Taking A Can-do Attitude

THE REAL DIRT

August 07, 1994|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

By midsummer, many gardeners are buried beneath the fruits of their labor. Kitchens are filled with home-grown produce. Refrigerators are laden with fresh beans and corn. Cucumbers are stacked like firewood on the porch, beside bags of zucchini waiting to be dropped on neighbors' doorsteps in the still of the night.

Come August, gardeners find themselves slaves to plots producing beyond their wildest dreams. Moreover, all the veggies seem to be in cahoots to reach the table together.

Tomatoes that stayed green for weeks ripen all at once, causing havoc in the kitchen. The crimson beauties begin to back up, creating a traffic jam stretching clear to the vine.

Experienced gardeners know the tomato drill: Fill every nook and cranny of the refrigerator, then move to the kitchen counter. When your spouse starts to see red, retreat to the cellar. Pile tomatoes on the basement floor, the back steps, the picnic table.

Once, while harvesting a bumper crop, I stored a bushel of tomatoes in the bathtub and stashed more under the bed.

The tomatoes didn't stay there long. By nightfall, they'd been preserved in canning jars, part of the 104 quarts that I put up

that banner year.

I spent much of that summer in front of the stove, sweating over steaming jars of home-canned produce. It was my first try at food preservation, and the mistakes I made would fill a Mason jar several times over.

Canning their crops gives gardeners a sense of independence and pride, providing the job is done right. There's nothing more pleasing than opening pretty glass jars of beans and peaches on bleak winter days. (I get a rush just looking at all the filled containers.)

However, there's nothing more discouraging than opening those victuals and finding the contents have spoiled.

Here, then, are some helpful tips for gardeners wishing to preserve their veggies for a rainy day:

* Buy a good guide for food preservation, such as "Putting Food By" (Stephen Greene Press), "Keeping the Harvest" (Storey Publishing) or "The Better Homes and Gardens Home Canning Cook Book." Don't preserve food using shortcut techniques and hand-me-down recipes that worked for Aunt Millie, until checking with home economists at your county cooperative extension service.

* Process only fruits and vegetables that are firm and ripe. Avoid using mushy or imperfect produce, which can contaminate an entire batch.

* Wash produce thoroughly before canning, to remove all dirt and bugs. My wife demanded I discard a quart of tomatoes after spotting a tomato hornworm floating inside. I don't know why. The worm was dead.

* Have all equipment at hand before you start. Timing is critical in processing, and you can't always stop to rummage for canning lids, rings or tongs.

* Plan your canning project wisely. Dropping a bushel of fresh tomatoes on the kitchen table, while your spouse is fixing dinner, is not a good idea. Also, don't begin the project so late in the day that you can't call a neighbor for help when the pressure canner explodes all over the ceiling.

* Before filling canning jars, check all for nicks and cracks. The food inside damaged containers is at risk to spoil. Use only approved containers, not mayonnaise or baby food jars, whose lids will not seal properly.

* When preserving food, try to tune out outside distractions that can jeopardize the canning process. However, some crises must be dealt with. Several years ago, as I was canning beets, my wife called to say her car had been disabled on the highway by a flying traffic cone. Could I come and get her?

I never finished the beets, nor the tomatoes I was processing the night the cat waltzed in the back door carrying a live mouse. The mouse broke free and scooted down the cellar steps. In hot pursuit came the cat, both dogs and me, waving a red-stained spatula.

I finally trapped the mouse in an empty Mason jar and released him outside, much to the cat's chagrin. I guess she wanted me to preserve him, though I've never seen directions for preparing canned mice.

* If canning's not your thing, try freezing your home-grown goodies. Freezing is a quick and inexpensive alternative to canning. However, frozen food lacks visual appeal and makes poor holiday gifts. I'd much prefer a jar of homemade strawberry jam to a block of frozen berries.

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