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A Gift Guide for Canners (+ Giveaway)

canning gift guide

I’ve been talking a lot lately about what you preservers out there can put in jars and gift to your friends and loved ones. However, I think that you all also deserve a few treats under the tree or menorah*. Here’s are a few of my favorite canning helpers, from cookbooks, to the best floursack towels out there, to my very favorite 2-quart measuring cup. My thought is that you can send a link to this post to a generous spouse, parent or best friend with a note that says, “I’d like number 2, please!”

Additionally, as my way of saying thank you to all of you who keep coming back, leaving comments and generally making the process of writing this blog a joy, I’m going to be giving away one of those 2-quart measuring cups. Mine’s an older model, but I find that I use this vessel more than any other bowl in my kitchen. This giveaway will be open for entry until Saturday, December 12th at 11:59 p.m. Just leave a comment to enter (one entry per person, winner to be picked via the random number generator).

Starting from the top left corner…

1. Putting Up: A Seasonal Guide to Canning in the Southern Tradition This is one of the best canning books out there and is great for beginners, as it contains all the instruction you need to get started canning.

2. A Stainless Steel Jar Funnel. I like the metal ones better than plastic. Looks better and is sturdier in the long run.

3. Weck Canning Jars. These European jars are beautiful and functional. Extra thoughtful gift givers will also pick up a set of plastic snap-on lids, which turns these into the best leftover vessels I know.

4. A Set of Graduated Measuring Scoops. I prefer using a 1-cup measure like the one pictured when filling jars with hot jam. It gives greater control than a ladle does, and is the exact right amount for a half pint jar. The rest of the measuring cups are useful too.

5. Floursack Towels. Canning can be messy business so it’s always good to have a stack of clean towels on hand. I like these white floursack towels, as they are absorbent, fairly lintless and can be bleached clean when you’re all done cooking.

6. Ball Utensil Kit. This is an easy way to get a new canner started, or to help an experienced preserver refresh their collection of tools (that jar lifter takes a beating after years of use).

7. My Beloved 2-Quart Measuring Cup. I think I’ve said enough about this item. I just love it.

8. A Good, Sharp Knife. I’m a big fan of my Global, but any sturdy, sharp knife will do. When you’re processing a bushel or two of fruit, you want to use the best tool for the job.

9. A Roomy Stock Pot. Instead of buying a pot designed expressly for canning, invest in a good stock pot. That way, it can also work as your pasta or soup pot. But slip a rack in the bottom and voila, it’s a canning pot.

10. Wide Mouth Half-Pint Jars. I adore these squat, easy to fill jars. For some reason, they’ve become impossible to find in stores (I often order a couple dozen and keep them stashed under my couch, for when they’re the only jar that will do).

What are your favorite canning tools? What would you like to see under the tree?

*Yes, I do know that Hanukkah gifts don’t go under the menorah.

Seattle Canning Class + Giveaway

pickled cukes and jalapenos

Thanks to the combined power of good people and cross-country emails, I have a world of good news to share. The first tidbit is that I’m going to be teaching a jam-making class in Seattle on Sunday, August 30th. Here’s the official blurb:

Canning Basics with Marisa McClellan: Fruit Jam
Sunday, August 30, 2009
2:00 to 3:30 PM
Learn just how easy it is to make and can a batch of jam from scratch. If you’ve never done any canning because you think it’s too complicated, this class will change your mind and your pantry forever. Each student will head home with the knowledge they need to make their own jam (as well as a small jar of the jam made in class that day). To sign up, email me at foodinjars@gmail.com.

Cost: $45

The class will be held at Starry Nights Catering & Events, 11200 Kirkland Way, #220, Kirkland, WA.

I haven’t determined what kind of jam we’ll make in the class, I’m planning on waiting to see what looks good when I get into town the day before. I assure you though, whatever we make is certain to be delicious.

The other fun item is that I’ve got another giveaway for you guys, and we’re going to get it going before the current giveaway concludes (you have until the end of today to throw your hat in the ring to win a jar of homemade blueberry jam). You might have noticed that a number of food blogs are giving away a Fresh Preserving Kit from Jarden Home Brands, the folks who make the Ball Brand Fresh Preserving Products. Well, thanks to a partnership between the Canning Across America project and Jarden, I’ve got one to give away as well!

giveaway composite

This is a great item for people who are just getting started canning as well as those of you who can regularly, but could really use some new tools. Included in the kit is the pot you see pictured, along with a rack, wide-mouth funnel, jar lifter, head space/bubbling tool and lid wand. Also included with this giveaway is a copy of the Blue Ball Book of Preserving.

So how to you enter for a chance to win? Leave a comment and tell me why you want it. Do you want to make jam? Are you a fool for pickles? Do you have fond memories of canning with your grandmother? Is your spouse tired of you using your stock pot as a hot water bath? Whatever the reason, I want to hear it. The winner will be randomly selected at 11:59 p.m. on Monday, August 10th and will be notified soon after by email.

