Yes, she can can

I am reading a new book and planning my summer pastimes. It’s not a travel book, though. It’s a canning book.

IMG_3119I was canning before canning was cool, when most people looked it as something their grandmothers did, and far too much trouble. Now, it’s hip. Young singles haunt canning sites on Facebook and see the delicious value in making their own items. Chefs boost their eat-local stock by canning their own sauces and relishes.

So any new book about making pickles, relishes, jams and jellies needs to walk a line between the classic favorites – I dare you to feed me something better than good-old homemade bread and butter pickles – and new-wave creativity. “Pickles and Preserves: A Savor the South Cookbook” by Andrea Weigl (University of North Carolina Press, $18) does that.

Classic Dilly Beans and Fig Preserves are next to Soft Refrigerator Honeysuckle Jelly and Salt-Pickled Cucumbers with Shiso, providing basics for those new to canning and intriguing combinations for experienced canners. None of the recipes are so far out as to intimidate, and the variety will amply stock a pantry.

Many people are frightened off canning by the possibility of giving botulism as holiday gifts. But home canning is not difficult, and if you follow simple guidelines and use the proper equipment, perfectly safe. Weigl, who is the food editor for The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., carefully offers well-researched information on the process, along with what not to do and why. (I can’t believe anyone has seriously tried to process canned goods in a dishwasher but the answer from Weigl, and me, is: Just don’t.)

Full disclosure: I contributed a recipe to the book, and have written another in the Savor the South series. I have also begged for figs from Weigl’s neighborhood and intoxicated a book club with Brandied Peaches from her book.

On Wednesday night, March 12, Weigl will talk and sign copies of the book at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, on March 25 at the Barnes & Noble in Cary, and at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill on March 19. Other signings are listed here.

Nice place to be in a jam…or pickle

selections at the triangle canning swap

The first thing I noticed that was different about this year’s Triangle Canning Swap was the spread of jars and bottles on the table – it must have been twice as big as in 2011. (Thanks to greeneatsblog for organizing.)

Canning has become hip, hot and happening. I’m not sure what my canning-crazy grandmother would have said about coconut-banana jam, but it looked really good. As did brandied cherries, peach-bourbon butter, lavender-mint-raspberry jam, dilly beans, homemade ginger beer, salsas, tomato chutneys and the other goodies.

You can even subscribe to a jam-of-the-month club through This & That Jam of Durham. Read more about that here.

I’ve canned pickles, jams and jellies for years, and I’m glad so many people are discovering what fun it is – and how excited others are to get a little jar of something homemade as a gift. Really, people kind of freak out about it. Some friends and I will be spending a big chunk of this weekend making our famous relish. The favored few who have received it before say it should be classified as a controlled substance.

I took my blackberry-Earl Grey jelly, classic bread-and-butter pickles, and lavender-lemon jelly to the swap. I came home with balsamic-bell pepper jelly, green fig-apple-Calvados jam, and heirloom tomato-basil jam.

Tea for six

Back in December, when I pulled out the six jars of damson plum jelly I made in August, all ready to fill Christmas goodie baskets, I got a most unpleasant surprise. None of them had set.  It was too late to do anything about it, and re-cooking usually spoils the flavor. The jars had sealed properly, so I relabeled it as pancake syrup, a role it fills quite well.

That still left me tragically short on jelly, especially after I had to dip into my private reserve to fill my friends’ holiday demands. While it has been a mild winter here, it hasn’t been mild enough to make plums or berries bear this early. I was faced with the offerings of the supermarket freezer. Then, I had an idea. I made juice for jelly from frozen blackberries, then combined it with Earl Grey tea. The result was a deep, dark jelly. The subtle citrus flavor of the tea meshes perfectly with the berries (and hides the fact that they aren’t ultra-fresh berries).

Blackberry-Earl Grey Jelly

Two packages frozen blackberries

2 Earl Grey tea bags

7 cups sugar

2 pouches liquid pectin

Place berries and 1/2 cup water in a saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring frequently. Reduce the heat to a simmer, cover the pot loosely and boil for 5 to 10 minutes, until the berries are softened. Crush them occasionally with a potato masher.

Pour the berry mixture into a strainer lined with dampened cheesecloth (or use a jelly bag, if you have one) set over a deep bowl. Let the juice drip out for about 2 hours. You should end up with 2 cups of juice.

While the juice drips, bring 2 cups water to a boil. Place the tea bags in a bowl. Pour the water over the tea and let steep for 15 minutes. Remove the tea bags.

Place the juice, tea and sugar in a large stainless-steel saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring constantly. When the sugar is dissolved and a full rolling boil has been reached, stir in the pectin. Boil hard, stirring constantly, for a few minutes, until the jelly tests done. Pour it into sterilized half-pint jars, hand-tighten the sterilized lids and process in a boiling water bath canner for 10 minutes. Then remove the lid, turn off the heat and let the canner sit for 5 minutes. Remove the jars and let cool before storing.

Makes about 6 jars.

Jam and jewels

the afternoon's work: peach jam

My canning buddy, Linda, swore she would not miss peach jam season this year. I was glad – she moaned all winter about it. So I headed for the State Farmers Market on Friday. We always mix white peaches and yellow ones, so I got baskets of each. Bags in my hand, I was walking towards my car when I saw them: Damson plums. I usually come upon them  accidentally, and I can’t pass by them. I bought them all.

