Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Yes, We Can!!

As I have mentioned in previous blogs, I have set out on a quest to eat locally whenever possible. For the month of October, I have joined the Eat Local Challenge, which is encouraging people all over the country to enjoy local bounty this fall. (Yes, that was me with the six enormous avocados in my carry-on bag on my flight back from LA).

Right now in Seattle, I have found myself surrounded with an abundance of blackberries and tomatoes, so what better way to celebrate this abundance than to preserve it? Besides, canning dates back hundreds of years, so how hard could it be? Oh, what hubris! What naivete! Clearly, we needed a mentor. I made a call to an Italian friend of mine who "puts up" many bushels of tomatoes a year (we're talking hundreds of pounds, here). I mean, this woman is a force; people invite her over as their special consultant.

A quick and easy bounty

First, my friend Anne and I picked several quarts of blackberries at Discovery Park in less than an hour! One of the lessons we learned from our haul was that if you are willing to make the time (and in this case brave the spiders that like hanging with the berries as well), you can gather enough fruit for months in very little time and for free! We also picked tomatoes from our gardens and supplemented with a box of "seconds" from a local farmer.

Loaded down with ingredients and ambitious plans, and armed with advice from my canning guru, Anne's knowledge gained from a canning class at Culinary Communion, and a book called The Busy Person's Guide To Preserving Food, we headed over to Anne's house to embark on some adventures in canning.

Let's see: Danger of fatal explosions. Possible death by botulism. This project had it all!

Let's start with the good news - we learned a lot. Here are the most salient nuggets:
  1. Head into your adventure with a positive outlook: Like many skills, canning takes a little practice, or in our case, trial and lots of errors. Remember, in order to succeed, it is imperative to have can-do attitude.
  2. Be sure to have a canny canner as your guide: Because there are not a lot of absolutes to canning - you need to know how much space to leave, how much salt to add, the right moment to take the jam off the stove or it will burn and become brown sludge (yup, learned the hard way) - it is a good idea to can with someone who has done it before.
  3. Don't be too ambitious: For our first time, we clearly tried to do to much. What's too much? Let's see... making jam, freezing berries, canning sauce, and canning whole tomatoes...that would be too much. We started at 1:30pm and were not done until 3am. (Keep in mind that this included support staff, in the form of husbands, who came to help at around 10pm). I had to sleep it off the next day, and I hardly had anything to drink! I would say for first time preservers, two projects will ensure that your experience is much more canjoyable.
  4. Have all of your recipes ready and understand directions from start to finish: Since we were trying to use both a pressure canner and a boiling water bath to preserve our concoctions, we had a hard time transferring directions and figuring out timing. We also did not have exact recipes for everything; in short, "winging it" on your first time is not advisable!
Note on cooking berries: purple=good - brown=waste of three hours

Despite the burned jam, questionable space at the top of the jarred tomatoes (those little suckers shrink!), and the "in need of doctoring" tomato sauce and salsa, in the final analysis, we both agreed that we would do it again. Preserving food is an excellent way to eat diversified, local food year round. Up next, more tomato preservation (this time I'm trying roasting and then storing in oil in the fridge and freezing) and some potato and beet root cellaring...can't wait!

Woefully underprepared for a nuclear winter, but well stocked for a power outage or snowstorm; we gave ourselves a B-, overall.


lis said...

Ok libuse, impressive inspiration. I give you an A for effort reduced to a b b/c you needed the aid of other preserved and aged berries to get through(alchol). I might make a random suggestion, OUr mother is the queen of preserves any other trial and error could be saved by asking the expert who used to make us go berry picking every year and then made tons of awsome jam. I pity the person who had to clean up the brown sludge! lol. Good times come from a great "can-Do" attitude.

lis said...

You know you must have had a blast if you want to attempt it again and reap the fruits of your labor. I must make one suggestion, ask mom for some serious tips she's the queen of jam at home. Can you write down what tools one would need say to can fruit? I have limited stuff in my kitchen still.