If I Can, You Can: How To Can Fruits And Vegetables

By: Lisa Donovan

There's a phrase that goes something like "everything old is new again"... The rediscovery of craft, the incorporation of generations old methods into our 21st century lifestyle, the need to use our hands and our minds (our most inherent tools) simultaneously as our forefathers did - all of these are becoming what seem to be a yearning for some in this instant gratification, prepackaged, prefabricated life we all find ourselves living. A simple urge to create and make things by hand is becoming an all around pervasive notion: most notably in circles of twenty to thirty somethings (you probably know us best as the awkwardly dubbed "Generation X"). From the now famed Stitch and Bitch circles to ladies that prefer to rev up grandma's steel Singer than spending the day at the mall to tattooed vegetable and fruit canners - we are rediscovering our past and redefining who we are in this culture. I am lucky enough to be surrounded by a plethora of innovative folks and even luckier to have spent the day with two in particular, gallivanting about the Nashville Farmer's Market and learning the mysterious and seemingly intimidating ways of canning.

I don't use the term renaissance man loosely. Really, I don't use the word at all - but there is no other nomenclature more fitting when describing my canning confrere for the day, Matt Davidson . If you ever have the pleasure to meet Matt, you will agree that it is a more than fitting title. When he is not cooking in one of Nashville's finest restaurants, Margot Cafe, he might be found doing any number of things: rebuilding motorcycles, building bikes, making biscuits, playing the saw (yes, playing the saw) or, if you have a drink or two with him, showing off some pretty dandy yo-yo tricks. One of his finer talents include canning some of the most delicate and satisfying preserves I have ever tasted.

So here is my experience as a novice canner. With our lovely assistant, Dana, by our side — we had quite a time discovering and dishing out some of the finest preserves and pickled green beans this side of the Cumberland River. Since we did two recipes, I will give you a play by play procedure-wise and then give you both recipes at the end. Always good to know what you're getting into before committing to a recipe, no?

Gathering Supplies

funnel for canningWe started our day squeezing peaches and sorting through beans. This, I discovered, was the first and most vital step — picking beautifully fresh vegetables and fruit. We knew we wanted to can pickled, spicy green beans as well as peach preserves so we wasted no time finding the farmer with the best beans and chili peppers and the perfect blend of under ripe and semi ripe peaches. Tip: For a nicely textured preserves without having to add any extra pectin, choose under ripe fruits — they lose a lot of natural pectin as they ripen (and they are much easier to peel when a little under ripe... A big help!).

Other special materials needed to begin a day of canning: Canning jars, a ladle, large stew pots for the water bath, pectin (though we didn't use), vinegar, sugar, tongs or a jar lifter to retrieve jars from water bath and, last but most certainly not least, a wide mouth funnel. As far as we were concerned, by the end of the day, the wide mouth funnel was the star of the show.

Quick Notes on Safety:

It is important that any novice canners out there give a good read to any reputable canning website or canning book for notes on safety issues. Matt passed along a very good text called "Blue Ribbon Preserves" written by Linda J. Adment, with very thorough notes on safety procedures and issues regarding home-canning. I will pass along all important safety notes that can get you started but I advise you read up on further issues about spoilage and bacteria concerns if you're going to make a habit of home-canning.

(Important Note: If you are planning on canning vegetables that are not pickled in any way you must invest in a steam pressure canner. This is essential to the health of anyone eating your canned goods. You simply cannot avoid bacterial growth in vegetables by a simple water bath unless you are using a pickling agent of some sort along with it. Fruits and high acid foods can be safely processed with a water bath but low acid foods and vegetables must be prepared using the pressure canner unless an acid (lemon or vinegar, typically) is introduced into the recipe to increase acid level.)

Step One: Preparing the fruit and the jars

You will want to peel your peaches and trim your beans. The bean trimming is somewhat cosmetic (we decided we liked the look of a less trimmed bean) but washing is imperative. Peeling peaches is no walk in the park. I thought I was a patient person until I had a mound of ten pounds of peaches in front of me to peel. I tried to make it meditative and relaxing, but, the reality is that it is quite possibly the silliest thing I have ever experienced. They're slippery little buggers and it reminded me of giving my cat a bath once when I was a kid - peaches don't really seem to want to be peeled... But, peel 'em, pit 'em and get the red veins around the pit out too - you'll be pleased (yes, possibly as a peach) at the results of your preserves if you are careful to clean them up nicely.

The jars need to be sanitized. You can sani-wash them in your dishwasher or with hot (hot!), soapy water by hand. Keep them hot but submerging them in hot water and covering them or, as we did, fill the jars with boiling hot water and empty and wipe the rims with a clean towel prior to filling.

Step Two: Flying By The Seat of Educated Pants

Matt comes from good stock. His mother is a very successful chef working in Knoxville, Tennessee. She taught him well and I have always felt safe under Matt's culinary guidance or sitting at his table to eat. The recipes that we peeked at from books were merely suggestions to Matt and I tried to keep up as best as I could. "I don't really do things the scientific way. It's bad, I know, but much more adventurous. My mom's a religious recipe follower. Me - I'm not". When it comes to temperatures and safety procedures, Matt is diligently careful. But when it comes to flavor he is quite free with his borders. As far as I am concerned this is where Matt's genius is. And because of it, we ended up with not only peach preserves but a truly amazing peach-basil preserve that is unlike anything else I have ever tasted.

I have broken the more detailed steps of the cooking process, pre-water bath, in the separate recipes given at the end. Follow them just as you would any cooking recipe, except, feel free to improvise your flavor.

Step Three: Filling the Jars and the Water Bath

canning beansAllow the peach jam to cool for at least five minutes before attempting to fill jars. Once cooled, ladle into hot jars with at least 1/4 inch of top space. Wipe any drips from lip or lid or outside of jar and top with lids and screw rings. Only tighten mildly - do not tighten them firmly or with any amount of force.

For jams, jellies or preserves you will want to water-bathe them at 200-212F for 10 minutes (half-pint) or 15 minutes (pint).

When filling the bean jars, we placed the clove(s) of garlic in first followed by the chili peppers. We then placed the beans in careful to place cut side down to help avoid any air pockets. We packed them as tightly as possible and then filled with the brine recipe. Again, wipe rims, lids and jars and tighten only snugly.

For pickled food you will want your water bath at 180-185F for 30 minutes (pints).

By the end of the day we were truly exhausted. We sat down to some of Matt's home made biscuits and a decadently wonderful peach and basil preserve. I think we were all surprised at how tired we were, but it was energy well spent. I would do it again in a heartbeat, though I can't imagine I'll ever have better company than I did this time around.

Matt Davidson's Peach-Basil Jam

  • 5-6 cups peaches, peeled and cut into quarters
  • 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 8 cups sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. unsalted butter

In large saucepan, combine peaches, lemon juice and about half of the sugar. Let sit on low heat for about twenty minutes, covered. Add remaining sugar and stir constantly on medium heat. Increase the heat and bring to full boil. Stir constantly to avoid scalding. When top gets too foamy, remove from heat and skim. Return back to heat and bring back to boil, taking off of heat and skimming at least every ten minutes. We let it boil at least thirty minutes.

Boiling Peaches

Remove from heat entirely and let cool for at least five minutes, preferably ten minutes. Stir peaches while cooling to avoid clumping and to keep a nice consistency throughout. Begin filling jars according to the instructions provided above.

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