Sorry, but this won’t be a “how to” piece on canning. The web and your favourite bookstore have a collective harvest of info on this alchemic subject, and a “How to Can” story simply wouldn’t fit. What I will offer are the confessions of a canning junkie, a glimpse into my aromatic world of jams, jellies and other cannables — is there such a word? — the lovely stuff that we gather at this time of year from our gardens, orchards and markets to preserve for later consumption. Hopefully I can motivate you to relish — yep, those too — the satisfaction of putting a lid on freshness and basking in the magic, high-five world of having done it all yourself.
I have just finished canning the bounty from another great season and once again I’ve no idea what drove me to do it.
There is no end to my canning. I’m in a loop and I could start a trendy store with the goods that are now labelled and stored around here. Enough greengage plum jam to inspire a whole new summer, blackberry jelly to top the toast of swishy hotel breakfasts from here to wherever; tomatoes to supply pasta for every paesano from Pisa to the tippest toe of Italy.
I have canned, jarred, preserved, put up and/or put down everything that poked its leafy self into the golden summer of 2014 and went on to produce harvests edible. We could live on this stuff until 2020 and beyond. And probably will.
I surveyed the colourful, glass-bound scene the other night, knowing full well that there is more yet to come and asked: “Why am I doing this? This is either the work of a sick mind or of one who really believes that The Big One will come.
“Why have I bought Bernardin’s entire decorator production, their snap lids, labels and laborious instructions? Why have I consumed most of the sugar output of Fiji or wherever it comes from, the herbs and spices of the Indies, blatantly drained watersheds unknown? Why have I consistently broken the rules of the power company to “process” all of this stuff, waited into the wee hours to count down popping lids, heart a-flutter until I hear the sound of satisfying, certain seals?”
Am I alone in all of this, or are there others our there who pluck, pick, peel, cut, squeeze, pack and prod food into jars? What motivates this driven, squirreling army?
I was not a child of the Depression, although goodness knows I heard about it often enough and lived the clean-up-your-plate-or-you-don’t-leave-the-table lessons it taught my parents. They were certainly preservers. Peaches, apricots, pears and all the rest went into jars, the rubber rings were set carefully in place and the lids were snapped firm with rusty clasps, before the water bath bubbled the harvest into its sugary preserved state.
But even back then, the deed having been done in a ritualistic, annual way, I can’t recall ever actually eating those treasured goods. This was no longer food. It had been transformed into preserves, icons of the age, destined to be kept forever.
Not too long ago, at my mother’s house, we opened pears that were put down — isn’t that something you do to a cat? — or up, in 1927! Almost ninety years ago, two years before the Crash, those pears were preserved for nothing more than a rainy day. We ate them in glorious sunshine with ice cream and a splash of Grand Marnier, as Mother grumbled away about the extravagance of it all. For Depression types like her, biblical rain will come — and you don’t break open the good stuff until the flood is licking at the bottom of your Sealy Posturepedic.
Many of my preserves are no more than a mere decade old. Like wine that is stored well, their quality improves — and it really does seem a bit early to start snapping lids, just because they are there. Besides, ’82 was a good year for peaches. Not a great year mind you. Adequate nose, but a little excessive in attitude.
So the great put down continues. The Scrooge McDuck of the squish circuit is driven — as others with passions are driven — to keep going until the last tomato is plucked, the last apricot pitted, the biggest strawberry jammed. True canners hunt for deals on jars, scan sugar futures, adjust computer programs to generate even more perfect labels, worry excessively about pops in the night that may not come, seek out new mini-storage locations that may be required to hold bigger case lots. Contemplating the “Nature of the Jell Point” instead of the navel. And on and on.
I need help, brothers and sisters! Either that or one hell of a party to get rid of it all.
THE ELUSIVE JELL POINT
The best things you can have going for you when you’re making jams and jellies are precision and patience. Especially when it comes to what we canners know as the jell point — when enough liquid has evaporated from the fruit you are using (e.g. strawberries) to concentrate the sugar, acid and pectin to thicken the mixture into spreadable jam or jelly. The best way to confirm that you have reached jell point is to use a thermometer. Check the temperature of boiling water where you live — higher than 220˚F up in the mountains — then allow your mixture to boil until it’s eight degrees higher than your boiling point. It’s then that your mix will have reached jell point. The patience thing? It always seems to take ages to add those extra degrees. And stand well back as the mixture goes plop plop and some of it ends up on your stovetop! Remember that if you don’t get to jell point, you’ll end up with a runny jam, and have to do it all again! (There are other ways to check for jell point, but the thermometer method is best.)
Springtime local berries are always best, but these days strawberries from other climes are available year round. This isn’t a fancy recipe. It’s simply an old-fashioned winner with a bright red colour.
2 quarts crushed strawberries
3 tbsp lemon juice
6 cups sugar
- Hull the berries and place in an 8-quart or larger pot
- Add the lemon juice and sugar; bring slowly to a boil, stirring occasionally until sugar dissolves.
- Cook rapidly to jell point — eight degrees above boiling. As mixture thickens, stir frequently to prevent sticking.
- Remove from heat and skim with a metal spoon to remove foam.
- Ladle into clean, hot jars, leaving 1/4 inch of head space, seal.
