Thursday, July 7, 2011

Can I?

The first green beans of the season just filled a six inch azalea pot. That's about 10 beans each, not a real auspicious start. There are only a couple dozen plants in Lee's garden though, so its job is just to wet our whistles. Down at Millie's, there are three nicely hoed rows west of her house. With the rain this week, every bloom ought to make a pod. Our shelving in the basement is empty of beans; we won't need much encouragement when it comes time to pick.

Thus will commence the cluttering of the kitchen. Up will come the jars from the basement. Down will come the pressure canner from the kitchen closet. In will come the stainless steel canner from its winter home on top of the fridge on the back porch.

I was born to can. Its in my blood and my gene pool, but this is a perfect example for those who wish to argue 'nature' or 'nurture'. My grandmother's narrow galley kitchen radiated heat from the multiple enameled canners spewing dangerous geysers of steam across the walk way. The back porch table where we kids ate would be covered in jars cooled and ready to be hauled to the basement. Endless buckets of my grandfather's produce marched by the back porch stairs, multiplying like the brooms in Fantasia. Or, at least I'm sure it seemed that way to my grandmother.

Granny's basement was a cornucopia of produce: beans, pickles,tomatoes, peaches, plums, pears, applesauce, and probably lots of other vegetables I don't remember because I didn't like them at the time!!

My folks planted a big garden out at the farm too. My mother canned all permutations of tomatoes, but my favorite recipe was her chili sauce. Tangy, not hot, it included lots and lots of onions and peppers. It was more pickled than salsa, sweet and sour both from lots of cider vinegar, cinnamon, and cloves. Anything cooked with tomatoes got a healthy dollop of chili sauce; I liked it better than ketchup, even if it made for a supremely messy burger.

Which isn't to say my mom's homemade ketchup was less than the elixir of the gods. Unfortunately, it took longer to cook than the seven days of creation; we only had homemade ketchup when we had no idea what else to do with all the tomatoes. The essence would permeate the house; the stain would remain on the cooking pot for a week even after scrubbing.

Little heathen that I was, I preferred store bought dill pickles for many years to home made bread and butter pickles. Fortunately, before I finished taking sandwiches for lunches, I saw the light and realized that virtually any meat sandwich went from dull to delicious with the application of a healthy forkful of bread and butter pickles. Those translucent slices of onion and cuke with pungent mustard seeds for extra zip were the perfect companions for anything from summer sausage to cold steak. Add some brown mustard and you had a deli treat....and really bad breath for the rest of the afternoon!

What home canned pickles have over store bought is the ineffable essence of crunch. Merely waffle cutting a cucumber doth not make it crisp. I will occasionally splurge on the purchase of a cold kosher dill, but like Charlie Dunn, 'once you have home-made, you'll never buy a store bought pair.' Well, OK, that's about boots, but you get the idea.

For whatever reason, maybe geography, maybe genealogy, I'd never had a lime pickle until I moved to Tarkio. I assume my Granny made them; I remember seeing crocks all over, but my mother did not. Millie made lime pickles though; after much discussion and analysis, we have concluded they are the secret ingredient to her famous and justly lauded potato salad. One of my prized gifts from my mother in law is a five gallon crock the perfect size for making lime pickles. Two gallons won't hold enough cucumbers if you've got a bumper crop going. Anything larger than five gallons is way too heavy to hoist to the sink to rinse the required three times.

Lime pickles are a three day project. First day, one slices the cukes, discarding the ends (they contain enzymes that can soften the final product) and dumps them into the lime solution in the crock. Lime is messy messy stuff....any splashes or puddles will stay white for repeated scrubbings. I always throw in a few ice cubes with my lime mixture, press down on the whole shebang with a large dinner plate, and keep the cukes submerged with the gallon of vinegar I will later use for the pickling solution.

The cukes steep overnight. Then comes the rinse cycle. One carefully lifts handfuls of crispy white slices into the sinkful of cool running water. Inevitably, the entire front of the cabinets takes on the look and smell of a hot spring. The only other alternative it to haul the entire crock, cukes and all, to the edge of the sink and dump the contents. I've tried both and found the drippy dribbling mess to be a less dangerous option to toes, fingers, cabinets and plumbing.

'Rinse three times' is the next instruction. Easier said than done. The best way to cleanse the pickles of the lime is to fill the sink with water, but replacing the drain to refill the sink is no small task. Before you know it, the bottom of the sink is full of crispy cucumber fragments, not slices.

