Have you heard of the "canvolution"? Judging by some of my favorite blogs, it seems to be sweeping the food world at the moment, at least in the U.S. For some of us, it's an indulgence in the latest new fun-thing-to-do-with-food. For some, it hearkens back to memories of how our parents or grandparents lived. For some, it's an environmental decisions: buying food at its prime and preserving it means less need to ship it from far away climes or force it out of season in energy-guzzling greenhouses. And for me, it's all these things. When I first read Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I had a real epiphany: I could preserve food in small quantities, and for the most part with equipment I already owned. Yes, I would need to buy some canning jars and freezer bags. But by judiciously choosing which vegetables to preserve and how, I could do a great deal to reduce my carbon footprint. Initially, this just meant flipping through my cookbooks and consulting with the organic farmer who supplies my vegetable box each week. We had a very symbiotic relationship this summer, with me offering to take off her hands any vegetables for which supply was overtaking demand. She threw in a lot of vegetables for free, too, as a perk. As a result, I have canned apricot jam, tomato sauce, tomato paste, chopped tomatoes, marinated peppers and pickled onions. In the freezer, I have bags of zucchini, shelled broad beans, runner beans, French beans, caramelized tomatoes, corn and grilled eggplant slices. However, one thing you may notice in this list is that, with the exception of the pickled onions, nearly everything is simply the preservation of a one-ingredient item. And then I suddenly had another realization: instead of buying mediocre Old El Paso salsa for my Tex-Mex cravings, I could make and can my own salsa. Surely the acidity of the tomatoes, combined with a dose of citrus juice, would overcome the need for pressure canning, even if I did use non acidic ingredients such as garlic, onions and peppers? And a little web research revealed it would. All I needed to do was pick my recipe.
In the end, I decided to work with a recipe from the New Mexico State University website. I don't know why so many universities seem to publish books and online recipes for canning, perhaps the combination of young energetic people and scientists? In any case, this page has a half dozen fantastic recipes. A word of caution: whenever I find a recipe - in a book or on the web - I have a tendency to tweak it to my taste. This is a dangerous practice if you are canning, because a slight decrease in the acidity of the contents of the jar can have serious, sometimes fatal, repercussions. The most I am willing to depart from a recipe of this sort is to add an extra clove of garlic, and even then I compensate by adding a few tablespoons of lime juice. It is much, much better to be safe than sorry. If you really want to go wild and make changes, I suggest you invest in a pressure cooker and can the serious way.
For myself, I much prefer recipes that only require boiling in the £.50 gargantuan iron pot I picked up at a jumble sale a few weeks ago. That has got to be one of the best investments in my cooking life. (Though I really do need a round cooling rack of 22-23 cm to put in the bottom of it to fully utilize its surface area. Anyone have a suggestion?)
The recipe I chose made a wonderful versatile sauce. How hot it will turn out will of course depend on the peppers you use, but mine came out just hot enough to be interesting but not so hot that you reach for a cold beer before you've swallowed. I will be cracking open a jar to enjoy with tortilla chips, adding a jar to beans to kick-start a chili con carne and even using it for a quick and tasty last minute dinner. Last night, I set some brown rice boiling, sautéed a chopped onion in a little olive oil, added chopped chicken breast and about 150 g frozen zucchini, covered it with a jar of salsa and simmered until the rice was done. With a grating of low-fat cheddar and a spoonful of low-fat sour cream, it made a hearty, delicious dinner at only 8 WeightWatchers points.
One of the things that puts many people off the idea of canning is the amount of time it takes. I've been pretty busy with canning and freezing for the last few weeks and really all it takes is the odd afternoon or morning once a week or so to fill up your cupboards and freezer nicely. What's more, for me one of the advantages is that the morning I spend chopping vegetables and making sauces, adds up to a lot of time saving down the line. In the case of the Mexican chicken dish I made last night, total time cooking from start to finish was 30 minutes and for the last 15 minutes I was sitting in the living room with the Critic, sipping a beer.
Another issue that puts many people off is the food safety side of canning. A very good friend of mine who is a fabulous and much more experienced cook than I recently confessed to me that she only freezes food, because it's "safer". In fact, with a touch of common sense it's not that difficult at all to keep your food safe. Firstly, as mentioned, follow the recipes exactly. Secondly, adapt your proportions carefully. For the recipe below, as I chopped my tomatoes, I measured them into cups. Then I used the number of cups of tomato to calculate, proportionally, how much of the rest of the ingredients I would need. If you must err, do so on the side of more acidic content, rather than more of the basic Ph foods (onions, garlic, etc.).
