This morning I laid in bed wondering if I should make salsa this weekend or try to wait until there were more tomatoes. The cabbage moth made a strike on my cabbages while I was on vacation and now, I have to either meticulously clean each leaf or I can pick it now and make sauerkraut. My zucchinis and cucumbers are also getting big and need to be processed as soon as possible.
Then I open my email to find this note from a participant in the Valley Grow Project; which was an initiative that RAVEN (Rural Action and Voices for the Environment) undertook this spring to get people into home gardening (either for the first time or for the first time in years).
Travis writes, “In the garden forums I am in on Facebook I see a worrying trend of lots of people growing food, but then not understanding when it is “ready,” what to do with it after, and how to store it for winter. This seems like the next evolution in the curve. Anyone it seems can grow a tomato, but not many know how to turn it into a sauce and bottle it!”
Travis is certainly right. I still feel a bit pressured as things come in fast. This isn’t my first year of gardening or putting food away, but I didn’t grow up doing this and it will take some time before I can get into the natural seasonal rhythm of processing my own food. I have been lucky have people in my family to help me with my first few rounds of preserving food.
As a novice, I can share a few simple tips with you.
Keep checking plants all the time (daily if you can). It is easy for vegetables to hide under large leaves and become overly large without you knowing. Most things taste better when they are smaller, zucchinis, carrots, kale, etc.
Canning is divided into high and low acid canning. The vinegar and/or salt in high-acid canning and the sugar in preserves keeps the food over time. Low-acid canning is for things like moose meat, soups, chicken broth and seafood. Low-acid canning should be done for the first time with someone who has experience. Pickles, salsas and fruit preserves are all great for beginners.
The caution with canning is to prevent botulism. This is a bacteria that may grow in improperly preserved food that can create toxins in the body when consumed. If your food was properly canned, you will find that the lid can’t be taken off with your fingers, there are no bulges in the jar lid and no cracks in the jar. Rings on jars can be reused, but not the lids. There is a bit of wax around the edge that will not seal properly when reused.
My favourite, comprehensive book is Put ‘em Up! Preserving Answer Book: 399 Solutions to All Your Questions: Canning, Freezing, Drying, Fermenting, Making Infusions by Sherri Brooks Vinton.
Here are some safety tips from Brooks Vinton; 1. Follow the recipe! If you start improvising, you may not get the acid levels right and your food could go bad (which makes it unsafe and a waste of many hours of growing and processing). This makes Grandma’s recipe a lot more appealing than something that comes from the Internet. 2. Keep your work space clean and sanitized and wash all vegetables well before starting. 3. Check your jars, as mentioned above. 4. Use only fresh food. If it isn’t good enough to eat fresh, it isn’t good enough to preserve!
Not everything needs to be canned. Ever heard of salsa fresca? Take those juicy little Tiny Tim tomatoes, cut in half and mix with thinly sliced raw onion, peppers, (hot peppers if you like), maybe some cumin, salt, lime and cilantro. It’s nice with tortilla chips, burritos, on egg sandwiches, etc. This should be fresh for about four days in the fridge.
If you don’t have a lot of cucumbers, there are recipes for something called refrigerator pickles. These don’t require canning and will last up to a month in the fridge. They still have the same taste.
All berries can be laid flat on a baking sheet and frozen for a day. Then scrape them off the sheet and into bags or containers for the freezer. This keeps them from forming into a massive, frozen lump and allows you to easily grab a handful for baking and smoothies.
Garlic scapes are those spirals on the top of your garlic can be cut in July and treated like a milder, green garlic. The further down the stem you cut, the “woodier” they get, so pay attention to that. Cut the tops with sharp scissors and add to stir-fry and soup. I like to put mine in the food processor with oil, salt and a bit of water to make garlic “pesto.” If you don’t harvest the scapes, they eventually go to seed which will pull energy from the bulb, so it is best to do this step.
Saukerkraut is easier to make then you might think. I was surprised to learn that there is no vinegar in the recipe. Simply pounding on the green leaves that have been salted makes a juice. As long as the shredded leaves are covered in juice it will work. There are lots of interesting variations like adding carrots, kohlrabi and adding spices like turmeric or fennel.
Shelling peas and beans can be dried for winter soups. They can be placed in paper bags in a dry, sunny porch or greenhouse. Just keep an eye out for snacking mice and squirrels. Note, that this doesn’t work well for snow peas or string beans. If the outer shell is tough and hard to chew and the beans or peas are close to the size of the tip of your pinky finger, you probably have planted shelling varieties that are good to dry.
All of my garlic, beans and herbs and next years seeds tend to end up drying on old window screens in the greenhouse. As long as they are not piled deep and get turned periodically, they will not mold.
There are a world of methods to try. Some more interesting ideas are fruit leather, herb infused oils, and tinctures for things like lavender.
The words that we use for preserved food are not exactly accurate. For instance, we might think of mango chutney, but a chutney could be any kind of fruit in a vinegar. Ketchup is simple a smooth, spiced, vinegar condiment, it doesn’t have to be made with tomatoes! It actually says Heinz tomato ketchup on the bottle. Salsa, as well is just Spanish for sauce. It may be red, green, smooth, chunky, etc. You can get just about as creative as you want, but remember to find a reliable recipe and stick with it.
Not everything will work out perfectly the first time, but do take some time to try new methods of preserving. Learning to preserve food is a really great thing to do with grandparents and elders in your community. You can be more food secure, spend time with elders and become a knowledge keeper for the preservation of a traditional diet in your own home and community.
Amy Floyd lives in Taymouth and is a Food Security Policy Analyst with RAVEN.