How to fill your freezer in an afternoon

Among hunters of deer and other large, tasty species of wild animal, a certain type of glory awaits those who fill their annual quota before the season ends. The hunter who has “tagged out,” as it were, has thus used all of his/her available permits, aka tags, and has no choice but to call it good for the season, recline by the fire and sip hot cocoa in stockinged feet. To the fisherman, a comparable level of success is attained when one’s daily limit has been landed.

As a mediocre hunter and worse fisherman, I’ve yet to tag out on deer and elk, and have rarely landed my limit of fish. Luckily, there are other ways for the enthusiast of hand-sourced food to fill one’s freezer. I’m versed in these methods, to the extent that my winning regularly leaves me with no choice but to stop.

My freezer is full, and it’s not even hunting season yet; so full that if I meet success in that pursuit I don’t know where I will put the meat. And I have filled my last available jar-jarred out, as it were, with the likes of pickled peppers, roasted salsa, chile verde, and peach/blueberry jam.

To those whose freezers aren’t full, or whose pantries are half empty, don’t despair. I’ve been there myself, having allowed the season to get away from me, waiting too long until the frost is on the pumpkins and the farmers are rolling up their fields. It may be too late to freeze corn or make dill pickles, but the season still has some tricks up its sleeve. I do, anyway. My numerous failures at freezer-filling have helped me develop some late-season techniques for putting away local bounty in a hurry. One case in point: the acquisition and subsequent blanching and freezing of late-season kale.

Frozen Fall Kale

With all of the attention and love that kale garnishes, and the fervency with which it is proposed as more than just a garnish, there is a surprising gulf between the seasonal rhythms of the plant itself, and the habits of the larger society that has come to cherish it. The kale-lovers tend to gather on weekends at farmers markets, where they purchase not only kale but a rainbow of other fresh, local produce items. Outside of California, Arizona and Florida, most farmers markets are winding down by Halloween, which happens to be just around the time that kale starts receiving the regular tenderizing, sweetening treatment from the nightly frosts.
In other words, just as the kale is at its peak, the kale buyers are nowhere to be found. Farmers are left with tree-like kale stalks in their fields, bearing the finest kale of the season, with limited markets for it. This represents an opportunity for those with the ambition to go after it. And it’s as easy as asking a farmer, in these waning weeks of market, if they want to do any big deals on kale when the season winds down.

It’s important to not be in too much of a hurry here. The kale certainly isn’t in any hurry, as it will only improve as the fall turns to winter. And farmers may likely be in the midst of their final harvest push, and getting their farms put to bed, and may not want to talk about it until the market season is over, but give them a call. You may be advised, as they give you their contact info, that, “in a month; we can probably work something out.”

That something might be an open gate, along with an invitation to go out there and help yourself. Or it may take the form of a meeting in town, in some parking lot or coffee shop, in which a garbage bag full of kale is exchanged for money at a steep discount from what all of that kale would have sold for by the bunch.

Processing massive amounts of kale, even by the trashbag, can be a surprisingly quick chore. The kale will almost always be clean this time of year, because the new leaves grow from the top of the plant, which by this time is very tall, keeping the leaves away from the splatter of mud or other forms of mess. Any bacteria that could be lingering in those dark green leaves would be boiled alive in the blanching that happens before the kale is frozen. The kale will be plunged into boiling water for two minutes in order to destroy enzymes in the plant that would otherwise slowly digest it from within, even when it’s frozen solid in the freezer.

Strip the stems from the leaves, and blanch them separately, as the stems need an extra minute in the boiling water in order to properly blanch.

Use the biggest kettle you have, and don’t add more kale than the amount of water can absorb without losing its boil. Boil the leaf pieces for 2 minutes, and the stems for three. Remove with a slotted spoon or mesh basket, and transfer the kale to cold water, preferably iced. The cold water will “shock” the kale, halting the blanching process, and keeping it a reasonably bright shade of green. Drain the kale, pack it into quart freezer bags, squeeze out any air you can, seal them and freeze. A trash bag’s worth of kale will top off many a freezer, and won’t take up too much of your day.

Kale that has been blanched and frozen this way can be made into a hearty wintertime salad, when greens are at a premium. Make kale chips for the kids. Or prepare it in more traditional ways, like stewed for hours with a ham hock. Alternatively, you can go “motherless,” as they say in the South, and cook your greens with no pork at all. It sounds crazy, but believe me, it can be done.