- I don’t process the jam in a water bath. As the jam begins to cool, you will hear the lids pop into a concave position. The seal is secure and complete. Store when cool.
I love a good curry with fluffy rice and lots of heat. I like it even better with a good chutney, the sweet taste of which perfectly complements everything that makes a curry what it is. One Saturday afternoon at a supermarket produce department, when those little flies had begun taking a fancy to the fruit, I said to the produce man: “What are your plans for those mangoes?” And he said: “If they don’t sell this afternoon, they’ll be chucked.” “Ten bucks for the case,” I said. “Deal,” he said, and it really was.
1 cup distilled white vinegar
3 1/4 cups sugar
10 or so peeled, sliced mangoes (ideally they should be firm, but if you make a deal at the supermarket, take what you can get!)
1/4 cup peeled, freshly grated ginger root
1 1/2 cups raisins
2 chili peppers, seeded and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/3 cup sliced onion
1/2 tsp salt
- Boil the vinegar and sugar in a large pot for five minutes.
- Add the remaining ingredients and cook for about 30 minutes or until thick. Remember that everything will be reducing and thickening and can easily burn!
- It’s best to use a pot with a thick bottom, which on a re-read sounds a bit rude! Pack into clean, hot half-pint jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace, seal.
- Process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Wait for the lids to pop before you go to bed. Make fancy labels.
This is a very simple recipe that was given to me years ago by Emily Scott, a wonderful lady who always sends birthday cards to absolutely everyone. Don’t you hate people like that?
1 cup cider vinegar
3 cups water
1/4 cup pickling salt
- Mix ingredients and bring to a boil. Add a clove of garlic and a healthy sprig of dill to well-scrubbed pickles placed whole in sterile jars.
- Pour the hot liquid over the dills to cover. Seal with screw top lids. I don’t process the dills. They last up to a year in a cool place.
- The ingredients can be increased proportionately for larger quantities. I once used a four-gallon mayonnaise bucket, picked up from a restaurant. The dills sat on the deck all year. It’s more fun diving into a pickle barrel than it is into a jar.
Yields 4 pints
Everyone knows how to pickle beets, but here’s how I do them. They’re a fabulous accompaniment to cold meats and salads, and as an extra at any time of year.
2 quarts beets (about 2 inches diameter)
1 1/3 cups sugar
2 1/2 cups cider vinegar
1 cup water
2 tsp whole allspice
1 cinnamon stick broken
1 tsp salt
- Wash beets, leaving tap roots and 2 inch stem attached. Cook in boiling water until just tender (about 20 to 30 minutes); plunge into cold water, remove skins, stems and roots.
- Combine remaining ingredients in a large pot and simmer 15 minutes
- Pack beets into clean, hot jars, leaving 1/2 inch head space. Cut bigger beets into slices or pieces if you wish.
- Return liquid to boil and pour over beets, leaving 1/2 inch head space, seal.
- Process in boiling water bath for 30 minutes.
GREEN TOMATO RELISH
Yields about 4 pints
This relish is crisp, tart and complements all sorts of dishes. You will have to adjust for the quantities of tomatoes you plan to use.
2 cups coarsely ground green tomatoes (4 or 5 medium)
2 cups peeled and coarsely ground cucumbers (2 medium)
2 cups peeled and coarsely ground onions (4 medium)
3 medium-size tart apples, peeled and coarsely ground
1 green bell pepper, seeded and coarsely ground
2 small bell peppers, seeded and coarsely ground
4 cups water
1 1/2 tbsp salt
2 cups white vinegar
2 cups white sugar
1 tbsp mustard seed
6 tbsp all purpose flour, sifted
1 tbsp dry mustard, sifted
1/4 tsp turmeric
- Grind green tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, apples, and green and red peppers in a food (meat) grinder, using the coarsest blade.
- Place vegetables mixture in a large pot, add water and salt, let stand for 24 hours.
- Drain liquid off vegetables. Add sugar, 1 1/2 cups of the vinegar, and mustard seed. Bring to a slow boil and cook 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
- Sift flour, mustard and turmeric together. Stir in remaining 1/2 cup vinegar to make a smooth paste. Smoothness is important. Stir paste into boiling vegetable mixture.
- Simmer for an additional 30 minutes or until mixture has thickened, stirring occasionally.
- Fill clean, hot jars, leaving 1/2 inch head space, seal.
- Process in boiling water bath, 10 minutes.
PEARS IN SHERRY
It’s always a kick to add alcohol to canning syrups. Brandy, sherry, a liqueur — simply seeing these things on the label offers a promise of exciting taste. And so special for a gift basket of your canned goodies.
9 lb fresh Bartlett pears
2 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/3 cups water
1 1/3 cups golden sherry
1/2 cup lemon juice
- Pare, halve and core pears. Combine sugar, water, sherry and lemon juice in a large pot and heat to boiling.
- Drain and rinse pears in cold water. Drain again and add to the pot of syrup. Cover and cook until pears are almost tender — about eight minutes.
- Pack pears carefully in clean, hot jars. Fill jars with the syrup, leaving 1/2 inch of head space.
- Run a table knife between the fruit and the glass to release any air bubbles. Seal. Process for 20 minutes in a boiling water bath. Set aside and wait for the lids to pop.