Before I start this post I have to make a full disclosure: I was introduced to the Homemade Living book series by a Chris a regular reader here at UrbanFoodGuy, who asked me if I’d be interested in taking a look at them. Indeed I did! Thankfully both volumes are actually great so it makes it easy for me to talk about them, but just felt like you needed to know that before I got started.
The first thing I thought when I got my copy of Canning and Preserving with Ashley English was how much it reminded me of an old, school textbook. Hard, durable cover, no dust jacket, well organized, with lots of good, instructive photographs. I almost half expected there to be selftest questions at the end.
This is a book that is constructed to be used. None of this limp paperback stuff that refuses to stay open, Nope, this is a book that Sterling Publishing have made because they not only want you to read and cook from it, they want you to do so again and again.
Even the art direction of the cover suggests a worn, pre-used look, kind of like pre-washed jeans. Comfortable and ready to get into. Canning books I’ve previously read tend to give you a quick overview of technique and then a list of recipes. Not the case here. Canning is presented as one aspect of a larger picture, raising important questions and giving valuable information about how the food is grown, where the food is grown, seasonality, community supported agriculture, biodynamic farming and, for me the most important thing, how this all promotes building community. Ms. English isn’t just interested in getting us to make some jam and can it, she’s trying to tutor us in how we can make better food choices for ourselves and each other.
She does this in two ways that I love. Sprinkled through out the book are little segments called: “Portraits of a Canner” which are interviews with people who Ashley knows can their own food. These are my favorite segments, with vaguely high school yearbook meets prison headshots and the sound of true candor of everyone’s voice. If you needed one more thing to nudge you towards starting to do your own canning, these small, charming portraits should do it.
In every Portrait of a Canner there is a quote from the canner that has been enlarged to highlight why they are canners and again and again everyone says variations on the same few themes: it tastes better, you get to support local farmers, it’s cheaper, and you have control of your food supply.
The one caveat I have to add here is that if you live in a big city, as I obviously do, it is not always cheaper. Peaches for example are as much as $4 a pound at the green market. While certainly you can find local peaches at Whole Foods for .89 cents a pound, they tend to be hard as rock and if I’d rather give my dollars to a farmer not a large corporation. But Canning and Preserving gives us the perfect solution to this problem: throw a canning party! Have a bunch of friends come over and spend an afternoon hanging out and can a bunch of stuff.
This is such a good idea on so many levels:
- It lowers the price of the produce because you are buying in bulk.
- Canning requires a lot of water: having a group canning even makes better use of the water because it’s reused again and again.
- Living in New York, where most people have small kitchens, having a canning party can be down right practical: If just one of your friends has a big kitchen you can enroll them to be the host!
- This gives you a great opportunity and impetus to buy a lot of local produce. I find if you talk to the farmers at any of the local green markets most of them are willing to give a bulk discount. If you can’t find the price you want, try waiting until the end of the day when great deals are more likely to be found. Also don’t just go to one market go to several over a period of days. Suss out the situation and make informed decisions. Just remember these farmers driver many hours to get to the city to sell their wares so please be respectful of the farmers, they are not rich people and any transaction needs to be fair for both parties.
The true test of a cookbook are the recipes, so I set about to make three different ones: Persian Refrigerator Pickles, Blueberry Jam (well, also a variation, in the book it’s Strawberry, but what i have is blueberries…) and a variation on Peaches in Simple Syrup (a canning classic).
In the next couple of weeks I’m also going to make Chris’s French Pickles and will report back. I love Cornichon and these tart, tarragon infused pickles look and sound amazing.
The spices, vinegar, salt, sugar and water in the pot are slowly coming to a boil before dousing the prepped Kirby cucumbers.
Sitting in their brine cooling down.
In the recipe Ashley says you can eat them after 24 hours, but they really start to sing after a week. My thought is that they could be made a la bread and butter pickles and cut into coins so they might absorb the flavors quicker. Also, as much as I appreciate the quick pickle idea, sometimes quick pickles are so delicious you want to can them and extend the joy they give by having them in your larder all winter long. What I want to know is can these perfect Persians be canned? Or do they not have enough acidity? Something for volume 2 😉
Below fresh out of the fridge is my big sweaty jar of Quick Persian Pickles (my new favorite pickle).
By the time I got my copy of Canning and Preserving strawberry season was already over, but strawberry jam is the only jam recipe in the book. I did however have some amazing organic blueberries in my freezer so I decided to be adventuresome and try making blueberry jam (with a variation, but of course).
I looked around at other books which suggested you use a little water to get your berries and sugar going, I thought this unnecessary with frozen berries and in the end I was right as the jam was thinner than I would have liked. I should have used Ashley’s cold plate Jam testing method for this batch, but instead I depended in a thermometer (at 220 F you’ve reached the “jam” stage).
Everything needs to be boiled and very clean!
Jarring the jam this time made me realize how handy a preserving funnel would be!
One recipe I read (in another book) suggested Basil, so I added some to my batch of Blueberry Jam and was underwhelmed with it (maybe once the jam sits for a while it will taste better?) There was some leftover basil/blueberry jam which wouldn’t fill a jar so I added some black pepper in addition to the Basil which I thought greatly improved it. (This basil black pepper blueberry jam could be a lovely thing to add to pan drippings from a pork chop, maybe a little salt, and top with some roasted apricots for an easy mid-week dinner.)
If I look really focused it’s only because my glasses steamed up and I can’t see a thing!
The final product. You can see the chunk of Ginger in the jar at the top left.
Canning and Preserving by Ashley English is truly a must have book for anyone interested in preserving your own food. The most practical, beautiful, informative, easy to follow, and, yes even inspirational book on the topic that I’ve used and has great recipes (I want more!) . I can’t wait until apple season to try my hand at making my own pectin, not to mention making Cranberry, Juniper and Rosemary Sauce for Thanksgiving!
Next up from Homemade Living is: Keeping Chickens. Look for my thoughts on this volume next week.
If you want to know more about Ashley and what she is up to check out her blog.
Canning News Flash! As I was putting this article together Grist’s Ask Umbra had a column on the dangers of BPA’s (Bisphenol A) in canning lids! Umbra tells us BPA is: “a synthetic estrogen used to make some plastics hard and as a resin in can linings so they don’t rust” and she goes on: “even trace exposure can disrupt your endocrine system and create all kinds of health problems, including cancer, adult-onset diabetes, and obesity”.
So what is a canner to do? I had just bought some jars and wasn’t about to throw them out, hell I’m already diabetic and apparently according to Umbra the CDC says that 93% of Americans tested have BPA in their bodies.
The good news is she suggests two alternatives, one is a BPA free reusable canning jar lid that can be used with all the jars you already have and the other one is a German canning system with glass lids called Weck Canning. They look really cool, I called them up and spoke with a very helpful woman who said supplies are limited, so not all sizes are in stock, but they are getting a shipment in next week. So place your order now!
(The jars on the right are Escabeche from last year.)