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Pickling Party, or What I Did on My Summer Vacation

dill pickles with garlic; tomato sauce; spicy peach jam

Pickles8Last fall, I laid plans for a four-week vacation this summer. We get generous leave benefits where I work. We also have a sabbatical program, but I’m still a few years away from qualifying for my second one; however, I realized at some point that I could use my accumulated personal leave to get a nice long break without waiting until 2014. So I made the appropriate PicklesToBerequests and got approval and got the time onto the calendars. I had second thoughts about the wisdom of this plan back in April, when I was overloaded with projects at work and busy with volunteering and other obligations outside the office, and no days off in sight. But I held fast, and soon the glorious day arrived: July 18, my first weekday of liberty.

MoreWhereThoseCameFromThat’s right: This is my fourth week of vacation. I haven’t been blogging during that time because I’ve been more focused on a different writing project. I was hoping I’d finish a solid draft of that by this Friday, which admittedly was always an unrealistic goal; however, unrealistic goals are useful motivators sometimes, and I have FoodForCanninga much better framework in place for the project itself now. I’m better prepared to make regular progress once I’m back at work and have a solid draft done in the next few months. End of September, perhaps? Just the right end of unrealistic to shoot for, I think.

This week, however, I’ve turned my attention to food. You may PicklingMaterialsremember back in July, Shauna James Ahern of Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef collaborated with friends to organize a virtual pie party. It was a smashing success: thousands of people made pies and posted pictures and comments on Facebook, on Twitter, on blogs. So Shauna and her friends thought a new party was in order, and today is Pickling Party day.

PeeledChoppedTomatoesI’ve made pickles before. Back in Portland it was simple: Get some jars, get some goodies from the farmers’ market, check your recipes, do lots of cleaning, boil a lot of water, and ta-da! It’s some work but nothing complicated. In New York it’s similar, but with one twist: finding canning jars at a reasonable price. New York is an expensive place to live, and most of its retailers are serving people PeachJamwho don’t have a lot of space and so aren’t buying in bulk. In Portland I could walk into just about any hardware store and find 12-jar cases of pints or quarts for around $10; in New York you can buy single jars for $1.75 apiece, or more. The first year we were here, one hardware store a few blocks away from my home attempted to sell me a box of pints for $30. Twelve jars. I walked out in a huff.

TomatoSauceThe growth of the whole and homemade foods movement has prompted more New York retailers to stock cases instead of singles. However, those cases are still $16 and $17, reflecting the higher cost of doing business here. And those retailers are far away from me, leaving the challenge of getting a heavy load of glass jars home on the subway without breakage or other disaster. I’d JarsBeforeBrine2looked for jars on Amazon and other online outlets, but the savings in per-case charges were always more than offset by shipping fees for heavy glass. However, I kept poking around in forums and question threads, and finally found a pointer to FreshPreserving.com, the official online distributor for Ball jars. I did the math: even with shipping charges, the cases cost less than JarsBeforeBrine3they would in the Brooklyn or Manhattan stores. And they came fast, via overnight shipping (after a day or two for the order to be processed).

Now I was ready to hit the Greenmarket. As with any big project, I started by dreaming big. How many kinds of pickles could I make? Maybe I could do several jams, since I might as JarsBeforeBrinewell do other canning while I had the water boiling. Hey, this could be the year I make tomato sauce! What about chutneys and relishes? A leisurely browse through my main canning cookbook and some websites filled my mind with visions of pickled brussels sprouts, ginger jam, pickled garlic, habanero jelly. Then I let reality creep back in. There are only so many hours FillingJarsin a day and only so many jars in a dozen. Brussels sprouts aren’t in yet; those may fill a Sunday this September but won’t do for the August pickling party. Berries are kind of expensive here, even at the Greenmarket; New York is not the berry wonderland that the Northwest is. And to me pickles start and end with cucumber: crisp, dilly, with a hint of garlic and maybe a hot-pepper bite.

FillingJars2I decided to do three categories of canning: pickles, the bulk of the effort; tomato sauce, my first foray into preserving the Greenmarket’s red jewels for cold weather; and peach jam, an easy old standby. (I had to remind myself that I don’t actually eat nearly as much jam as all that, not enough to stock up jars and jars of the stuff.) I hit the market on Monday with my rolling cart SealedAndCoolingand a list in my mind. I trundled away some time later sweaty, my foot aching (I’m recovering from plantar fasciitis), and laden with fresh produce destined for the jar, the freezer or that night’s dinner. Once home, I set aside the things for the next day’s work, used some of the tomatoes for a pasta dish for dinner, did some necessary housecleaning, and took a few minutes to start PicklesInJarsmacerating fruit and herbs for soda syrup (another Gluten Free Girl offering; I followed her recipe to make cherry-basil, and followed the basic proportions to make peach-mint).  Then I rested for the evening, knowing I’d be busy the next day.

