Preserving the Harvest

 


Preserving fruits and vegetables elicits visions of production line washing and chopping, heaving steaming pots of boiling water, and intense bouts of technical work in a hot kitchen.  While this may be true for many families that have an annual pickling, fermenting, jam making and fruit preservation practice, I don’t think it always needs to happen this way.  Small batches of carefully crafted preserves can be a relaxing and enjoyable experience.  Many people do not think about making 4 tiny jars of sparkling jam, or doing 3 jars of preserved tomatoes when there are a few too many lovely ripe fruits having on the vine.

Paul Bertolli says “Ripeness is the point upon which living things poise.  Relative to the long intricate process by which it arrives, ripeness is tragically short-lived…Ripeness then, is one of the naturally fortunate outcomes of life.  Tomatoes, cheese, and the new vintage ripen…”  Ripeness and harvest are interconnected, and so too is the preservation of that ripeness.

Preserving food is experiencing a resurgence and is an increasingly fashionable thing to do in the urban kitchen.   A quick flip through Bar Tartine, or a glance at Well Preserved,  each give examples of new approaches to an old tradition.  Sandor Katz has championed fermenting vegetables as a strategy to improve health and regain control and ownership over ones own food supply.

In our kitchen, we have consistently done autumn canning for most of our adult lives.  Though, each year the amount of time and energy we have to devote to this depends much on the size and success of our garden, and the ebb and flow of many other obligations beyond the kitchen.

These last few weeks I have been focusing on end of season preserving and a few highlights are described here.


The Sauerkraut

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I recently purchased a Medalta 2 Gallon ceramic crock.  The crock was acquired from an older gentleman who has no further need for it.  Just last year he had fermented pickles in it.  He asked me, suspiciously, if I was purchasing it as an “antique” or for “use”.  When I told him the crock was required for sauerkraut his face relaxed and I think he was pleased.  It is no longer easy to find a good ceramic crock without cracks in it, but I believe this is the best way to achieve good sauerkraut.

The crock is washed well before boiling water (gentle – you don’t want a crack) is poured over it to sterilize it.  A 2 gallon crock holds about 5 regular sized cabbages that have had their outer leaves pulled away.  They are halved, then quartered, and their cores are removed.  I shredded the cabbages with a good sharp knife, a little less than 1/4 inch thick.  The cabbage is layered into the crock and mixed with about 2 tsp of salt per half a cabbage (I would guess, I went by feel.  There are lots of recipes online with more detailed instructions).  Each layer is scattered with a few bay leaves and the cabbage is pressed very firmly.  As the salt softens the cabbage and leeches the water out, the cabbage presses more densely into the crock.  It should release quite a lot of water and keep pressing until the top layer is quite wet and juicy.

Weighted down with a tin of tomatoes on a plate and covered with a towel this will ferment and become lovely sauerkraut, to be packed into sterilized jars and processed in boiling water for 20-30 minutes.  It is important to keep oxygen away from the kraut, so cover well.  Fermentation time depends on temperature, total volume, and your own taste, but 2-4 weeks is the usual time frame.

This method comes from my mom, who learned it from my Polish Great-Grandmother.  She walked me through it on the phone from her combine, also hard at work preserving her own harvest.


The Tomatoes

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A few weeks ago I wrote of tomato confit which produce an amazing rich, sweet, and satisfying short-term preserve.  A longer term strategy for preserving the summers bounty, for a cold hellish day in March when spring feels like it should be here, is to can them.

Preserving tomatoes is much easier and more satisfying than I had thought.  In previous years I did not have enough of my own tomatoes to worry about finding ways to keep them over.  However, last year I expanded my garden space and have been able to increase my tomato crop.  This, along with a lucky growing season, has achieved a small and precious surplus.

The tomatoes are peeled by cutting a shallow cross on the bottom of each one and dropping them into a pot of water that had been brought to the boil and then turned off.  I drop a few in at a time and leave them for about 30 seconds.  They are lifted out and placed in a bowl to cool slightly.  While they cool the skin shrivels and shrinks and pulls off very easily.  I cut them into quarters and removed the stem and core.  These are packed into sterilized pint or quart jars with a bay leave a teaspoon of salt and squirt of lemon.  The sterilized lid is put on and the jars are placed into a boiling stock pot for about half an hour to process.  I wrapped the jars in kitchen towels to prevent them from rattling against each other and cracking.  A canning wrack would be better, but I don’t own such a contraption.

I adapted my approach from Bernardin and drew from methods outlined by Elizabeth David and Nancy Harmon-Jenkins.


The Runner Bean Chutney

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I was very surprised last weekend to find, as I was clearing my bean bed in the garden, a few bean plants still with fresh green and yellow beans to be picked.  At this stage of the year they are a bit tough and overgrown.  Perfect for chutney.

My favourite method for preserving beans comes from Nigel Slater.  This chutney is fragrant and interesting and is perfect in the summer over a locally produced organic hotdog or Polish sausage, or served over a grilled or fried meatball or kofta.  It would be especially good with a zucchini or carrot fritter as well.


The Quick Pickles

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At a certain moment every August there are too many large cucumbers to be able to manage.  My mother addressed this by dropping off an enormous box full.  A perfect solution is to make a sweet quick pickle that does not require any of the usual sterilizing, sealing, processing, and general chaos of canning.  I freeze these in little packets to bring out when my horde of nieces and nephews descend.

Two cups of vinegar, 2 cups sugar, two tablespoons coarse salt, 3 tablespoons of mixed pickling spice, 1-2 sliced onions and 6 cups of sliced cucumbers.  Bring vinegar, sugar, spices and salt to a boil.  Pour over the vegetables and let rest in the fridge for a few days.  These keep a long time in the fridge, but they do become more strongly pickled over time.


Canning is a job that should be done with care.  I do recommend you to do a bit of research.  Bernardin is a very good source for the technical aspects of canning and processing.  It is always important to use a good source for your recipe, as preserving food safely requires you to sterilize all your jars and equipment well to begin with, to have enough acid in the recipe (some foods, such as tomatoes are naturally higher in acid to begin with, but modern hybrids are bread to be sweeter and contain less acid), and to process it long enough to re-sterilize after handling the jars and to encourage a good vacuum seal.

 

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