Summer Stocks It is the season to turn fruits, vegetables of the harvest into the pantry stars of tomorrow

September 22, 1993|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

It was a yearly ritual. One Saturday morning in early fall my friend Linda and I would pack up a car with buckets of the season's last tomatoes, onions, green peppers and chilies, with jars and lids and labels, drive out to her parents' place in the country and spend the entire day preparing, canning and processing spaghetti sauce and green-pepper jelly.

Her father was always ready, with the canning kettles, the grinder, the big pots for cooking. Sometimes the operation spilled into Sunday, like the year Linda made mango chutney -- pure heaven to eat, but murder to pit and prepare.

We tried to make enough to last until May or June, when fresh produce came in. It was truly a blessing on a busy night to pull out a jar of homemade pasta sauce. And the hot pepper jelly, served with cream cheese and crackers, was a sure-fire hit for entertaining.

Then we moved to opposite coasts, and those empty Saturdays and Sundays just seemed to disappear. But as summer ends, I always remember how good it felt to fill those jars, how beautiful they looked as they sat on a shelf, and how great it was to have those crisp, fresh tastes all year-round. If only it were possible to do a little bit of canning. . . .

Well, according to Andrea Chesman, a Vermont-based food writer and cookbook author, it is.

"You can can in small quantities," Ms. Chesman says. "My garden is small, I might get five or six cucumbers a day. I was frustrated with recipes that called for seven jars, when I might get three or four jars, or 10 jars. So I developed some easy methods for doing it by the jar."

Ms. Chesman's techniques are so simple that she says she visits the garden before dinner and harvests what she might can. Then she gets preparations under way -- soaking cucumbers in brine, for instance -- and after dinner, "I just throw them in the jars and process."

One of Ms. Chesman's projects was editing a book on canning and preserving. She collected recipes from friends and contributed some of her own, but, she says, "I didn't feel I had exhausted my whole repertoire -- I wanted to explore the things that interested me, especially the things you can do in small batches."

The result is "Summer in a Jar: Making Pickles, Jams and More," (Williamson Publishing, 1985, $8.95). Recipes are by the pint or by the quart; a few of the preserve, relish and salsa recipes yield a few pints. (If you're just getting started, you may want to choose recipes that yield a little more, to give more return on the initial time in vestment.)

Not a lot's wasted

Besides being an efficient way to use produce, the small-batch methods have another advantage, Ms. Chesman points out: If you try a new recipe and don't like the resulting taste, you haven't wasted a lot.

Ms. Chesman uses a steam-canning method, because she sticks to preparations that are high in acid. It's also possible to use a boiling-water canner, but for Ms. Chesman's recipes, any large pot -- a stock pot or crab pot -- can be converted to steam canning. All such a pot needs is some sort of rack to keep jars from touching the bottom of the pot. You can use the rings that fit on jar lids as stands, or use a cake rack or grilling rack.

It's not just the "bushels and pecks" that put people off canning: There's also a food-safety issue. It's true that improperly preserved food can be dangerous -- contamination from botulism or salmonella is the chief hazard.

But, Ms. Chesman says, "if you have a little bit of understanding of food-safety issues," you will have no problems.

Choose the right method

There are two basic safety rules. One, use the proper method for the food you are canning. Low-acid foods require a pressure-canning method. High-acid foods can use steam or boiling water. Two, everything from the produce to the counter and stove tops to the cook's hands must be scrupulously clean.

But there's plenty of help out there for people just getting started: Local cooperative extension offices are staffed with home economists who can answer questions and help clear up problems -- even if you're in the middle of a recipe.

"We get two types of questions," says Peggy Altman, a home economist who is extension director for Baltimore city. "One is people who are just starting out and are calling us for the basics.

"We also get people who are in the middle of a recipe and aren't sure what to do next, or something has gone wrong, and they want to know how to fix it," Ms. Altman says.

The extension service also offers brochures on canning, freezing and drying foods to preserve them. There are several basic brochures on techniques, and more than a dozen that are crop-specific -- how to can tomatoes, for instance. All the advice and the brochures are free.

As for safety, Ms. Altman said that beyond being sure to use the proper equipment and techniques, "you should be sure you have as good a product as you can, and you want everything to be as clean as possible."

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