Who doesn’t enjoy eating a sun-warmed tomato, fresh off the vine? Or a crisp, frost-sweetened apple off the tree? As delicious as it is to eat fresh food, preserving it allows us to eat it out of season. Preserving can include any of the following methods: drying, brining, smoking, canning, salting, freezing, pickling, or cooking and putting into jars.
I grew up working alongside my mother in our kitchen, and learned how to preserve the incredible bounty of our huge garden and modest orchard each year. As children, my siblings and I helped tend the gardens, harvest the fruit and vegetables, and helped get them ready for preserving.
From the start of the season, we hulled strawberries and I spent hours over the stove, stirring the strawberries with lots of sugar until the natural pectin thickened the fruit. The resulting jam was a very dark, brownish red. Nowadays, I love using low-sugar or sugar-substitute-friendly pectins that require a fraction of the time and produce a beautiful jewel red jam. There are options to make “freezer jam”, or to process the canned jam in a “hot water bath”. This creates a vacuum seal in the jars, and allows them to be stored in a pantry or cupboard for up to a year (longer if there is more sugar). Most pectin products provide simple printed instructions. (For more information, you can visit www.pomonapectin.com)
Although I don’t make nearly as much jam and jellies as I used to when our children were young, over the years some of my favourites included strawberry/rhubarb jam, red currant jelly for making our German Spitzbuben shortbread cookies at Christmas, blueberry lavender jam (using dried lavender buds and essential oil), maple peach jam, gingered cranberry pear jam and pear chutney. (Are you drooling yet?)
I still grow lots of vegetables in our large organic garden. Most of August is spent in the kitchen, chopping, cooking and canning our cucumbers and tomatoes. This year I had a bumper crop of cucumbers, and have over 4 dozen quarts of dill pickles in the pantry! I still use my mother’s recipe, handwritten in French in her recipe book.
Tomatoes can be preserved in a multitude of ways. The easiest is to wash them, chop them into halves or quarters and freeze on a cookie sheet. When they are frozen, put them into freezer bags and they will be ready for you to pop into chili, soups or casseroles. (This method also works for many fruits. Freezing individually and putting into bags once frozen means you can remove as much as you need)
Another favourite recipe of mine is to chop Roma style tomatoes in half and place them on a cookie sheet, skin side down. Drizzle generously with olive oil, cover with sliced onions and lots of garlic, and perhaps some fresh oregano, parsley or basil. Roast in the oven at 400 degrees until soft. Then you can either freeze this in bags or put into sterilized jars, adding some citric acid or lemon juice as a preservative, and use a hot water bath to properly seal the jars. We love smearing this on crusty sourdough or French stick in the winter time!
Peaches and pears are simple enough to can, using a sugar syrup. I love getting a half-bushel of ripe fruit from the farmer’s market. Peaches can be dropped into boiling water for one minute, then put into an ice bath for easy peeling. I peel the pears, and remove the core, then slice up. You can make the syrup light or heavy, depending on how much sugar you use. Again, once placed into sterilized jars and topped with the sugar syrup, a hot water bath ensures the jars will be sealed properly.
So many people avoid canning, for fear of getting botulism. Certainly care must be taken, but over the more than 45 years that I have been canning and preserving foods, I’ve never eaten spoiled preserves. It is very apparent when a jar of preserves hasn’t been sealed properly. The telltale sign is that you don’t hear the “pop” of the lid when you open it, from the vacuum seal being broken. Secondly, if the seal was not good, chances are you will be able to see that the preserves have spoiled by the colour, or possible signs of bubbling fermentation. It’s very easy to spot “bad” preserves, so don’t let this fear keep you from trying! Here’s a website from the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs (aka OMAFRA) with some great references to point you in the right direction. http://www.omafra.gov.on.ca/english/food/inspection/botulism-2011.htm
One of my favourite books on canning and preserving is a Mennonite publication, called “Saving the Seasons”. It is full of easy to follow recipes and ideas for preserving the bounty. You can find it online: https://www.amazon.com/Saving-Seasons-Freeze-Almost-Anything/dp/0836195124
If you can, reach out to a relative, neighbour or acquaintance who does their own canning and preserving. I am sure they would be happy to show you the ropes!
Is it possible to buy tinned peaches in February? Certainly! But wouldn’t you rather support our local farmers by purchasing their fruit? As well, using glass jars that can be recycled year after year reduces the amount of packaging that needs to be recycled. Only the lids need to be replaced yearly. Best of all, there is nothing like opening your pantry or kitchen cupboard, and reaching for a jar of home made jam or preserves in the middle of winter. You know exactly what’s in it, and you can take pride in preserving a tradition that has been passed down over the centuries, and even millennia.