Yes We Can
Summer has arrived in force, and with it comes the pickling, preserving, and canning season. I bought my little house in Montana in large part because it came with a huge vegetable plot, and over the past eight years, Iíve consistently grown more food than I can eat. What I discovered after having a garden is that Iím now deeply suspicious of all grocery store produce -- itís something of a sickness, really. I look at a head of lettuce or a zucchini and all I can think is ďHow long has it been dead?Ē or ďHow many people have touched it?Ē As a result, Iíve experimented over the years with ways to preserve the summer excess for the long, long Montana winter.
Now a lot of people I know are afraid of home canning, but if you follow the rules, and pay attention when you open a jar, itís really quite safe. Like any other canned product, if it seems off, or thereís gasses or mold, then donít eat it. You do have to pay attention to hygiene, and sterilizing the jars and boiling all that water in the heat of the summer can be kind of a drag (itís the only time I wish I had a dishwasher, for sterilizing jars), but once youíve done it a few times, it takes on its own very pleasant rhythm. And it doesnít take a big investment to get started. Around here, a flat of two dozen new jars with rings and lids runs about ten bucks at the grocery or hardware store, and if you have a big pot, youíre good to go. I also use my wide-mouthed funnel and jar lifter all the time (I donít use plastic containers, so the wide-mouthed funnel comes in handy for leftovers, nearly all of which I store in canning jars). As you get more into it, and if you want to put up low-acid foods like tomatoes or meat, youíll need a pressure canner. I have several jars of canned elk and venison and salmon that came to me as gifts from my hunter friends. Seems weird until the first cold night in the winter when youíre tired and all you have to do is boil some noodles, heat up a jar and add some sour cream for insta-Stroganoff. I donít can meat myself, but the pressure canner comes in handy for tomatoes, and itís so big I use it for hot water canning as well. There are fancy jars available, although Iíve never actually tried to use the ones with the rubber rings for real canning, and if you really go crazy, you can buy an unlined French copper jam pot like I did a couple of summers back. Itís fabulous. Itís very wide at the top to aid evaporation, and the copper allows you to control the heat very precisely. It was a splurge, but it makes me insanely happy to use it.†
I started my preserving education with jam. Jam is reasonably easy, and I have two plum trees in my backyard, two enormous rhubarb plants, and in an empty lot just down the block, a grove of sour cherry trees, so the first excess I faced was one of fruit. I didnít even buy anything special that first year (which considering my book-buying habits, was uncharacteristically restrained of me) but turned to The Joy of Cooking -- thereís a whole section on making jam. Jam is really easy; I use a ratio of 3/4 pound of sugar to every pound of fruit. It sounds like a lot of sugar, but you have to remember, you donít eat it in huge quantities, and the sugar is what preserves the fruit. Because I donít really eat jam -- Iím not a person who likes sweets in the morning -- I experimented a couple of years ago with putting up damson plums and sour cherries in a sugar syrup. It was a spectacular success -- I used the same ratio of fruit and sugar, I just didnít cook it down so much. Once you get used to making jam, you can experiment around a lot with flavors, and even if you wind up with more than you can use, thatís what Christmas hampers were made for. I like to give edible gifts for the holidays -- we all have so much stuff, do we really need more? A basket with some jams and pickles and chutneys is a really nice way to show people youíre thinking of them without breaking the bank.†
With the recent DIY craze, there are a few new books on home food preservation that have come out, especially this spring. While I rely on the old standard: Putting Food By, by Janet Greene, Ruth Hertzberg, and Beatrice Vaughan, for details like how long to process in a water bath of pressure canner (and how to adjust for altitude), I donít find their recipes particularly enticing. That book is fabulous if you have a bumper crop of something and want to know the mechanics of preserving it, but for recipes Iíve been turning to some of the newer books that have washed up at my door.†
