When my sister gave me a copy of Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle for my birthday last May, my initial reaction was mixed. I did enjoy her novel The Poisonwood Bible, though not enough to go out and buy every other book she wrote. And I fancied myself a reasonably informed Locavore, and not in need of a sermon on the benefits of eating locally. Didn't I already participate (however feebly) in an Eat Local Challenge in 2006? (Was it really that long ago? Gulp.) Wasn't I already fairly vigilant about buying food in season and at the very least grown in France? I kept bananas and exotic foods to a minimum and gardened as best I could on my terrace. I was pretty smug actually. But the description of the book intrigued me nevertheless: Kingsolver and her family moved from Tucson Arizona where "Virtually every unit of food consumed moves into town in a refrigerated module from somewhere far away. Every ounce of the city's drinking, washing and goldfish-bowl-filling water is pumped from a non-renewable source..." to the Appalachian mountains, where rain falls and plants grow. Her voice pulled me into the narrative in spite of myself and I was hooked. On page 11, I put down the book and went to my computer to send a message to my big sister to thank her for giving it to me, even taking the time to type out a quote. I put my big brother on copy too and told him he should get a copy. On page 12, I decided that Barbara of Tigers and Strawberries had too much in common with Kingsolver not to be aware of the book, so I wrote her too. The convert had turned to proselytizer.
The thing is, Kingsolver's arguments made so much sense. And she put them so beautifully. What's more by the time I finished the book, I was armed to do more than I thought possible to minimize our family's impact on the environment and improve our diets. I'd love everyone who reads this blog to go out and buy a copy, but for those who don't have the time, here is a breakdown of some of her points:
Buying your food locally is good for...
- the environment, because a minimum of fossil fuel is needed to transport it
- your tastebuds, because freshly picked seasonal produce has more flavor
- your local economy and the small business person
- your budget, contrary to what you might think.
Growing your own food is good for those reasons (well, perhaps aside from the local economy) as well as...
- your mental health
- your physical well-being
- the world, especially if you avoid genetically modified seeds and favor heirloom varieties
But the part that was a real revelation for me was the idea that anyone who has access to locally grown fruit (and providing you don't live in Tucson, it probably includes you) can cheaply put aside vegetables and fruit for the long winter months when they are no longer in season. For some reason, perhaps too much Little House on the Prairie when I was younger (yeah, I blame a lot on those books), I have always had it in my head that when you preserve it should always be your own produce and in large quantities. But what is more logical than to buy vegetables locally in season when they are dirt cheap and can them? You know the end product has no preservatives, you know it hasn't travelled thousands of miles to get to you and - what's more - you know it's good. Because you made it. So in addition to the £13 box of organic vegetables that I order each week for our family's consumption from a local organic farm, I also have topped up each week with a request for tomatoes and apples. I've been making small batches and we now have 20 jars of tomatoes and tomato sauce and a dozen applesauce jars. I also foraged enough blackberries from the local hedges for five jars of jam. In addition, I've preserved fruit and vegetables from our usual orders that I wasn't going to be able to use before they went bad: a bag of frozen broad beans and a beautiful jar of preserved plums. I am channelling Laura Ingalls Wilder.
I'm almost too embarrassed to post any of the recipes for these forays into food preservation because they really are basic. However, I am sure there are people out there who think that it's too complicated, too time consuming and just not worth the effort. So I'll start with the easiest recipe in the world: applesauce.
I am in love all over again with my KitchenAid. When the Critic splashed out on that extravagant gift, he not only bought the machine itself but also all kinds of gadgets go to with it, including the one that makes purées. It claims to make baby food a breeze and I'm sure it does - if you are making a gallon of baby food. But I make mine in small batches with my stick blender and so I've never had reason to test it. But applesauce, oh my. If you have food grinder and vegetable strainer attachment for your KitchenAid (or an old-fashioned Foley Food Mill) it is easier than apple pie - though even if you don't it's not that difficult.
With a food mill: take a kilo of apples, wash them and cut in pieces somewhere between the size of a hazelnut and the size of a walnut. Put a few tablespoons of water in a large saucepan and add the apples. Cook over a low heat until they collapse. Taste for sugar. Pass the apple pieces through the food mill and stir in a knob of butter if you like it nice and rich. You can also add cinnamon or vanilla, according to taste.
Without a foodmill: do exactly the same as the above, but peel and core the apples first.
It's that simple. The food grinding element/mill means you don't even have to core and peel the apples, which are really the only onerous bits of the task. Putting the apples through the mill makes my heart sing, though that might be, in part, because I have a fascinated, delighted three year old at my side. He loves his applesauce, and he also loves making it.
In the meantime, sterilize your jars - either in boiling water (completely covered) for 10-15 minutes, or better still in a 200 degree oven. Also sterilize the tops, and be sure not to re-use the discs if you use Bell jars with the separate rings and discs: always buy new ones. Fill the jars with the hot applesauce, leaving a half inch gap before the top of the jar, close them firmly but not too tightly. Cover them with boiling water to an inch over the lids in a large kettle and process on a low boil for 35 minutes. Remove them carefully from the water, check that the rings are closed properly and leave them on the counter. Before putting them in the cupboard, verify that all the seals have popped and become concave; if any haven't, put the jars in the refrigerator and use them within a week because they haven't sealed.
With the food mill, prep time is about ten minutes max, cooking time is about 25 minutes, during which you'll have to stir from time to time, grinding takes just minutes and filling the jars takes about fifteen minutes. So the actual time you spend working on the canning is around an hour - not long for a store of delicious applesauce!
You can choose your apples based on the ones you like best - tart Grannies or soft Golden Delicious. At the moment we are going through a Braeburn phrase, wonderful for eating or cooking. And if you have small children who consume applesauce daily, you can stop feeling bad about all those little plastic cups you are tossing in landfills. (Neither France nor the UK recycle them, sadly.) You will also know exactly how much sugar you are giving them and what kind.
And your three year old will know where another food he loves comes from.
P.S. Vote Democrat in this election and if you can't vote Dem, don't vote at all. If you vote Palin, I may have to send a gun-toting moose around to sort you out. (More preaching to the converted, I hope...)