As soon as the holidays are over gardeners immediately turn theirr attention to garden planning. Just thinking about green plants, sunshine and the longer days of summer is enough to help many of us get through the last few weeks of winter. If you’re freeze drying this year, you may want to make some allowances in your garden planning. For example, while most gardeners only plant a few plants known for their bumper crops, those with freeze dryers plant with abandon because they know none of it will go to waste. These three vegetables are our favorites because they’re so versatile. Even if your plants produce far more than you can eat, there are so many ways to prepare these three staple vegetables that you’ll be able to enjoy everything your garden gives you.

Tomatoes – Especially Heirloom Varieties

Tomato plants are known for going gangbusters in late July and August. Around the end of growing season, most avid gardeners can’t force down another tomato sandwich. However, tomatoes are full of lycopene, a powerful antioxidant, and it’s a boon to your health to carry on consuming your own organic varieties throughout the year. Our favorite way to preserve tomatoes, especially the more flavorful heirloom varieties, is by making tomato sauce for pasta, tomato paste for use in winter soups, and pizza sauce for our weekly pizza dinners. Of course you can can these sauces but it’s much easier (and safer to store) to freeze dry them in individual portions. If you do like making your own pizza, freeze dry some sliced tomatoes to toss on your pie right before it goes in the oven. The liquid in the sauce (rehydrate it before putting it on the pizza) will rehydrate the sliced tomatoes as the pizza cooks.

Okra

If you don’t live in the South you may never have experienced the joys of okra. Okra is in the mallow family and produces masses of delicious edible green seed pods. Southerners use the first crop of okra in soups, as summer goes on they deep fry it as a side dish, then, when they’ve finally hit their limit, they pickle the rest for winter use. Recently freeze dried okra chips have taken the South by storm. Freeze dried okra is light as a feather, flavorful, healthy and only needs a light sprinkle of salt to be utterly addictive. Okra, a native plant of South Africa, grows best in hot weather so Northern gardeners may have an abbreviated crop – but it’s still worth planting as much as you can.

Zucchini

Who hasn’t stood over their zucchini row in a particularly prolific year and wondered what in the world they were thinking planting so many? Under good conditions, zucchini plants won’t stop producing until they’ve buried you in summer squash. The trouble is, unlike tomatoes, there seem to be limited uses for zucchini. You can only eat so much zucchini bread, after all. However, zucchini is a powerful health food that is full of fiber, extremely low in calories, and packed with antioxidants and vitamins. Farm-to-Table chefs have recently given us new ideas for how to use zucchini – and all the recipes can be freeze dried. We use extra zucchini in soups combined with basil and Parmesan cheese – sort of a zucchini pesto soup – and this is a combination that freeze dries very well and is as good in summer as it is in winter. Extra zucchini is also fantastic when sliced thinly and freeze dried. A light sprinkle of salt or seasoning makes these chips a healthy replacement for potatoes fried in oil.

Spring is only a few weeks away – enjoy planning your garden (even if it’s just a few containers) and let us know if you have any favorite recipes for your extra harvest.