While I found Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It and Other Cooking Projects by Karen Solomon both pretty and interesting (her description of making bacon is particularly good), ultimately the book seems really scattered to me. It covers a lot of ground, from making crackers to making noodles to pickling, curing bacon and making yogurt. Iíve come back to this book several times looking for ideas -- I started some kimchi this morning with the last of the Asian greens that were starting to go to seed out in the garden, but Solomonís book is aimed primarily at home cooks making small batches. The title of the book does state that itís a book of cooking projects, and perhaps thatís the aspect that bothered me. For my purposes, it was backwards -- I nearly always start with an excess of something, and then cast about for a way to make use of it. I rarely cook from the recipe outward, deciding for instance that making bacon would be an interesting project (and it is -- I highly recommend either Solomonís recipe, or Michael Ruhlmanís in Charcuterie), then going out and ordering a pork belly. But I realize that the ease with which we can buy animals by the share here in the ranching West, as well as the relative spaciousness of houses that still tend to come with canning closets down in the basement, puts me somewhat out of the mainstream. If youíre looking to get started with making things at home that youíd normally buy, or if youíre looking for a book with recipes that would make nice holiday gifts, this is a good start. Her recipes are reliable, and her explanation of technique is also quite good.†
More to my taste, and now thick with Post-It notes marking those recipes I want to try as the fruit comes in this summer, is Put Ďem Up! A Comprehensive Home Preserving Guide for the Creative Cook by Sherri Brooks Vinton. This book contains almost a hundred pages of description of equipment, basic techniques and what can go wrong, all with terrific illustrations. Vinton divides her section on technique into two parts, one on food preparation methods: blanching, juicing, jams and jellies, vinegar pickles, fermented pickles, salsas and chutneys, and a final chapter on butters, sauces and ketchups. The second part of the techniques section covers food preservation methods, including refrigeration, freezing, infusing, drying and finally, canning using the hot water method. The second two thirds of the book is divided by ingredient, which is exactly what I need. There are sections on many commonly-grown and preserved fruits and vegetables, everything from asparagus to tomatoes, apples to strawberries. She runs the gamut -- there are quick recipes for refrigerator pickles, as well as bigger time investments like fermented sauerkraut and pickles, as well as any number of interesting and delicious-looking chutneys. The sweet preserves also run the gamut from butters to jams to jellies. The book also takes a more international approach to cuisine than does some of the old standbys: there are recipes for Indian pickles, kimchee and Szechuan Green Beans, all of which look really delicious. Vinton also has a good section on sourcing food for the majority of folks who arenít growing bumper crops of oddball fruits and veggies in their backyards. This looks like an exciting modern take on preserving food, and Iím really looking forward to a hot summer in a kitchen filled with boiling water baths, trying some of these recipes out.†
For those who get really hooked on preserving their own food, thereís†Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning, by the Gardeners and Farmers of Terre Vivante. The†Centre Terre Vivante†is an ďecological research and education centerĒ located in Southeastern France. They publish a magazine,†Les Quatre Saisons du Jardin Bio, and this book resulted when they asked their readership to send in recipes and techniques for traditional food preservation. Deborah Madison and Eliot Coleman wrote the introductions, and while Iíve learned a lot from trying some of these recipes out, they can also be hit or miss. I did the Tomatoes Preserved in Salt a couple of years ago and they werenít a success. The texture, for one thing, was weird. But I just love this odd book. The instructions for drying various fruits and vegetables are great, including one for preserving apples in dried elderberry flowers that supposedly makes them taste like pineapple. For the romance alone, this book is worth the price.†
Iíd highly recommend trying out home preservation. I started out years ago in a tiny grad student apartment in Salt Lake City because I couldnít resist a whole flat of beautiful Bear Lake raspberries (and also when faced with my mushroom bounty, as I discussed in May. The smell of drying porcini still reminds me of Virginia Woolf). Thereís been a lot of talk the last few years about eating locally and seasonally, and while I believe in that, I also believe that itís important to keep these skills alive. Knowing the mechanics of keeping food on the tables of our loved ones is an important thing. A lot of our grandparents got through hard times by the sort of thrift that food preservation teaches. Add to that the delicious factor, that youíre eating food you put up when it was at its peak, and you know everything that is in that jar, well, it makes it worthwhile for me at least. Iím looking at pickling and canning my way through until fall, when I manage to eke the last few tomatoes out from under the plastic-covered trellises.