Fresh, Frozen, or Canned? 10 Things to Know about Produce

In a favorite foodie book that I reviewed here, the author performed "inventories" of people's kitchens. She would root through their cabinets and refrigerators, figuring out what they really ate (or didn't eat, in the case of the refrigerator crisper drawer).

As you might expect, results were quirky, surprising, and largely grim. The author then proceeded to give the embarrassed person basic cooking lessons, and all was well. Or at least improved.

As our stupid 12-year-old refrigerator is on its last legs and has become incontinent during the cooling cycle again (and the ice maker and water dispenser haven't worked in ages), I've been researching its replacement. Farewell, hundreds and hundreds of dollars! But it did occur to me that I could do a vicious purge of the appliance's contents and start fresh.

What contents, you say? Let's say we just talk about the produce, since that's where I'm headed here. A quick scan revealed:

  • Two bunches of scallions. I forgot I still had some and purchased more.
  • Four apples, one Braeburn (icky and mushy from Fred Meyer--I have to use them in smoothies because no one will eat them) and three Cameo from QFC (a little crunchier, but it may be time to give up on apples until the Bellevue Farmers Market has them in the summer).
  • Three D'Anjou pears. Still decent and still local.
  • Half a Napa cabbage head.
  • The ancient core of a head of lettuce, fist size, as if the cartoon witch doctor got a hold of it.
  • Three bunches of celery, two partial and one whole. Note to self: stop buying celery!
  • One broccoli crown.
  • One bunch of carrots.
  • Half a cucumber.
  • One bag grapefruit.
  • One bag mandarin oranges.
  • One bunch bananas.
  • Three heirloom oranges.
  • One box frozen spinach.
  • One bag frozen green beans.
  • One bag frozen peas.
  • One bag frozen corn.
So what I wondered was, which are most nutritious? Fresh or frozen? I would throw canned in there as well, except I hardly ever have canned vegetables or fruit, besides tomatoes.
Remember what picked-that-day looked like?
If you have time, read this entire article from UC Davis on the subject. If you don't, I have boiled it down to 10 Things to Know About Produce:
  1. Fruits and veggies grown in North America may spend up to 5 days in transit before they hit the shelves. Produce grown from farther afield might spend a few days (air freight) to several weeks making the journey.
  2. Nutrient composition is affected by the timeline, mechanical harvesting, temperature, handling, and how the food is prepared.
  3. Water-soluble vitamins like C and B are degraded by processing and leach out into cooking water or the canning medium.
  4. Canning does reduce vitamins C and B content by 10-90% and 7-70%, respectively, but after that the nutrient level stabilizes. (Whew! Wouldn't want to lose that last 10-30% of the nutritional value!)
  5. Even frozen produce is blanched before freezing, with some nutrient loss, but if properly stored afterward, the C and B nutrient levels stabilize. Until you then cook them, I suppose.
  6. Good news! Canned tomatoes have higher lycopene content than fresh exactly because of the heat used in processing them.
  7. Good news, part two! Fiber content remains relatively unaffected by thermal processing or by freezing, so there's that.
  8. Good news, part three! The fat-soluble vitamins like A and E, and the carotenoids (which include lycopene) actually stay pretty stable during storage, processing, and cooking. In fact, for carrots, as they sat a couple weeks in refrigerated storage, their beta carotene levels increased. Not so for green beans.
We hang on to our lycopene, thank you very much.
What does all this mean? Two takeaways:
1. When possible, eat fresh produce that hasn't traveled long or been exposed to heat. Keep your produce cold and eat it soon after buying. When not possible, canned and frozen vegetables and fruits will do, but you probably have to eat more of them to get the same nutritional value. 
2. Those vegetables and fruits we buy at the Bellevue Farmers Market, often harvested that morning or the day before, are at their nutrient peaks. We should buy as we go (Thursday, and again on Saturday) and consume ASAP. What's the point of eating vegetables if they aren't even as good for you as you hoped?

Yes, We Can Can

The woman sews, too

The turning of the seasons has brought my annual salsa canning date with my neighbor. If you grew tomatoes this year, you know we've reached the point where the vines are withering and turning bleh, but the tomatoes are hanging on and tasting wonderful.

Mrs. Neighbor is cooking up vats of marinara and salsa, and even peeling and dicing raw tomatoes and throwing them in the freezer to be used in those winter recipes that call for "one can diced tomatoes."

