Putting Food By (aka Nesting on Steroids)
I’m not sure exactly what it is about canning, dehydrating, freezing or otherwise stocking the larder with a year round supply of food from our garden or the Farmer’s Market that is so enticing. It is a heck of a lot of work. It is incredibly messy and time consuming. It is, quite frankly, all consuming for a couple of weeks in late August or early September. But, every year towards the end of August, it draws me in like a moth to a flame. The pressure cooker comes out of the basement, my marinara-making t-shirt comes out of the closet adorned with years of accumulated stains, empty jars take over my counters, and every pot in the kitchen is dirtied. It’s time, as my grandma would say, to “put food by”.
I wonder if it‘s evolutionary. Am I harkening back to my hunting and gathering ancestors? Or maybe I’m channeling my grandparents who survived the Depression with the help of food preserved from their farm. Whatever the reason, there is something wonderfully rewarding about seeing the pantry and freezer full to the brim before we enter the bleak months of winter. The fact that four grocery stores are within three miles of my house, dampens my satisfaction not a whit. No, the joys of über nesting are not based in logic.
It started years ago innocently enough. I’d always been a freezer—doubling recipes so I’d have some to freeze. During gardening season I’d step it up, and we’d enjoy squash casserole, eggplant Parmesan, and pesto year round. Then I dabbled in dehydrating and sausage making, but really hit my stride when I discovered canning about six years ago.
Whoever invented canning knew something about psychology. The glass jars are just hefty enough to feel secure in your hand—to make you trust them to protect your precious sauce, veggies, and fruit. When full they glisten with beauty on the pantry shelf; when empty they beckon to be filled again. The angry hissing of the pressure cooker vent is loud enough to quell my fear of botulism. The filled jars make a still life on my pantry shelf which quite literally fills me with joy. But the real psychological marvel of canning is the lovely intoxicating ping of success.
For the uninitiated, when you remove the jars from either the pressure cooker (used for low-acid foods) or boiling water bath (used for high acid foods) the metal rubber rimmed cap has not yet sealed to the jar. When the cap seals, shortly after being set on the counter, it makes a popping sort of ping, which is simply music to a canner’s ears. Without even being aware, I count the pings.
It’s not just me that gets involved, although I’ll freely admit that I’m a tad over the top. (I croon encouragement to the laggards in the same sing-song voice I used when my babies were first trying to roll over—”Come on, you can do it.”) Last night, when I returned to the kitchen, one of my daughters called out from the dining room, where she was working on an art project, “Three pinged while you were gone, two more to go.” And my eldest son, who’s much too cool to care about anything as mundane and feminine as canning, was walking through the kitchen when a batch of jars came out. He was caught by the first ping. He hung around, unwilling to leave until all nine jars pinged (or would that be punged?) “We got all nine,” he smiled as he left to his more manly pursuit of downloading music.
After a week of non-stop canning, I’m tired, but seemingly unable to stop. I have just enough tomatoes left to freeze some bruschetta topping. I should call it quits; the pantry and freezer are bulging. It’s time to cart the canner down to the basement, mop the floor, scrub the stove, and rest on my laurels. But just last night I happened upon a red pepper spread that looked heavenly, and I have a couple of bags of chicken bones in the freezer just crying to be turned into canned stock. Could this be an addiction? Hummm.
- Progressively getting worse? Check.
- Unable to stop? Check
- Tingle of excitement before the first drink, hit, or jar? Check
- Weary exhaustion and promises of stopping at the end of a long binge? Check
They say the first step is acknowledging you have a problem. Anyone want to join my Canner’s Anonymous group? I’ll bring some pasta with a beautiful marinara sauce to our first meeting, and you bring the apple butter.
How to Can (or freeze) Marinara Sauce (Tomato Sauce)
10-12 onions (depending on size)
6 bell peppers
1 cup olive oil
40 medium tomatoes (preferable very ripe, brown spots acceptable)
8 cloves garlic
3 T salt-fine grind, not coarse
4 T sugar
Basil, oregano, thyme, parsley- fresh- I use lots and don’t measure
12 bay leaves
Up to 3 12 oz. cans tomato sauce if you need to thicken your sauce
Chop the onions, carrots, peppers and herbs in the food processor. The herbs chop better if you add them to the veggies in the food processor.
I vary the amount of herbs I use depending on what I have a lot of in the garden. You can see from the picture of the bucket of basil that this year’s sauce was heavy on basil. I used all the basil in the picture and made 4 recipes.
Sauté the veggies and herbs in the olive oil in your pot.
You will either need to use one very large stock pot or two regular size soup pots for this recipe. For example, of the pots in the pictures, this recipe will fill 2/3 of the largest pot, all the way to the brim of the second largest pot, and 2 of the smaller soup pots. If you only have 1 soup pot, cut the recipe in half.
Now you have a choice to make.
- You can peel and seed the tomatoes by hand before adding them to the pot. If you choose to do this, you will ensure that you will never become a canning addict because it is a major pain in the neck (and back). You have to dip the tomatoes in boiling water a few at a time for about 30 to 60 seconds. This loosens the skin somewhat. You then remove the skin, cut the tomato along the equator and scoop out the seeds, and then chop the tomato.