Spicy Tomato Salsa (as adapted from a New Mexico State University recipe)
14 cups peeled, cored, chopped tomatoes
2 cups seeded, chopped long green chiles
2 1/2 cups chopped onion
1/4 cup finely chopped, seeded, jalapeños
1 1/2 Tbsp oregano leaves (I used about a tablespoon of dried oregano)
2 Tbsp fresh cilantro/coriander
1 cup bottled lemon juice (bottled lemon juice has a more reliably high acid content than fresh lemons)
juice of one lime (about 1/4 c)
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 Tbsp salt
1/2 Tbsp black pepper
1 Tbsp ground cumin
Note: about 7-8 pounds of tomatoes will yield 14 cups of chopped tomato. Plunge the tomatoes a few at a time in boiling water and leave them for a minute or two. Run them under cold water briefly (just to cool them enough to handle) and the skin will now easily be removed. Chop them roughly and add them to a measuring cup, counting how many times you empty the cup into the pan.
Before starting, wash your jars - the short cycle on a dishwasher will do. I then place them in a hot oven for ten minutes. Set your largest soup pot (or canning pot) on a high flame, covered and filled 3/4 of the way with hot water. It takes a surprisingly long time for a large pot of water to come to a boil, trust me.
Combine all ingredients except cumin, oregano, and cilantro in a large pot and bring to a boil, stirring frequently, then reduce heat and simmer 10 minutes. Add spices and simmer for another 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Ladle hot salsa into jars, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. I used 8 oz. jars, not the pint jars recommended in the recipe. Theoretically, this means you could reduce the processing time but since I'm not a food scientist I have no idea by how much. In fact, it calls for 15 minutes of processing, which is not very long and so I didn't bother trying to calculate a shorter time.
Reminder: if you are using classic Bell jars (the kind with a ring and a disc) never re-use a disc that has already been used in canning. Buy new ones, always. And once you have finished processing the jars and they have cooled, verify that they are properly sealed and the bubble on the lid is depressed. Any that haven't sealed properly should be put in the refrigerator and eaten within a week or two.
Enjoy with crisp tortilla chips or your favorite Tex-Mex meal. Or better still, impress your friends and family with a novel Christmas gift!
The Blogher network has some very good resources and links to many blogs that have canning recipes and techniqueshere.
Back in the traditional reading world, a classic on all aspects of home food preservation is Putting Food By, by Janet Greene, Ruth Hertzberg and Beatrice Vaughn. They take a very informal, practical tone that is easy to read. The layout is also highly practical in that you can easily find the freezing section or canning section and look for the vegetable you are researching alphabetically.
And lastly, it will come as no surprise that I highly recommend Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. She is a very talented writer and if you aren't convinced that preserving food makes sense by the end of her book, nothing will sway you.
I searched the house high and low for these two books so frequently over the months of August and September that I eventually realized the best place to keep them was with the jars themselves.
One of the many benefits of living in a "socialist" (horror!) country like France is that workers are genuinely well looked after. Admittedly, this is less of a bonus from an employer's point of view, especially when coupled with that nasty tendency to strike and the near impossibility of firing an incompetent employee. However, if you are an employee - competent or not - the benefits are obvious. A minimum of five weeks of holiday every year, in addition to a slew of public holidays. Great unemployment benefits should the impossible occur and you find yourself out of work. A government agency whose sole purpose is to help you find a job, for free. And in addition, companies are obliged to either provide a cafeteria which supplies cheap, healthy food or give their employees tickets restos, lunch vouchers that can be exchanged for food in nearly every restaurant in the city and many supermarkets too. Who says there's no such thing as a free lunch? I was woefully unaware of this issue for the first ten years I lived in Paris for the simple reason that the international organisation where I worked had a snack bar, a cafeteria and a restaurant on site. When I went to work for a French law firm near the Champs-Elysées, I was surprised and delighted to find that in addition to my salary, I would benefit from just under nine euros for lunch every day, rain or shine. Admittedly, food around the Champs is not cheap and several of my colleagues complained that it simply wasn't enough for a "proper" meal. But for an American who was happy with a nice salad or sandwich, it was plenty. I generally ended up with a dozen or more of them left at the end of the year, which I happily distributed to the homeless population of Paris. They were happy to have such a generous donation; I was happy knowing that they would have to use it to buy food. Win-Win.
I spent the first few weeks exploring the neighborhood around my office, scoping out the cafés with the best service and cheapest good food. And I found my local - complete with a nice grumpy waiter who looked out for regulars like a trouper - on the avenue FDR. I won't bother giving the address here, because the last time I was there it had changed beyond recognition and my favorite grumpy waiter was gone. But for the two years I worked in the neighborhood, I was there at least a couple of times a week. And at least once a week - until I got pregnant* - I had the World's Best Salad: la Salade des Landes. Seriously, my mouth is watering just thinking about it. Imagine a mixture of tender lettuce leaves tenderly dressed with a tangy, very mustardy vinaigrette. Add sweet tomatoes. Then add meaty gésiers confits (preserved gizzards - trust me, they are heaven on a plate and not at all gamey) and magret de canard (smoked duck breast). Then add two thick slabs of foie gras and hot toast. All for just under nine euros. Is it any wonder I loved that place? I don't miss Paris often, but I do feel a pang when I remember those tranquil (one hour) lunches with no children pulling on my sleeve or running wild, just a good book and a delicious salad for company. Sigh. Not that I don't love my harum-scarum boys, mind you, but I'd love a tranquil lunch break sometimes.
