They call it canning, but really it's jarring. Which sounds a bit disturbing, so shall we go with "preserving"? Whatever you want to call it, putting summer's and autumn's produce in jars is satisfying when you do it and extremely rewarding when you come to enjoying the fruits of your forethoughtful efforts.
I am not an expert canner, nor a very experienced one. Over the last few years I've generally put up a few pints of cornichons, some bread & butters, and some ketchup. When I discovered Mes Confitures by Christine Ferber two summers ago I got excited about jams and preserves, particularly from wild fruits, and last fall when I picked up The Joy of Pickling (go ahead and chuckle over the cheesy title; everyone does) by Linda Ziedrich I spent a frenetic week-and-a-half brining, pickling, fermenting and canning everything I could get my hands on.
The other book that has particularly inspired me is Sandor Ellix Katz's Wild Fermentation. This book has become something of a cult bible among atavistic food preservationists. (The Joy of Pickling also contains recipes for many fermented pickles.)
Canning is another of those traditional methods of preserving food which, like smoking, I once thought of as arcane and daunting. In reality, it's very simple. Excellent ingredients and proper hygiene and process produce nearly foolproof results.
In addition to my basic ignorance about the process, I also had to overcome certain preconceptions. I imagined, for one thing, that canning involved hours and hours of sweltering labor. I had this picture of the Iowa farm wife in mind, I think, her brow damp and fevered in clouds of steam, toiling through the humid August heat to fill the cellar with jar after jar of vegetables which, frankly, probably didn't taste that good. The spectre of all those jars of mushy grayish string beans lined up on the cellar shelves was yet another roadblock. You wondered if any of that produce ever saw the light of day once it went underground, making it seem that canning was not about nourishment, but about penance.
With that image in the back of my mind, I wasn't too eager to rush out and buy a gross of Mason jars and get to work. Thankfully, I found another approach. I don't can vegetables, per se, but jams and pickles, for the most part. Paging through the books mentioned above got me so intrigued, I started making just a jar or two at a time, and I've been delighted with the results.
This sort of canning isn't about subsistence, but about pleasure, though there is an economy to it, preserving what's available and adding flavor and interest as you go. A glut of Anaheim chilies and baby carrots at the end of the season led me to combine the two in a visually appealing and quite tasty pickle based on a basic bread & butter. A few ears of sweet corn a bit past ideal corn-on-the-cob eating went in with leek and red bell peppers for a sweet and tart relish.
The brined cherry tomatoes (Joy of Pickling) have been a delicious revelation. They're fermented like Russian sour dills (something else we make a lot of), they made use of all those end-of-season tomatoes, both green and ripe, and it's hard to imagine a prettier pickle. There's a lot of garlic in there, some hot red chile, along with dill and the leaves of celery root. I will make these every year now, and I'll start earlier to stock up.
Onion and apple (Joy of Pickling) made use of a mess of apples starting to go soft. The apples came from trees which we now happen to own (more on that later). They're pretty tart, but nicely flavored with ginger and cloves. I'll make that again, but add more sugar or maybe some local honey.
The great thing about the these three books is that while they all contain instructions on sound basic principles, none is doctrinaire. They all show a joy in the process and a spirit of imaginative innovation, and they make you want to try out your own variations.
Now, I don't mean this as a tease, and I know it's a good couple of months, at least, before anything suitable for canning will show up in the farmer's market stalls around here--although, I am going to try pickling ramps and fiddleheads this year, and those will be around in less than a month...if the snow ever stops.... But I offer these words and images today because,
1) The canned stuff is about all of local produce we've got these days, and
2) It's never too early to start learning about the process, if you haven't done it before, or to plan for what you'd like to put up in the coming months, if you have.
For other books to check out, a couple of standbys are the Ball Blue Book, a nuts-and-bolts guide which also has a lot of interesting recipes, and Better Homes and Gardens, the good old red-checked standard. My ketchup and bread & butter recipes are adapted from BH&G.
Mary's not a big pickle fan. She's slowly coming around, so she'll try relishes, chutneys, and bread & butters. Me, I love anything brined, vinegared, soured, fermented, pickled in any way. If something like this really is the Ploughman's Lunch, I think I could be a ploughman. At least at lunch time....
The simplest pickles I know are the French sour gherkins called cornichons. I don't process these. Since they're done in straight vinegar, they will keep in the fridge indefinitely. They are the de rigeur accompaniment to patés, terrines, and other types of charcuterie, and find their way, chopped, into many salad dressings and classic sauces from tartare to gribiche. A simple, versatile pickle to start with even if you've never put anything in a can...er...jar, before. You certainly can.
French sour gherkins
1 pint fresh gherkin-sized cucumbers, 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches long
1 tsp salt
a few sprigs fresh tarragon
four pearl onions, peeled
two cloves garlic, peeled and halved the long way
three whole cloves
2/3 cup white vinegar
1/3 cup white wine or champagne vinegar
Wash the cucumbers and trim the stems quite short. Put them in a glass or ceramic bowl, and toss with the salt. Let them sit overnight, stirring occasionally when you think of it. If it's coolish you can leave them out. In warm weather start them at room temp, them put them in the fridge overnight.
The next day rinse and drain the salted cukes. Put them in a pint Mason jar, alternating with the garlic, pearl onions, tarragon, and cloves. Combine the vinegars in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and pour the vinegar over the cucumbers in the jar. Let sit at room temp overnight.
The next day, pour the vinegar back into the saucepan, bring to a boil, pour it back over the cornichons. Do it one more time the next day--three days, three boilings. The cornichons can be used immediately but will improve with a few more days' curing. Kept refrigerated, they will last indefinitely.
copyright Brett Laidlaw 2008