September 2012

Charlotte Freeman


Food in Jars

As a cook who gardens (or as a gardener who cooks?) this is my favorite time of year. There's a steady stream of produce coming in that just cries out to be canned, preserved, pickled, or fermented. Home food preservation feels to me like being a little kid again, making potions and squirreling away treasures at the back of the closet. There I am, most weekend mornings, cleaning produce, putting aromatics in jars, waiting for the ping! of the canning jars as they seal.

Of course, since we're grownups now and don't want to poison our loved ones or ourselves, it does pay to invest in some equipment and in a few books to guide your experiments. Canning and preservations books have come a long way in the decade since I bought my house and built my garden. When I first started, there wasn't much out there aside from the Ball Blue Book, Putting Food By, and the little pamphlet that came with my pressure canner. While I highly recommend each of these as basic references (especially one that came with my pressure canner), there are now all sorts of cookbooks about canning and preservation. Every year I discover new ideas that make my long winter of eating from the pantry so much more enjoyable than it might have been otherwise.

If you're new to the whole project, I'd suggest you start with Marisa McClellan's Food in Jars. Named after her blog, Food in Jars contains a terrific introductory section, complete with photos, that will get you set up correctly and safely with hot water bath canning, the most basic canning process. And since her focus is on putting up small batches, it's a good way to dip your toe in without having to worry about finding yourself, on a hot August afternoon, overwhelmed by 100 pounds of tomatoes. There's a terrific selection of recipes from all across the spectrum of things one can put in jars, from jams and jellies, to chutneys and pickles, to tomatoes and whole fruits. There's even a selection of dry-goods recipes for granolas and baking mixes-in-a-jar (terrific for gifts). While it's hardly a new recipe, I have to give McClellan credit for getting me to put up a batch of old-fashioned dilly beans. They're so delicious that I've been eating them straight out of the jar every time I open the fridge, and I just bought another two pounds of farmers' market beans yesterday because I'm going through them so fast. I tend not to buy much produce to put up since it never seems cost effective (and I have six fruit trees in my back yard), but a couple of weeks ago, the guy with a truck was selling delicious Colorado peaches on the side of the road, and McClellan's peach jam was just the ticket. Now there are six pint jars of lovely orange summer tucked away on the top shelf of my pantry.

Liana Krissoff's Canning for a New Generation: Bold, Fresh Flavors for the Modern Pantry is a book I've been turning to over and over this season. Like me, Krissoff made the move from the city to the country (although she lives in the South, where one can grow many more things than one can out here on the edge of the Montana steppes), and so she found herself wanting to figure out how to make the flavors she missed. What I love about this book is that she gives recipes for preserving things, and then also recipes for using those jars you've lined up on your shelves. I have been known to hoard jars (and boxes of pasta when I get existentially anxious), so this is a huge boon for me. The recipe for chopped sour long beans with minced pork has been in regular rotation around here for a couple of months. I had minced pork to use up from last year's pig (we order a whole pig every year after the 4H fair), and although I didn't have any sour long beans, I did have sauerkraut with a lot of carrot and onion in it, which gave it that nice, funky, fermented taste. And now I've got a batch of green beans fermenting in the pantry. My cucumbers started coming in last week, and while I have a crock of those fermenting away as well, I've fallen in love with Krissoff's recipe for Persian tarragon pickles. They're flavored with garlic, tarragon, and green coriander seed, all items I had in great quantity this year and that I like much better than dill. Like the dilly beans, they're addictive, and I'm going to have to put up another batch just to get me into the winter, much less through it to the other side. We've had a brutal summer this year -- hot and dry and windy and smoky -- but the tomatoes and peppers are happy, and with any luck, will ripen before we get a hard freeze. When they do, I have my eye on Krissoff's charred tomato and chile salsa. If we didn't have a local company making great ketchup out of local ingredients, I'd be tempted to try her ketchup recipe as well.

Both of these books are also full of recipes for putting up fruit. Since the only fruit I got this summer, aside from those roadside peaches, was a bumper crop of red currants over at my friend Nina's house, which eleven-year-old Liliya and I made into some gorgeous jelly, I haven't played around with those recipes much. But if you're in a part of the country where there is good fruit coming in, you'd be well served by either of these books.

My obsession this summer has really been pickling, in part, because I live with someone who doesn't really eat vegetables (I know, I know. He has many fine qualities. But yes, I live with a man with an unadventurous palate). So I'm always looking for inventive recipes for veggies that will allow me to add some sides to dinner without having to cook a separate dish, and pickling has been a great boon. Kelly Carrolata's Pickled: From Curing Lemons to Fermenting Cabbage, the Gourmand's Ultimate Guide to the World of Pickling has also been in heavy rotation around here, in large part because she draws generously from Asian pickling traditions. We have a dearth of real Asian restaurants and ingredients up here, which is frustrating. On the other hand, it's resulted in any number of my friends becoming very fine cooks of Asian food. You'd be surprised how well game goes with Asian flavors. Now that the flea beetles seem to have receded, and I'm getting mustard greens again, I'm itching to try Carrolata's Burmese-style mustard greens. They're blanched, then fermented with carrots, shallots, chilies, brown sugar, and some dark ale. She also gives instructions for canning them, which I'm just wild to try. The salt-cured Thai chilies are also on my list. If the tiny Hinkelhatz peppers out there under the floating row cover turn out to be as hot as they look like they might, this looks like the way to put them up for winter. (Plus I've wanted to experiment with salt curing peppers since reviewing Gary Nabhan's terrific Chasing Chiles last year.)

All three of these books are great resources for anyone interested in putting up some produce, whether the person is a novice or experienced home preservationist. But for those of you out there who have become, perhaps, somewhat obsessed with home food preservation, particularly fermented foods like krauts, kimchis, salt-cured pickles, miso, yogurt, sourdough breads, beers, and ciders, then Sandor Ellix Katz's The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from Around the World is for you. Katz has been proselytizing for home fermentation for decades now, and is in large part responsible for making it sort of normal in weirdo foodie circles to have a pantry inhabited by jars of things bubbling away. If you like playing with your food, and you feel pretty confident about branching out into some of the oldest forms of food preservation we know of, then this is the book for you. It's fascinating. Katz does deep dives into the history and biology of fermented foods across the spectrum, explaining how fermentation works in everything from vegetables to grains to beverages to meats (think cured sausages, or fish sauce). This is not a book of recipes (if you're looking for recipes, I'd recommend Katz's earlier Wild Fermentation), and even if you don't want to make these things at home, The Art of Fermentation is mesmerizing. I have no interest in making tempeh at home, I don't even like tempeh, but his description of how to do it is riveting. I love this book. It's going on the reference shelf with the Harold McGee books that explain how various cooking processes work. A book like this also comes in handy when you want to branch out and start building your own recipes. Some basic theory will help keep you and your creations safe.

While I realize that home canning has become sort of precious in some circles, I love all four of these books for the thoroughness with which they discuss process, for the new flavors they bring to the pantry, and for the friendly, unpretentious manner in which they each seem to want to expand our sense of what we can do at home, for ourselves. I hate to sound like a crank, but one thing gardening has taught me about food, is that the closer you are to the source, and the fewer things you do to good produce, the better your results are. Each of these authors wants to teach you how to play with your food to delicious ends. What more could we want from our cookbooks than that?