Preserving the Harvest

Autumn is finale for storing local goodness Napoleon conquered Europe. But he couldn’t have done it without Nicolas Appert. Appert was a candyman, a confectioner. He dabbled with methods for preserving foods. Napoleon, source of the famous quote, “An army marches on its stomach,” offered a 12,000 franc reward to any inventor who could perfect a method of preserving food so that the French army could travel easily, carrying food as they marched through the Continent. Appert received the money as reward for inventing what we now call “canning.” Appert found that placing food inside a container — in his case, glass jars sealed with cork, wax and wire — and then cooking in boiling water kept the food from spoiling for extended periods of time. Appert didn’t know exactly why, since Louis Pasteur’s work with food spoilage and microorganisms was over a century in the future. Ignorance does not always trump perseverance; after more than 15 years perfecting the process, Appert won the 12,000 francs when he sent Napoleon jars of partridges, gravy and vegetables that were still tasty and unspoiled. Nappy’s army was able to march further and eat better with Appert’s canned food. A year after Appert won the award, an Englishman named Peter Durand expanded on the idea by preserving foods inside metal, tinned cans. The problem? The can opener wasn’t invented until 30 years later. Canning has become one of the time-tested methods of preserving fresh food for the winter months. Food for all seasons The increased interest in locally produced foods isn’t limited to the growing season. In the case of meats, cheeses, milk and eggs, savvy eaters have curried favored access to local farmers who stage delivery drops on a monthly basis. These hook-ups happen frequently at the site of the seasonal Village Pointe Farmers Market. On any given weekend day you might find a van or truck dropping off coolers to waiting foodies throughout the winter months. But what about fruits and vegetables? The local growing season is nearly over but it’s not too late to harvest and preserve much of the summer’s bounty. The main methods of preserving food include canning, freezing, drying, pickling and salting. Another simple method for root vegetables and hard squashes is the “do nothing” way of keeping them in a root cellar or cool, dark pantry. Canning is by far the most flexible and convenient method. All you need is good, fresh, local produce, a canner, jars and shelf space. It’s easier than most people think. It’s in the can For example, consider these steps for canning fresh tomatoes, a tasty reward to be savored in a number of ways come January. The steps are simple. Cut up some local tomatoes. Place in canning jars. Put the jars in a canning pot that contains water. Seal the cover of the canner and boil for a specified time, about 20 minutes. Let the jars cool and put them on the shelf in a closet or cupboard. The method and technique will vary for different vegetables but there is no scarcity of instructions on specifics. Books, pamphlets and online resources abound, such as freshpreserving.com. Boiling water vs. Pressure canning If you are ready to demystify the canning process and recapture a skill generations of our ancestors used, the first step is to buy a canner. Purchase either a boiling water canner or a pressure canner. I would recommend a pressure canner because it’s more flexible. You can do boiling water canning in a pressure canner but you can’t do pressure canning in a boiling water canner. A decent pressure canner may run $50-$75 but it’s a long-term investment. Low pH produce like fruit can be processed in boiling water. But a boiling water canner doesn’t develop the heat necessary for meats, vegetables and other items. A pressure canner is sealed when you use it on the stove and the cooking temps get much higher. If all you are doing is jams and jellies, then a boiling water canner is fine. But all that sweet stuff gets pretty boring after awhile. Put the freeze on For 50 years, freezing food has become more common than canning. Most things you’ll want to freeze in serving-size portions for convenience. Sweet corn is an example of how easy it can be. Nothing tastes like fresh, local sweet corn. You can enjoy it throughout the winter. The absolute easiest way is husk the corn, wash the entire cob, cleaning the corn silk off, let it air dry and pop it in a freezer bag, squeezing out the excess air. Mark it as raw and put it in the freezer. When you prepare it, thaw for an hour and treat it like fresh corn. Another way to do sweet corn is to blanch it first. Blanching may seem like a mystery to the uninitiated. Don’t be shy. Have courage in the kitchen. Blanching is simply partial cooking done for a number of reasons. In the case of preserving foods, blanching “turns off” the natural enzymes in food that affect spoilage. For corn, place the ears in boiling water for about four to six minutes, remove and put them in ice water right away. Let them cool thoroughly, then take a sharp knife and trim the kernels off, close to the cob. Bag and freeze. When it’s time to enjoy, heat it on the stove just long enough to reach serving temperature. It will be crisp and sweet as the day it was picked. Other vegetables can be treated the same way. Green beans, asparagus, chard, spinach — just about any veggie you can think of. Blanching times will vary and if you can’t find a guideline, err on the side of shorter time. Whatever method you use to extend the harvest, choosing local is one way to get the freshest ingredients and that means the most nutritious. Be well.

posted at 09:13 pm
on Thursday, September 30th, 2010

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