Canning the harvest

My childhood home in Burnaby had a cool room in the basement, with a small square hole to the outside. I recall the room’s earthy smell, and its colourful rows of preserves: jars of Bing cherries floating in garnet-red syrup, pickled crabapples of pale yellow tinged with rose, and ivory-coloured pears. Pickled beets, too, and dills, all lined up like soldiers.

Like knitting, canning is back in style, along with “slow” food, as many of us rediscover the process of preparing and eating food as a central component of artful living, rather than settling for fast food and eating on the go. Kitchen gardeners have always enjoyed reaping the tasty rewards of their labours, and those of us who delight in growing have been known to go overboard in spring. “Beans, again?” is a familiar phrase at the dinner table by summer’s end. The alternative, of course, is to preserve your harvest instead.

Canning does take time and organization, but may free you up in other ways. After all, who needs hot yoga after a day spent weeding and tending the vegetable garden? Canning is great for slowing down. Put on a favourite CD and go to it, then relax with a cup of tea and put your feet up while the jars are processing. Canning with a friend is also a great way to spend time together and produce a tangible and beautiful result you can share. If you grow the food, your friend could bring the jars.

For novices, dilly beans or pickled beets are especially easy, ditto tomato jam, and there is nothing like admiring a row of six or eight lovely, shiny glass jars of your own preserves. If you really catch the canning bug and run out of your own vegetables or fruit (canning can be habit-forming!), take advantage of the bounty available at local farmers’ markets.

If you’re making pickled cukes, remember that the cucumbers must be strictly fresh and ideally picked the same day for stupendous results. You can give your freshly picked cukes a 10- or 15-minute ice-cube bath, which translates into super-crunchy pickles. Clean cucumbers thoroughly, using a mushroom brush or other soft brush, or use a soft cloth, taking care not to scratch the tender skin. With the exception of some jams and special cold-processed or kosher pickles, canned foods need to be processed if you want them to last longer than a few weeks.

When it comes to safety, unless you are an experienced canner, do not experiment, cut corners or use jars with nicks in them. You can use the microwave to sterilize jars quickly. Wash each jar thoroughly with soap and water, rinse, then fill each a third to one-half full with water. Arrange same-sized jars four to six at a time in the microwave, and process on HIGH for approximately 5 minutes, ensuring the water has boiled for at least one full minute in all jars. Keep the jars hot and sterile, removing one at a time for filling and sealing. Processing still needs a hot water bath, because of the metal lids.

When canning is done correctly, it is quite safe. Many canning equipment companies provide websites you can access for more information, or do the old-fashioned thing and read a book on canning! It’s a good idea to label your efforts with date and contents. Attractive labels are available, or you can buy blank self-adhesive ones and express your artistic side. This is also a great task for kids. A few jars of murky-looking lemon chutney still sit in my preserve cupboard, labels decorated by my youngest son 12 or so years back. I can’t bring myself to throw them out. These are the things that rich food memories are made of, and kitchen gardeners are doubly blessed. It is a slice of heaven to raise, then preserve, and at a later date, partake of the fruits (or vegetables) of your labour.

The ritual of canning the food you grow is well worth the effort, and an enjoyable part of a gardener’s life, well lived.

Canned Tomatoes

Use the best, freshest tomatoes you can for this recipe, such as Beefsteak or Big Boy.
• One-quart canning jars
• Fresh tomatoes
• Lemon juice
• Fresh basil leaves

1. To sterilize canning jars, place in a large canner and boil for 20 minutes. Just before use, place seals in a boiling water bath for at least five minutes to sterilize them and create a tight seal.

2. Wash tomatoes. Place in a large pot of boiling water for about 1 minute to loosen skins. Remove tomatoes from water and peel away the skins. Remove the core and seeds, or use the tomatoes whole.

3. Place 2 Tbsp. (30 mL) lemon juice in each freshly sterilized jar. Add 2 to 6 basil leaves, depending on your love of basil (or omit it altogether).

4. Drop as many peeled tomatoes as you can into each jar, along with their juice. Pack them in tightly, using a spatula or knife to remove any air bubbles. Leave 1⁄4 in. (0.6 cm) space at the top of the jar.

5. Wipe rim of each jar clean. Place a freshly sterilized seal and ring over each, ensuring a tight fit. Place jars into the canner, ensuring an inch (2.5 cm) or more of water covers the tops of the jars. Process/boil for 45 minutes. Remove from canner and store in a cool, dark cupboard.

Easy Pickled Beans

• One-quart canning jars
• Water
• White vinegar
• Pickling salt
• Peeled garlic cloves
• Fresh dill sprigs
• Cayenne pepper
• Freshly picked green beans of your choice

1. Follow Step 1 of Canned Tomatoes recipe.

2. In a large pot, combine 2 cups (500 mL) water and 2 cups (500 mL) vinegar with 1⁄4 cup (60 mL) pickling salt. Bring to a full boil. Remove from heat and let cool.

3. Meanwhile, wash, tip and top beans to fit the height of the jars.

4. Drop 2-3 garlic cloves into each jar, followed by a large sprig of dill and 1⁄2 tsp. (3 mL) cayenne pepper. Stuff a handful of beans into each jar, squeezing in additional beans to fill any spaces.

5. Carefully pour the vinegar-water mixture into each jar, filling to 1⁄4 in. (0.6 cm) from the top of the jar.

6. Wipe rim of each jar clean, place seal on top and fasten tight with ring. Store at least 3 months in a cool, dry spot before opening.