The harvest season has begun and we can finally feast on local fresh produce. Already there’s an abundance of asparagus, tender greens, ruby-red strawberries and the promise of peas. But as the season heats up, the cold hard truth is that while fresh produce can be great, sometimes frozen is better.
Fruits and vegetables begin to deteriorate as soon as they’re picked; too often, that means limp spinach, starchy corn, wooden carrots and tasteless, watery berries. (The exception can be veggies grown underground like onions and potatoes, which are designed for hibernation and therefore keep well.) But putting produce on ice right after it’s picked, especially if industrial-strength flash-freezing is used, seals in flavour. It also keeps the food’s molecular structure intact—kind of like those cryogenically frozen people we hear about.
Take peas, for instance: if they’re eaten just off the vine, they pack a perfect, early-summer sweetness. But since the sugar in peas begins to turn to starch post-harvest, most of the fresh stuff at supermarkets (days or weeks old) is bland and turns to mush in the pot. (No wonder “Eat your peas!” is a nag.) If you want the ultimate in fresh, it takes work: you either grow your own or hike it to a farmers’ market and plan to wash, shell and cook as soon as you’re home. Or you can simply buy frozen. Peas freeze so successfully, it’s said that these little legumes launched the frozen-food industry.
Let’s be clear, though: not all frozen peas are created equal. Those rock-hard clumps that taste of freezer burn and little else are as useless as their decaying counterparts in the produce department. Some of the best frozen vegetables can actually be found at farmers’ markets.
Ontario farmer Jessie Sosznicki will be packing ice this year and selling frozen goods in Toronto when the fresh harvest from her 12 hectares of certified organic land is over. She and her husband, Ben, first experimented with freezing produce a few years ago and it was an instant hit. “In the dead of winter, I brought frozen corn and beans to the market, cooked them up and served them with a bit of organic butter. It was cold and dark outside and everyone just loved this really simple dish.” As the trend for local foods has increased along with the number of farmers’ markets, freezing is a way to store produce at its peak. “If I can preserve the season, I can bring stuff to markets year-round. Freezing is the best way.”
The Oregon-based Stahlbush Island Farms brand, which is sold at supermarkets year-round, also delivers quite perfect frozen produce, including berries, carrots, sweet potatoes and, perhaps the trickiest of them all, spinach. What’s the secret to that lovely leaf? “Spinach is one of those items where your growing practices substantially count,” says Stahlbush co-founder Karla Chambers. “The richness of the best-quality goods comes from the best soils.”
Stahlbush, with 2,000 hectares in the Willamette Valley, is a pioneer in eco-agriculture. It was the first farm to be certified “Sustainable” by the Food Alliance (North America’s equivalent of the fair-trade label), and it just opened a biogas plant that turns vegetable waste into electricity to run the farm, the on-site processing plant, and even some homes in the area. Still, B.C.-based author and farmer Michael Ableman, an expert and something of a philosopher on issues of sustainability in food, sees Stahlbush’s success as revealing. “The problem is, we have lost the art of preserving the harvest. The quality of frozen, organic corn might be quite remarkable, but it points out very clearly that, whether we’re in Toronto or Winnipeg, there’s no reason we should have to rely on a processor in the Willamette Valley.” He sees local home or communal facilities as the ideal.
And that’s exactly how Sosznicki works: three generations of women, along with friends, work at lightning speed. Peppers, whole tomatoes, and berries don’t require blanching before freezing, unlike, say beans and corn, so the process is fast and simple. “Everybody always thinks fresh is best, but is it really? All I know is that if we don’t eat our stuff when it’s super fresh, my frozen veg has better flavour.”