I’m a freely admitted control freak. Not in every way, but in a very important way. I want to know and control where my food comes from. The more I learn about the food industry and what they actually sell as “food”, the less and less I choose to spend my food dollars there.
About 3 years ago, I decided to embark on an experiment, to see how well I could do buying and eating foods that were local and seasonal. I decided this in the winter, after reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I knew that in order to conduct this experiment, I would have to preserve foods during the summer for winter as well. I wasn’t going to go as whole hog as the people who wrote the 100-Mile Diet. I wasn’t going to give up coffee or chocolate and if I couldn’t buy locally, I would try buying seasonally (which meant that winter, I ate a lot of turnips, rutabagas and chard). I found farms where I could buy grass fed meats, chickens and eggs as well. I also signed up for a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Most of this however wouldn’t happen in the spring.
I bought a freezer, about 22 cubic feet which was all I could fit in the downstairs storage area in my townhouse and my boyfriend lent me a dehydrator he had bought but never used. I figured I would dehydrate and freeze. I had books that talked about canning, but it scared me. I wasn’t sure that I could do it safely from books and the risks of canning something and having it go bad scared me.
So that spring, I froze and dehydrated vegetables, and while it was a lot of work, it felt good. The problem of course was space. I only had so much space in the freezer that I could devote to vegetables, since so much of the freezer space was devoted to meat. (I really kept wishing that I could have purchased a larger freezer and I still do). Still I was doing what I could and I felt good about it.
During that spring, I was at a party and as I was talking to someone, I overheard a male friend behind me talking about canning jam. I literally jumped on him. “You can? Really? Could you please teach me?” Luckily he said yes. So he and I went blackberry picking and came home and he taught me to make blackberry jam.
I’m not really a jam person. Way too much sugar for me and since I don’t eat a lot of bread, or cookies or such, its hard to use it up. Still, I had gotten a universal pectin and used that with splenda. I didn’t really like the way the jam turned out (and threw most of it away after a year). It had a metallic taste to it, which I attribute to the splenda. But I now knew how to can and I knew I could transfer that skill to more savory pursuits.
I kept it fairly simple that first year. I made my first batch of tomato sauce and tomato paste (which pretty much turned out to be just a thicker version of tomato sauce). I’m still perfecting the paste. I also experimented with making peach salsa. I was mostly looking for recipes that didn’t require any sugar. I made some other items as well. I tended to make lots of the same thing that first year. 2 dozen pints of sauce, 2 dozen half pints of salsa.
Then came the winter and I was scared to eat anything I canned. I didn’t tell anyone that. I just stuck with the frozen and the dehydrated items (as well as seasonal from the grocery store). This lasted until January when the DC area got slammed by 2 feet of snow. As many DC area residents do, I headed to the grocery store for supplies. It was so crowded that I left without anything, reminding myself that I had plenty of food. I’m grateful for the snow storm, because it forced me to actually cook with the food I had preserved, including the canned items. It got me through that irrational fear.
Now I have added both water bath canning and lacto-fermentation to my preserving skill set. Its been an amazing summer. I branched out, and while I made less of a quantity of any one item, I made many more items to tempt me during the winter. Its becoming a habit.
This year, I widened the varieties of food that I canned, I added lacto-fermentation in the form of garlic dill pickles and sauerkraut to my repertoire. I canned more varieties of food while canning less of each individual food. I’ve canned zucchini, peaches, apples, corn, tomatoes, watermelon rind, fruit sauces, dilly beans, carrots as well as preserving foods such as eggplant, pesto, and corn in my freezer. I’m looking forward to a winter full of fresh flavors and wholesome food.
I spent a lot of time preserving in the summer. I pay my dues in the summer so that I can play here in the winter. The fall is the best time to be a resident of the DC area. Museums are open and free and there aren’t the loads of tourists that come in during the spring and summer. I can enjoy the outdoors and know that my meals will be easy to put together, because I did the hard part in the summer.
In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; Barbara Kingsolver answers the question, “But what do you eat in January?” Her answer “Eating locally in winter is easy. But the time to think about it is in August”. This winter, I’ll eat from my freezer and my pantry. I’ll make chilis with the tomato sauce I canned and the beef stock I made and froze. I’ll make stews and soups using the dehydrated vegetables and chicken stock I make. I’ll have steaks and roasts and liven them up with my home canned applesauce and peach salsa. I’ll have sausages from my local farmer with my sauerkraut. I promise you I won’t go hungry.
And every once in a while, I’ll wander to the local organic market and buy some kale or swiss chard, turnips, sweet potatoes and rutabagas. Not as often as I did that first winter, but just to add some variety to my diet.
I can honestly say that I’m a canner and food preserver now. Its part of what I do and who I am. It takes time and my back aches sometime when I’m on my feet getting things blanched for the freezer, or cutting up stuff to can, but its worth it. I have a literal object to point to when I am done for the day. The bags in the freezer, the jars sitting on my counter waiting to be labeled and stored.
It feels good and it feels right.