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Feature Thu Sep 04 2008
The smell of simmering tomatoes often triggers some of my earliest memories of my mother's father, who canned homemade marinara sauce in his basement.
In a pot so big I could crawl into it, Dzia Dzia seared off a heap of beef shank, sauteed a mound of aromatics, then simmered the whole mess with gallons of fresh tomatoes and tomato paste. A mixing spoon as big as my arm measured out sugar, Italian seasoning and other spices in appropriately oversized quantities. Everything cooked for hours, filling the basement with a delicious steam. When it tasted just right, Mom and Dzia Dzia sealed the sauce in Ball mason jars to store for the winter in the crawl space.
As an adult, I didn't recall the benefits of canning until too late in the season last summer, when my freezer bulged with gallon zipper bags full of blueberries, sliced peaches, chopped bell peppers, and blanched cauliflower. Freezing is an easy, safe and nutritionally sound way to preserve much of summer's bounty, and my husband and I have done it again this year. We added quart-sized bags of homemade marinara sauce to the mix, along with chopped basil and dill, packed into ice cube trays and frozen in tablespoon-sized portions with just a touch of water.
Still, freezing can't do it all. The windfall of cucumbers from my sister's garden has been relentless since late June. A woman can only consume so many quick pickles in a given week.
And so our foray into canning began innocently enough this July, when we sealed a few jars of homemade pickles using the basic and approachable water bath method. My sister countered with her own sweet pickles, spicy giardiniera and salsa. Meanwhile, Mom and Aunt Sue pumped out their standard triumverate of jellies - strawberry, peach and blueberry - which they've perfected over the years.
Suddenly, it seemed like everyone I know was canning. My friend Katherine sealed up spicy asparagus spears and excitedly broke out a jar just weeks later to garnish a party's worth of Bloody Marys. Anna hosted a full-on pickling party (for Pete's sake), where lucky guests (myself included) made relish, dilly green beans, even more pickles, and sauerkraut (stay tuned next week, when I'll share a very simple sauerkraut-making method I learned from her friend, Rachel.)
The coup d'etat is yet to come: My husband and I acquired a pressure cooker from his parents' basement last week, which will allow us to seal jars of roasted red peppers. The much-maligned and misunderstood appliance is necessary to safely seal tomatoes, marinara sauce, stewed beans and other foods not preserved in loads of vinegar, salt, sugar or some combination of the three. The added pressure causes water to boil at a higher temperature than normal, specifically at 240 degrees, virtually eliminating the possibility of canning's archnemesis, botulism.
My best advice for newbies: start simple, with something low-maintenance, like pickles. Google "water bath method" and "pressure cooker canning," and follow the recommendations of at-home pros who have been doing this for years. Only try one recipe at a time, unless you relish (pun definitely intended) the thought of 12 uninterrupted hours in the kitchen, chopping, mixing and hovering over a steaming pot of boiling water.
And, for goodness' sake, if your end product turns out well, slap a nice label on the jar and make it your go-to gift for the year.