Damsons are purple, but make a delicate rose-colored jelly that tastes as pretty as it looks. It just makes me smile to look at it. So, although they increased the anticipated canning workload, they came home with me. On Saturday, I cooked them down and piled them in a colander lined with cheesecloth, then left them for several hours for the juice to drain. I put the juice in a container and put it in the refrigerator. It would be easy to turn it to jelly after we finished the jam session.

Today, Linda and I started on the peaches. We made two batches of jam, with a lunch break for pimento cheese sandwiches (a canning day tradition). As we lowered the third batch of jars into the canner, I turned around to clean up and saw – the measuring cup of sugar that we had forgotten to put in. Instead of  1 1/2 cups of sugar, the batch had 1/4 cup, the amount we mixed with the powdered pectin before adding it.

Do we snatch the jars out of the water, dump the jam back in the pot and add the sugar? “Let’s taste it,” Linda said. We scooped spoonsful from the pot, and it tasted pretty darn good as it was. So we let it go. As The Hub has said before about computer programming, “If you can’t fix it, feature it.” We’ll look for a suitable name for our fruit spread.

We don’t do anything special to our peach jam. No liqueurs, spices or flavorings. We keep it simple, and we like it that way.


No canning pun here, either

matt lardie divvys up the jars

The jars clustered on a table at Fullsteam Brewery in Durham probably didn’t look like much to the usual beer-drinking, Sunday-afternoon loafers. But to the canning obsessed at the first Triangle Food Bloggers Canning Swap, they were precious jewels. For such a small group, the variety was amazing – bloody mary base, blackberry syrup, watermelon rind pickles, pickled okra, brandied oranges.

The creativity on sparkling display shows that canning has thrown off Grandma’s ratty apron and gone wild. But the reasons that people enjoy canning are the same: Working with local ingredients, creating great flavors that you can’t find in stores and saving a little money.

Here’s how it worked. Participants brought up to five jars of their goodies, and could receive one pick for each jar they brought. Names were drawn from a jar to determine order.

Some brought their first canning efforts. As veterans of more than a decade of pickling and jamming, my canning buddy, Linda, and I felt like the gray-haired (literally) sages. We shared our experience and, in return, received enthusiasm and creative ideas. So the “swap” was for more than tasty jars.

Thanks to Matt Lardie of  Green Eats Blog for organizing the swap.

Here’s a secret that I shared on Sunday: You can make almost any liquid into a jelly. Teas, bottled juices, they all can work. As does an infusion, which was the base for this jelly, my contribution to the swap.

Lovely Lemon Lavender Jelly

Be sure to use chemical-free culinary lavender, not the kind used in potpourris or sachets. I got mine from Bluebird Hill Farm, which sells at the North Hills farmers market.

Zest from 1 large lemon
1 teaspoon dried lavender buds
3 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup white vinegar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 pouch liquid pectin

Place the lemon zest and lavender buds in a large bowl. Pour 2 1/4 cups boiling water over them, cover with a pan lid or aluminum foil and let steep for 1 hour. Strain and reserve the infused liquid.

In a large saucepan or Dutch oven, combine the liquid with the sugar, vinegar and lemon juice. Bring the mixture to a bubbling boil over high heat, stirring constantly. When it is boiling and the sugar is dissolved, stir in the liquid pectin and return the mixture to a bubbling boil. Boil vigorously for 1 minute, or until the mixture passes the jell test.

Ladle the jelly into sterilized half-pint jars and screw on sterilized lids. Process in a boiling-water bath canner for 5 minutes.

Makes about 4 half-pint jars.

No canning pun here

The one drawback to the craze for canning homemade goodies is the overuse of every hoary “can” pun in existence. You will see none here. Hope you don’t find that too jarring.

But you should gather your goodies and attend the first-ever Triangle Food Blogger Canning Swap on July 31, 3 p.m. at Fullsteam Brewery in Durham, N.C. (I fervently hope it’s in the air-conditioned part.) It’s easy. Bring up to five jars of your home-canned jam, jelly, pickles, salsa, sauce, chutney, etc. Names will be drawn from a hat, and you’ll get to swap jar for jar that you bring.

The swap is the brainchild of Matt Lardie of Green Eats Blog. Contact him by tomorrow, June 25, to sign up.

Sisterhood of the blackberries

I had one of those dreams that you wake up from shaking your head and thinking about the effects of what you ate before bed. I dreamed that my grandmother’s old house in Statesville, N.C. had been turned into a sorority house, and the girls wanted me to teach them to cook sweet-potato latkes on the old gas stove. Coincidentally, the next morning, I discovered an email from my cousin, who was trying to recall all the things our grandparents grew in their backyard garden.

She remembered that it was at least two acres (I agree; it was big), with corn, tomatoes, green beans, potatoes, cucumbers, shelley beans, spring onions and beets. I remember wild blackberries way in the back. I saw a big limb once while picking them, thought it was a snake, ran for the house and refused to go back. Much as I would do today. My cousin remembered how much she loved the blackberry jelly our grandmother made, and it’s still her favorite kind of jelly. That was enough for me to make good on my threat to make my own blackberry jelly.

Blackberry jam really isn’t good. Too many of those little seeds. And I’d never made jelly from fruit before. I have made jelly from bottled juices and herbal tea-like infusions. The hardest part was mashing the berries through cheesecloth. I see why people use jelly bags. But after that, it was a breeze. I can’t swear it tastes like my grandmother’s – does anything ever taste the way you remember it? – but it’s pretty good. I’ll have to send a jar to my cousin for her verdict.

“Funny how that’s what people seek out now – homegrown and preserved food – and all we wanted was store-bought,” she wrote.