- You can use a standard food mill.
Quarter the tomatoes, cut out any rotten spots, and dump into the cooking pot where you sautéed the vegetables. After the sauce has cooked, you will run all the sauce through the standard food mill to remove the tomato skins and seeds, herb stems, bay leaves, etc. You will end up with a very smooth sauce. It takes about 2 hours to grind one recipe of this sauce through the food mill. These mills cost about $25 and can be found at Ace Hardware, Target, and Amazon. This is the method I have used until this year. If you are just beginning and aren’t sure if you will do this whole mess next year, I recommend using this mill since it is cheaper and can be used for other purposes.
You can use a different style food millwhich takes most of the skin and seeds off the tomatoes before you add them to the pot. I’ve heard this type called many different things: food strainer, Roma food mill, or Victorio food mill (the latter two are brand names).
From what I can tell, there is only one design, although some only have a suction cup holding the mill down, while others have a vice type grip. You will need one with the vice grip. I used the larger screen (often called a salsa screen). This type mill is not as effective at getting all the seeds and peels and also wastes a fair amount of tomato juice; however, it is considerably faster. To quarter the tomatoes for this recipe and run them through the mill took less than an hour. Your resulting sauce will be chunkier, which I think I will like better for pasta, but not as well for homemade pizza. If you use this mill, you have to chop your vegetables smaller, be careful to remove all stems from the herbs, and use full large bay leaves for easier removal at the end. This type mill is found easily online, including on Amazon and Lehmans and is about $45-50.
After your tomatoes go in the pot, add all the other ingredients except the tomato paste. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat until you have a low simmer (slow bubbles coming to the surface).
This sauce needs to cook for a long time to meld the flavors, reduce the liquid, and permeate every room and surface of your house, including your clothes so everyone you come in contact with for weeks after will know that you are a honest to goodness canner. (Creating a bit of street cred adds to the appeal of canning.) I often make it in the evening, and let it simmer on the lowest setting of my gas stove overnight. If you are using Roma (plum type) tomatoes, you will not need to cook so long because they have less juice.
After it is cools a bit you will run it through the standard food mill if you have used that method. If you used either method 1 or 3, you are more of less finished. Remove the bay leaves. Take a look at your sauce. Is it the right degree of chunkiness? If you want it a bit smoother, you can use a submersible blender. (Voice of experience: make sure you remove the bay leaves first or you’ll have little bits of bay leaves to remove from your tongue as you eat. I told my kids this improve the flavor, but between you and me, it was just a screw up.) Is your sauce the right degree of thickness? Depending on how long you cooked the sauce, how juicy your tomatoes, and how you will use the sauce, you may want to thicken it with tomato paste. If so, just stir some in at this point.
Canning Marinara Sauce (Tomato Sauce)
This sauce requires canning with a pressure cooker because the veggies reduce the acidity to the point where it is not safe to use a boiling water bath. Canning is amazingly simple, although you have to know what you are doing. I am going to tell you how I use my canner. You should read the basic canning instructions that come with your canner. If you have never canned before, I recommend that you first take a class from the agriculture extension service to really learn how this works. This sauce also freezes very well.
Sterilize your jars. (I use the dishwasher.) Keep your sauce hot. Put 1-1 ½ inches of water in the bottom of the canner.
Put the metal caps in a pot of simmering water.
Fill the jars leaving ½ inch of head space.
Run a non metallic spatula around the sides to dislodge any air bubbles. ( For the record, I have no idea why it has to be non metallic. I’ve read that metal spatulas can scratch or break the glass jars, but truthfully, that seems pretty far fetched. Nonetheless, like a lemming, I use a plastic spatula. ) Screw the caps onto the jars using the rings. You don’t have to crank down—just hand tighten. Place the jars in the pressure cooker.
Secure the top on the cooker, but don’t put the little pressure cap on the vent.
Bring the water in the cooker to a boil and let the steam escape from the vent for 3 minutes. Don’t start counting the time until the steam is escaping at a rapid pace. Put the pressure cap over the vent.
Maintain the pressure at 10 pounds for 25 minutes for quarts and 20 minutes for pints or half pints.
Turn off the stove and allow the pressure to return to 0 before removing the pressure cap and opening the cooker. Remove the jars to a rack or towel. Wait a few minutes and enjoy the pings of success. You will know the jars have sealed correctly if the caps do not depress when touched. If after awhile you see that a jar has not sealed, put it in the refrigerator and have pasta for dinner the next night or stick it in the freezer. It is best to let the sealed jars sit untouched for about a day or overnight. The rings can be removed at that point and washed in the dishwasher. You do not need to leave the rings on after the jars are sealed.
This recipe makes 9 quarts (which is what a standard pressure cooker will hold) or 14 pints. If you are freezing, it makes 9 gallon size ziplock freezer bags containing 9 soup ladles each.
Last, but most important, leave the jars where you and everyone who comes into your house can admire them for at least a week. (From left to right: Honey Crisp Apple Sauce, Pico de Gallo, marinara, tomato and rice soup, chicken stock)
Image credit: Jon Matthies