Canning

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Hard FoughtOne day in November, the final canning session for the season was over. Ten quarts of applesauce would have to do, stretching themselves through the winter months for our family of 5. It’s not what I’d hoped for, but it was the best I could do given the circumstances.

The jars watched me from their perch on the kitchen racks, waiting for me to finish the last chore: carrying them down to the basement pantry. I finally relented to their stares, grabbing a random armful of jars on my trips to the laundry room.

As I opened the old slatwood cupboard doors that shield the pantry shelves, I expected to see an empty space. With the start of a full time job this year followed by a midsummer move, this wasn’t my most productive canning season. I had, in fact, been hosting a bit of a pity party about everything I didn’t accomplish this year: jam, tomatoes, pickles (thankfully I was a little overzealous with my Picklepalooza last year), let alone time for trips to the beach and the zoo with my kids, knitting, gardening, my plans for sheep…. sometimes I wonder if my “want to” list will ever live up to my expectations.

But as I reached up to place the jars on the top shelf, I was surprised to see that the cupboard was almost full. Relish, salsa verde, and a surprising amount of peaches. When did that happen?

I scanned the shelves in front of me and the answer came: every jar was hard fought this year.

There were no lazy days meandering the farmers market or afternoons driving to u-pick berry farms on a whim. Rather, I power shopped at the farmers market on my half-hour lunch and hogged the work refrigerator until it was time to go home.

It wasn’t easy. Canning this year made me yearn for the slower days when I had lots of time and little money, when I savored every bite of my day. This year I straddled the fence between the fast lane and the homemaker, gripping tight to the handful of hours in-between to preserve my ideal. Sometimes I thought it would be better to give in, to just buy the damn food and stop trying so hard.

But then what?

But then I would have missed the joy: the memory of pecking our way around the back roads to find the peach farm on our way home from a weekend up north, and later, the warmth of my husband and kids pitching in to help can the fuzzy orbs in the evenings.

Absent would be the pride at the dinner table whenever a jar of jam or salsa was popped open, or the relief on those days when I hadn’t made it to the grocery store yet and could send applesauce to school.

I would have missed out, too, on meeting new farm friends at the farmer’s market, and entertaining co-workers with my armfuls of produce. “What did you buy today, Becky?” was something I looked forward to every Wednesday, as well as passing out the spare cucumber or apple.

I didn’t get to everything on my list this year, but it was more than nothing.

This year was hard. Not bad, just a whole lot of work that hasn’t produced fruit yet. It will, I’m confident, but sometimes when you are in the middle of pursuing a dream, when it’s all work and little reward, it’s easy to lose sight of joy. It pays to take a step back, scan your progress so far, and recognize your progress instead of your missed goals.

You might be surprised at what you see.

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 Opening the last jar is a letting go, an act of trust that soon I will enjoy plenty again.

Photo courtesy Liz West, license linked on photo.

When I was a little girl, several times each May my mother would send me out to the asparagus patch with a paring knife in search of a handful for dinner. The purple-green spears played an excellent game of hide-and-seek, the spindly ones blending with their background, the new short fat ones hiding under the dried leaf mulch.  I hopped barefoot through the bed, crouching down to slice off each prize.

Photo courtesy Rob Ireton. License in photo link.
Photo courtesy Rob Ireton. License in photo link.

Yesterday I visited the patch to see if any asparagus had popped up yet.

The ground was bare.

Even so, I opened the last jar of my special pickled asparagus last weekend. We were invited to dinner to meet new friends and catch up with old ones, and to me, that is something worth celebrating. Our kids played outside and rode horses on one of the first really pleasant days this year, and it was lovely.

That jar of asparagus had been hanging out alone in the pantry for a while, its friends all gone by December. Its brute 1-gallon size stood out from the half-pints of jam and quarts of tomatoes, taunting me whenever I saw it on the shelf, knowing that spring was far away before I could make more.

It was a long winter.

Today spring is all around me, but not quite a reality yet. Asparagus paired with morel mushrooms is much more a harbinger of spring for me than any red-breasted robin, and the days and nights aren’t quite warm enough for that yet. But they will be soon.

In the meantime I am keeping myself busy, planting lettuce and pea seeds and buying chicks and wondering if I can maybe venture into lambs this year. There is joy in the waiting, if I choose to see it. If I seek it out.

 

Photo courtesy Megan Myers. License link in photo.
Photo courtesy Megan Myers. License link in photo.

