Even with a winter as mild as this last one, by late February I want nothing more than fresh food. I start dreaming about juicy tomatoes that taste like a lazy summer afternoon, basil, sweet baby lettuce, lemon cucumbers, peas, and apples that are neither mealy nor from halfway across the world. I enjoy spices and sauces and am liberal with salt but I miss fruit and veggies that explode in my mouth with the slight taste of dew and unadulterated sun. Recently, I discovered that there is a way to stretch out seasonal delights: canning.
While for many people home canning seems like a throwback to 1950s housewifery, it has made a comeback with the growth of urban agriculture and the popularization of ‘fresh and local.” It’s a simple process that requires little and provides a great excuse for spending the day elbow-deep in nature’s bounty. Canned goods also make for economical—but nonetheless killer—gifts.
Canning involves filling jars with fresh foods and heating them to a temperature that destroys micro-organisms that cause food to spoil. During the heating process air is driven out of the jar, as it cools a vacuum seal is formed. Sometimes the seal doesn’t work, which just means you have to refrigerate the jar and eat its contents sooner rather than later. Pressure canning— which requires a special “pressure canner”—is necessary for canning meats, seafood, and dairy products. For fruits and most vegetables, a water bath method is used. In this method, preservation is achieved by immersing canning jars (with goodies inside) in boiling water. Timing varies depending on both the size of the jar and its contents.
You will need: glass canning jars, lids, and rings—available at hardware stores and online, a great big boiling pot, a large stew pot for cooking in, a large dish towel and small clean dish rag, tongs (to pull the jars out of boiling water), hot pads, cutting boards, knives, and time and some good tunes.
Canning jars (mason jars or bell jars) are made of a heavy glass and marked on the bottom. While they come in many sizes, wide-mouthed pint and quart jars are the most versatile. If kept in good condition, the jars and ring can be reused indefinitely. The second part of the lid— a metal disk with a rubber sealing-band—can only be used once for canning purposes.
Preparation: The jars and lids have to be sterilized before use. To do this, pour boiling water into jars and rinse out thoroughly, making sure to get water on the threads and rim of each jar. Boil water in a small pot and put lids in for 2-3 minutes. Set out to dry while making the yummy things to put inside.
TARA KANE B’12.5 is sealed.
Here are a few recipes to get you started.
Makes 7-8 quarts
The secret to an incredible marinara is the tomatoes. And it takes a lot of them (I mean way a lot) so it is important you pick the right ones. Find a farmer with a good variety of heirloom tomatoes—they are worth the extra cost. These will start popping up in Rhode Island in just a month or two. The red of the tomatoes should be saturated and deep. Most importantly, a really good tomato smells slightly sweet, juicy, and something like the perfect Italian red sauce it will soon become. If you do not have access to succulent heirlooms, don’t worry— fresh vine-ripe tomatoes are still worth canning, and can be compensated for with a little spicing.
35 pounds of tomatoes, diced. If you get the seconds—not as pretty, but just as tasty—from a local farmer, this should cost about $30.
2 onions, diced
4 cloves of garlic, peeled
For a spiced sauce:
½ tbs thyme
½ tbs oregano
½ tbs basil
1 tsp. cumin
1. Cook onions and garlic over low heat until onions are translucent. Add herbs if making a spiced sauce.
2. Add cubed tomatoes to the pot. With the pot uncovered, cook over medium to low heat, stirring occasionally, and let the tomatoes cook down until they have the consistency of marinara sauce (this may take upwards of 4 hours). Add salt to taste.
3. Preservation: Pour tomato sauce into sterilized canning jars leaving ½ inch of space below the brim. Wipe rim of jar so it is clean (this is really important), and then put lids on jars and screw rings on tightly.
4. Fill your big pot with enough water to just cover the lids of the jars. Bring water to a boil, and, using tongs, add as many jars as will fit without touching each other. Allow to boil for 20 minutes.
5. Sealing: Using tongs, take jars out of boiling water. This is the hardest part. Lay out a dishtowel on a solid surface and transfer jars from pot to surface, keeping jar straight and shaking as little as possible. Loosen the ring of lid halfway and dry off excess water. Within a few minutes you should hear the lid pop, which means it has sealed—the “dimple” on the canning lid should be inverted. Re-tighten ring. If the seal doesn’t happen, oh well! Put the jar in the fridge and eat within a few days.
6. Repeat boiling and sealing with remaining jars.
7. Put jars on a shelf and open on a rainy day.
To make a glorious salsa, follow the same steps and proportions as for the marinara, except: add 2-3 more onions and several more cloves of garlic, several diced jalapeno or habanero peppers (depending on how spicy the peppers are and how much fire your palate can take), and an additional 2 tsp. salt and 2 tsp. lemon juice or vinegar for each quart.
Makes 17 pints
Canning tomatoes is a way of preserving summer, but you can capture the taste of autumn, too.
First, pick your apples. While they are crispest after the first frost, old and slightly grainy apples are fine too. In fact, making applesauce is a perfect thing to do with middle of winter root-cellar remainders, or those seconds at the farmers market.
20 pounds of apples, cored and quartered
2 tsp salt
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp nutmeg
A few cloves, to taste
1. Put a little water in a big pot and throw in apples.
2. Stirring occasionally, cook uncovered on medium heat until you have the consistency of applesauce (up to 2 hours). If the sauce is getting too thick, just add a little water.
3. Add sugar and spices.
4. Follow basic canning steps for preservation. If you are making quart jars, leave jars in boiling water for 20 minutes. If you are using pints then you only need to leave them in for 15.
This is a finer version of applesauce that is heavenly on toast, waffles, and pancakes. Follow the same process as applesauce except: peel apples, cook for about 30-40 minutes longer (until you really have mush), and then press apple mixture through a strainer to get a much smoother and more consistent spread. I suggest using small jam jars for this.
If you can’t wait for summer or fall produce to start canning, picked onions are tasty year round on sandwiches, salads, and tacos.
2 large onions (I prefer red onions because they turn pink)
A few cups of white vinegar
4 tbs sugar
2 tsp salt
1 tsp cayenne pepper (optional)
(feel free to add other spices: cloves, bay leaves, chipotle powder, or juniper berries could all be good.)
1. Peal and slice two large onions into thin rings.
2. In a small saucepan, add the onion rings, spices, and enough vinegar to just cover the onions.
3. At high heat, bring the vinegar to a boil, and simmer for 30 seconds.
4. Turn off heat, and allow to cool on the stovetop.
5. Fill jars with the onions and pour in the vinegar mixture.
6. Preserve by boiling, as in the marinara recipe.