And so I was. Once I’d finished breakfast and caught up with my Facebook Scrabble games, I got PeepingAtSlicesto work. I started by getting the soda syrups out of the way, pureeing the macerated fruit and herbs and then filtering out the solids. Then I got the leftover dishes done and put away, dug out the few odd leftover canning jars and lids, and figured out my game plan. The jam and the sauce would require cooking before canning, so I’d get started on those. I boiled water so I could Pickles3dunk scored peaches and tomatoes to peel them; chopped the peaches and got them cooking with sugar, lemon juice, nutmeg and cinnamon; chopped the tomatoes and set them aside until I had a burner free for the tomato sauce; and started washing canning jars while the jam cooked.

I pulled out my tall stock pot — Pickles4that would be my hot-water-bath canner, tall enough to accommodate the quart jars. I washed away the dust, found the tidy round rack that goes in the bottom, poured in water, and started it heating on a back burner. I pulled out my pressure cooker, which is essentially an enormous pot since I don’t have a complete pressure gauge for it and so don’t feel comfortable Pickles7using it for canning. That would be my pot for sterilizing the jars. I filled it with water and started that boiling as well. I pulled out a smaller saucepan to keep hot but not boiling for the lids.

While the jam cooked, I washed and sterilized jars, laid out towels on the counters, and chopped onions and garlic for the tomato sauce. When the jam had hit its PartOfADaysCanningtemperature target I used a canning funnel to ladle it into jars, carefully laid on the clean lids with tongs, tightened up the rings, and lowered the jars into the hot-water bath. Then it was time to start the tomato sauce: I sauteed onions, garlic and herbs in olive oil, added the chopped tomatoes and their bright-red liquid, and let the works simmer for about half an hour. While those were in process Pickles8I moved now-sealed jam jars aside to cool, washed and sterilized more jars, and started to pull together my pickling materials.

I love dill pickles in nearly any form, so I decided to do several, and I washed and sorted my cucumbers accordingly. A medium-sized bowl of little cucumbers to pickle whole. Two SpearsAndSlicesbowls of spears, some thicker and some fatter. A bowl of nice round chips. (I have a crinkle-cutter, but I opted for smooth slices this year for a cleaner look.) I mixed up a pickling spice dominated by peppercorns, mustard seed and cumin seeds. I filled a small bowl with promising-looking dried chiles. I peeled clove after clove of fresh garlic. I trimmed the largest stalks out of the dill, JarsInRowsleaving individual tufts of the feathery fronds. And when the tomato sauce was done and in jars, I used that burner to prepare my brine: a ratio of 1 cup vinegar to 1 cup water to 1 tablespoon of plain salt.

I filled my jars: whole pickles in the widest-mouth jars I had, spears in the quarts or pints as their length allowed. I dropped in Pickles7garlic, spice, dill. Some jars got chiles. The individual jars are going to have subtle variations in flavor; the spice mixture didn’t want to stay uniform, and some jars have more mustard seed while others have more peppercorn. That’s OK. I also added a sprinkle of alum powder, which I was advised to do years ago by a friend who knows a lot more about pickling than I do; I’m not sure exactly what it does but my pickles have always been good so it can’t hurt.

Finally it was time to add brine. I had to keep mixing more, but it doesn’t take long for the salt to dissolve and the mixture to reach a boil again, and my batches of brine kept pace with my batches of jars going into and out of the hot-water bath. While pickles sealed and jars sat waiting their turn, I set aside the jars I hadn’t used, washed the pots and utensils, and got the rest of the kitchen in order. At about 6 pm I was pulling out the last 7 jars of pickles; I’d managed to produce 6 quarts and 14 pints, along with the 5 pints of tomato sauce and 3 1/2 pints of jam. I was ready for a shower and a drink.

I’m looking forward to eating pickles. Spears alongside a salad. Slices in a sandwich. Little whole pickles crunched down in two or three bites.

1946 Modern Homemaker: Prosperity Through Home Canning

peach jam

Modern Homemaker appears to be a magazine* from Kerr Glass Manufacturing Corp. (now owned by Ball), so it’s not too surprising that it devotes most of its attention to home canning. On an introductory page, editor Zella Hale Weyant notes that while the war and its demands for food rationing and shared sacrifice have ended, the future of the nation’s food supply is far from certain. What Weyant did not know is that in the years to come, petrochemical companies would convert their wartime product lines to chemical fertilizers and pesticides, leading to the industrialization of American agriculture — greatly expanding the country’s food supply and choices, but at a cost to individual health and the environment that we have barely started to come to terms with.

