Monday, June 25, 2012

I can can

In my twenties, I suffered a lot of anxiety and panic. It went undiagnosed for a couple of years, during which time I thought I had some mysterious gastrointestinal illness. I was seriously phobic about vomiting, especially in public. I became paranoid about certain (most) foods, germs and pretty much stopped eating out for dinner. During this time, some poor man, a youngish father I think, got botulism from a baked potato of all things. I had to read all the media reports for my job at the time, and it was terrifying. Food contaminated with botulism doesn't look or taste any different, and if memory serves, refrigeration and heating don't kill it.

Around this time, my friend gave me a jar of her homemade pickled beets, which I love normally, but I was so paranoid about botulism I never had the courage to eat them. Years later another friend gave us a housewarming basket of all kinds of homecanned goodies and again, I never ate them. I am ashamed.

(During that job way back when, I remember alsoreading many articles about how most food poisoning happens at home, and they blamed the home cook's unsafe food handling practices rather than the industrially produced foods that have way more pathogens in them than they have had historically. But I digress.)

Anyways, this year I wanted to try canning. My epiphany this winter started me thinking about how fucked up it is to believe that industrially made food is safer than homemade food. In a factory, people do different steps separately. The workers have no connection with the person who may eat the food. They themselves may or may not eat the food. With homemade food, one person controls the whole process from start to finish, and they themselves eat the food. There's just a lot more accountability in homemade food, isn't there?

When I made the rhubarb relish, I wasn't planning to can it. I was just going to stick it in jars and let them seal and keep them in the fridge. But they didn't seal overnight, so I had to put them in a waterbath the next day. I wrung my hands and angsted on twitter and eventually sucked up my courage and did a super crazy long waterbath and the jars all sealed within half an hour afterwards. It wasn't that bad! In fact, it really wasn't that big a deal in the end. I'm still keeping them in the fridge but I'm not even sure that's necessary.

So I got a whole bunch of books about canning from the library and had a look through them all. In most of the books, I'd find one, maybe two recipes that I was interested in making. There were a whole lotta recipes I just had no interest in. But in Liana Krissoff's Canning for a New Generation, I want to make pretty much every recipe. Last weekend we had enough rhubarb and strawberries to make her Rhubarb Strawberry Jam. It did take a while but oh my goodness that jam is good. We went through a half-pint jar in about five days. It's bright red and beautiful, and full of flavour. For most of her jams, she takes the fruit out of the pot for a period of time and just cooks the juice so it gels without cooking the fruit beyond all recognition. And she also adds lemon juice, which I suspect keeps the colour and flavour so bright. Having grown up loving freezer strawberry jam (but having decided to eschew commercial pectin from my canning), these are all good things.

I also like her philosophy in general. She says, "Folks nowadays can for many reasons. [...] For me, putting up the very best produce I can find in season -- especially if it's homegrown or from a nearby farm -- is quite simply a way to spend some marginally productive time in the kitchen, preferably with my family and friends. [...] I understand that canning isn't really economical in most cases. If I didn't put up a dozen jars of strawberry jam each spring, I don't think I'd end up buying a dozen jars throughout the year to fill the void; I'd just eat something else. The point is, preserving food -- and thinking of delicious ways to use those preserves -- is fun."

Next I want to pickle the radishes we grew, then Chamomile-Scented Strawberry Syrup for pancakes, and Spiced Strawberry Butter for oatmeal, and of course some old-fashioned strawberry jam. Then Sour Cherry Preserves, Peaches in Vanilla Syrup, Peach and Cilantro Salsa, Cardamom Plum Jam, Roasted Red Peppers in Lemon Juice and Good Ketchup.

And of course, the best part is that she explains how these foods get preserved, and she covers botulism in particular. Botulism spores cannot survive in an acid environment, so as long as the food is acidic (as pretty much all fruit is and pickles and salsas), you're good. And all the recipes in the book are acidic. All this time, and botulism wasn't even a real concern with the pickled beets and salsas people gave me.

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