Fall is creeping toward us in a graceful ballet of dying beauty. Crisp fall days are piling up like autumn leaves, the edges of the days, morning and evening, air as cool as a cold glass of water down a parched throat. Harvest! The word conjures golden tinted gourds, pumpkins glowing like autumn moonshine, glorious ruby apples, and the very last of the vegetable and herb gardens. Those sun-warmed tomatoes, cucumbers, and shiny waxy peppers filled with all the juicy nutrients of long summer growing days are now yours to preserve.
It’s time to put up the reaping, whether from your own garden or from the abundance grown by your favorite farmers’ markets, and canning and preserving aren’t that hard, nor terribly time-consuming. A little work, a bit of forethought, gathering recipes and supplies, and you will be rewarded with an amazing pantry full of summer goodness in the depths of winter. One taste of that homegrown and preserved pumpkin in your Thanksgiving pie, deliciously creamy and aromatic, and you will never buy Libby’s pumpkin pack again. Picture cold, gray bitter days in never-ending January. You are curled up with a steaming mug of your favorite tea eating scones or muffins liberally daubed with homemade apple butter or berry jam. Summer floods your taste buds and you silently thank yourself for being prudent; congratulating yourself for accomplishing the small task of preserving the harvest.
There are many ways to preserve produce, the most common being freezing and slightly more involved hot water bath canning. Both methods are applicable to many different fruits, vegetables, and herbs.
One of the simplest is freezing basil. While in its raw form it loses much of its taste and becomes watery, but gather that huge bouquet of fragrant, peppery basil leaves and make your favorite pesto recipe. Scoop all that aromatic paste into freezer jars, readily available in hardware stores, kitchen supply web sites, or simply into freezer Ziplocs. You can even load up ice trays, and when frozen, put those glistening cubes into freezer bags for individual portions. At the end of that long, terrible day, you will come home and throw some pasta into sea salted boiling water, inhaling the steamy vapors while waiting for the moment you can drain the pasta into a great platter. Add a few tablespoons of salty pasta water and crown it with huge dollops of your homemade pesto, a few shavings of parmesan and your bad day will fade as you eat each succulent forkful of luscious, biting green heaven and thank yourself once again for putting up summer’s bounty.
To get started, you just need to know a few simple things:
Never use blemished or overripe fruit, herbs, or vegetables. They tend to explode or go bad soon after you have put all that hard work in. It is important that you use good judgement when deciding whether to use that particular piece of fruit or vegetable, and if in doubt, pare out the bad parts and eat it immediately, or throw it in your compost bin. The buildup of bacteria won’t diminish with heat.
Cut all pieces of produce into the same size. This makes for uniformity in cooking, jar space, and preserving. It is equally important to remove all trapped air bubbles–that includes both canning and freezing. Again, bacteria grows when exposed to air.
Be scrupulously clean. That means you, your utensils, canning and freezing jars, and your dish towels that you wipe the rims of the jars with.
Clean all produce in cold water, drain, and let air dry. Run all your jars and canning supplies through the dishwasher on the heated dry cycle. Be careful with the rubberized caps – intense heat will degrade the seal.
Pay attention to hot water bath timing as well as freezing time limits. Think how disappointed you are when you open that tub of ice cream you have been denying yourself only to find it has completely crystallized. Again, air is the culprit! Just a small tip: After opening your ice cream, put saran wrap over the remaining ice cream before tucking the lid back on. This will help to keep out the air as well as offending odors.
Always remember you need acid to preserve any fruit or veggie you are planning to can. This can be ascorbic acid or even bottled lemon juice.
Never experiment with recipes, adding or subtracting ingredients, unless freezing. But remember some veggies just don’t freeze well in their natural form, like zucchini (it just turns into formless mush). Much better to pickle it along with your cucumbers and peppers.
That said, you can save a great deal of money and shopping time by putting up your own tomato sauce, pickles, jams, peas, beans, and almost anything you can think of. It is worth your time and efforts, and the rewards are immeasurable.
Every time you pull one of those beautiful jars or frozen bags of summer out of your pantry or freezer, sigh with anticipation and know that you have participated in the time-honored tradition of preserving the harvest.
Need recipes? Here’s one of my favorites:
Most everyone loves hot sauce–mild, moderate, hot or scorch your socks!!
Chilies: use jalapeño, sweet banana, Italian wax pepper, Mexican habanero, scotch bonnets, or all of them. Just choose according to your heat preferences
Garlic cloves, peeled ends cut off but left whole
White or cider vinegar
Remember, no blemishes, clean your produce, and let air dry!
You will also need a sterilized narrow-mouthed bottle. If you have friends that drink beer with attached seals and hinged pressure caps, collect a few. Grolsch flip-top bottles work great! Otherwise, save your smallest liquor bottles with corked lids like Grey Goose vodka. You can also use wine bottles but will need new corks–don’t reuse the original.
Now that you have clean ingredients and clean bottles, just stuff those peppers in whole or sliced if too large into the bottle (don’t discard the seeds). Push in a few garlic cloves as well–be sure to leave head space in the neck of the bottle. Add your choice of vinegar, leaving about an inch and a half at the top. Use a sterilized skewer to release any air bubbles, pushing gently against the peppers. Seal or cork, and store on the door of your refrigerator. Turn the bottle upside down to disperse the vinegar a few times a week. Pepper sauce will only get better with time.
Add it to your collard greens, black eyed peas, stewed tomatoes–anything that needs a tad of vinegary heat! My dad pulls out some of the pickled peppers and chops them up to eat with his Hoppin’ John. In that case, you will need to add more peppers periodically. Just follow the original directions and you can keep your pepper bottle going for a long time.
For more specific instructions and recipes my go-to bible is the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving. Very simple instructions and recipes. Start with this and enjoy savoring the fruits of your efforts in preserving your harvest!!
Mother of Katie & Hope, Cyndi learned how to cook through necessity and by watching others burn everything they touched. She’s spent her life fattening up her kids, husband, horses, dogs, cats, fish, and yes even gerbils at one point. She’s a traditional Southern lady with a healthy dose of mermaid tendencies and tree hugging dirt worshiping. At a solid 5 feet tall, Cyndi’s spent her whole life with a big opinions, big trucks, and big dogs, and yes, maybe she has a Napoleon complex, but it’s ok, she’s passed it on to her daughters. She never met a critter she didn’t love, a child she didn’t spoil, or a meal she didn’t want to make.