Titchmarsh.
- If you have to pass beehives on your way to your vegetable garden, DON’T walk across the front of the hive. This will annoy the bees, particularly if your favourite colour is blue and you are wearing blue clothes, which to a bee is (pardon the simile) like a red rag to a bull. Instead, walk round the back of the hive, even if this means bumping your head on the low-hanging branches of any apple trees that might just be growing there. (In the good life, experience is everything.)
- If a horse should put its head over the fence that separates your garden from the paddock, DON’T offer it a handful of whatever it is you’re harvesting, however much it appreciates your friendship. If you do, next time you look round, you’ll find four or five horses, all of which seem to have the necks of giraffes and the effrontery of Barbary macaques.
- DON’T allow marauders into the kitchen to steal handfuls of the raw peas or fruit that you’ve harvested and prepared. Bolt the door and make them go out and pick their own.
- DON’T bother to blanch peas. They’re fine placed straight into the containers from the pod and you can munch them as you work – after all, you picked and shelled them. (But you will have to blanch beans, otherwise they turn brown).
- It’s a good idea to chill the water that you plunge vegetables into after having boiled them for one minute to blanch; but DON’T do this by adding ice cubes. It is sossy, inevitably causes you to skim across the kitchen on the one that got away and requires a new batch of ice cubes for each lot. Instead, place a freezer brick in the water. My mother-in-law, who never did culinary tasks by halves, once gave me one only slightly smaller than Sisyphus’s rock; but two ordinary ones will do the job.
- DO use small plastic boxes (rather than bags) in the freezer. They stack better and protect the contents. Recycled Chinese takeaway cartons are excellent (although on no account allow this as an excuse for increased male consumption of chop suey). My rather poncy local supermarket sells boxes at £2 for eight. I bought up all its stock (three packs of eight) and, in desperate need for more, for the first time entered Poundland’s less portentous portals, where I found similar packs of eight costing what it says on the shop. While there, I also bought a book that I’d been looking for about British colonial Africa, which is probably the most unlikely literary find I’ve ever made! Poundland rules, OK? But never let it be said that Christina is cheap, like Maureen 118 212.
- If you think ahead and buy ice cream to accompany your defrosted fruit, DO conceal the tubs behind items unlikely to appeal to the male psyche – e.g., ‘cubed beetroot for borscht’. Understand that this may not be a sufficient deterrent: the tubs may also need booby-trapping.
- DO label the boxes with the date and note of the contents – though there is no need to go overboard. Mine say ‘Peas, July 2013’ or ‘Beans, August 2013’. It is a mistake to convert labelling into an art form: “White Lady, sliced. Harvested 6th August at 06.00 on a dewy morning, sun just peeping through. Blanched and chilled between 10.10 and 10.20 hours. Put to freeze at 10.30 hours. Twelve ounces: serves four.” Apart from the time that it takes, it will turn you into a freezer nerd. And no, I don’t harvest beans at 06.00.
- DO fill the freezer pretty much to capacity if you can. I can’t prove this personally, but all the electricity companies say that this cuts down on fuel consumption (and who would doubt their integrity?).
- DO remember how much stuff you’ve got in there, especially when you’re shopping for fruit and vegetables in the winter. You don’t want next summer to come round and find that you’re still eating last year’s produce, having in the meantime absent-mindedly spent a fortune and incurred thousands of airmiles on asparagus from Peru.
Finally, I have one tip that can be either a DO or a DON’T, depending on your point of view:
If you want to pick and freeze blackberries, you may choose to ask your husband to accompany you, as he will probably know all the best places, can reach higher and further into the brambles than you can, and may be impervious to their thorns. However, be aware that he may also be paranoid about other blackberry pickers discovering his favourite spots, especially if these are close by a road. He may therefore expect you to squat down behind the brambles every time a car passes by, in order to avoid drawing attention to your blackberrying activities, which is not only murder on the knees, but will convince your dog and other dog-walkers and their dogs that you are mad. The choice is yours.