In the meantime, Weyant recommends that homemakers continue to preserve the bounty of their home gardens through home canning. The magazine gives recipes for jams, jellies, preserves, fruits, vegetables, meat, and fish, as well as dishes one can make with the canned goods. There are also instructions for using the hot-water-bath and pressure canning methods for various foods.

I have a pressure cooker, but am missing the pressure gauge, so I have not been in the habit of canning low-acid foods that require pressure. I opted to make peach jam, partly because I thought it would be fairly simple and partly because I love peaches.

My original plan was to go out Saturday morning to the neighborhood Greenmarket to get fresh peaches, make the jam, then go about my day. I got the peaches home and found that I did not have the right size canning lids, so I decided to make jam in the afternoon after I’d bought lids. This turned out to be just as well; the process took longer than I thought, and my husband would have been pretty impatient to start our usual weekend brunch trip by the time I was done.

The jam recipe is brief and charmingly vague:

Cut well ripened peaches into small pieces. Put into large kettle without the addition of water. Cook slowly about 20 minutes or until peaches are slighly softened. Measure peach pulp and for each cup of peaches add 1 cup of sugar. Return to fire and cook until of desired consistency. Pour into sterilized KERR Jars and seal while hot.

I opted to peel the peaches before chopping them, which took a fair bit of time I hadn’t accounted for. Peeling peaches is not particularly difficult: cut an X across the bottom of the peach, then dunk it in boiling water for 30-60 seconds, and the skin will be loosened and should be easy to pull off. A few of my peaches were underripe and hard; I re-dunked those, thinking perhaps I had just not given them enough exposure, and now they were still hard but also too hot to handle easily. I set them aside to cool while I cut up the rest of the already-peeled peaches, then used a knife to pare them before chopping and adding them to the pot.

“Cook slowly” is a nice, general instruction, isn’t it? Obviously not on high heat, but how low is slow? By the time the 20 minutes were up my peaches had broken down quite a bit and given up a significant amount of juice, but I’m not sure if that means my heat was too high or if I did it just right. To measure them I dumped the whole potful into a heatproof bowl, then poured cup after cup back into the pot, counting as I went. The 24 peaches I’d started with produced 10 1/4 cups of fruit and juice, so I added 10 1/4 cups of sugar, and then cast a worried eye at my seven pint jars and two cup-sized jars; would 20 1/2 cups cook down to 15 cups of jam? For that matter, was that too much sugar? It looked like an awful lot at first, and my initial tastes of the mixture once the sugar had dissolved were more suggestive of peach candy than peach jam, but as it cooked the flavor balance shifted again and the peaches were the dominant taste. And of course sugar has a preservative effect here. It’s possible that I could have reduced the amount of sugar, but I don’t know enough about the chemistry involved to be sure how much I could eliminate before the acidity would be insufficient for canning safety. I suppose I could have experimented to find out, but I wasn’t willing to do so at this point.

Another vague direction is “cook until of desired consistency.” It’s a bit tricky to know what the desired consistency of your hot and bubbling jam should be, because the final product will be thicker once it has cooled after canning. I kept cooking and cooking, probably about 25 minutes, stirring and simmering until the mixture felt noticeably thicker than it had before, and I tried the old-fashioned plate test: I dribbled some on a plate and held it at a slight angle, and when the dribbles were thicker and slower to run, I decided that would do for me. And I was delighted to find that my jam fit almost exactly into the jars I had available.

Now it was time to seal the jars. Jam takes hot-water-bath canning, but I thought I’d use my pressure cooker since it’s broad enough to hold all seven pint jars at once and I didn’t want to have to do two batches. This worked out well, except for the fact that even though I did not have the lid latched closed, it still sealed, and I had to vent out the steam to be able to open it when cooking was done. This was quick and easy — raise the valve — and safe enough with the aid of a potholder, but it made a dramatic hissing sound, and the cats were not impressed.

I was impressed by the jam, though. It shone golden and glorious, with lumps of peach giving it a rustic character. We had some with toast this morning and it tasted wonderful. The two cup-sized jars did not fit in the canner so I’m storing them in the fridge; I don’t think we need to worry about using them up before they go bad.

Verdict: Success. It took me a while to get there, but the results were well worth it.

* But it counts as a cookbook for my purposes because I don’t have any of the rest of the run.

The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest: Berry Nice

agar berry jam

The Big Book of Preserving the Harvest is loaded with recipes for canning, freezing, drying, pickling and other means of preserving fresh produce. You might think this is part of the recent resurgence of home preserving that’s come in the wake of the locavore and real food movement, but I’ve owned this book for several years and have used it a number of times.