Good luck!

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Homemade Pancake Mix

Pancakes on the griddle

As far as I’m concerned, my father is the king of pancakes (and waffles too). During his early twenties, he spent a spell working as a short order cook at the International House of Pancakes. After eating one doughy pancake too many, he determined that he could do better than the sorry mix that IHOP used. So, for a period spanning multiple years, he wholly devoted himself to the creation of a better pancake mix.

By the time my sister and I entered the scene (1979 and 1982), Mo was a self-declared pancake master. There was always a batch of dry mix in the fridge, ready to be combined with eggs, milk and glug of vegetable oil. It was perfect for those Saturday mornings, when nothing but a stack of pancakes would do.

During my lifetime, I’ve put in many hours studying the art of the pancake at my dad’s elbow. He taught me how to tell when a pancake was ready to flip (bubbles around the edges that stay open after popping) and to cook over a medium-low heat, so that cake gets cooked all the way through (to prevent the horror of a pancake where the outside is burnt, but the inside drips with raw batter).

Those pancake lessons were also my first instruction in the art of cooking by feel, as Mo eschewed exact measures when it came to batter mixing. Pulling out his favorite batter bowl, he’d beat an egg for each eater (and an extra for a leftover cake or two), add a nice pour of milk and a quick dollop of canola oil or melted butter. Once he had a loose emulsion, he’d scoop in a couple of serving spoonfuls of dry mix at a time, stirring until the batter was right. He’d look for something that wasn’t runny, but wasn’t stiff either. It’s something that you figure out over time, he’d say.

Since I’ve had my own kitchen in which to play, I’ve altered the sacred dry mix recipe a bit. Luckily, this is just the sort of creative thinking my father encourages, so all toes are intact. My favorite addition is the bit of toasted millet, as it adds a wonderful nutty crunch. This mix is a wonderful thing to keep stashed in a jar at the back of the fridge, because it means that a friend and family pleasing meal is always just a couple of minutes away. I occasionally make these for dinner and add a few chopped pecans and some sliced banana to each cake just after I spoon the batter on the griddle. By adding that bit of protein and some fruit, I convince myself that they’re a healthy and balanced meal (which I then drown in grade b maple syrup).

The mix recipe is after the jump. I make it entirely with whole wheat flour (a combo of regular and pastry), but if you like a lighter pancake, sub in some unbleached all-purpose. These are also divine if you splash a bit of vanilla extract into the batter just before griddling. The dry mix also makes a lovely housewarming or hostess gift, particularly for the pancake lovers in your crowd.

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Grape Catchup

clean grapes

I have something of a problem when it comes to vintage cookbooks. I can’t walk by a used bookstore or thrift store without stopping in to scan for some interesting new title. Some I buy just for their kitsch factor, but I find that many older cookbooks I pick up haven’t lost their utility to age and have quite a lot to offer, particularly for a girl who’s interesting in reviving the waning art of canning.

One of my favorite volumes is the New York Times Heritage Cookbook. It was originally published in 1972 and was written by long-time NYT food writer Jean Hewitt (she also wrote the New York Times Natural Foods Cookbook, which was a staple of my childhood). It’s an unembellished book, but it manages to capture the many distinct faces of regional food that were once present in this country (fast food, national grocery brands and TV have homogenized us in so many ways).

5~ cups grapes

I pulled it off the shelf a couple of nights ago, in my search for pickled lime recipes. While it didn’t yield any helpful recipes in that direction, I discovered a very intriguing recipe for something called Grape Catchup (yes, spelled just like that) in the Mountain/Northern Plains section (the book is organized by region of the country). It seemed both easy, calling for nothing more than grapes, apple cider vinegar, sugar and spices, and strangely appealing.

I made it last night, filling the apartment with the pungent smell of hot, fruity vinegar (sounds like the name of a band made up of pickle makers). What came out was a really tangy, sweet/sour condiment that would make a great dipping sauce (I also think it would be amazing on baked chicken or roasted pork – oh god, a pulled pork sandwich with this instead of bbq sauce would be amazing). It has sort of a runny consistency, as the recipe doesn’t call for any pectin or thickener beyond the grape skins (which do contain some natural pectins).

Grape Catchup

Being that I now have four pints of this grape catchup in seven separate jars, I’m giving away two half-pint jars to a couple of lucky readers. If you want to try this tasty condiment that you absolutely won’t be able to find on your grocery store shelves, leave a comment by Sunday at 5 pm. And, if you want to make a batch yourself, the recipe is after the jump.

