When an email from Kim O'Donnel went 'round a month and a half ago looking for bloggers and writers and other n'er do-wells to run their own Canning Across America event, I decided that, as a long time canning enthusiast, I would run a small instructional event in the Boston area and make it open to the public. I've always loved organizing and running food-focused educational events, and the Canning Across America weekend - this past Saturday and Sunday, August 29th and 30th - offered me the opportunity to not only organize but teach others how to do something I've found relaxing and rewarding for the better part of the last 15 years.
What I love about canning is its simplicity: cook food, can food, pasteurize food and store. Each step has its own meditative quality: the cooking demands focus and attention; likewise the canning and processing. Within the rigid structure of proper canning procedure is the opportunity for a certain kind of creativity: the process, though static, provides structure for improvisation in the recipe. And because it involves storage, a bumper crop or the sudden availability of a certain fruit or vegetable does not take up space in the refrigerator or demand focused eating session that so often results in palate fatigue.
Ever had to eat your way through 50 lbs of tomatoes? Probably not. Most people I know make sauce and freeze it or can it. And that same principle can and should be applied to the summer bounty as it becomes available and through its peak and decline. Though fairly labor-intensive, the reward can be enjoyed many months later: the taste and memory of summer, the deliciousness of a fruit or vegetable picked at its peak and enjoyed when local freshness is a dim memory. Here in New England, canning summer is a way of lifting the heavy cloak of winter - albeit temporarily - from our meals.
I'm not sentimental about much. but the flavor of a tomato picked in the heat and humidity of an August day in New England and savored in February warms me every time.
And I'm hardly alone in this.
The 24 people who joined me yesterday for our Canvolution Cantacular! (I wanted the name to be as ridiculous as I could rationally share with others without feeling completely idiotic) were also enthusiastic. Some were seasoned canners. Others had equipment but wanted direction. One was sent by his wife to bring back the knowledge. Some came with friends. Some came with spouses and partners. Some were old friends. Many were strangers - to me and each other. And all were uniformly excited and inspired to can at home.
Which is enough to reinvigorate me. I don't really think of myself as a psychic vampire, but after being around these people, I was infused with the spirit to go home and can. And preserve. And put by. And lead another class. And start a canning/preserving challenge.
I charged $10 per person for the class - I figured that I could cover the jars, vegetables, fruits and other ingredients with it. I was wrong - I spent a little more than I counted on because of the cost of berries. But that was okay. For me, the mandate of this class was to share and pass on knowledge and get more people excited about our summer bounty and what can be done with it. And demystify a process that really takes little more than a large pot of boiling water, some new lids, mason jars, and the ability to improvise. Don't have a rack for the bottom of the pan? For years I used a lid or a plate at the bottom of the pan until I finally ponied up the $10 for a rack. Don't have the tool to pick up jars from the boiling water? Tape the end of your tongs with electrical tape. Don't have a lid picker upper? Hot-glue a magnet to a chopstick. Everything else is gravy.Our Tools and, in the background, some canning books. The thing on the left is a lid holder. I don't recommend it. I've never used it and probably never will.
Our actual agenda for the class came out of a lunch with lacto-fermentation pro Alex Lewin of Feed Me Like You Mean It and Cornelia Hoskin, the Shepherdess of Homegrown.org, which is part of FarmAid. Through Twitter and a mutual friend, I met Nika Boyce, an exurban homesteader with a dozen goats, assorted chickens, and 1000 square feet of garden 1100 feet above sea level, who happens to be a Ph.D microbiologist and a pressure canning guru as well as a prolific blogger (her entry on the Can-o-rama Cantacular is here). I enlisted the amazingly talented graphic designer and friend Michael Fusco to design a simple label for our event. You can see more of his work here.
Alex teaches sauerkrautNika talks dehydration with Claudine
We decided that our all-day affair would not be limited to hot water canning. We'd also teach pressure canning (and it turned out to be a good thing, as several participants had pressure canners but hadn't used them yet) and lacto-fermentation, a traditional method of wild fermentation that results in healthy bacteria-laden foods that should not be processed. We also wanted to make sure we address other ways of putting foods by: drying, preserving in alcohol and sugar solutions, etc.
And so the day arrived. 24 people. 7 hours. 96 jars. 4 projects. It was a long day, part lecture, part hands-on, part social event. And it was fun!
The day was part hands-on (sauerkraut, mashing up berries, hot-packing jars, cutting up cukes - we were limited by a six-burner stove) and part lecture (don't get botulism, follow these steps, follow recipes for ratios, use commercial pectin if you like but we don't, etc). I showed them my favorite tomato-skin-removal method for canning, one which concentrates flavor, cooks, the fruit, and helps remove the liquid all at once: the dry roast.
Dry Roasting Tomatoes
Set the oven for 375. Place washed and cored tomatoes on a non-reactive sheet pan, casserole, or other baking dish. Bake until skins have broken and some liquid is starting to collect at the bottom of the pan. Place in a tall-sided non-reactive bowl and allow to sit for at least 15 minutes. Tomatoes will kick off more liquid. Skins will slip right off. Use the tomato water in cocktails, non-alcoholic beverages, and as a light flavor enhancer. Use roasted tomatoes as you would use a cooked tomato. At this point I usually combine them with garlic, chilies, herbs and salt. If I want plain puree, I only add salt and lemon juice, which helps lower the pH below 4.6. The lemon juice also helps brighten up the flavor of the tomato.
