Sunday, September 11, 2011

Can you can? I can!!

First, I just have to announce that after living on a dirt road for the past 13 years, we finally got it paved two days ago. We can keep our windows open! It's quieter! We don't have clods of mud in our wheel wells that fall in chunks onto our driveway! I can wash my car without having it get covered in dust (or mud) five minutes later on the drive home! Champagne was served at our house Friday night, celebrating with our neighbors. This road-paving adventure started out nearly five years ago, our improvement district was no doubt the most complex, headache-filled nightmare that our county has ever experienced (that was quoted to me by several county employees as well our county supervisor multiple times). I firmly believe that even a decade from now, I could whisper "Hilltop Improvement District" to any county employee and watch their head explode.

Back to topic at hand: I can can. I really can! A month or two ago, when we realized we'd be swimming in squash, zucchini, cucumbers, and green beans by late summer, it was time to call in the big guns: my mother-in-law Ann. While I had enjoyed others' homemade canned goods, I had never ventured into the canning world. I thought canning would: 1) be a multi-day affair slaving in a hot kitchen; 2) use some sort of huge pot with a thermometer that you had to boil jars in for hours, constantly buggered by "sterilize this" and "sterilize that"; and 3) be just your basic pain in the you-know-what.

I am thrilled to say my assumptions were way off base. Yes, it takes a little while, but really, it's not an all-day affair nor are you slaving in a hot kitchen all day long dunking jars into pressure-cooker canners and timing them, blah blah blah. You don't even need the water-bath canning unit (unless you can tomatoes, which is a different story). It's actually fun, not too hard, and you can make just about anything with any vegetable.

Labor Day weekend (appropriately enough) was selected for my first canning experience. We picked up Ann and brought her to our home for the weekend. Beforehand, she and I discussed what I would need to get to be prepared. She had some equipment, some spices, and other things she would bring, I had to furnish the jars and lids, the vinegar, a few fresh herbs, sugar (which I had in abundance due to my hummingbird obligations), and, of course, massive quantities of vegetables. Easy.

We decided on three different recipes: bread-and-butter pickles (a clove-kissed, semi-sweet, semi-dilly pickle that is to die for); zucchini relish; and "dilly beans." We started with the pickles.

You do know that pickles are made from cucumbers, right? Well, we picked what was available in our garden, 15 pretty large cucumbers. Yes, you can make pickles from large cucumbers; we didn't want to pick them weeks early when they were "pickle" sized because we didn't want them to go bad in the fridge, so we had to use our large ones.

Cucumbers are great because you don't need to peel them. Just slice away. After, we placed the slices in a large bowl, layering them with chopped onions and adding salt. Salt helps draw out the moisture from the vegetable, and you want to let them sit in salt for a few hours. Ann additionally recommended packing crushed ice on top, contending that this helps keep the pickle slices crunchy.

Sliced cukes layered with salt and chopped onions

Cukes, onions, and salt with crushed ice
The bowl goes into the fridge and we let it sit there for a few hours. In the meantime, we cleaned our pint jars and lids thoroughly, and sat on the deck with a glass of wine. When the three hours of waiting time was almost up, we prepared the pickle brine. The brine is basically McCormick's pickling spice, cider vinegar (Ann swears that cider vinegar gives a deeper, more complex flavor than regular white distilled and I believe her; the proof is in the pickles), sugar, mustard seed, some dill weed, and maybe a few other things. We also started a big pot of water to boil. The brine went on the stovetop too.

We removed the cucumbers from the fridge, then drained and rinsed them thoroughly. The boiling water was ready, the brine was almost boiling. We used the boiling water to sterilize each jar and lid/ring in batches. When the brine boiled, we poured in the cucumbers, let it boil again, and cooked the cucumbers for maybe five minutes; not too long. We then fairly quickly poured the now-pickled cucumbers into our pint jars. Here's the process:

Cukes boiling away
Boiling the lids

And the result:

15 large cucumbers made 11 pints of pickles. The time it took us from start to finish once the cucumbers were removed from the fridge was about an hour, maybe a little more. We hadn't planned on doing more canning that day, so we sat on our deck and looked at our masterpieces, finishing up our wine.

The next day's menu was zucchini relish and dilly beans. By far the easiest is dilly beans, so we saved that for last. Zucchini relish is the most time-consuming of the three, since multiple vegetables must be peeled, de-seeded, and then shredded or diced (and also layered with salt and put in the fridge for a few hours to drain their moisture).
Soon-to-be relish
Bruce took Ann to the local casino while I stayed home to prepare the vegetables. I started with a concoction of carrots, zucchini, yellow squash, a couple more cucumbers (we have ALOT of cucumbers!), red and yellow peppers, and onions.

Thank heavens for technology. I dusted off my food processor, and went to work. I tried pulsing/dicing some veggies, and shredding others, just to get different textures. Ended up not liking the results of the shredding, but that's a lesson for the next batch. I let the veggies sit on paper towels while I finished processing, and thought the relish looked very colorful and pretty:

Then, I layered the veggies with salt in a large bowl, stuck it in the fridge for awhile, and took a peek at the moisture that was brought out during this process.

It's really amazing how much water drains out
from vegetables
Cooking the relish
Ann and Bruce came back (Bruce's winnings: $50; Ann's winnings: $350, and this happens all the time except the part about Bruce's winnings). The veggies were ready, so we made the brine using pretty much the same bread-and-butter recipe as we used with the pickles, sterilized the jars/lids, and started cooking the veggies in the brine. This time, we cooked the relish a bit more than we did the pickles, about 15 minutes. While it continued to boil, I filled the half-pint containers while Ann put the lids on. We admired our work out on the back deck yet again:

12 half-pint jars of zucchini relish!
Now it was time for the dilly beans. That morning, while Ann was raking in the bucks at the casino and the relish veggies were doing their thing in the fridge, I had taken our hand-picked green beans, cleaned them, and prepared them for canning, by snipping off the ends and cutting them in half. I also took some fresh dill (from the garden, of course), delegating a good-sized sprig for each jar, and minced lots (and lots!) of fresh garlic.

Dilly beans are super easy. You don't even cook the beans. Place beans in your sterilized jars, add a spoonful or two of minced garlic, a sprig of dill, and some dried dill weed.

Prepare the brine: A big pot of half water, half cider vinegar (we were running out so I added some white distilled), throw in maybe some mustard seed, and then add salt to the brine. Bring to a roiling boil, make sure the salt is totally dissolved, and fill the jars. Easy peasy. Seal, and let sit for a few weeks before eating; let the beans "cook" in the warm brine and they'll eventually absorb the garlic-dill flavors.

We were done by mid-afternoon. The result: 11 pints pickles; 12 half-pints zucchini relish; and 12 pints dilly beans. I already have ideas for the next canning event: more pickles (cucumbers are really coming in now), and probably some green-tomato relish (mostly using the same sort of vegetables as my zucchini relish) or maybe instead make some sort of green-tomato chile verde salsa (or both, I have no doubt we'll have enough tomatoes!). Really, the possibilities are endless. I don't know why I harbored the notion that canning was this awful, miserable experience. Any food-making venture that uses produce you grow yourself, that allows you some time to take a break and sit on the back deck with a glass of wine, makes you hustle just a little bit, and ends up with food you'll be dipping into all winter (re-living your summer garden memories), is plainly my kind of cooking.

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