I am watching the days grow shorter and the nights grow cooler and however much I love fall and winter I still go into a panic every year knowing I am about to lose my Fresh Food Gravy Train. Oh, the joys and consternations of eating Seasonally!
Here is a definition I have pulled off the web of eating Seasonal. I think it bears to mention because I am concerned some of you may think of seasonal fare as I did the first time I tried it, which was, eating seasonal in the wintertime means eating Kale and Beans for three months.
“What is Seasonal?”
Seasonal refers to what the land produces at any given time of year according to the local environment and the availability of water, sunshine, and soil nutrients. Typically, the farm season begins with asparagus and ends with pumpkins. Each vegetable or fruit is produced in profusions but for a relatively short period of time. Eating seasonally entails eating what is available when it is available locally, and canning or freezing what we can’t eat fresh for the upcoming winter months.
Did you take note of that last sentence? For the past few years I have been trying to “put up” my food for winter. Each year I get a little better at it, meaning I actually “can” something I want to eat later. My set backs to canning have been rotten food, greed, lack of time, other priorities, starting to late in the season and the inability to read a recipe! Even the ones I write, oh my.
I can elaborate a little for you on some of those set backs; it could be useful for both of us. The thing about rotten food is I always try to can like my mom did. She used to go to the farms in Northern Cal where we lived and come home with a couple of cases of tomatoes or peaches or apples. Then she would go next door and come back with an Auntie or a neighbor and a handful of cousins and neighbor kids. Combined with her own 3 daughters that would make very short work of three cases of Tomatoes. With all the food cleaned and cut, she would stop to make us kids and my Pop our dinner and then we’d all get hustled off to bed. My mom would make a pot of coffee and stay up all night long doing the rest of the work herself. You could hear the pressure cooker hissing and her tuning in her favorite country music station and the beautiful sweet smells of blackberry jam and every so often as you would drift into sleep you would stumble back into consciousness to hear the soft Pop! of another jar sealing. Oh how romantic and nostalgic I just painted this warm loving memory of Mom putting up food.
Guess what? I am kid less. I don’t drink coffee. One of my sisters lives in California and the other lives in Arkansas. The only time I was a Night Owl was in Aspen in the Eighties and believe me I wasn’t thinking about Peach Jam at 3 in the morning…So my first attempts at buying a case or two of fruit each time I felt the urge to can have turned into Compost. Good intentions aside, 30 pounds of peaches go south fast. I must tell you how I have fretted and worried about getting my beautiful peaches packed into jars tomorrow, tomorrow, even as the mold started growing and the fruit flies become a dark cloud and the smell of vinegar started wafting from the corner they were dying in.
Fretting doesn’t stop the natural process of decomposition though, so here is what I have learned from a few attempts at canning big batches of ripening fruit. Don’t try to put up big batches. Just do 3 or 4 pounds at a time whenever you have a window of opportunity and soon you will see pretty little rows of jarred peaches, raspberries, strawberries, plums and apples start filling up your basement shelves. The only drawback to canning this way is you never seem to have enough surplus to give those pretty little jars away as gifts. Oh well, it does make the Close Circle of Friends and Family knit even tighter in it’s own special, new way!
The Greed Problem
The “Greed” problem for me is that although I run a small, organic produce company in Paonia, chances are very good that if someone calls me up wanting to purchase that extra 10 pounds of Amish Paste Tomatoes I set aside for myself, I always need the money so I usually always sell my stash, just like that, all summer long. I am sure this won’t be a problem for any of you, as your intentions will be to can food for your family and not to see how much money you can make in 4 months of summer.
Lack of time, Other Priorities
Lack of time and other priorities, well I know we will all share those realities. All I can say in encouragement is, there is nothing quite like opening up a jar of Blackberry Syrup to pour over your Buckwheat pancakes in January with snow on the ground and cabin fever in the house. Sunshine in a jar… That’s what you get when you make the time to can. You can taste, smell and see the sunshine warming that little blackberry just as if you were at the Austin’s Paonia based Fruit farm, picking that fruit yourself the past July, (and maybe you were, I was!) Although as an aside, the ones that Tony and her grandchildren pick that I purchased from them, tasted just as good as the ones I picked myself.
Aside from the above vision of encouragement, there is something immensely more practical that I can give you to beat Father Time and Mother Too Busy. It is this little tip I learned from the efficient Farmer Moms I hang out with in Paonia. Prep your soft fruit and tomatoes and put them in plastic bags and freeze them for a canning session later when you have more time. I scrub, de-stone and split my peaches in half and throw them into a gallon sized plastic zip lock. I wash and core my tomatoes and make a big X with a paring knife on their bottoms. I throw all the tomatoes in a gallon zip lock for another more industrious day to come. The x makes the tomato easy to peel when you run warm water over them while they are still frozen. That is a very handy tomato tip, to join many other useful tips that I have learned from Monica Wiitanen of Small Potatoes Farm of Paonia, such as only hunt squash bugs at night.
