To Preserve With Love
It’s that time of the year when I go wild over veggies. While some of these make only a brief annual appearance, our mild tropical winter brings out the best in all produce. For me, it’s also the time to preserve these great quality vegetables and fruits, so that I can enjoy the crunch of mugri or red carrots in May, the flavour of winter bhindis in August, or make limbu sherbet with December’s large yellow limes in the middle of October’s second summer next year. Humans have been using food preservation techniques since 12,000 B.C. (modern refrigeration was only invented in the early 1800s). Here are three traditional food preservation methods—using sun, salt or sugar—that I prefer.
Sun-dried tomatoes may have hit our shelves only in recent years, but several community stores all over the country have been selling other dried vegetables such as bhindi, karela and bhee (lotus stem) for generations now. For example, in Rajasthan, the arid and hot summers made dried vegetables an essential part of the region’s cuisine, and the tradition of drying vegetables has stuck, despite the advent of refrigeration. This Marwari food website even sells dried fruits and veggies like ker-sangri (dessert berries and beans, often cooked together), gavar (cluster beans) and kachri (a tangy gourd that looks like a tiny cucumber).
At home, it’s easy to dry any vegetable in the sun. I halve green tomatoes, tie small bundles of cleaned methi leaves, flake white onions and garlic, and then spread them out in a single layer on a plastic sheet on a table near a window, on a window sill, or on the floor of a balcony. I cover the sheet and the veggies with a mesh-like fabric, like net or loose mulmul, to keep dust, bugs and birds away. When the sun goes down, I put the veggies in a ventilated box only to arrange them again in the sunlit spot the next morning. When all the moisture is gone from the vegetables, they can be stored in an airtight box for up to a year. Dried onion and garlic can be used to flavour soups and dishes with gravy, the methi tastes great in dals or potato bhaji, the concentrated flavour of green tomatoes can be used to make tapenade or works equally well when finely chopped into a salad.
There’s a tradition we have at home this time of year. As soon as the first red carrots hit the market, we make “winter vegetable pickle”. Clean and chop the best quality cauliflower, red carrots, spring onions, bhindi, and fresh lotus stem and put them in a clean glass jar. Season them with fennel seeds, achaar ka masala, khajur, raisins, ginger, garlic, mustard oil and salt. The quantities depend on how much flavour you want of each, but a little oil is necessary for preservation. Seal the jar and give it a good shake and place it in the sun for a week. The pickle stays good for several months in the fridge, but at home we eat it like a sabzi, so it doesn’t last that long. A more minimal method of preserving fleeting flavours is with a simple brine solution—one tablespoon of salt for every half litre of boiled water. Pour the solution over cut vegetables in a glass jar, cover and leave in the sun to ferment for at least two to three days. But save for winter specialties like green peppercorns, mugri, haldi and amba haldi, I rarely leave brine unflavoured. Add slit chillies to a jar with garlic, add lemon rind to a jar with asparagus spears or add ginger to a jar of French beans.
Then there’s kanji, a fermented drink made using the principles of pickling. Put two cups of carrot and beet, both cut into sticks, in a large glass jar. Top with salt, chilli powder and coarsely ground mustard seeds. Add boiled and cooled water until the jar is filled to the top. Keep the jar in a warm spot under indirect sunlight. Open it two to six days later. The wine-coloured liquid is tangy, slightly spicy, and full of flavour. The longer you keep it, the tangier it gets. The mildly pickled sticks make excellent crudites.
Winter fruits such as strawberries, tiny apples, and amla can be made into murabba (such as a compote or sweet pickle). In fact, any fruit cooked in sugar (of an equal weight to the fruit), on low heat, will release its juices and flavour the sugar syrup, while the fruit becomes sweeter because of the sugar. The syrup and/or fruit makes a great topping for ice cream, cake, even rasmalai, as well as for breakfast items such as oatmeal, pancakes and French toast. But to make it even more fun, I like to add spices and herbs to murabbas. So along with the fruit, I add bay leaves or peppercorns or ginger or mint into the syrup, which can also be used to make sherbet. Zest and juice kinnows, oranges, grapefruits, large limes, and sweet limes, and make sherbet with all of them. Alternatively, candy the zest and dip it in chocolate, or make marmalade in fun combinations.
If all of this sounds like too much effort, here’s an easy method I’ve loved since I was a toddler. Tiny, slightly sour black grapes will also flood the market soon. I bought a bunch recently and hid it at the back of the top shelf of my refrigerator and decided to forget about them until at least a couple of months later. Do the same and you won’t want to eat regular raisins again.
Roshni Bajaj Sanghvi is a Mumbai-based food journalist, a contributing editor at Vogue magazine, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York City, and the restaurant reviewer for the Hindustan Times newspaper in Mumbai.Tags: food preservation, The Tastemaker, winter fruits, winter produce, Winter vegetables