Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Learning to Can Safely

Like a lot of people who’ve taken up canning in the past several years, I first learned to can with my mother. She put up hundreds of jars of applesauce, green beans, peaches, pears, and tomatoes each summer. We picked blackberries every August, filling pots and pans and giant mixing bowls with our bounty, which then got cooked into jam that we slathered on peanut butter sandwiches. We canned in those days because we needed to feed ourselves good food at less cost. It saw us through some lean times well.

Now I can because it’s a way to ensure my food is as honest and clean as possible. I know what goes into those jars; there’s no high fructose corn syrup, no preservatives, no ridiculous amount of salt. I also get a say in where my food comes from. Sometimes it’s from my backyard, sometimes a local farm. I’ve also discovered that once people know you’re a canner they show up with bags and boxes full of fruit. (There are currently 28 pounds of plums in my freezer that need to be turned into jam. Soon.) And, really, canning is fun. I'm in love with those jewel-toned jars.

Ever since I started canning six years ago I’ve been looking for classes to help fill the gaps in my knowledge. What’s considered safe canning practice has changed over the past decade or so. Canning the way our grandmothers and mothers did may give a good seal, but that’s not enough. Food scientists know more about food borne illness now; we have new, stronger strains of bacteria that require us to be more careful in processing those beautiful jars. Just because it’s sealed doesn’t mean it’s safe.

When my search for a good, comprehensive class came up empty (my local extension office has no interest in offering classes) I turned to UC Davis and was referred to University of Idaho. That’s a long way from where I live. The good news is that they have an online course that’s open to anyone with any level of canning experience. Preserve @ Home is six weeks long, interactive with videos and weekly chats, and covers all aspects of food preservation. It’s not only the “how” of preserving, but the “why”. It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for. And it’s a bargain at $35.00.

If you’re interested in this class leave a comment and shoot me an email at jamandcookies at yahoo dot com and I’ll send you the registration form and syllabus. (Please don't leave your email address in your comment. In an effort to preserve your email address privacy I've deleted several comments that included that information.)It’s a special offering of the class and we need 15 people to make this happen; another class is scheduled for next year, so if this October doesn’t work for you there will be other opportunities.

Happy Canning!

Update: It looks like this class is going to fill quickly. The maximum enrollment is 20. Carol Hampton is offering to keep a waiting list for the next class, which is scheduled for January 2013. It might be wise to email her at to make sure there's room left in this session before you send your check. Please email me directly for the registration form and syllabus.

October 3, 2012 Update: The class is now full. If you're interested in a future class please contact Carol Hampton at the email address above.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

August Moon

The end of summer is here, a steady slide into autumn, that glorious blast of bright skies and warm days to remind us that the earth is stunningly beautiful. Every kid I know is back at school by now, their backpacks jammed with heavy books and clothes layered on for chilly mornings and shed during hot afternoons. It will be years before they can really see the beauty of this month.

I love this time of year. August, with its naked ladies in full bloom, ripe blackberries hanging just beyond my reach, the first tomatoes of the season, dandelion seeds floating on wispy breezes.

We’ve been watching a caterpillar in the herb bed for two days. It’s beautiful, all green, red, and orange, perched at the end of a parsley sprig. Neither of us has the heart to move it. If this creature needs my parsley to fuel its transition to butterfly I’m willing to leave it alone and hope that, with a bit of luck, we might see what emerges from the cocoon later.

August leaves me grateful and sad and in awe. It’s the month of my sister’s birth, a date I set aside every year to quietly celebrate the 42 years we had with her. I wish the sunshine on her face and the sweet taste of wild blackberry jam in her mouth. I wish long conversations and sharing dreams with her. August was her month, bright and full of ripening harvest. And over far too soon.

When you hear a tale
Of the August moon
Indulge your senses,
Call Wisdom.
Discover one simple dream.
Honor truth.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Irish Soda Bread - Part 2 (finally)

It seems my blogging intentions have been waylaid by an insistent desire to be lazy about writing. There it is; I’ve been apathetic about writing for so long that thinking about it feels like yet another chore waiting to be done, but a quick look through past posts reminds me that I need to follow up on a few things that got pushed all the way to the back of the cupboard. Time to dig out and finish what I started.

Way back in March I wrote about baking Irish Soda Bread. It was good, but not great. So I experimented and researched and left my mother’s recipe behind. That recipe called for a lot more flour than any other I’ve seen, and instead of buttermilk she used regular milk. That got me a hot brick. The next time I used less flour, but still regular milk. Not quite so dense, but not what I wanted either. Finally, after learning why buttermilk is so important to Soda Bread I made another loaf using vinegar and milk (I didn’t want to buy a quart of buttermilk and have to throw most of it out because, umm, yuck). The bread was delicious and had the right texture and density.

This is what I learned:
  • The acidity of buttermilk is necessary to activate the baking soda. Not adding that acidity will leave the bread dense.
  • You can fake buttermilk by adding one teaspoon of lemon juice or vinegar to room temperature milk and letting it sit for 15 minutes
  • Fresh, hot bread is the perfect vehicle for loads of fresh, homemade butter.
  • My jeans fit better if I don’t bake bread too often.

Okay, one follow-up post completed. Let’s see how well I do with the next one.