Wednesday, August 30, 2006

How to Put Summer in a Jar

By Karen Melchers

One of the great joys of summer is picking the first ripe tomato or pepper from your garden. Even if you're a seasoned grower, the thrill of the first harvest is relived each year. It doesn't seem to matter if you grow your vegetables in pots, in a raised bed in the backyard, in a community garden, or on the south's all the same. You did it! You took a seed or seedling, planted it, nurtured it, and now you have a lovely result: A real, ready-to-eat vegetable.

Sometimes, though, enthusiasm gets the better of even the most experienced grower. We plant 10 extra, "Just in case," and then the drought doesn't happen. The sun shines every day and it rains just enough at night to give all the plants a nice drink. The deer and the bunnies don't play in the garden and suddenly you have not just that one beautiful fantastic first tomato or zucchini, you have 50. Every day for three weeks (you staggered your planting for an extra long harvesting season) your basket overflows. Soon, your family and neighbors turn their backs when they see you coming with a brown bag in hand. The kids whine, "Not_______ again!" You fill in the blank.

Worry not. The thing to do is put aside the sharing principle after the first give-away, keep the fruits of your labor, and put them up. 'Putting up' food means storing for later use by preserving. Believe me, there in nothing as toothsome as a fresh tomato sauce, made from your own tomatoes, when it's 11 degrees out and snowing.

The idea is to take the freshest foods, prepare and process them to kill the microorganisms and enzymes that cause food to spoil, and create an air-tight vacuum seal that allows the goodness of garden bounty to be preserved indefinitely.

"Sounds good," you say. "I've been wondering what to do with all these beans. How do I do it?"

I suggest you borrow a book on home canning from the library, read it, and then if the idea is still appealing buy a good, basic book on the topic. It will probably have the word 'complete' in its title because, like cooking or baking, preserving comes with its own terms, tools, and steps to follow and you'll need a good resource.

If you don't have a garden of your own but 'putting up' is still something you'd like to try this year, all is not lost. Follow the same book-borrowing, book-buying procedure detailed above and then purchase the bounty of someone else's garden or visit a nearby farm stand or co-op and buy some of their crop.

In fact, you needn't limit yourself to 'putting up' only vegetables or fruits. You also can 'put up' chili, soup, sauce, jams, jellies, meats, poultry, pickles, relish, potatoes, leafy greens, fish, clams, salsa, stew, stock, and even beef in wine sauce. There are many, many recipes available on the Web, in books or magazines, at your local University Extension and, of course, in your complete reference book.

Once you've found a great recipe, and before you harvest or buy the ingredients called for, make sure you have all the necessary equipment on hand.

First, you'll need a variety of clean glass jars (depending on what you're preserving these can range from half-pint to quart-sized) that should come with flat metal lids and screw tops. The second necessity is a large pan that will allow about 3 inches of water to cover the jars or a pressure canner. Third, are the utensils. You'll need a non-metallic spatula, a special jar lifter whose jaws are covered in soft plastic, a canning funnel, and a plastic stick that has a magnet attached to the end for lifting lid components out of hot water. These supplies are readily available, especially in August, at hardware stores, big-box stores such as Wal-Mart, some grocery stores, and, of course, online.

Now you're ready to begin. Allow yourself plenty of uninterrupted time when you're 'putting up' and you'll soon find that there's a rhythm to the process that's enjoyable in itself. When you're done put the jars up on an open shelf ('put up,' get it?) They're colorful and beautiful and every time you look at them you'll feel a sense of pride in your accomplishment.

The real joy will come, though, on the snowy day that you pull down a jar, open it, and take a sniff. Ahhh! Summer in a jar.

No comments: