September 10, 2009

These Beautiful Days

I arrived early at the farmer's market on Wednesday morning. The air was salty and quiet, except for the screeching of seagulls. Shoppers here and there perused the wares, only a hint of the bustling community event that Monument Square would become as the day went on. Tables were laden with colorful fruits and vegetables, nearly irresistible but today, I was on a mission. I had a box of canning tomatoes waiting for me, large pots on the stove, and empty mason jars soon to be filled. I stopped to buy some plums for making spiced plums in honey, and then grabbed a crate full of tomatoes of all shapes, sizes and stages of ripening. It was so heavy I could hardly carry it to the car, but this year I didn't grow any of my own, so I considered myself lucky to be lugging this box of treasure.

I had been perusing The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving for several days, eagerly turning the pages and dreaming of what might be stored in my pantry like someone else might look through a fashion magazine in hopes of adding to their wardrobe. I'm not sure if its all the canning parties I have been reading about or other people's stories, but I have been so looking forward to putting up some of the bounty of these beautiful days.

While I learned a lot about cooking from my mom and step-mother, I don't ever remember them doing any canning. My first experience was canning jam with some friends in Vermont and for the past several years I have been experimenting with preserving different fruits and veggies. I can't wait until I have my own harvest to keep for the winter, but for now its been great to pick-my-own and buy from local farmers.

I made an initial dent in my huge crate of tomatoes by canning salsa. I chopped and chopped tomatoes, onions, peppers, and cilantro. I stirred and added spices and salt. I can't say exactly what it is, its not magic, but there is something so rewarding and exciting about this hard work over a hot stove. Around here, they say firewood warms you twice (at least) from stacking to burning. In the same way, canning feeds me so many times. The smells, tastes, textures and colors fill the kitchen on a warm sunny afternoon with an open window bringing a soft breeze. Later I will grab a jar from the cupboard and the tastes and smells will enter the kitchen again for a winter meal that will feed me and fill me with warmth beyond my belly. I can't explain why food is so much more than just something to assuage hunger or even provide a mouth-watering taste. Canning and preserving taps into connection: the all important element of food and eating. It brings a connection to the future and the past, to the people who grew the ingredients and those who will eat it, to those who prepare it and those who receive it.

Fresh Vegetable Salsa
Adapted from The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving
For canning basics, check out: National Center for Home Food Preservation. You can adjust the amounts depending on what you have available and what you like in your salsa as long as you add enough vinegar to keep the acidity high enough for canning tomatoes.

Makes about ten 8-ounce jars or five pint jars

8 cups of chopped tomatoes
2 cups of chopped onions
2 cups of chopped bell peppers (any color)
jalapeno peppers to taste (depending on how spicy you like it)
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 cup of white vinegar (with 5% acidity)
1 cup finely chopped cilantro (add more or less to taste)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon of cumin

In a large stainless steel pot combine all ingredients. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and boil gently, stirring frequently. Reduce heat and boil gently, stirring often, until thickened, about 30 minutes.

Prepare canning pot, jars and lids (for canning basics go here).

Ladle hot salsa into jars, leaving 1/2 inch head space. Wipe rim, center lid on jar, screw band down until it is finger tip tight.

Place jars in canner, making sure they are completely covered with water. Bring to a boil and process both 8-ounce and pint jars for 20 minutes.

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