We heated up the tomatoes, added herbs from my garden and from Jacqueline Church's container garden, pureed it and then balanced it with salt and lemon juice (about 2T/quart) and checked the pH. We processed our 8 oz jars for about 38 minutes (I usually process my quarts for 45, so we adjusted a few minutes down).
Our pickles were a standard dill, recipe cribbed straight from the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving (highly recommended, a very handy resource for conservative, don't-kill-your-loved-ones canning). We augmented our pickles with a pickling mix I put together at home (just google "pickling spice recipe" and you'll find hundreds of variations) and some dill, pilfered from my community garden (as I drove in to class in the morning, I found my entire car smelled like a kosher deli. Not a horrible aroma, but not quite what I like first thing in the morning after not getting quite enough sleep).
And then there was the sauerkraut. Today it is salty cabbage. In 2 weeks or so, it will be sauerkraut.
Alex showed the group a method that involves intensely kneading the thinly sliced cabbage with salt that rapidly causes the cabbage to wilt, shed juice, and requires no weighting. Alex led by example.
A quarter cabbage filled a wide-mouth pint jar.
A bar transformed by cabbage
(For those in the Boston area who want to learn more about lacto-fermentation, Alex is teaching an amazing-sounding workshop in two weeks: Alex at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. If his teaching is anything like his demo yesterday, it is bound to be a fun, interesting, and fast-moving session. Don't miss it).
Nika, who has an arsenal of science knowledge at the ready, wowed the group with a clear, focused and engaging talk on pressure canning, which she does at home to put by everything from soups to beans. She explained pH and sealing and storage, and demonstrated to the group how a canner works and what a properly sealed jar sounds like. I was edified to find out I'm not about to kill my family with my pressure canning practices.
We were doing the wrinkle test as well as taking the jam's temperature
Jam making happened later in the day, after the pickles and sauerkraut and pressure canning and tomato sauce. Some of the participants had to leave before the jam was finished - it took longer than I thought it would to reach 220 F, the setting point for jams and jellies. And, in the process, I learned that I prefer my jams softer than the set they achieve at 220 F.
We used a simple ratio: 2 parts berries (mostly medium pectin blueberries and raspberries, with several pounds of low pectin blackberries thrown in for balance and flavor) to 1 part sugar, with about 1/4 C bottled organic lemon juice per gallon - not much more was needed for the acidic berries.In the above picture are two pots of jam working at once. One set about 20 minutes earlier than the other, as we managed to squeeze it onto the stove while we were still canning tomatoes. Yvette holds the candy thermometer patiently, waiting for it to hit the 220 F degree mark. In the end, our jam passed the wrinkle test before it hit temp.
And then we packed the jams, one 8 oz jar at a time.
Those who stuck around until the end - 5 pm- were rewarded with jars of Massachusetts Mixed Berry Jam. Blueberries, blackberries, and raspberry made for fabulous bedfellows.
It was a long day. And the bounty was abundant.
To see more coverage of the event, check out the following blogs:
- Nika's Culinaria: http://nikas-culinaria.com/2009/09/01/fun-canning
- The Musing Bouche: http://themusingbouche.wordpress.com/2009/09/01/yes-i-can
- Homegrown.org: http://homegrown.org/blog/2009/09/canvolution-can-o-rama-cantacular/
- Hungry Bruno: http://hungrybruno.blogspot.com/2009/09/can-o-rama-cantacular.html
- Sticks Spoons Spokes http://dinadina619.tumblr.com/post/178986982/can-o-rama
So what next?
At the end of our 7 hour canning marathon we discussed our next event: a holiday preserving class featuring, among others, Yvette from Queen of the Pantry as well as a canning exchange - yep, that's right. Bring 6 jars, trade, leave with 6 completely wonderful things made by your canning compatriots. We'll probably run that event the second weekend in November, just in time for holiday gifting. It will likely be a little more than $10 to cover our costs, but we'll figure it out by committee when we get closer to the date.
More immediately, however, we have some plans!
That's right. We're going to launch a monthly preserving challenge. There are tons of baking and cooking challenges...we're going to start something that focuses on seasonality, local produce, and preserves. We won't be strictly canning. We'll try out some liqueurs, some cordials, some more and less elaborate pickles, chutneys, sauces, jams and jellies. We'll post more about this soon - hopefully later this week so everyone can get their liqueurs going (hint hint).
I want to thank everyone who came out - you guys were great, I loved meeting all of you- and everyone who made this possible: Henry, Claudine - thank you so much for everything, without your help this never would have come together; mom for putting up with my clutter and bad attitude; all the farmers who cut me deals on produce; Alex and Nika for co-teaching and giving up their time to spread the gospel; Cornelia for being so supportive and doing good work through homegrown.org; Ronnie for letting us use his space; and my friends for being so supportive by actually showing up.