I hope that this has been useful… and at least as interesting as pencils. Happy freezing!
Disclaimer: All characters in this post are fictitious. No husbands or mothers-in-law have been harmed in the freezing process. (Though chest freezers do lend themselves to… no, I won’t go there.)
On Thursday, I had a conversation with a librarian in Doncaster who would like me to take part in a literary festival that will be run in May by the Doncaster Library Service. After further discussion, we decided that it would probably be more effective for everyone if, instead of participating in one of the library-based events, I were to run a couple of writers’ workshops, one at a local school and one at an open prison. I warmed to this idea immediately; as a bookseller, I have supplied books to two open prisons; more recently, I have read the MS of a fascinating memoir written by a writer-in-residence who works in a prison in the North-East. I shall be happy to work further with the prison community if I can be of use. I’ll write more about these two events nearer the time.
Before we decided on this plan of action, when the idea was still that I should participate in a library-focused event, our chat had been about what sort of writer we should choose to present with me. To my initial surprise, she suggested a cookery writer, but, the more I thought about it, the more appropriate I thought that this was. Aside from the interest in food (among many other subjects) that both this blog and the many other crime-writing blogs to which it has been introduced (and introduced itself) have expressed, now that I’ve thought about it, I think that a crime writer and a cookery writer have a lot in common.
The similarities are there if you look for them. Firstly, and of most importance, we are both genuinely interested in the craft of writing: although the crime writer’s main purpose is to devise an interesting plot peopled with intriguing characters and the cookery writer’s is to develop practical recipes that people really want to try out, the means, for both of us, is as important as the end. In a certain sense, we are both genre writers, but the style and standard of the writing is important to us; mostly we don’t deserve to have the word ‘genre’ applied to us in a condescending or pejorative way (though we have both suffered from this). I don’t deny that there is huge variation in the quality of writing accomplished by both crime writers and cookery writers, but at our best we produce classics. When my friend Sally gave me How to Eat and The Domestic Goddess as a very generous birthday present ten years ago, I was both amazed and entranced by Nigella Lawson’s wonderfully fresh and funny prose style. You may gorge yourself upon her books both literally and metaphorically, delighting in the sensual language and wonderful photographs even as you assemble the ingredients for a luscious cake and anticipate eating it later. The best crime novels are like this, too: each page not to be gobbled down quickly because it gets you a little closer to the denouement, but lingered over and savoured for the pleasure that the words bring of themselves.
Similarly, a well-set-out recipe is like a well-crafted short story. It tells a tale, from the beginning, when there might be a note on some kind of utensil – a springform cake tin, for example, or a coeur à la crème ramekin – to the afterword, which might offer serving suggestions or other tips once the culinary masterpiece has been completed. Conversely, a poorly-conceived recipe, one which perhaps is not clear about quantities or method, disappoints and exasperates just as much as a badly-written thriller. And, whilst I don’t think that it is possible to ‘learn’ writing step-by-step in quite the way in which you follow a recipe, writers can certainly give others pointers to how their writing can be developed – hence the workshop idea. Conversely, an inspired cook will add some special twist or variation to a recipe to make it more delicious and uniquely his or her own.
There is one point on which we will always be at opposite poles, however: cookery-writing is about celebrating life and that which sustains it. Food and the sharing of food is a civilising influence. Almost every great nation has developed its own cuisine. Crime writing, on the other hand, is about what threatens a civilised existence, sometimes including life itself: a sobering thought, yet, as I’ve said before, the end of a crime novel usually brings with it some kind of catharsis and a feeling that all is right with the world again. And along the way, both heroes and villains can enjoy some excellent food. From the Victorian victuals described by Wilkie Collins to DI Banks’ pub lunches and Paola Brunetti’s elegant meals en famille, crime-writing owes a lot to cookery. I’d better not embark upon a consideration of how cookery-writing might be indebted to crime; otherwise my imagination might run riot!