Yes you can: Preserving fruits and vegetables is easy

Marisa McClellan: "People are concerned that what they're eating, and what they're feeding their families, is natural, chemical-free. The best way to be really sure is to make it yourself."
Marisa McClellan: "People are concerned that what they're eating, and what they're feeding their families, is natural, chemical-free. The best way to be really sure is to make it yourself."
Posted: August 19, 2010

CANNING ISN'T just for grandma anymore.

Long associated with life on the farm, preserving, or "putting up" tomatoes, peach jam and dill pickles, was as foreign to city folk as mowing the back 40 and milking the cows. Unless your family had some kind of connection to the land, the notion of canning just never came up.

Times have changed.

Thanks to a foodie zeitgeist stoked by creative chefs, urban farmers and a crackerjack blogging community, canning is all the rage. From her apartment on the 20th floor of a Center City high-rise, Marisa McClellan is one of the bloggers leading the charge. McClellan is a writer and Web producer whose latest project is working on Philly Homegrown (food.visitphilly.com), a Web site dedicated to the region's bounty of local flavor. She started foodinjars.com last year, one of the earliest blogs devoted to the homey art of canning.

McClellan grew up in Portland, Ore., with a mother who gardened and canned. When she moved to Philly a few years ago to take care of her grandmother, she rediscovered the joy of canning.

"Most of us don't live in a rural setting. We don't need to can to survive the winter," said McClellan, who recently signed a contract to write a book based on her blog. "But there's been a perfect storm - an appreciation for sustainable local ingredients and wanting to eat high-quality food. People are concerned that what they're eating, and what they're feeding their families, is natural, chemical-free. The best way to be really sure is to make it yourself."

Making it yourself involves using old-fashioned Mason canning jars. Jarden Home Brands (JHB) a primary manufacturer of these jars, saw sales jump 30 percent last year, and that spike has continued, with sales up another 10 percent to date this year.

McClellan, who offers in-home private canning lessons, as well as classes at Terrain at Styer's in Media (Sept. 16 she'll be demonstrating pickles), said that starting with a small batch is the easiest way to get over a fear of canning. "It doesn't have to be a huge production. You can really just buy five or six pounds of fruit at the farmer's market and come home and can."

You don't need a lot of fancy equipment to get started, either. Jars and lids are available year-round at Wegmans and seasonally at stores like ShopRite and Target. A dozen jars cost between $8 and $12, depending on the size. A large stock pot is fine for processing. Two other handy bits, a jar lifter - a type of tongs designed to lift hot jars from boiling water and a wide-mouth funnel - will set you back less than $10. And you're good to go.

If you've never done it, the biggest worry is food safety. What if the jars don't seal properly? Is there a danger of serving botulism-contaminated jam to your friends and family? "Fortunately, botulism doesn't grow in high-acid environments," said McClellan. "That covers tomatoes, fruit, salsas, pickles - the stuff most people can. You're not going to kill anyone."

The key is to follow the instructions. "Just follow the steps," she said. "Use sterilized jars and don't skip the processing step. You'll come out with a shelf-stable product every time."

Area chefs are getting in on the canning trend, offering their own pickles and preserves at restaurants including MidAtlantic, Varga Bar and Meritage.

Chef Anne Coll harks back to her Lancaster County upbringing at Meritage, where patrons enjoy her "put up" brandied cherries, orange marmalade, dill pickles and tomato confit. "It's something I learned from my grandma," said the chef. "I took it back up about 10 years ago." Besides serving her guests her homemade preserves, Coll gives jams and chutneys as Christmas gifts.

"Everybody appreciates homemade jam," said McClellan, who gave 80 pints of jam as favors at her recent wedding. "I really love to make jam. Sometimes I get a little carried away."

For chef Mike Stollenwark's family, the quart of choice is tomato sauce. Stollenwark, chef/owner of Fish Restaurant, married into an Italian family that is dead-serious about canning tomatoes. "My wife's grandfather is very old-school. He makes his own sausages, wine and canned tomatoes."

A huge battalion of canners crosses the bridge from South Philly to South Jersey, where they convene for the annual event at an aunt's house.

"Last year, we made more than 400 quarts," said Stollenwark.

"It's an assembly line. And it takes pretty much the whole weekend." But the result, said the chef, tastes like summer in a jar.

"Open up one of those quarts of tomatoes in the middle of winter, and it's all worth it."

Canning step by step

You've gone to your farm stand or backyard garden to gather ripe, unblemished fruits or veggies (being extra careful to clean them to ensure a grit-free eating experience later). You've made jam, pickles, salsa or whatever yummy recipe you're putting up. Now it's time to can.

1. Boil water. Bringing a large pot or canning kettle to a boil takes some time - up to 45 minutes over high heat. Fill the kettle about half full for pint jars and two-thirds full for quart jars.

2. Sterilize jars and lids. The easiest way to do this is to run them through the "sterilize" cycle on a dishwasher. Or boil for 10 minutes.

3. Filler up. Ladle your food into sterilized jars using a wide-mouth funnel. Be sure to leave the amount of headspace specified in the recipe.

4. Let the air out. Run a thin-bladed knife around the inside of the jar to release any air bubbles along the sides of the jars. Wipe top edges of jars clean with a damp cloth to ensure a good seal.

5. Put a lid on it. Be sure the lid's seal is centered. Screw the metal ring lids on firmly so they stay in place.

6. Own the process. Submerge the jars into boiling water. Process as directed in the recipe.

7. Out of the water. Lift jars out with tongs. Keep a potholder handy in case you need to grab one of the hot jars. Set jars on the counter to cool to room temperature. You may hear a slight "ping" from the jars as they seal. This is a good thing.

8. Test the seal. Push down in the center of each jar. If it stays down, the jar is sealed. If it pops up, the jar isn't sealed. Keep unsealed jars in the fridge and enjoy immediately.

9. Label and store jars. Label the jars with the date and contents. Store in a cool, dark place and use within a year.

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