While I'm still canning-impaired (meaning, I only do it when someone else invites me to help and that other person is equipped and in charge), I decided to share our fabulous recipe with those who are canning-gifted or just more daring than I am. Proper equipment does help, like a canning rack that fits in a big kettle and jar-lifter tongs, but other than that, everything else is pretty straightforward.

Got this pic from
And this baby from!

One quick tip: sterilize those jars in the dishwasher!

And line up your lids and such:

Give 'em a quick dip in a skillet of simmering water right before you put them on

Yeah, yeah, say you experienced canners, But what about the recipe?

Mrs. Neighbor got this recipe from her boss's Korean dry cleaner's mother, so you know it's got to be good. As usual, I've put asterisks by all the items you can find at our friendly neighborhood farmers market.

Korean Dry Cleaner's Mother's Salsa
1 gallon peeled, coarsely chopped tomatoes*
8 jalapeno peppers*
6 cups chopped onion*
1-1/3 cup white vinegar
1 Tbsp sugar
3 Tbsp salt
1-1/2 Tbsp garlic salt
2 12-ozs cans tomato paste (those are the big cans)
1/4 cup chopped cilantro or more, to taste

Mix and simmer 1-1/2 to 2 hours till it breaks down and blends.

Then ladle into hot jars and cook in the hot water bath 10 minutes. This recipe makes about 9 pints! Almost enough to have one to give away...

Hmm...last year's pic, and I only count 7 pints. Maybe we drank two on the spot.

Trust me--when all this sunshine and warm weather goes away, taking with it the last of the real tomatoes and all the fresh pico de gallo I've been making, homemade salsa will be the next best thing. So come out this Thursday or Saturday and load up! Yes, you can can!

In Case of Emergency

Friends don't let friends keep the harvest to themselves

As the sun sets earlier and earlier, and this abundant season begins to draw to a close, I've noticed the foodies around me going into nesting mode. They start buying produce by the boxloads and slaving over the chopping boards and stoves to put it by.

Funny to think that "canned" foods have only been around since the time of Napoleon (they did some preserved food in wine bottles before someone figured out those weren't very stackable), and frozen foods are even more recent. Before those innovations, your only options to preserve the harvest were drying, smoking, or fermenting. Fermentation has been making a comeback because of its probiotic benefits, and I admit reading Michael Pollan's discussion of it in Cooked got me thinking and putting a few books on hold at the library.

You know about this kind of fermentation, of course, to preserve grape juice...

But really I doubt if I'll ever mess with crocks of things stewing on my counter for days or weeks. I can't even be bothered to learn to can because there are just too many steps--who wants to sterilize jars and have to put them in a cooking bath afterward?

Fortunately for me, I have a neighbor who loves the whole business. She makes pickles, jams, sauces--you name it. And every year we swing a deal, where I bring over a portion of my husband's tomato harvest, and we make/can salsa together. She has the equipment and the expertise, and I provide tomatoes and chopping and pouring. Check it out:

So we're set for salsa, as you can see. The funny thing is, we'll consume all those jars, no problem. But if the world goes down the tubes in the near future, my own pantry won't be the one the post-apocalyptics raid--it'll be my neighbors'. And we'll be the first in line.

So if you're planning for Armageddon, better get to the Market this week. Anything can be put by, according to my neighbor's mom's 1950s Kerr Canning Guide:

Seriously. You will dance around in an evening gown after you put up those peaches.

There were recipes for every conceivable pickle and jam--watermelon rind? Check. Green tomato? Check. And then the sections of the book with fewer ancient stains and splotches--canned rabbit, anyone? Canned fried chicken? (I'd love to see a show of hands in the 1950s for how many people actually gave the canned fried chicken a go.) If you can it, someone will eat it, right? Or you can always give it to the kids' teachers at Christmas. "Happy holidays, Ms. Smith! Please enjoy our family's specialty--canned rabbit."

Perfect labels for it from

Put something by this week, or find a neighbor who'll help you do it! I dare you. There's great stuff out there, and if '50s housewives didn't balk at canning anything they could reach, what's to stop you?

Sweet peppers that turn spicy as they ripen?

Your own baba ghanoush?

Spicy Thai eggplant relish?