About this Blog

As I go into my second year blogging about cooking and eating locally, I am thinking more and more about my own heritage. Why is cooking and eating locally sourced food important to me? What values am I honoring by doing this and how were these values instilled in me.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Thoughts on canning and preserving

It is my favorite kind of autumn day here in New England -- clear blue sky and refreshingly crisp air. This morning I have the windows open to air out the house. I am dressed in a sweater and warm socks and have curled up on the couch with my laptop. It is a treat to be a little chilly after so many weeks of late summer heat.

Cooler days make me think of warming foods --spicy chilies, rich stews and savory soups. Prior to logging into my blog, I was looking up chutney recipes. My favorite is cranberry-apple chutney. The flavor of this chutney reminds me of warm fires and cozy conversations with close friends. I like to enjoy this chutney with goat cheese spread on crackers, paired with a glass of red wine. My husband enjoys the Indian inspired chutneys, so I will be making both a pumpkin chutney and an onion chutney for him.

The chutneys will be the last of my preserving for the year. So, now that the bulk of my work is done, I feel it is a good time to look back and reflect on what I accomplished and learned.

The idea to can and preserve came to me back in late March. The April issues of the magazines I was reading were running articles to celebrate Earth Day. I think it was Whole Living - Body and Soul in Balance Magazine that challenged readers to be conscious consumers and to think about purchases and the life the object one was purchasing would have after one was finished using it. This made me think of our recycling bin. Next to junk mail, the items we seem to recycle most are cans and jars. I already buy milk in containers for which I pay a deposit and return when it is time to purchase more. We don't drink juice, so cans and jars for soups, tomatoes, salsas, jellies and other condiments are items which fill our recycling bin on a regular basis.

I use a lot of tomatoes in recipes for soups, stews and other dishes throughout the winter months, so I thought one way I could reduce the amount of waste I create is to preserve tomatoes in glass jars I could reuse. I set this as a goal for mid-summer when fresh tomatoes are plentiful. My husband also likes to put salsa on his eggs and we eat it for snacks and with other dishes, so I thought salsa would be another thing I could make that would reduce the size of our recycling bin.

In fact, the more I thought about the things we use, the more I got excited about the things I could preserve. When the spinach, peas and asparagus began to appear at the farm stand, I purchased a couple of books about preserving food so that I could prepare for the appearance of tomatoes. Then, I thought, well why not preserve the spinach and peas? I use both throughout the year, so I went out and purchased a vacuum sealer.

My mother canned pickles, green beans, corn and lots of tomatoes in the summer months from her vegetable garden and I remember spending many summer hours in the kitchen helping her. So, I began the growing season feeling overly confident about what I could accomplish. Other than helping my mother as an adolescent and teenager, I knew very little about preserving food. I had made a couple of attempts at preserving strawberry jam -- both times my jam failed to set. However, I had been freezing corn for years. This was very easy as I would simply make more corn on the cob than we could eat at a meal, cut the kernels from the cob and put them in freezer containers to enjoy in a chili or side dish over the winter months. Based on my experience with the corn, I thought the freezing vegetables would be my easiest bet. However, what I do know from being a consumer is that some vegetables freeze better than others. Peas and corn seem to hold up the best, followed by carrots and spinach if you are going to cook these vegetables into a soup or casserole. After that, I don't find many vegetables are good out of the freezer.

The first thing I learned about preserving is that you need to work with really fresh food. This takes planning. What I discovered first with spinach was that I needed to get the freshest possible spinach...still wet from the field, bring it home, blanch it, squeeze out the extra water and then lay it flat on cookie sheets to freeze before placing in the vacuum sealer bags. I could not buy the spinach, bring it home, put it in the crisper for a few days and then hope to freeze it. I only managed to pull this (buying the spinach and getting it processed all in one day) off once; and, I only have two small freezer bags to show for this.

I tried freezing sugar snap peas. I blanched them, put them on cookie sheets, froze them and then sealed them in the vacuum bags; however, when I pulled some out of the freezer in August for use in a salad, instead of being crunchy like they were when I first blanched them, the thawed snap peas came out slimy and limp. I decided then, that I would simply enjoy snap peas when they were fresh and in season. For this same reason, I never considered freezing asparagus. It is a springtime treat best enjoyed very, very fresh!

I was never quick enough with the shell peas, but I plan on being better at this next summer. Peas are PJ's favorite vegetable and I keep them in the freezer throughout the year, so I hope to be able to do a better job of putting those away next season.

My next attempt was strawberry jam which I felt more confident about this time around. My jam set up and tasted wonderful made with honey; however, the last time I went down to the basement to retrieve a jar of jam, I noticed that 4 of my jars spoiled. It seems the seals were not good. My question going into next season is whether I should attempt the water bath method again next summer or simply put my jam away in the freezer.

My constant companion and resource this summer has been a book called Preserve It! I hope to be able to sit down and read through it more carefully through the winter months, but it has worked very well as a reference guide. Not only did I use it to find recipes and canning techniques, it also provided guidance for storing vegetables. I learned that the best way to keep peppers and tomatoes is out on the counter vs. putting them in the crisper. I also learned how to dry and store the cranberry beans we received in our CSA share one week this summer.

I made lots and lots of tomato sauce this year (shown above) as well as salsa, but I made these and then froze them instead of using the water bath. I am overly careful about food safety, so after reading about the need for getting the acidity level just right, I was not about to try something that might spoil and make me or my family sick. With this in mind, I've decided to invest in a pressure caner for next season and plan to spend the next few months studying and planning for the next growing season. My hope is to have rows and rows of canned sauces, vegetables and other goodies lining the shelves of my basement by this time next year!

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