I freeze local blackberries, strawberries and raspberries that are sun and vine-ripened for jam making when the snow flies. Sorry readers, I just told you a little white lie. Although I always think I have enough of those frozen berries in my larder, somehow that jam idea hasn’t materialized for me yet. They usually get eaten as fast as I can freeze them!
Another favorite timesaver I use is to cook my fruit in the crock-pot over night. I love doing applesauce like this. The house smells so good in the morning. I eat a warm bowl for breakfast while my water-canning bath comes to a boil on my stovetop. I dunk my jars and lids in the boiling water bath for a few minute to sterilize them, fill them with the hot applesauce, put on their rings and lids, put them back in the boiling water bath, set my timer for 20 minutes, sit down to my emails and my tea and then I smirk…How hard was that? Not!
Starting to late in the Season
One of my other foibles is starting to late in the season. I take the time to relax as my work starts slowing down for me. I sleep in, take long naps and I get in a few hikes up on Kebler Pass to watch the trees change. I start to feel rejuvenated from a pedicure and a shopping trip or two and I finally put down my Romance Novel. I start getting excited to Can and then, the first freeze happens. Usually more often then not, it is just the nudge I need from Mother Nature to spend a few days canning and drying whatever is left in the fields or rotting in my fridge before the big freeze comes. Another reason to can in small batches as the summer moves along!
I never have followed direction well, just ask my Dad…What I have learned from “lots” of experience in this department is, keep it simple. I get a big kick out of rummaging around for old canning cookbooks at garage sales and used bookstores, but there is something to say for the old “tried and true.” When I do try out a new recipe, I try to take notes and usually do a small batch to test it.
The other reason I have a hard time with recipe following is that all the recipes I have come across use a lot of white sugar. Icky! I don’t want white sugar in my body. So I spend some time converting stock recipes with alternative sweeteners. I use apple or grape juice a lot and let it cook down to further concentrate the fruits natural sweetness. Sometimes I use honey, though not always, as personally I tend to get heartburn when I combine cooked fruit and honey. I will use Succanet sometimes if I need a sugar taste or property in something. Succanet is an acronym for sugar-cane-natural. It is in plain speak, dried sugar cane. It has a lower glycemic reaction in your body, with less propensity toward sugar cravings, it doesn’t’ cause cavities, but it is sugar, and it cooks and tastes like sugar, well, brown sugar that is. One of the advantages of canning in season and using local fruit that has been allowed to vine or tree ripen is that it will need less sugar. When Nature is allowed to ripen fruit it is much sweeter than something that was picked on the West Coast meant for long storage and long travel time.
When I try to talk the old-timers out of using so much sugar in their jams and jellies, they always give me the same reply. “Sugar helps to set the Jelly”. Yes it is true, most recipes require a high ratio of sugar to fruit, usually up to 85% white sugar. I would rather have slightly runny jelly than Diabetes and Blood Sugar spikes. I don’t have to hide my runny peach jam from my neighbors anymore though because I just discovered a new thickening agent at my local Health Food store called “ Pomona’s Universal Pectin” It was designed to jell with any amount of Sugar. Hallelujah! It is made from citrus peel and it works great. So there you go… Oh, I just heard a Pop! from my kitchen. I just canned 7 little half-pints of Alberta peaches while I was writing this story for you. Ha! I am so proud of me and Hello Old Man Winter, I am not so bothered by you now.
So going back to my first paragraph, Eating Seasonal in the Winter can mean eating a lot of beans and kale, but oh how much better those beans and kale are when combined with a bag of frozen sweet corn, rehydrated dried chilies and a jar of home canned heirloom tomatoes.
Crock-Pot Apple Butter
5 pounds ( about 10 apples)of mixed variety apples
1 cup succanet
1 cup apple juice or cider
1-1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cloves
1/4 tsp allspice
tiny pinch of salt
Use organic fruit if possible. Leave the peel on and take out seeds and core. Chop into med-sized chunks. Spray inside of cooker with a little olive oil or grapeseed spray. As you put the apples in your crock-pot throw a little of the succanet in with each layer. Add spices and cider or juice. Cover and cook on low for 10-12 hours overnight.
In the morning, stir, remove the lid and let apples cook on low uncovered for 2-6 more hours. When most of liquid is cooked out and apples are very soft use a hand held immersion blender and puree apples until very smooth. Keep hot until your jars are sterilized and ready for canning.
Fill a large flat-bottomed pot with water to the level that it will cover your canning jars by an inch or two. When water boils, submerge canning jars for a few minutes. Pull out with canning tongs and fill immediately with apple butter. It helps to have a wide mouth funnel for this task. Use a butter knife to slide down into jars and pop any air pockets. Wipe off any residue that may be on the rim of jar after filling. Leave about 3/4 of an inch from the top. Seal with a new lid and a ring. When you have all your jars sealed lower them into boiling water with your canning tongs. Let stay submerged in boiling water for 15 minutes. Take out with canning tongs and let sit on a clean counter until cool. During this process you should hear lids popping as they seal and visually making an indentation in the middle of each lid. Label and gift. If you have any that didn’t seal, they will last a couple weeks in your fridge for you and your family.