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Pressure Cooker Navy Beans

Pressure cooker

I’ve known for many months now that a pressure cooker had the potential to change my life. Braised brisket in under an hour! Barley in just minutes! I danced around the idea of buying one for most of last fall, surveying friends and acquaintances back in January as to which pressure cookers were the most universally beloved. I diligently read the various reviews on Amazon, hoping to find the best pressure cooker possible. After an exhaustive research process (one might call it compulsive), I settled on a 6 quart Presto cooker, mostly because there wasn’t a clear winner and it was fairly inexpensive (as far as cookware goes at least).

When it arrived, I delightedly unpacked it, ceremoniously rinsed the styrofoam dust off and perched it on a side chair in my dining room. And left it there for the next two and a half months.

Two cups of dried navy beans

Throughout my entire pressure cooker hunt, I was actively suppressing a lifelong fear and mistrust of the entire pressure cooker category. In public, I was excited to try my new toy, while in the privacy of my apartment, I eyed the shiny new cooker with great suspicion. The reason is this…

In 1954, when my mom was seven years old, she spent the afternoon at the movies with her dad and two brothers. When they arrived home, they found my grandmother alone in the house, weeping and tending to a badly burnt face. She had been making pot roast in her pressure cooker and had taken the lid off before the pressure in the pot dropped. Scalding, greasy gravy splashed her face, leaving her dotted with burns that later turned into blisters.

The roast hit the ceiling and left a mark that remained for the entirety of my mom’s childhood. My mother’s younger brother, who was just four at the time, wouldn’t look at my grandmother until all the blisters had healed. Through some miracle, the burns left no visible scars, only invisible ones that prevented the collected Klein/McClellan family from using a pressure cooker. That is, until last Sunday.

Uncooked beans in pressure cooker

Knowing just how much safer pressure cookers are today than in days of past (you physically can’t open mine until the pressure has dropped to safe levels) and wanting to make a batch of chili to eat that evening that utilized some of the dried navy beans I bought the day before, I walked up to my Presto and frog-marched it into the kitchen. I poured in two cups of dried navy beans and five cups of water. Locking the lid into place, I slid the regulator into position and turned on the heat. As soon as the regulator started dancing, I set a timer for 30 minutes and continued to get other chili components prepped.

Finished beans

Half an hour later, when the timer went off, I killed the heat, moved the pot to the sink and ran cold water over it to drop the pressure. When the auto-lock dropped into the safe position, I unlocked the lid and found myself gazing at perfectly cooked navy beans. Success! Dinner was on track and I succeeded in excising two generations of culinary ghosts.

Fridge 4/28/09

I used most of the beans in the chili, but reserved a pint to keep in the fridge for the week, to sprinkle over salads or turn into a quick puree. One batch in and I’m a total pressure cooker convert, already planning to do some garbanzo beans tomorrow night for a batch of homemade hummus (we go through the 8 ounce containers from Trader Joe’s way too fast), which of course, I’ll then store in a jar. When I cook the garbanzos, I also plan on pouring some of them into a couple of wide-mouth pint jars and stashing them in the freezer (leaving plenty of headspace to account for expansion), for those times when even the pressure cooker isn’t quick enough for me.

And, just as I had suspected, my life in the kitchen is forever changed, thankfully for the better.

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Buying Used Jars

Testing Edge

Over the weekend, my friend Shay and I took a little road trip out to Mount Joy, PA, the Lancaster County town where she grew up. We left Philly early, as we had a busy schedule of shopping, lunch at The Tilted Kilt and seeing her parents. Included in our shopping stops were visits to The Country Store (an amazing place, with inexpensive organic flours, grains and spices as well as lots of hard-to-find-in-the-city canning supplies), Weis (they have really good prices on canning jars and liquid pectin) and the Mount Joy Gift and Thrift.

I love visiting thrift stores in less urban areas, because they are almost always an amazing source of cheap canning jars. This latest trip to the Gift and Thrift yielded a bounty of perfectly good, used canning jars, all priced between $.10 and $.35 a piece.

Here’s the thing about buying used canning jars. Sometimes, it’s the best deal ever. However, if you’re not careful, you actually end up spending more than you will on a dozen new jars. Old jars typically will be sold as-is, without rings. A box of new rings and lids runs around $4, so if you spend more than $.50 a jar, adding in the cost of lids and rings brings your dozen ready-to-can jars upwards of $10. In grocery stores, you can typically get a dozen ready-to-use jars for between $7-8 (prices do vary).

The other thing about buying used jars is that you need to take a careful look at them prior to making your purchase. Give them a visual once-over and then run your finger over the rim to make sure there aren’t any chips or imperfections. You won’t be able to get a good seal on a jar if the rim is uneven.

However, there’s also a lot to be said for buying used jars. They are often more unique and charming than the basic jars you get new (check out this fun Bicentennial jar I picked up). It’s a more environmentally sound choice. And your jar dollars go into the coffers of charity shops and individual sellers instead of large corporations.

Go forth and buy jars!

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