And on that note, this lovely salad was consumed to the sound of Tom and Jerry on the computer, two year old shrieks and mayhem. But it was still delicious. No foie gras, mind you, but then again I'm on a diet nowadays. Weight watchers points: 2. Win-win.
*A note for any pregnant visitors to France: French people, including restaurant workers, have what many Americans would consider a somewhat cavalier attitude about food safety issues. Eggs are not refrigerated in supermarkets and salads are - frequently - cut with the same knife that just finished filleting a chicken breast. On the same unwashed chopping board. For this reason, doctors in France advise pregnant women not to eat salads in restaurants, for fear of toxoplasmosis or salmonella. At home, you can ensure that the lettuce is well washed and my doctor even advised soaking it for 15 minutes in a water to which a tablespoon of vinegar had been added.
Salade des Landes Anglaises
mixed lettuce leaves (in France, you can buy a mix usually referred to as "mesclun")
a handful of cherry tomatoes
50 g chicken livers
2 small cooked beets
For the dressing:
1 heaped teaspoon of French mustard (Maille for preference)
1 generous tablespoon of red wine vinegar
1 tsp olive oil
salt, to taste
a dash of tarragon
In a non-stick pan, melt a pat of butter (for WW purposes, I only used half a teaspoon, but a little more would never go amiss). When it is good and frothing, but not brown, add the livers. Sear them quickly and then turn over. I follow the advice of an old French grandmother who told me how she cooked foie de veau and tend to cook over a very high heat, turning frequently so that the meat does not burn. Remove from the pan when the meat is just barely pink in the center and tender.
Wash the lettuce leaves and dry them. Mix all the dressing ingredients in a small jar. Toss the lettuce in the vinaigrette, reserve a little. Dress the salad with the tomatoes, beets and chicken livers, the latter cut into smaller pieces. Drizzle the remaining vinaigrette over the meat, tomatoes and beets. Consume with enthusiasm and dream of tranquil Parisian lunches and grumpy waiters.
I've written a bit lately (okay, droned on) about the problems posed by a prolific zucchini plant. However, here in England, there is a larger problem. Runner beans. My understanding is that these lovely plants were originally cultivated by the British for their pretty red flowers. Then one day someone discovered the beans were just about edible. Fast forward a couple hundred years and you have the most popular vegetable for English amateur gardeners. It's easy to see why: like the zucchini, it is almost impossible to mess up. I bought a half dozen plants myself earlier this year and planted them uncomfortably close in pots. I gave them minimal sunshine (because we are renting, I have placed my container garden on the side of the house that has a bit of pavement, to save the grass) and supports that were about three feet too short. And I had so many beans that I ended up freezing quite a few bags. And they are still arriving each week in my box from the local organic farm. I like beans. But even I am struggling a bit to use them all up before the next lot arrives.
So today's lunch was my way of finishing up the runner beans from last week's box before my delivery arrives this afternoon - no doubt with another portion of runner beans. It was filling, surprisingly tasty and a great use for runner beans, a bit like a pared down salad niçoise. And unlike a true salade niçoise, this one came in at 1.5 WeightWatchers point per satisfying savory serving. Which, given the fact that I had friends over for drinks last night and went way over my WW limit on wine, cheese and chips, is a very good thing.
English Salad Niçoise
Runner beans - as many as you think you can eat
2 small tomatoes
1/4 a small onion, finely chopped (a shallot would be even nicer here, but an onion was all I had to hand)
1/2 a small can of tuna, drained and crumbled
chives, for a garnish
For the dressing:
1 heaping teaspoon of mustard
1 1/2 Tbs red wine vinegar
1 tsp olive oil
1/4 tsp dried tarragon (or to taste - it can be quite a strong flavor for some)
Wash the runner beans and trim the ends. When trimming - especially on the long woody ones - try to stop cutting just short of the other side of the bean and pull down, to remove the fibrous stringy bit that resides on either side of the bean. If you can't pull the strings easily, you might want to use a vegetable peeler to remove it by force. If you leave the strings on, you will find the beans unpleasant to eat, to say the least, and end up with a mouthful of fibre. Cut the beans in one inch pieces and steam them for 5-7 minutes, or until they smell good and have gone bright green. Refresh them under cold water briefly after removing them from the heat to stop the cooking process and retain the beautiful color. This vegetable needs all the help it can get! While the beans are cooking, wash and cube the tomatoes and mince the onion. Make the dressing as follows: mix the vinegar and mustard thoroughly, then slowly add the olive oil, whisking as you go to form an emulsion. Stir in the tarragon and taste for seasoning. A bit of salt and pepper will help enormously to liven the flavors. Toss the beans and tomatoes and onions with the dressing, reserving about half. Sprinkle the tuna over the beans and dress with the rest of the dressing. Garnish with the chives. A healthy, filling, delicious lunch in less than 15 minutes!
And now I have room in the fridge for some more runner beans - oh joy!