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Preserving Summer

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Late summer offers us a seemingly endless supply of richly ripe produce: peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchinis, peaches, pears, plums and cherries… The list is long. But the truth is, that supply starts to run out out as summer inevitably fades. Now is the time to preserve even just a small portion of this abundance for scarcer days to come. It’s easier than you may think, and the return on the investment is deliciously surprising.

Preserving the moment

Home canning is frequently misrepresented as something that’s extremely laborious and time-consuming. And if you’re putting up a whole winter’s supply of tomato sauce or stone fruits, then yes, the commitment is large. But there’s also such a thing as small batch preserves, which can be made in a couple of hours at most: a few pots of jam, a half-dozen pints of pickles, a single jar of cocktail cherries…

Spiced cocktail cherries

For absolute beginners, this is the easiest one: it takes all of five minutes. Wash some ripe cherries, pop them into a jar, cover with a mix of vodka and wine, add half a vanilla bean and a handful of whole spices (like cinnamon, star anise, clove, and black pepper), and in about a week you’ll have the world’s best cocktail cherries. They keep indefinitely, and are great with ice cream, or as an accompaniment to strong cheeses like Aged Cheddar and Smoked Gouda.

Peaches, plums and pears

All of these late-summer fruits are easy to preserve, and take much less time to sterilize than vegetables. Pears need to be peeled, cored and quartered, and peaches need to be blanched, peeled, pitted and quartered. (Plums can be left whole.) That’s the only real work involved. Then you fill sterilized jars with fruit and boiling simple syrup (the ratio is up to you, but use 1 part sugar to 3 parts water as a minimum), clean the mouths of the jars, screw on sterilized rubber-seal lids, and immerse the jars in boiling water for 25 minutes.* These all make a simple and fresh-tasting dessert, along with ice cream or Canadian Mascarpone, or a delicious breakfast with a dollop of Canadian Cottage Cheese.

Easy canned tomatoes

Having a supply of home-canned tomatoes put away for the winter is like having money under your mattress. It just makes you feel good. The flavour they add to winter cooking is incomparably deep and rich – tomatoes from a tin just can’t compare. Fill 500 mL jars with a quarter teaspoon of citric acid and a scant tsp. of fine sea salt. (Double for quart jars.) Blanch and skin the tomatoes, slice them in half, and pack them into the jars. You can leave them whole if they’re small. Clean the mouths of the jars, close with lids and rings, and boil for 40 minutes.* Canning tomatoes takes about half the time that sauce requires, and you can always turn your tomatoes into sauce later on. The longest part of the process is waiting for the water to come back to the boil between batches. You can save a lot of time by positioning the water over two burners instead of one, if your stove allows.

Home-dried herbs

If you preserve nothing else of the harvest, collect at least a few bunches of fresh herbs from a market or garden to dry at home. Many ovens now have a dehydrating function that runs a convection fan at very low heat, while the oven door remains propped slightly open. You can also pick up an inexpensive counter-top dehydrator at almost any of the larger hardware stores. But you can also very simply hang them upside down in a warm, dry place. Their flavour and fragrance will be immensely more pleasing than store-bought dried herbs, and a few pinches in scrambled eggs, over a roasting chicken, in soups and stews is all it takes to infuse winter meals with the flavour of natural abundance.

The act of preserving is inherently rewarding – the methodical peeling and slow simmering can feel quite meaningful and meditative. It connects us to deep, valuable instincts. But the real reward comes later, when in the cold of February, you can open a jar you carefully sealed yourself, and taste inside it the gold of summer’s sun.

*Sterilization and acidity levels are important factors when preserving food at home. For detailed information and safety guidelines, please visit: http://healthycanadians.gc.ca/eating-nutrition/safety-salubrite/food-canning-conserve-aliment-eng.php#a2

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