Monthly ArchiveNovember 2010

Seasonal Cooking 07 Nov 2010 08:19 pm

Yes, I Canned

After years of saying “this is the summer I learn how to can,” I finally made it happen. I’ve long viewed this mysterious process with trepidation. How can it be possible to hold food indefinitely in suspended animation? How is it possible to protect it from the riot of hungry microorganisms, and the rot and decay they cause, with only a thin layer of glass and a heat-sealed metal cap? With awe I’ve looked upon the strange alchemist’s setup: magnetic wands and special funnels, metal rings and paraffin and vats of boiling water into which jars are lowered on special racks. In my kitchen no project had ever before been undertaken which required anything to be sterilized.

But then, canning is a time-honored practice. I reassured myself that it’s part of many a home cook’s routine. Certainly my Pennsylvania Dutch forebears were ardent practitioners. I knew I needed to give it a try.

And so I did. I decided to can two things: tomatoes, and a corn and poblano salsa inspired by the Perro Poblano, the chili dog I made for last year’s Brooklyn Hot Dog Cookoff.

I did my research. I studied the Ball Blue Book and the classic Putting Food By.  I learned that if you don’t have a pressure-canner, and you’re just using a boiling-water bath, you need to be sure the food inside the jars is sufficiently acidic. You also need to make sure the contents of the jars contain plenty of liquid, so that the heat from the boiling water can fully circulate through to the center of the jar, killing off any last redoubt of bacteria that may be lurking there.

In other words, with canning you can’t just wing it like you can in ordinary cooking. If you’re just starting out it’s a good idea to find a recipe (there are many in the books mentioned above, or on the USDA website), and follow it to a T. Or, better yet, take a class.

I wish I’d followed that advice. Instead, I approached my first canning project like I approach ordinary cooking: I looked over a recipe to get its basic ideas and then incorporated those ideas into a dish of my own. This is fine for making dinner, but in canning it felt nerve-wracking. If I screwed up the result could be more than just an unsatisfying supper. It could be botulism.

But I forged ahead, trying my best to be careful.  The tomatoes were pretty straightforward: I simply blanched them to remove their skins, then heated them up and packed them into hot, sterilized jars. To play it safe (some tomato varieties aren’t all that acidic) I added lemon juice to each jar. The corn  salsa was a little tricker. I made a salsa base from sweet corn (blanched and cut from the cob) chopped white onion, roasted poblano peppers and salt. To can it I referred to a recipe for Amish-style corn relish, using lime juice – and plenty of it – in place of the traditional white vinegar. Lord knows what it will taste like when I open those jars in January.

Another piece of advice: for your first time out, try canning just one thing. Canning requires you to have a large boiling cauldron of water for the jars, a small pan of boiling water to sterilize the lids, and a pot to heat up the food. In my case that meant a pot for the tomatoes and another for the corn. What with managing jar lifters and magnetized lid-lifting wands, while trying to keep everything operating-room clean, I would’ve felt better with one fewer pot on the stove.

I managed though to pack three pints of tomatoes and a pint and four half-pints of corn salsa. When the jars came out of the cauldron and cooled  — wondrous to behold – they all sealed. The lids held tight. Even now, a month later, there’s no oozing, no funny noises, no smells. Everything seems to be ok.

But after all this, do I really know that the food inside is safe?  I’m taking my health and well-being into my hands, and maybe that of my friends and guests, thinking I can safely store food at room temperature for months on end. What will happen when I open those jars? Check back in January for a full report – assuming I survive!

NYC Greenmarkets 06 Nov 2010 08:15 am

Winter Squash! McCarren Park Greenmarket Report for Nov 6

This week in the market, come learn all about winter squash! Taste different squash and sign up for the Greenpoint Greenmarket Winter Squash Pie Bake-Off, now happening on Novemeber 27th. All participants will win a prize! Sign up at the market info tent or email for more information. And make sure to stop by Dipaola Turkey to reserve your Thanksgiving Turkey.