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Prepare for preserving

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Prepare for preserving

While preparing for food preserving might seem as daunting as a first adventure painting outside, it needn't be. Gather your materials, fresh produce and dive in. "Daydream" by Jan Roberts-Dominguez features Marys Peak as viewed from Bellfountain Road.

Leaving the convenient and private studio environment to paint in the “real world” is something every artist must ultimately do, if for no other reason than to push the fold of one’s creativity. But unless you’re an artist, you probably can’t relate to the utter trepidation I felt many years ago when contemplating that first excursion. Of course, it wasn’t just a fear of the unknown, which is something we’ve all had to deal with. What if I ran out of water or didn’t bring the right watercolors? How could I keep people from peering over my shoulder? Could I paint in something other than my comfortable ergonomic swivel chair, with a three pound board balanced on my knees?

But those were just the stupid details. And how many times had I heard from a host of wise advisors, “don’t sweat the details.” Not if it keeps you from seeing the big picture. Or in my case, from capturing it in brilliant hues of Viridian green, Cyanine blue, and Carbazole violet.

So I drove out to the countryside armed with several jugs of water, every tube of paint and brush I possessed, extra paper, and a nervous stomach. I dallied along the back roads of Corvallis, in search of just the right scene. Then I dithered over my outdoor studio, arranging and rearranging palette, tissues, foot stool and water. Finally, there was no putting it off. I had to apply that first brush stroke.

The transformation was swift. My world shrank to a picture frame image above my left thumb, and suddenly, re-creating it was my solitary goal. Delicate washes of color bloomed on the paper as minutes melted into hours.

But it wasn’t until my painting was complete and I was heading back to town that I noticed what had really taken place: I felt fabulous! Mentally relaxed, and physically invigorated. What a fool I had been to have denied myself such an experience.

A few weeks later, as I began to gear up for preserving the spring and summer harvests, it occurred to me that food preserving is a lot like painting on location. A person can get so overwrought with the technicalities and science of the task, that it’s easy to lose sight of the process and what it does for you. Deep down in your soul, I mean. Like several hours of painting in the forest, when you step into a kitchen to wrestle a bushel of produce into shimmering little jars, it focuses your concentration. And just like trying to capture an image on paper, at the end of an activity that leaves no room for mulling extracurricular woes, you come away gloriously refreshed.

Plus, your meals will be lovelier; your gifts more cherished. And if by demonstrating the age-old process of putting food by helps your children make the inescapable connection we have with the land, then the future becomes a more hopeful place to look.

Well, your opportunity to capture that harvest is upon us. Local rhubarb is here. And then it’s on to berries, cherries, peaches, apples and pears. An amazing journey that won’t slow down until the fields of corn are spent, tomato bushes are finally too tuckered and chilled to fruit, and our filbert trees have yielded their nutty treasure.

So while the pace is still leisurely, it’s a good time to gear up for the season. Like any other form of cooking, there are a few tools that you’ll need to have on hand. Things such as canning jars and lids, for example, as you’ll see below, are a necessary part of the process. You might as well obtain them. Then — and this is a very important part! — set aside a few square feet of kitchen or garage space for these supplies. A box or shelf — whatever it takes to keep all of the essentials organized in one place. Experience has taught me that at those rare moments when time, energy and inclination are aligned you don’t want to undermine your enthusiasm by having to assemble all of the gear.

GEAR UP FOR PRESERVING

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Here are some key resources and essential equipment to get started.

Online information — extension.oregonstate.edu/food/preservation. The Oregon State University Extension Service is your best starting point for up to date, reliable and safe information. You can dig into hundreds of publications on food preservation, from making jam to canning tuna.

Canning book(s)  Arrange to have at least one basic guide on hand that offers basic and reliable information and conforms to all of the wishes and recommendations of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Many of such books come in multiple editions. In order to make sure your information is up to date, do not purchase any edition that’s been published earlier than 1988, which is when major changes in recommendations for canning tomatoes were made. Number one on my list: “Ball Blue Book — Guide to Home Canning, Freezing & Dehydration,” by the Altrista Corporation.

Processing pot/boiling-water canner  Most of my canning recipes that I’ll be sharing with you throughout the spring and summer provide two choices for storage (which influences how you finish a recipe): refrigeration or room temperature. Refrigeration (or in some cases, freezing) is the easiest approach, of course. Simply ladle your prepared jam (or relish, or jelly) into clean containers, add a lid, and place them in your refrigerator up to a specified amount of time.

Because most of us have limited refrigerator space, I’m starting with the premise that at some point this summer, you’ll want to take the extra steps to “can” a batch of your jam, fruits, pickles and relishes so that they can be stored at room temperature. To do so, then they need to be “processed” in a boiling water canner. These pots don’t need to be expensive and heavy-duty. In fact, they’re typically made from lightweight aluminum or enameled metal. But they do need to be large enough to hold at least half a dozen canning jars and enough water to cover the jars by at least one inch.

Canning jars — They’re made from sturdy, tempered glass designed to withstand the heat and jostling of a boiling water canner. It’s a false economy to substitute recycled mayonnaise or commercially-made jam jars, because they might break during processing. And then all your efforts will be for nothing. Canning jars can be found all over the place this time of year, such as in any well-stocked supermarket or department store. Because these jars are sturdy enough to use over and over (unless they’ve developed nicks or cracks, of course), you might even find an adequate supply of them at garage sales or thrift shops.

Canning lids — If you’ve bought new canning jars, then you will also get your very first supply of two-piece canning lids because they will be included. They’re comprised of a flat, round lid or “insert” that comes with a rubberized “sealing compound” around its edges. The second part of the two-piece lid is called the “ring” or “metal screw-band,” designed to hold the lid in place. The flat, round lid is a one-time-only piece of gear because the rubberized sealing compound needs to be fresh. The rings, however, are reusable, as long as they aren’t rusted or dented. So keep an eye out for those at garage sales, if you want to save a few pennies.

Jar funnel — It’s designed to nest on top of an empty canning jar and direct a ladle-full of preserves down into the jar without leaving messy glops on the jar rim or counter. You need one, trust me!

Jar lifter — The manuallly-operated fork-lift of the canning world. Designed to grip a filled-and-capped jar securely around its neck for placing in and removing from a boiling water canner, you really have no alternative method.

Lid Lifter  What could be more simple and elegant in design: a 6-inch long “wand” with a magnet embedded into the business end, used to fish out the lids from hot water. OK, let me back up a moment ... In the early phase of a canning project, you’ve cleaned your two-piece lids by bringing them to a boil in a pot of water. You leave them in the boiling-hot water until you’re ready to cap a filled jar. At this point, the magnet end of the lid lifter will attract a metal lid or screw-band from the water.

Rack — keeps jars off the bottom of the boiling water canner during processing. Also eliminates jostling among the jars, which helps eliminate breakage. You can use the racks that come with the canning kettles. However, I made my own rack many years ago from 1/8-inch galvanized hardware cloth (cut in a circle to match the inner circumference of the boiling-water canner), stapled on 6 small wood laths (cut in graduated lengths to provide maximum support of the round of meshing. Unlike the commercially made wire racks, this homemade rack produces a perfectly smooth-bottomed-yet-raised surface for jars to sit on.

Thermometer — For determining when your batch of boiling jams and jellies have reached the “gel point.” Although a candy thermometer, clamped to the inside upper rim of the pot will work just fine, I prefer using an “instant read” thermometer to monitor the progress, which eliminates a dangling piece of equipment when you’re trying to give the preserves a good stir.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com or find additional recipes and food tips on her blog at janrd.com.

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