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.