THE MERRELL BLOG: WHAT'S NOW. WHAT'S NEXT. LET'S GET OUTSIDE.
Returning Tradition to the Table: By Lisa Rose Starner
Preserving the Finest of the Season.
Now more than ever local food, farm-to-table adventures and preserving the harvest is in vogue. The resurgence of canning and food preservation is very popular; and people today are finding that it’s fun, healthy and the simple act of canning or making jam can be a time to gather around in the kitchen to nourish friendships as well as stock the pantry with the season’s bounty.
The season’s most fresh. From garden to market, beginning as early as late May, the farmer’s harvest season is ON. Local farm stands and farmers markets have tables piled high with fresh, healthy, sun-kissed produce: Early summer brings us berries and greens and then high summer rolls in with the tomatoes, summer squashes and melons. Fall brings root vegetables like freshly-dug parsnips, carrots, celeriac root, potatoes and in late fall, winter squashes are set in rows for our choosing.
Berries can be mashed into jellies and jams, melons and stone fruits infused into liquors with herbs for cordials, root vegetables combine well for hearty soups to be frozen, and the apples can be munched on for snacks and mashed up for applesauce. Tomatoes can be stewed and canned for winter’s soups, stews, and sauces. Pumpkins can be baked, pureed and frozen for pies, curries, breads and chili. Dark leafy greens like kale can be blanched and frozen to later add to green smoothies for that vibrant green hue.
Healthy meats, too, from local farms and deer hunts can be frozen or made into jerky for nutritious sources of protein that will also help the body remain warm during the cold, winter days. Stocks made from the Thanksgiving turkey and other meat bones can also be frozen and used throughout the year for nutrient dense soups and other amazing dishes calling for homemade stock.
If you are not fully familiar with the growing season in your area, take a look at a seasonal harvest calendar to get an idea of what is ready for harvesting when. What is in season at the Farmer's Market? What is ready to harvest in the garden? Seasonality and getting produce picked in its most vibrant state is one of the best parts about the canning/preserving process. Need to locate farms and markets in your area? Check out LocalHarvest.org for the nearest food growers near you.
To a novice food artisan, it can seem overwhelming with all the fantastic produce at the market. It can easily leave one confused as to where to start. My tip? Think about the dishes you like to make on a regular basis and what you may want to have on hand through the winter. Prefer canned peaches, string beans, or stewed tomatoes? Want to have a selection of condiments on hand like syrups or mustards? Want to make jams that can be used for toast, strudels?
If you are new to all this and you feel you need some guidance, think inviting over a few friends that might already know a bit about canning -- jam makers, pickle makers, lacto-fermenters, booze infusers -- you know the lot — they always have the best cocktail parties because their bars are stocked with handmade simple syrups and boutique garnishes!!
These seasoned sorts can help with the technical aspect of canning and can make those new to the preserving process feel comfortable in learning new skills. But remember, for the beginner food preservation and canning need not be overwhelming. Preserving the harvest can be as simple or as grandiose as you want it to be, depending on where YOU are at in your kitchen learning and where you want to go with your canning adventures.
Need recipe inspiration? Popular online food culture groups like Food in Jars, Canning Across America, Nourished Kitchen and Punk Domestics offer an amalgam of recipes for preserving the harvest, covering everything from infused liqueurs to lacto-fermentation techniques. No limits to the imagination once canning basics are nailed down — just make sure any recipe you use is tested and is food safe. Improvisation and food preservation are NOT compatible — unless you like courting a good case of botulism.
Got family recipes? This is an AWESOME time to resurrect and discover a part of your own history. Bring out the old recipe books for Grandma's fail-safe pickles or jam. If Grandma is still living, give her a call and ask her about her food preservation memories. And if you want to do some canning as a group, make copies beforehand to use as a reference and also for others to keep for their own recipe box. The sharing of recipes in and of itself is one of the great takeaways from a canning party.
Get organized. A well stocked pantry makes preservation more easeful. As you become a more seasoned food preservationist, you will learn what to have on-hand to preserve the bounty of the harvest on the fly.
It’s in every cook’s interest to keep costs low in setting up (and replenishing) their food preservation kit. Procuring second-hand equipment like canners, funnels, ladles, measuring cups and jars (new lids are required with each new batch of preserves) whenever possible is awesome. Grandma, resale, garage sales and estate sales are great ways to help build out your canning supplies. So in assembling your party, perhaps there is someone with a secret garage sale knack willing to help the group save some money. (See below for a basic list of supplies you'll need for your canning adventures).
Food safety. I mentioned this earlier — this is a big deal, but don’t let it be a barrier to putting food up for the winter. Before any food preservation begins, make sure you have a basic working knowledge of food safety, handling and processing. Take some time to review food safety basics.
For canning, the USDA offers a FREE online resource with a complete index of topics on canning and process at the National Center for Home Food Preservation. LOTS of good information, and highly recommended to be reviewed to ensure your kitchen is setup and the cooks are prepared for proper food handling and processing for maximum food safety.
And remember — this shouldn’t be all work. Take time to laugh, enjoy the company in the kitchen. Savor the moments of the season.
For a Well-Stocked Canning Pantry
Jars, bottles of all sizes per the recipes you'll be making (remember to make enough so everyone leaves with a few jars)
Canners, large pans, small pans, tea kettle for boiling water
Jar tongs, hot pads, ladles, funnels, measuring cups and spoons
Pressure cooker, if so desired
Pens, paper pencil to record the recipes, amounts especially if the canning party is experimenting with new recipes and test batches
Preservation materials: Vinegars, olive oil, honey, sugar, sea salt, kosher salt, liquor
Herbs: Dill, coriander, black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, cumin, garlic, onion, salts - list not exhaustive, and premade mixes are fine
Plenty of hand towels, dishrags, and aprons (food safety = work clean)