Now the cucumbers soak in cool water for several hours. Its time to prepare the syrup. One to one, the vinegar and sugar are poured into the large canner. I bought my big 21 quart canner many years ago from a Spiegel mail order catalog, of all places. It was on sale, but still cost twice as much as a black enameled pan from Curfman Hardware or Orscheln's. On the other hand, I had already, in just a few years, burned up two enameled canners. One solitary chip on the bottom and it was only a matter of time before the heat elements of the stovetop and the unprotected metal of the pan lead to a rust spot, then a thin patch, then a leak. The stainless steel canner is more than thirty years old now and has processed untold jars, scalded bushels of tomatoes, boiled scads of pickles and roasting ears, and burnt on applesauce. Good investment. I fully expect it to survive the next generation of canners as well.

Nothing really heats a kitchen like 20 quarts of boiling vinegar, sugar, allspice, and cucumbers. The pickles come to a rolling boil and must cook that way for 40-45 minutes. On canning days, I just bit the bullet and left the windows open with the fans running. Keeping the house cool was futile. Sweat rolled and eyes watered as the vinegar tore through sinuses. Once the pickles cooked for a while, I started the other burners with pans of water to boil the jars and lids. The racket of rattling jars and roiling pickles stopped all conversation. It took alot of care to ladle the pickles into jars. It was best to use wide mouthed jars; a bumper crop of cukes meant a fairly high percentage of sandwich size slices. Even with a big opening, the hot sticky syrup wound up down the jar, in between the stove and counter and on the soles of your feet.

Fortunately, processing afterwards was a mere nothing. The hot jars took no time to return to a boil, five or ten minutes passed, the buzzer went off, and the kitchen took a reprieve from its Amazonian atmosphere.

After dealing with the macro amounts of cucumbers, it was a pleasure to work with the fruit. Instead of quart sized wide mouth jars, there were adorable little half pints with pressed designs of fruit or quilted with a diamond design. The house was redolent with the concentrated essence of whatever fruit was cooking; cherries, blackberries, peaches, or, in very rare years, apricots. I think I've made apricot jam exactly three times in the many years I've canned jellies. Apricots bloom so early they usually freeze. Apricots are a fruit wanting to fall; any storm will leave a hail storm of hard green fruit in July. The years of apricots are memorable.

Jam making is no less sticky than pickle making. Its a physical reminder of how much sugar is being consumed with every jar of these condiments. Squeezing the jelly bags turns one a fascinating shade of violet. Cherry juice is invisible...until one's clothes are washed and dried, when it becomes readily apparent how many cherries one's shirt has absorbed.

In bountiful years, it can be a tie between apples and tomatoes for the title of most versatile garden product. Tomatoes of all sizes, shapes and hues are transformed into salsa, spaghetti sauce, chili sauce, or just plain old tomatoes when inspiration runs out. I was always tickled when Ann, so particular about goo on her hands any other time, offered to "squish" the peeled tomatoes in the pot. As a matter of fact, I never lacked for help when canning time arrived. The kitchen may have been steamy, but nothing compared to the blistering August day out of doors. Fetching jars, coring tomatoes, scalding and peeling them: any task aside from taking the mushy leftovers out to the compost pile was welcome.

We use tomatoes for so many things that I rarely turn down the offer to pick or use someone's surplus. I used to grow lots of Roma tomatoes with the idea their tidy size and small seed cavity would make a saucier sauce. Instead, I have concluded they are a total pain. They are impossible to core. If a Roma is in boiling water one second too much, half the tomato comes off with the skin. And, biggest drawback of all, they just aren't that tasty. I welcome all other tomato comers though. My dad even throws cherry tomatoes in, skin and all, with the theory one will never notice a couple dozen little tomato pelts in a canner of juicy glory.

Apples bring the canning year to a close after the rest of the garden has subsided into a tangled mass of foxtail and gourd vines. When the kids were little, I used a food mill to separate the peels from the apple quarters before I cooked. Insta-sauce. But it never tasted as good as the more labor intensive method employed by my grandmother and my mother. So I went back to peeling and quartering all the apples, then cooking them down til some were sauced and the rest warm and tasty pieces like pie filling. Aha! When I made applesauce now, I would leave a huge bowl for immediate consumption...and it would disappear. Suddenly, I used about half as much sugar as well. Granted, one couldn't use this method for all apple varieties, only the late summer and fall types like McIntosh, Jonathan, or Delicious.

Home canning doesn't save money. It may not even taste markedly better. But it yields psychic benefits of security and self sufficiency. There is a certain beauty to the orderly arrangement of quarts and pints, greens and reds, fruit and vegetable. And, to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, there are ties to our past, those 'mystic chords of memory' in the practice of the home arts.

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