Southern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
Summer Heat Speeds Drying
Drying is the simplest preserving method, and among the most historic, since our forefathers depended on this method, salt-curing, and smoking to preserve their food. Today, our equipment choices include the oven, microwave oven, and dehydrator, as well as the great outdoors.
In the oven, a pilot light or temperature of under 140 degrees is the ideal amount of heat for slow drying. For purees and halves or thick slices of vegetables or fruits on racks, I place the pans in the oven overnight. For thin slices, I do it during the day so I can make sure to remove them before they become too crispy. Microwave oven and dehydrator instruction manuals provide specific directions and drying times, so the drying can be accomplished quickly.
Outdoor drying in the sun takes longer since daytime heat may not be consistently over 100 degrees with low humidity. Trays must be placed out of reach of animals (including people sneaking tidbits). Insects can be kept away by wrapping the trays loosely in layers of cheesecloth. Thorough drying during hot weather should take from two to four days. Be sure to bring trays indoors overnight, since our evenings get moist. After drying is completed, freeze the pieces for 48 hours to kill any remaining insects or their eggs.
When testing foods for the desired dryness, remember that warm or hot foods seem softer, moister, and more pliable than when they've cooled. Dried vegetables should be hard and brittle. Dried fruits should be leathery and pliable.
Herbs retain more flavor and color if they are air-dried indoors. Gather snippets or long branches (they're easier to handle and make attractive gifts) while morning dew is still on them. If you can smell the herbs, it's too late in the morning, and the essential oils have already dissipated into the air; wait till the next morning to gather them. Wash off dust, and pat dry. Gather long pieces together loosely at the stem bottoms and tie for hanging. Lay small pieces in a single-layer on a rack spread with paper towels or cheesecloth, and cover with more towels. Hang bunches or place racks in a cool area out of sun with good air circulation. Check for dryness after a week. When crispy, tie bunches with a ribbon and wrap loosely in plastic wrap for gifts, or gently separate leaves from stems for bulk storage in a cool, dark place.
Favorite or New Plant
Parsley is my standby in the garden. It's a beautiful plant, it attracts beneficial insects when it blossoms, and it's essential for every vegetable recipe. I have no problem letting volunteer plants sprout wherever they wish. I just take my paring knife and a rubber band with me on every trip into the garden to cut a handful for the next meal.
Parsley seed, like carrots, takes a good three weeks to germinate. Scatter it onto prepared soil, sprinkle to water in, and lightly cover with cheesecloth, burlap, or a board to provide shade. Keep surface moist. Just about the time you finally give up, it'll come up. When about half of the seedings have germinated, remove the covering, and water well. Keep soil moist at least 6 inches deep. Transplant when plants have only a couple of leaf stalks, since the tap root will develop quickly and make later transplanting chancy. When you snip with scissors or cut with a knife, cut no lower than an inch, to allow the centermost foliage cluster to continue growing.