Given that canning is such a popular trend right now, it's hardly surprising to find homespun preserves at upscale food boutiques for outrageous prices. Earlier this year, $10 pints of pickled beets in undistinguished glass jars on display in a gourmet shop had me amused if not actually laughing out loud.
Realistically, canning your own may not be as cheap as buying the mass-produced version, but one can definitely put up a handful of beets or, better still, brew up a batch of homegrown tomatoes or brag-worthy condiments for far less than 10 bucks a pop.
And there is just no comparison when it comes to taste.
Putting up food when it's in season and at its freshest is like sealing the best parts of summer inside a jar to be rediscovered during the dark days of winter, when most produce is either bland or tastes like the can it came in. Sounds flowery, I know, but I have landed in a panic on more than one grim February day when my personal home-canned tomato reserve had fallen below the halfway mark. Every year I step it up just a little bit more, stashing boxes of jars underneath the couch and into any crevice of my tiny apartment to ensure that the colours and flavours of summer never stop.
Following are some tips for enjoying tomatoes - which are among the easiest, safest crops to experiment with - well into the coming months. A comprehensive guide to canning in general can also be found at www.homecanning.ca, the website operated by Bernardin, the Canadian canning-supply manufacturer.
To get started, wash canning jars in hot, soapy water and rinse, then sterilize for 10 to 15 minutes in a canning pot (which is fitted with a rack) filled with boiling water. Keep the jars warm in the hot water until they are ready for filling. Heat the lids and screw bands in very hot water for five minutes but do not boil.
When they are ready, fill the jars with their contents, using a funnel to prevent spilling and leaving the headspace recommended by your recipe to ensure proper sealing. Headspace allows air to escape and expansion during the sealing process. Release any trapped air bubbles by running a plastic knife around the inside of the jar.
Once the jar is filled, wipe the rim with a clean, damp cloth and lightly screw a pre-warmed lid and screw band in place. Submerge the jars in the canning pot with at least two inches of water above them, then cover the pot and bring to a boil (this is called the "boiling water bath"). Start your timer when the water begins to boil and process for the recommended amount of time. Once the time has elapsed, set the jars aside to cool and wait for the popping sound that indicates a seal.
Store the jars in a cool, dark place for up to a year. Do not use any jar that does not appear sealed or shows signs of spoilage.
The importance of being cautious
Putting up food may seem as old as the hills, but what worked for your great aunt Winnie way back when may not be so safe for you and yours today.
Times have changed and so has our food. Through the years, all sorts of new and different hybrid varieties have been created, many with a lower acid content than the sort used in Winnie's day. We also don't live like she did back then. Our houses are warmer and typically don't include those cold pantries that kept food longer at a constant, almost refrigerated temperature.
So save those vintage canning pamphlets and cherished family recipes for posterity. And follow up-to-date directives and procedures published within the last decade or so.
Among the big perils to avoid are botulism and other bacterial nastiness. These thrive in a low-acid environment, so getting your feet wet by jarring up high-acid preserves like tomatoes, pickles and chutneys (see my recipe for green tomato chutney on this page) will embolden you to move on to trickier projects such as jams and jellies.
So step away from that bushel of beans. In fact, don't even bother with regular vegetable canning unless you've got a pressure canner - there just isn't enough acid content to make it safe otherwise.
If you're just too chicken to go there period, you can still get the taste of pickles, chutneys and jellies by making small batches for the fridge to eat in a few weeks tops.
Gayla's definitive green tomato chutney
Since the past summer's wet chill means that most of us are in for a glut of unripe tomatoes at the end of the season, this recipe showing just how good tomatoes can be even when green is especially appropriate. Substitute it for relish on a sandwich or burger or get fancy with a dollop on crackers and cheese.
2 pounds diced green tomatoes
½ cup finely chopped shallots
3 apples, chopped
1 cup raisins
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 cup brown sugar
2 finely minced cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh ginger
1 small hot pepper, deseeded and finely minced
1 teaspoon salt
Place all of the ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil.
Reduce the heat to medium and simmer until everything is cooked and the mixture has thickened. Stir regularly to keep it from burning in the pan.
Pour the chutney into hot, sterilized jars leaving half an inch of headspace and heat-process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes. Makes about 4 cups.
Superior heirloom tomatoes
Forget pickles and jams on your first go-around. Home-canned tomatoes can't be beat, are wildly versatile and are economical to boot. I promise you won't regret the effort.
5 pounds heirloom tomatoes
Make two, criss-cross slits in the bottom of each tomato. Loosen the skins of whole tomatoes by boiling in water for 45 seconds.
Immediately plunge the tomatoes into a bowl of cold water to stop the cooking process. Slide the skins off and cut out the cores using a sharp paring knife. Set aside in a large bowl.
Fill sterilized pint-sized jars with the skinned tomatoes, leaving a ½ inch of headspace from the top. Crush the tomatoes by pushing them down into the jars with your fingers as you go.
Add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice to each jar. If you prefer, you may also add a single basil leaf at this point, although I prefer to keep mine plain so that the tomatoes can be used in virtually anything.
Wipe and cap the jars and heat-process in a boiling water bath for 45 minutes.
Makes about 8 pint jars.
Old-fashioned tomato ketchup
Homemade ketchup is rich, full-bodied and infinitely better than the over-processed, corn syrup-laden commercial version.
7 pounds tomatoes, chopped
2 cups onion, chopped
1 cup bell pepper, chopped
½ cup sugar
1 tablespoon molasses
1 1/4 cup cider vinegar
12 whole cloves
15 whole allspice
6 cardamom pods
1 teaspoon coriander seed
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon coarse salt
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
Place chopped tomatoes, onions and peppers in a large pot. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Press through a food mill to make a smooth sauce.
To make the spice packet, cut a 5-inch square of cheesecloth, place the spices in the centre and tie closed with a piece of twine.
Return the sauce to the pot and add sugar, vinegar and the spice packet.
Simmer on medium-low heat for 30 minutes to an hour until the sauce has reduced down to the desired consistency. Stir often to prevent the bottom burning.
Remove from the heat and discard the spice packet. Ladle the thickened sauce into hot, sterilized jars leaving ½ inch headspace and heat-process in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes.
Makes about 3 pints.
For more gardening tips, visit Gayla Trail's website, www.yougrowgirl.com.