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Mid-Summer Preserving Check-In

sweet cherries

With just a few more days left in July, we’re now about halfway through the height of the summer preserving season. So far this year I’ve made jam from strawberries, plums, peaches, apricots, rhubarb and done some mixed fruit compotes. I’ve pickled asparagus, string beans, cucumbers, jalapeno peppers, carrots and okra. I’ve canned peaches with vanilla bean and star anise, brewed some homemade syrups, made chutney and experimented with tomato jam. Over the weekend, I led a canning workshop in which we processed 58 quarts of whole tomatoes (I came home with several) and I finally pulled out the pressure canner and put up seven quarts of homemade stock.

I’ve learned a lot through all that canning. Here are some of the most useful things I’ve gleaned recently.

  • A melon baller does a great job of extracting the pits from stone fruit (peaches, nectarines and plums).
  • Sour cherries make the best jam ever and should be purchased whenever you find them at reasonable prices.
  • Always cook jam in a larger pot than you think you need. It’s easier to scrub out a pot than it is to scour burnt sugar and fruit off your stove.
  • Make sure to keep a couple of wooden spoons that are just used for jam, there’s nothing worse than stirring your strawberry jam with a spoon that smells like garlic or onions.
  • Although I often preach that you don’t need to buy any special tools in order to can, having a jar lifter and wide-mouth funnel handy makes everything (at least in the world of home canning) easier.
  • Measure everything out before you start.
  • When it comes to canning peaches and whole tomatoes, pack ’em tight to avoid float.
  • A mortar and pestle is great for breaking down berries for jam (just make sure it doesn’t smell like garlic).
  • Taste what you’re making. Adjust your seasonings before committing food to jar.
  • When using a pressure canner, make sure to put a bit of white vinegar in the water, otherwise you get ugly water marks on all your jars.
  • Don’t be afraid to experience with new herbs and spices.
  • Just about everything can be pickled.
  • Making jam from the fruit you’ve picked with your own two hands is hugely satisfying (admittedly, I knew this one before, but I continually reaffirm it).
  • It’s okay if you aren’t perfect as long as you follow good safety precautions (a good lesson for life in general).
  • If the jam doesn’t set, call it sauce. No one will know or care.
  • Pickles just keep on getting better.

Okay kids, now it’s your turn. I want to hear about what you’ve made so far, the mishaps and the things you’ve learned. What will you make again next year and what’s going into the blooper pile? How do you feel? What still scares you? Has canning changed how you approach the summer?

Comments { 24 }

Pick your own berries

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When my family moved to Oregon from Southern California in 1988, we were quick to adopt elements of the Pacific Northwest culture. We stopped carrying umbrellas when it rained, instead preferring to either dodge raindrops bareheaded or wear a hooded jacket when the rain was torrential. We became even more committed recyclers and created an elaborate sorting station in the basement or garage to house our plastics and papers, until we could take them an appropriate drop-off point. And we became devoted consumers of u-pick fruit.

Several times each summer, we’d make the trek out to Sauvie Island to pick strawberries, blueberries, peaches and apples (we’d pick up the windfall heritage apples from the Bybee-Howell House orchard. You’re not allowed to pick the fruit from the trees there, but the newly fallen apples are still quite edible and make excellent applesauce). My mom would turn into a fruit processing machine upon our return home, making batches of jam and apple butter, and freezing bags of slice peaches and applesauce (in mid-winter, spicy homemade applesauce is the best after dinner treat).

The first couple of years after I moved to Philadelphia, I didn’t look for places in the area to pick fruit, and instead planned a vacation out to Portland each summer, timing it to coincide with blueberry season. Eventually, I couldn’t keep up the mid-July trip home and so found myself searching for other places to pick. Over the last few years, I’ve picked fruit at several area farms.

My very favorite is Mood’s Farm Market in Mullica Hill, NJ. Their prices are reasonable, they grow a variety of fruit (sweet and sour cherries, blackberries, blueberries, concord grapes, peaches and more) and they have a farm market where they sell the most delicious apple cider doughnuts. Unfortunately, they don’t grow strawberries, which is what I want to pick this weekend, so yesterday I found myself searching for other area farms that offer u-pick strawberries. I made a bunch of phone calls and the results of my research, along with u-pick ettiquette and more resources are after the jump. Unfortunately, the farms are only going to be helpful for those of you in the PA/NJ/NY area, but the tips are still good. Continue Reading →

Comments { 11 }

Waiting and planning

doughnut-peaches

Last year, my approach to food preservation was totally haphazard. I made blueberry and blackberry jam, because those are the things I like to eat or give as gifts. I froze several pints of grape tomatoes on cookie sheets, because they were threatening to become over-ripe before I had a chance to eat them. I intended to do more with peaches, nectarines and the spinach from a local farmer, but each time, I turned my head for (what seemed like only) a moment and missed the season.

This year I hope to plan better, to can tomatoes for the winter and have slices of nectarines tucked away in the freezer for February smoothies. I’m preparing now, gathering jars (oh jars!) and lids, studying the charts that indicate seasonal ripeness from my favorite U-Pick and making arrangements to teach a few canning classes as Foster’s (because what better motivation is there for preparedness than the commitment to stand in front of strangers and talk?).

I’m looking forward to the coming weeks, when the asparagus begins to pop through the surface of the soil and offers its tender tips for steaming (and pickling). I’m dreaming of a small stash of green garlic pesto tucked away for a dark chilly night and of offering friends and family jars of sour cherry preserves for the holidays.

For now I’ll wait, make a batch of marmalade and imagine.

Comments { 8 }