You Can Can
“As long as you know what you’re trying to do, there’s no reason to be scared of doing it.” –Julia Child
Two weeks ago I taught a canning workshop for my CSA. We made a rose geranium-flavored apple jelly, and a pear chutney. It all went splendidly except for one awkward moment when I asked the participants to help me fill the jars. I had already explained exactly how much head space to leave, how to get out any air bubbles, and how tightly to screw on the two-piece canning lids. Yet everyone hesitated and a few faces showed genuine fear. Clearly they were thinking something along the lines of “If I screw this up it means botulism and I could die.” Except that it is scientifically impossible to get botulism from a vinegar drenched chutney or a sugar loaded jelly, and I’d already explained why.
Interestingly, when I brought the jars of beautifully blush colored jelly and spicy chutney to the next CSA distribution, no-one hesitated to accept them. In fact, a few of the canning workshop participants got quite competitive when it looked as though we’d be short a couple of jars. So I guess because I, the teacher, had made them they were guaranteed to be okay, right?
Not to disrespect any so-called expert’s hard-earned knowledge, but even novices are capable of learning things, and learning them well. I absolutely take seriously the need to respect the rules when it comes to food preservation safety, but I also trust people’s ability to learn and follow those rules. We all learned how to look both ways before crossing the street, right?
Ditto for foraging. You know who makes great foragers? Chefs and children. Children because they are good at remembering sensory detail such as the texture or smell of a leaf, and chefs because they are food-crazed and will learn any skill they need to in order to taste that next great heretofore unknown ingredient.
A week ago I was teaching a wild edible plants class at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and again I encountered that glitch of having the students who’d been avidly taking notes for two hours hesitate when I suggested that they actually taste a plant they had just correctly identified. And that was with me, The Expert, looking over their shoulder to assure them that their ID was correct.
Be careful, be certain, if in doubt throw it out. Absolutely. But do you really trust strangers in some mass manufacturing plant three thousand miles away, who cannot possibly monitor every can that comes out of their factory, more than you trust yourself? Remember the recent canned cat food recalls? I trust my home-canned tomatoes because I know the farmer who grew them, exactly what I did with them and how I processed each and every jar. That is food security. Not taking some brand name’s alleged expertise on trust.
If you want your diet to be more locally based, and if you want that local diet to be interesting in February, then even if you are not taking it to the extreme that I am you will want to learn a few basic food preservation skills. These can be simple. For example, knowing that chopped bell peppers need no blanching or other special treatment before freezing, but that it is helpful to freeze them in a single layer on a tray or plate before packing into bags or containers (that way, instead of a huge block of frozen peppers you have loose frozen pieces from which you can scoop out only what you need).
Home-preserved products taste good, support local growers because you make them from each ingredient as it comes into season in your area, can be great fun to make, add diversity to your winter diet, and make really show-off gifts. Have I made my point yet?
LEDAâ€™S BASIC CHUTNEY
Makes approx. 8 half pint jars. You can halve or double the recipe. Feel free to experiment with other types of fruit, including dried fruit. Apples, pears, nectarines, and green tomatoes all make excellent chutneys. Use clean jars, but it is not necessary to sterilize them for this recipe because the processing time is a full 15 minutes.
1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped
1 medium onion, peeled and chopped
4 lbs. fresh fruit, cored and chopped (peeling is optional)
1 Â½ cups raisins or other dried fruit
2 Â¼ cups brown sugar OR 1 Â½ cups honey
2 bell peppers, seeded and chopped
1-2 hot chilÃ© peppers, seeded and chopped
2 cups apple cider vinegar (at least 5% acetic acidâ€”the label will tell you or test your homemade vinegar with a titration kit available from online wine making sites)
3 Tbsp. fresh ginger, peeled and minced OR 2 Tbsp. wild ginger (Asarum)
2 tsp. non-iodized salt
Simmer, stirring often, for 1-2 hours until thickened. Pack into jars leaving Â½-inch head space. Process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.
I’ll be giving a workshop on Eating Locally Throughout The Year on December 1st as part of Just Food’s Good Food Now event. Food preservation will definitely be part one of the topics I’ll be covering!