Do-it-yourself canning is definitely having a moment, says Kelly Geary of Sweet Deliverance, who teaches the craft at the Brooklyn Kitchen Lab. “I think it has to do with New Yorkers getting more involved with the food they’re eating. People are getting back to the mindset of ‘I want to make my food myself’.”
That’s what happened to three busy New York women, who raided countless farmers markets for end-of-summer produce and hardware stores for ball jars—then devoted a long weekend to a self-taught canning immersion course. See their dreamy slideshow diary here. —By Hope Gillerman, as told to Well+Good; Photos by Alison Oliver.
How it Started
Alison Oliver and I work in the same building—me on the 6th floor, her on the 10th—right next to Union Square and the farmers market. We see so much good food go by that we don’t have enough time to cook or eat, it breaks our hearts.
Luckily, early in the summer, Alison met Sherri Brooks Vinton at her book-signing of Put Em Up! A Comprehensive Home Preserving Guide for the Creative Cook at the farmers market, where Vinton was demo-ing canning. Alison got it right away. “Hope, you gotta see this book, it’s going to change our lives!”
The book was adorable, but I wasn’t convinced. What is canning? Why wouldn’t we want fresh food? And who has time for that?! So, like a penguin, I watched and waited as she jumped in first.
“Canning” is Really “Jarring”
A week later I got an email from Alison: “My canning pot is here!” —an essential tool for boiling the water and sterilization described in the book, she explained. This is when I learned that that canning actually doesn’t use cans, but Ball jars. Duh!
Alison handed me a beautiful jar of beets she’d made. I gobbled my beets up in two days and returned the reusable jar so she would keep the supply coming.
How I Became a Canner
Over the summer, Alison kept showing up with gorgeous jars filled with delicious veggies. Alison, a brilliant designer and illustrator (who also does all the graphics for H. Gillerman Organics), had figured out a way to make her food as beautiful as her artwork. The appeal to start canning alongside her started to build. Besides the beautiful jars, I think I started to figure out that having year-round ready-made veggies put in sandwiches, salads, or dishes was a brilliant way to make sure I ate the “well-foodie way” that I like—lots of local veggies all the time.
The Trip to Ipswich
The idea clicked that we could go to my mother’s farmhouse in Ipswich for Labor Day weekend. It was like a beacon, pulling us through this super busy, relentlessly hot, sticky summer.
My friend Mary Ann, an avid permaculturalist, joined the plan. She likes the eat the way we do, plus she had a really cool car! We held a project-planning summit, bought the food and jars, and schlepped it back to my apartment in Fort Greene. It took five hours for six different canning projects. Were we too ambitious? Probably.
For our meals, we also lugged some fresh tortillas from Hot Bread Kitchen, butter from Mary Ann’s brother’s mini-farm in Wisconsin, and we were gifted a giant CSA-style box of farm-fresh foods—oh, the cheeses!—by a friend who was going to be away. We were set to eat really, really well.
We had selected the darkest richest beets we could find and loads of super-fresh dill, still on its roots. We boiled, then peeled, then sliced, and then placed them in pint-sized jars with the homemade brine. Our beets were ready for the age-old food preserving method.
As we waited for the magic to happen, Alison presented us with a foreshadowed surprise—custom labels! “I Can Therefore I Am!” The logo shows Rene Descartes with his goatee, flanked by floating dill weed, dill seeds, and dill spears.
In the morning we tied our new Descartes tags to the jars and lined them up. They looked like soldiers. We love them.
The tomatillos smelled weird when we peeled them, the lime juice overflowed out of the Cuisinart, and we weren’t sure we had the right peppers. But we soldiered on. And, guess what, the salsa turned out perfectly—complex and tangy, hot and sweet—and in no way resembled the green stuff you buy at the grocery store.
Spicy Peach Salsa
The peaches here came with rave reviews from the local farmers—this summer’s best. We chopped peppers, jalapeno, Farmer Totman’s dark red onions, and cilantro. Blanched, skinned, and diced peaches are added to the mix in a brown sugar brine, and it cooks down. Mary Ann, shrowded to ward off the bugs, unloads all the scraps in my Mom’s composting hill, deep in the woods. Alison says we will enjoy the salsa on tortillas, bison burgers, fish, poached eggs, and black bean soup. I can’t wait to crack open a jar.
We’ve waited out a storm that never really came, and got caught up on Mad Men episodes. Now, finally, we’re off to the beach! Right before sunset, when the Boston locals head for home, the sky is shimmery lavender, turquoise, and pink. The people remaining are eating their dinner. The kids are turning purple as the sun goes down and they can’t get out of the water. Too bad Mary Martin, my Chihuahua-Shiba Inu mix, can’t come with us. But we must respect the nesting piping plovers.
These use the exact same recipe as the beets. But the beans we stuff in the jars lengthwise, standing on their tips, like sardines.
And why is it all so beautiful? Usually we see our food from above but canning lets you see it from below. Like seals at the aquarium, you can see all the multicolored shapes from your concoction submerged, cross-sectioned, and slightly magnified like in a terrarium.
Alison, an Important Aside
Alison is beside herself with happiness. She sees the canning as her way to get through harsh cold weather. Knowing she has all her jewel-like veggies glistening on her shelves, she can envision winter as a better place.
Pickled Cucumbers and Japanese Red Cabbage
The temperature has dropped overnight. An early walk in the orchard wakes us up. Mary Martin is no longer scared of the big dogs next door and is running up and down the rows of trees looking for something I dare not imagine to nibble on. We pick Galas, Cortlands, Honey Crisps, Macs, and Empires to take back to New York with us.
Back at the farmhouse we know we have to get started on our last project, but first we dig into last night’s Spicy Peach Salsa over Alison’s tenderly poached eggs from Farmer Totman. Alison now refers to him as Farmer Tomke, a la Davide Sedaris’ Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.
We’ll be finishing up with Indian pickles then Japanese pickled red cabbage. The cabbage doesn’t get preserved, so we’ve got a month to eat it. The red cabbage and red carrots, very pink and orange, are going to be good with grilled cheese or a veggie burger. The Indian pickles, with cauliflower, cucumber, and onions come out spicy and will be great with any Indian food.
The Cupboard is Full
The final army of jars looks formidable. And while we want to give so many of them away to friends, we divvy them up and pledge to keep plenty for ourselves. Tomorrow we’ll take our final nature walk in Bradley Palmer State Park with Mary Martin before we head home. Our jars reassure me I’ll be eating well when we get there.