This meant that in keeping with the project rules, I had to choose something I haven’t already made. In principle I embrace this constraint, but as I flipped through the book I gnashed my teeth in frustration at the delights I would have to skip over this time: lemon jelly, spiced peach jam, blueberry and cherry preserves, ginger jam. It occurred to me that most of the pickling chapter was open to me; when making pickles in the past I’ve followed a recipe provided by a friend, sometimes with improvisation (green beans or asparagus instead of cucumbers, additional garlic), and only used this book for general guidance. However, pickling cucumbers still seem to be pretty new in the Greenmarket and were looking rather anemic on Monday, Brussels sprouts aren’t expected until August at soonest, and the cauliflower recipe calls for 10 pounds — more than I felt up to hauling home on the subway, let alone finding consumers for in the next few months. I don’t have a food dryer, and lack enthusiasm for flavored vinegars, so freezing or canning seemed to be my best bets; my pressure cooker seems to have lost its gauge during the move and is now just an extremely large pot with a tight-fitting lid, so hot-water-bath canning is my only heat-processing option.

This still left a lot of choices in the jams and jellies section; I made a shopping list organized by recipe, to prevent picking up all but one necessary ingredient for anything, and set out to Union Square. Blackberry preserves? No blackberries to be seen. Red raspberry preserves? Maybe, but raspberries seem expensive even by New York standards. (Four years after moving, I am still facing up to the fact that the New York area is just not the berry wonderland that Western Oregon is.) Blueberry marmalade? Excellent! I loaded up on blueberries, and picked up small quantities of some other fruits for freezing and nibbling, and it wasn’t until I got home that I realized that the blueberry marmalade recipe called for liquid pectin. Which perhaps I could have found if I had worked the phones and ventured out to Brooklyn, or found an online vendor a week ago, but I did not plan ahead that well. I could have made my own with several pounds of apples plus a lot of patience and effort; I tend to be good at effort, and I could probably have found organic apples in my neighborhood, but my patience was getting scarce. Frustrated, I decided to table the issue for an hour or so and go get iced coffee, and on my way I spotted the neighborhood’s natural food store, which did not have liquid pectin but did have agar, an ingredient in agar berry jam, for which my blueberries would do nicely. Canning day was saved.

Agar is a vegetable gelatin made from seaweed. Or as the package puts it, “a variety of sea vegetables,” which sounds like a sort of aquatic succotash. (They can’t just be using that phrasing to avoid saying “seaweed,” because the word “seaweed” appears in the next sentence.) It comes in flakes, which you dissolve in hot water and then cool to set. It’s a good thickener for puddings and baked goods, especially for vegetarians (since gelatin is an animal product), and I’ve had it before in desserts at my favorite vegetarian dim sum restaurant. I had never cooked with agar before, but I thought it sounded a lot easier than trying to make my own liquid pectin from fresh apples.

Before you start to work with the fruit, you will want to prepare your jars. Agar berry jam is not pressure-sealed in a hot-water bath, but it is still packed into jam jars, four half-pints per recipe. Wash the jars well and then sterilize them in boiling water; also wash the canning lids and rings, and warm them in hot (not boiling) water. It’s also helpful to have a jar lifter, to help you remove the jars from the sterilizing bath, and a canning funnel, for filling the jars without mess.

To make agar berry jam you chop up a couple of quarts of the berries of your choice, with an end goal of three cups of fruit. I wasn’t sure if blueberries would take to chopping with a knife — I had visions of berries ricocheting through the kitchen in a sort of sugary slapstick — but a few minutes with a potato masher convinced me that the knife was worth trying, and chopping with it turned out to be surprisingly easy. To the three cups of fruit you add a tablespoon of lemon juice. Then you pour a cup of water into a small saucepan, add two tablespoons of agar flakes, and bring the water to a simmer without stirring. Once it’s simmering, stir the liquid until the flakes dissolve, which takes about five minutes. Of constant stirring. Seriously. Once all the flakes have dissolved, give thanks, then pour in a quarter-cup of honey and stir thoroughly; then pour the agar mixture into the berries (not vice versa; you do not actually cook the berries) and mix it all well.

Now your jam is ready to can. Pour it into your jars, leaving about half an inch of headspace (I was pleased to see the jam fit nicely into the number of jars specified, with no half-filled jars or leftovers), then add the lids and secure them with the rings. Put the jars into the refrigerator to cool for at least 12 hours; after that you can label and freeze the jars. Or just start eating from them.

A few hours after I’d put the jars to chill, I opened one and found that the jam had set nicely. Because agar is clear, the color of the berries comes through beautifully. And rest assured, the taste was lovely: very fresh and fruity, with just the right amount of sweetness from the honey.

Verdict: Success. The recipe was easy to follow, and the descriptions used give you good guidance to make sure you’re doing things right as you work. The jam was delicious. Because it’s not pressure-sealed I won’t be able to mail it as gifts, but I should be able to give frozen jars to local friends and have it keep well until they can get it home. Assuming we don’t just eat it all ourselves. As for pickling, I’ll be tackling that during a vacation week in August, but it won’t count toward the project.