By Emily Paster
Spring is finally here and with the arrival of spring fruits and vegetables like strawberries, rhubarb, asparagus, ramps, and fava beans, I have a lot of cooking and preserving projects on the horizon. Strawberry rhubarb jam, pickled asparagus and a freezable fava bean sauce are some of my first preserving projects of the season. Spring is fleeting, but my family can savor the taste of it all year long.
Home food preservation seems to be on a lot of people's minds right now. I have been getting a lot of requests for canning lessons lately and I am excited to be teaching a canning demonstration class at the River Forest Whole Foods on Saturday April 20 at 1 pm as part of the store's Earth Week celebration. (The demo is free but call ahead to reserve your spot: 708-366-1045.) People often ask me why I enjoy canning so much and what the benefits of home food preservation are. My students get to hear my whole explanation in person, but I thought I should share it with my readers as well.
So, here it is. My thoughts on why it is worthwhile to preserve food at home:
- Know what is in your food. I started canning, now some 5 years ago, because I wanted a kitchen project that I could do with Zuzu. At the time, Zuzu was allergic to wheat, dairy, eggs, nut and peanuts, so we couldn't exactly bake cookies together. I started making jam because all of the necessary ingredients -- basically fruit and sugar -- were safe for my daughter. There are so many people today with food allergies, food sensitivities and other dietary restrictions. There are also many people out there who are concerned about the chemicals and preservatives that are found in their supermarket staples. For people in both of these categories, home food preservation is a way to know exactly what it going into their food. When you make your own jam, pickles, salsa or ketchup, you know exactly what is and is not in that jar or bottle. No need to decipher labels or search high and low for food that is free from chemicals and artificial preservatives.
- Save money. Another reason I started canning? Because I always bought too much at the farmers' market. One day I came home with a flat of strawberries because the flat, which is 8 quarts, was the same price as 6 quarts. "That's like getting two free quarts of berries," I told my husband. "But what are we going to do with 8 quarts of strawberries," he asked. Buying in bulk and taking advantage of sales can be a great way to save money on fresh fruits and vegetables but only if you actually use what you buy. If you know how to preserve food, you can take advantage of sales like the one at my Whole Foods recently: ten mangoes for $5. I don't know if you could eat ten mangoes before some of them went bad. But I turned my ten mangoes into three pints of mango salsa that are sitting in my basement just waiting for grilling season.
- Preserve the season. We are now so used to having asparagus and tomatoes all year round, but before refrigeration, people understood these crops to be seasonal. You ate asparagus in the spring, peaches in the summer and tomatoes in the late summer and fall. If you wanted to enjoy these seasonal fruits and vegetables all year round, your only option was to preserve them. If you have ever eaten fresh asparagus that was picked only days before, or a sun-ripened local tomato, you know how much better these crops taste when you eat them in season. My family doesn't only eat seasonally -- JR wants grapes year-round, thank you very much -- but I try very hard to emphasis local and seasonal produce as much as possible for reasons of taste, economy and environmental sustainability. By preserving local fruits and vegetables when they are in season, I can enjoy them long after they have left the farmers' market bins.
- Stock your pantry. As I mentioned in my post about tomatillos, having a pantry stocked with sauces, salsas and relishes helps make dinner preparation easier all year long. When I need to create a Mexican-inspired dish in January, I just pull some tomatillo sauce up from my basement. When I want to jazz up a pasta dish or a homemade pizza, I reach for one of the many jars of marinated red peppers that I put up in late summer when peppers were inexpensive and plentiful at the farmers' market. And my homemade preserves make special and attractive presents during the holiday season, and indeed whenever I want to thank someone or bring a hostess gift. That shelf full of homemade jams, pickles, and salsa in my basement is a very handy thing to have indeed.
- Have fun! Canning is fun, y'all. You kind of feel like Ma Ingalls when go out apple-picking with your kids, come home and make pint after pint of applesauce. Your friends always seem amazed when you present them with a jar of homemade pickles or jam. And it's honestly not that hard.
Thinking of giving canning a try? If you are local to Chicago, feel free to contact me about a lesson or attend one of my demonstrations. If you live elsewhere, don't worry. Look into canning class in your area -- Google is your friend here. There are also many canning blogs and cookbooks devoted to helping a beginner get started. Ones I like include:
- Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving by Kingry and Devine
- Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving
- Well-Preserved by Eugenia Bone
- The Joy of Jams, Jellies and other Sweet Preserves by Linda Ziedrich
- Food in Jars by Marisa McClellan and her blog of the same name.