by John Ryan
Just like my enthusiasm for gardening gains amazing vigor in February, Spring has found me giving serious thought to canning. Nobody really has to can these days. I mean, how many of us are faced with bushels upon bushels of produce that urgently have to be eaten, preserved, or left to rot? Practically nobody, right?
Actually, the very fact that I don't HAVE to can is probably why I'm finding it so appealing.
But I ought to fill you in on the gift that put the salt in my brine, the fantasy that's putting the pectin in my reverie, and the prospect that keeps the vinegar in my resolve. About a year ago a colleague ran into some serious car trouble and needed a week's worth of rides to work. I was glad for the company and she insisted on paying the tolls. When the week ended, I was surprised and a little touched when she gave me a thank-you gift. But it was homemade marmalade. I like to think that as a grown up I can fake it when I'm given homemade pot holders or crocheted toilet paper covers. But I'm not a fan of marmalade, so even though my memories of that brief moment are dim, I probably wasn't all that effusive. And as the days passed, I was almost regretting giving her the rides because I knew I was going to have to try the stuff. Since we worked together I knew she'd be looking for a favorable sign from me.
This obligation had cast a dreary cloud over my morning toast. So one morning I decided to dispel the bad weather. with the same resigned feeling I get every time I floss my teeth I opened the jar and spread a little on a small, burnt corner of toast. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I was blown away. I know it's not saying much to hear me say it was the best marmalade I'd ever tasted. But I like jam, and it was maybe the best jam I'd ever tasted! A few days later a sobering thought was moving in on my morning toast. I was quickly reaching the bottom of the jar and realized that I couldn't buy the stuff. I briefly considered sabotaging her car. Turns out that I learned to live without the marmalade. But that is what got me to consider canning. As I've contemplated preserving since then (I lump freezing and canning into the same category), two thoughts began to seduce me into a world where boiling, sterilizing, and headroom are everyday concerns. (And I'm not talking about mid-wifery.) First, the fantasy of having shelves full of food that tastes better than anything I can buy is irresistible. Next is the prospect of having a superior stash of convenience food. The way I figure it, if I canned just one thing every month, I wouldn't have to cook for nearly two weeks out of every month. I already use my freezer that way and I like the way it makes me feel. I'm talking pesto. The stuff's a lifesaver. Whenever I'm feeling the least bit reluctant about cooking, I'm not hostage to lousy take-out pizza or greasy Chinese. I know I can pull a jar of green gold out of the freezer and dinner is a matter of stirring it into a bowl of steaming noodles. Ya gotta love a meal where the hardest part of making it is grating a blizzard of cheese over the top. This off-season reverie though, I run into trouble when I try to come up with twelve items good enough for preserving. Pesto is one, and I think the tomato/fennel sauce this month is a definite candidate. But I need ten others.
I suppose they don't all have to be main-course sorts of things. I know that come July, when raspberries are really cheap, I'll be making a batch of freezer jam. Not so much to spread on toast, but because it has an incredibly fresh flavor and is great to stir into yogurt. Ditto for an uncooked cranberry relish I always pack up and freeze after Thanksgiving dinner. The stuff is also amazing with yogurt. Pickled mushrooms are in the non-main dish category as well. Several months ago Eric Rose, a friend (and mushroom grower), turned me on to mushrooms pickled with garlic and jalapeño peppers. Ever since I worked out a recipe, they've found a regular spot in our kitchen as a dinner appetizer. Unlike cheese and crackers or chips and dip, pickled mushrooms take the edge off hunger without filling you up. Anyway, I'm looking for other items to put away, mostly main-coarse kinds of things. Not that when push comes to can I'm going to follow through, but you never know. If you have any ideas, drop me a line. I'll test the recipes and put the best ones that work for me on-line. Together we'll form a happy canning cult.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
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