This Pickled Asparagus recipe from Barbara Norconk appeared in the Spring 2012 of Edible Grande Traverse Magazine, and I purchase the asparagus in bulk from Norconk's asparagus farm in Empire, MI, each year. Check out both of these excellent businesses if you have the chance.

Norconks' Pickled Asparagus

Makes 6 half-gallon jars

7 pounds Norconk asparagus
8 cups apple cider vinegar
8 cups water
4 tablespoons canning salt
1 tablespoon mustard seed
1 tablespoon poppy seed
1 tablespoon fennel seed
1 tablespoon celery seed
1 tablespoon caraway seed
18 sprigs of fresh dillweed (or 6 tablespoons dried dill)
3 fresh jalapeno peppers, halved (seeded for less heat)
12 cloves garlic, peeled

Sterilize 6 clean, large-mouthed, half-gallon jars (or 12 quart jars) by rinsing in boiling water. Sterilize lids and rings the same way. Set aside.

Clean asparagus by swishing, tips down, in warm water for 15 seconds. This will cause the tips to open slightly so sand will fall out. Rinse whole spears a second time in clean warm water. Place on dishtowels to drain.

Make the brine by mixing vinegar, water and salt in a pot. Bring to a boil, then simmer on medium.

While brine is coming to a boil, place asparagus spears in jars as tightly as possible, up to one inch from top. (Spears will shrink slightly as they pickle.) In a small bowl, mix the mustard, poppy, fennel, celery and caraway seeds.

To each half-gallon jar of asparagus add 1 tablespoon of the dry spices, 3 sprigs of fresh dill, 1 jalapeno half and 2 cloves of garlic. Carefully pour hot brine into jars to within ¾ inch of the top. Place lid and ring on top and seal. Place jars in a large pot of simmering water for 10 minutes. Remove and set on a wooden board or dishtowel to cool. Jar lids should seal as brine cools. Asparagus will be ready to eat in 2–3 weeks, and should remain good for a year.

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“Can you go to the basement and get a jar of peaches for dinner?” my mother asked me a thousand different childhood nights while she finished cooking dinner.

Canned peaches. If you are imagining the sadness that schleps out of tin cans bought from the grocery store, erase that image from your mind right there. These are not those.

Peach jewels

Home-canned peaches are divine. They are sweet jewels that kids fight over, truly a dessert without any help from ice cream or pastry. As a child I dared myself into our basement for them; that’s how good they are.

I’m sure dirt basements exist outside of Michigan, but that’s what we call them here: a Michigan basement. It is one step down from “unfinished”, a dirt floor with crumbly plaster walls and a close ceiling. It is where our Dr. Seussian steel furnace grumbled and inhaled wood by the truckload on the far end of the room. Not spooky, exactly, just not a place you want to hang out.

With my mother’s nightly request I slid my feet into my father’s too-big slippers that were reliably parked by the basement door and I scampered down the stairs. Trapped between the furnace and the steps was the pantry: a cool, dark little side room perfect for storing canned goods. I stepped up into the black cave, waving my hand in the air to feel for the string that pulled on the light, and willed my imagination not to think of the salamanders and spiders and other Things that might be watching me. Once the light was on I breathed again and went in for the loot.

There was the treasure hunt.

First the peaches. Sometimes I picked pears too, or gathered the shopping list of tomatoes and pickles and beets my mother often ordered. I liked to poke around and inspect the lost and forgotten jars:  plums in murky sediment, jam with that weird wax seal, the apple juice nobody liked. Experiments left behind.

Satisfied, I carried as much loot away as I could hold. And I never, ever forgot the peaches. Nobody wants to get sent back to the basement for forgotten treasure.

 

Peach Tips on Pits:

A few tips on buying and ripening peaches:

First, if you are canning ask for “freestone” peaches. They come away from the pit easily.  Red Havens are the most common, but new varieties are out there. Cling types, whose flesh sticks to the pit, are wonderful for eating but a pain to pit—don’t try to can those or you will come away cursing like a sailor.

Second, know that peaches don’t keep. If they are perfectly ripe when you buy them, can them that day or early the next. If they are hard baseballs, go to step 3 and wait a few days.

Third, To ripen peaches at home, lay them out on a cool floor on an old sheet. Do not leave them in the bag or basket; the bottom ones will be ruined as they ripen. Check morning and night to gauge ripeness.

 

Will you be canning peaches this year? Any questions or fears out there?