Now that my garden is beginning to produce some produce, I am obligated to set aside time each week to preserve my bounty for winter. While we eat lots of our homegrown vegetables fresh out of the garden, I love having the fruits of my summertime labor available for meals all year.
When I first began gardening, my former mother-in-law taught me the ins and outs of canning. Back then, we used quart jars and a pressure cooker. The canning process, as I was first introduced to it, was extremely labor and time intensive. We spent every night after work for a week preparing buckets of vegetables for canning. Then it took all weekend — two 14-hour days — to can it all.
From what I remember, the canning process was somewhat dangerous. If the pressure cooker’s band was worn out, or if the lid wasn’t properly secured, or if the timing was off, it could explode. My two oldest were toddlers at the time. They weren’t allowed near the kitchen, or even in the house, during canning weekend.
At the time, I was still more northern than southern. I thought pressure cookers were for cooking roast beef. I didn’t know you could process glass jars filled with green beans in them. And I certainly had no idea preserving food put one at risk of demise via a horrific canning accident.
By the mid-90s, I’d given away my pressure canner. Freezing produce seemed safer, especially with little ones running under foot. We invested in a chest freezer and I began storing bags of beans and tomatoes next to packages of venison.
Unfortunately, I soon learned freezing doesn’t preserve produce as well as canning. Apparently, when you don’t use your frozen beans within a couple of months, they succumb to unsightly freezer burn. I didn’t like throwing away homegrown produce. I knew there had to be a better way. Therefore, I decided to make sauces, stews, and soups that would freeze well and last longer in a cryogenic state.
As with all of my ideas, when I first get the notion, I am highly motivated. But trying to create sauces, stews and soups while still weeding, pruning and otherwise keeping up the garden eats up too much time. There are other things to do during the dog days of summer, such as swimming and back-to-school shopping.
With age comes experience and wisdom. I’m not so sure the wisdom part has set in just yet, but experience has taught me there are many ways to stuff a pillow. And, there are various materials that can be used for stuffing. And, not every pillow has to be stuffed the same way.
Stepping out of my lackluster metaphor, I humbly admit this now mostly-southern girl has found her way back to canning. But I don’t use a pressure cooker. In addition, I also freeze a few things. But not everything. And I do make the marinara sauce before canning it, but I don’t try to pre-make stews and soups.
The exception to pre-making soups for the freezer is chicken. If chicken is on the menu, which warrants chicken soup on day three of the meal-expectancy of a plump bird—days one and two being roasted chicken and chicken pie—I will freeze the leftovers. You never know when someone might take ill and need a quart or two.
Now that I don’t feel as though I’m going to blow up the kitchen and perish upon being sliced apart by shards of quart jars, I actually enjoy canning. Several years ago, I discovered that as long as the jars are submerged in boiling water for 5 to 10 minutes, all you really need is a large stock pot filled with boiling water.
I also purchased an inexpensive canning tool. It’s a plastic basket with a handle. It holds three pint jars. After placing the jars in the basket, all I have to do is lower the basket into the boiling water. Five minutes later, I pull the basket out using the convenient handle.
Pint jars work much better for me than quart jars. I can process smaller amounts of food at a time and the smaller jars fit perfectly on the cool, dry storage area I recently designated as the home-canned food shelf.
This summer, I’m pickling and canning veggies. I’m drying and freezing herbs. I’m freezing shredded squash already measured out for my bread recipes. Meanwhile, I still have time to enjoy the summer.
With today’s blenders, food processors, freezer bags and plastic canning baskets, I am still able to make it to the pool by late afternoon to cool off and float my cares away — even on days my garden produces tons of produce.
Micki Bare is a columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau and the Courier-Tribune in Asheboro, N.C., and the author of Thurston T. Turtle children’s books. She and her family live in North Carolina. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.