Digging In & Putting Up in 2012: Part II

Posted on March 7, 2012

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Rhubarb ChutneyI’m kind of in disbelief that it’s already March, and I sense there are plenty of others feelin’ me on this. Every year that goes by seems faster than the one before it, and an essential lack of all things winter (snow, stretches of bone-chilling temps… did I mention snow?) in the Northeast this year has only magnified that perception.

As I said in Part I of this dual-post series, I’m currently pursuing more than a few food systems positions, meaning my growing season plans are still in the air. A couple things are for sure, though, like my role as garden facilitator at Waltham Fields and my continued writing for their blog; other than that, I am patiently awaiting response to just about everything else. And that’s not to say I’m about to stop looking and applying for jobs. In this economy and industry, it’s almost a perpetual task.

That said, I am trying to organize my food preservation plans now so that I can be slightly less manic come June, when the harvest season truly kicks off here in Massachusetts. Last summer was my first real go at attempting to put up a significant amount of food, but I still only managed to can fewer than 100 jars; of course, this was way more than I ever imagined I would put up given my schedule. I mean, I didn’t even think I would get to can at all as CSA distributions began! I was stretched pretty thin, working as a garden educator/facilitator for both Healthy Waltham (running around town, a different location, type of activity, and group of kids every day) and Waltham Fields, plus waitressing to actually pay my bills, and took a week-long intensive course at Tufts to get a credit ahead so that I could take one less class this semester (very, very happy I had this foresight). Mind you, that course was smack-dab in the middle of program and harvest madness. AND required me to complete a 30+ page, single-space web strategy proposal after the session. Sure, the topic could have been way drier and less applicable to my professional interests, but that’s still a lot of pages and words. I somehow managed to pull off a stellar grade and receive kudos from the professor for my work. I think I averaged about 35 hours of sleep per week for about half the year.

To say that this summer will be any less hectic would be inappropriate, as it is really too soon to tell. But my projects, both professional and personal, will certainly be different. Which brings me to…

My 2012 Can Plan!

Kind of a misnomer, folks, but it just rolls off the tongue. I couldn’t help myself.

Before I start rattling off all the scrumptious foods I plan to preserve in the coming months, I want to layout a few objectives I’m keeping in mind this year, which you may find useful if you are just starting to preserve or tend to only do a few staples (pickles and jam, anyone?) but are looking to expand your pantry’s homemade spread.

  1. Preserving should be (somewhat) fun. Perhaps this concept seems obvious. But perhaps it seems counter-intuitive, especially to hardcore preservationists and locavores who put up hundreds (if not thousands) of jars according to the dictates of the harvest. I’m not saying that laboring over a humungous pot of boiling water to get those cukes pickled before they start to get all slimy in your fridge’s veggie compartment is what I have in mind. What I mean is that putting up food, for whatever reasons you have for doing so, should be a relatively joyful act, whether in the actual process of completing a batch, learning new skills or knowledge, or the end result of having shelves full of foods you preserved according to your personal standards of quality eats. Many a preservationist will even admit that once you start these routines, it can become a sort of addiction. Which leads me to my next point…
  2. Be realistic. If you have the time, energy, desire, funds, and produce (whether homegrown or purchased) to put up hundreds of jars of food, that is fantastic. But most of us shouldn’t stress about becoming the next Marisa of Food In Jars. Put up what you really want to have in amounts that will be comfortably eaten (or gifted) within the next 12 months, while keeping in mind that you have other obligations in life, many of which should rank higher than putting up food. I know for me, personally, preserving can be pretty expensive, both initially with the purchase of equipment as well as throughout the adventure (i.e. continued purchase of jars, lids, specialty ingredients, etc). And there is quite a bit of controversy around the true “sustainability” of pursuing a simple-living way of life in today’s world (stay tuned). So though it is something I myself do not like to admit, putting up food should not be viewed as one’s way of saving the planet from the environmental destruction created by industrialization.
  3. Consider how your items will be consumed. Keeping in mind how often and in what ways preserved foods will be consumed is essential to a sustainable plan. For me, this means planning to put up large batches and quantities of certain items (tomatoes- whole/crushed, dried, and sauced, stocks, peaches, frozen hearty greens) and small batches of others (condiments, spreads, higher-priced foods with limited availability, strong and distinctly-flavored items). Save yourself the time, money, and effort by writing out what you think you want to put up and envisioning your use of these items. It’s so tempting to try out every saliva-inducing recipe you come across, but take caution, my friends. Do you really think you’ll consume 8 pints of the rhubarb chutney featured in the photo above? Maybe you will, but I know I sure won’t. A more sensible 4 half-pint jars will do just fine for my needs.
  4. Keep it safe. Don’t let ambition or creativity override safety when it come to preserving, especially when canning. While you often have some leeway with how foods are prepared when freezing or dehydrating, hot-water bath and pressure canned items should be prepared according to trusted recipes. If you have any doubts about an appropriate procedure or technique to put up a particular item, check out the National Center for Home Food Preservation website for guidance. If you are pressure canning using a dial gauge, it is strongly suggested you get it checked annually by your local extension office or canner company. If this seems too inconvenient for your personal schedule, a weighted-gauge pressure canner may be a better purchase.
  5. Recognize that some foods aren’t worth putting up yourself. This particular point is highly conditional to your location and preservation budget. The accessibility of certain goods, in terms of seasonality, locality, availability, and price, should definitely be considered prior to putting up items. For example, dried, unsweetened tart cherries are a nutrient-dense snacking staple in my house. But even though they are quite expensive, they would be even more expensive if I tried putting them up myself because of the limited availability of local cherries and the relatively-high price of supermarket cherries even when in season. I’m definitely willing to pay a bit more to put up local foods, but some items simply aren’t worth it.

Okay, now onto the plan!

2011 goodies: peaches, salsa, pickles, & tomatoes

I’ve broken things down into preservation techniques and item categories for your reading pleasure; I also ordered food-specific items according to approximated garden, CSA, and market availability in Massachusetts. For example, strawberries are available before blueberries, so they are listed before blueberries. Estimated amounts of what I believe I will use or gift within a year, and thus how much I plan to put up, is also listed.

LAST UPDATED WITH LINKS AND NOTES ON DECEMBER 14, 2012:

Canning { Boiling-Water Bath } : high-heat water processing of high-acid foods for shelf stability

  • whole fruits (12 pints peaches, 16-24 pints tomatoes)
  • preserves (4 pints each of: maybe apricots, maybe cherries) (total bummer: missed MA’s short and small 2012 harvest!)
  • chutneys (8 half-pints each of: Indian-style tomato-onion, maybe peach) (did an apple mincemeat)
  • jams (8 half-pints each of: strawberry, raspberry-plum, blueberry, plum, maybe apricot, cranberry-pear, kumquat marmalade)
  • butters (8 half-pints each of: peach, cranberry pear, apple)
  • sauces (16 pints tomato, 6 half-pints BBQ, 12 pints total lots of plain and flavored apple –> did  vanilla star anise and cranberry)
  • salsas (8 pints tomato, 6 pints tomatillo, 5 pints corn)
  • pickles (8 half-pints beets, 12 pints cucumbers, 8 pints mixed vegetables, 8 half-pints red onions, 6 pints hot peppers)

Canning { Pressurized } : higher-heat steam processing of low-acid foods for shelf stability (Looks like I’ll be holding off until next year)

  • 12 quarts vegetable stock
  • maybe 4 pints baked beans
  • 12 quarts total of 3 different soups (recipes TBD)

Dehydrating : low-heat processing for minimal nutrient loss and shelf stability

(note: quantities of fresh produce indicated)

  • 3 lbs rhubarb
  • 10-15 lbs blueberries (ah, nope. Sorry)
  • 1/2 peck plums (shoot.)
  • 2 pecks peaches
  • 20 lbs tomatoes (wasn’t in the cards this fall.)
  • herbs and flowers: 1-2lbs stinging nettles
  • 2 cantaloupe melons
  • 1 bushel apples
  • marinated eggplant
  • 6 lbs cranberries (crap.)
  • 1/2 peck orange flesh and rind

Fermenting : the use of live cultures and lacto-fermentation for nutrients, healthy gut bacteria, and long-term storage

Freezing : blanching* and freezing for nutrient preservation and long-term storage

(note: I’m desperately hoping that I have the funds to purchase a chest freezer to make these plans happen, as my living situation does not afford adequate freezing space and temps in my refrigerator. Most frozen items will be stored in quart-size freezer bags.)

I have every intention of keeping the blog updated on these projects and their recipes as they are completed, so be sure to check in throughout the season to see what has (and has not) made the cut.

Being a relative novice in the world of preservation, I’d love to hear how and what others are planning for the season ahead. Do you have any new goals or objectives, whether qualitative or quantifiable, this year? Are there any new projects you’re going to attempt or a particular item you just can’t pass up preserving?

Please share your comments below!