Preserving vegetables

Preserving Summer’s Bounty

If you want to become more self-sufficient in your kitchen, it makes sense to extend this self-reliance beyond the kitchen door and into the garden.

Over the last year, there has been a revival, both locally and overseas, in vegetable gardening. Encouraged by the food and energy crises, and a growing awareness of the environmental impact of industrial agriculture and the globalisation of food production, home gardeners are returning to the traditions of their ancestors and growing their own food.

Nonetheless, certain things have changed. Modern food gardeners will tell you the true pleasure of growing your own food lies in enjoying it straight off the plant and fresh out of the soil. However, in the not-so-distant past, the focus of food gardening was to produce enough food in the fertile summer months to last the family the whole year round. This was especially true in cold climates, when winter weather often made it impossible to grow anything.

As a result, older cultivars of vegetables (now known as heirloom or heritage varieties) were selected and grown for their keeping qualities – hard-skinned, gnarly squash and dense root vegetables which could be stored for months, and beans which were dried on the vine and would keep indefinitely. Other vegetables which were more perishable were preserved in a variety of methods, such as drying, fermenting, salting and canning. Today, we can add another food storage solution to the list – freezing.

Take advantage of the summer produce in your garden or at your local market. It makes sense, both in terms of seasonality, availability and affordability, to stock up for the winter months ahead right now, in the middle of summer, even if winter seems impossibly far away.

Come June and July, you’ll be glad you made the effort, when weeknight meals are as effortless as opening a jar of your own home made tomato sauce. Summer distilled in a jar, and convenience food – sustainable, self-sufficient style.

If you have a pressure cooker, it’s worth investing in a book about pressure canning, which is quick and can be used to preserve low acid foods, like fish and green beans.

This article deals with water-bath canning, which anyone can do with basic kitchen equipment. It takes a bit of time and work, and requires a basic understanding of food hygiene, and which foods are suitable for this type of preservation.

In water-bath canning, jars are cleaned, boiled in water to sterilize them, and then filled with a hot, high acid food, sealed with a lid and then re-boiled to kill any remaining pathogens. Only high acid foods (with a pH of 4.5 or lower) are suitable for water-bath canning. Yeast, mould and bacteria cannot reproduce in an acidic environment, so high acid foods which are correctly canned are less likely to go off.

As a result, food hygiene experts recommend that home canners stick to recipes intended for canning, and resist adding uncontrolled quantities of low acid foods (such as mushrooms, peppers and carrots) to tomato sauces they plan to can.

Equipment

Aside from basic kitchen equipment (knives, pots and a stove), you will also need:

Glass Jars: Glass jars are eco-friendly and financially friendly, because they can be used again and again. Save empty condiments jars, and ask friends for theirs. Only reuse jars with no chips or cracks. Otherwise canning jars can be bought from supermarkets, home and hardware stores or directly from manufacturers like Consol.

Unfortunately, lids should not be reused for home canning, as they warp and rust with time. You can buy new lids wherever jars are sold, and they are pretty interchangeable from brand to brand. You can either buy one-piece lids (commonly found on condiment jars in the supermarket) or special home canning lids, which come in two parts: a flat lid and a screw-band, which fits over the lid and twists onto the jar.  With canning lids, you must replace the flat lid every time you can, but can re-use the screw-band.

Glass may crack in response to extreme changes in temperature, so always fill hot jars with hot sauce, and don’t put hot jars onto a cold stone or tiled counter.

You can work out a jar’s capacity by filling it with water, and then pouring that water into a measuring jug. When selecting jars, consider what food will be stored in it. For example, a 200ml jar may be fine for jam, but 200ml of pasta sauce won’t get you very far!

Tongs are indispensable when removing jars from boiling water. I like to use old-fashioned kitchen or braai tongs, made out of rounded, thick stainless steel wire, with red rubber- or plastic-coated handles and triangular tips. However, you can give basic metal kitchen tongs better grip by tightly wrapping wide elastic bands around each paddle. Practice lifting and lowering a closed, full jar over a towel-covered kitchen counter to check you’re happy with your grip before plunging them into boiling water!

Jam Funnel: This is a shallow, wide-mouthed funnel which fits the mouth of the average glass jar, and is very useful when filling many jars. They are available in plastic, stainless steel and even pottery, but are difficult (and expensive) to find locally.

You can make a substitute with a piece of bendable plastic, formed into a cone, secured on the outside with tape. Cut off the tip, leaving a hole slightly smaller than the mouth of your jars. Remember to wash it well before using!

Roasted Tomato Sauce

This recipe was inspired by “Roasted Tomato Passata” in Pam Corbin’s River Cottage Handbook 2: Preserves

  • Ingredients: (for every kilo of tomatoes)
  • 100g finely chopped onion
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 sprig of oreganum, marjoram or thyme
  • a pinch sugar
  • a pinch salt
  • olive or vegetable oil

Every kilo of tomatoes yields 500ml sauce.

Traditionally, paste tomatoes (also known locally as jam tomatoes) are used for sauces and cooking. These varieties can taste a bit mealy when eaten raw, but cooking transforms them into thick, rich sauces. So if you’re growing your own tomatoes, try to grow some paste tomatoes just for the kitchen. If you buy tomatoes, Roma (oval or egg-shaped, rather than round) tomatoes are quite widely available and are good for cooking.

But, whatever tomatoes you use, make sure they are completely red without any green, and very ripe. Leaving slightly under-ripe tomatoes in a well-ventilated spot at room temperature for a day or two will help them along, although the best flavour comes from tomatoes fully ripened on the vine. Avoid using diseased or damaged tomatoes.

If you do not want to can your tomato sauce, and have space in your freezer, by all means ladle it into plastic containers and store the sauce in your freezer. It should keep for up to eight months.

Preheat your oven to 190°C. Wrap the cloves of garlic together in a small piece of foil. Halve the tomatoes lengthways and arrange skinside down in a shallow roasting dish. Sprinkle over the sugar, salt and olive oil. Tuck the herb sprig in the middle, and place the roasting dish and the garlic in the oven for an hour.

Ten minutes before the tomatoes are done, wash all your glass jars and lids in hot soapy water. Select a large pot (or more likely, pots!) which fit your jars comfortably, and place a clean, folded dish towel (or use a flat-bottomed steamer or pasta insert, if you have one) in the bottom of the pot. Place your glass jars on top, and fill the pot with warm water, covering the jars by at least 2cm. Bring to the boil, and boil for 10 minutes to sterilize the jars. Add the lids for the last minute. Leave them in the hot water while you prepare your sauce.

Remove the roasting dish from the oven and, as soon as they are cool enough to handle, peel off and discard the tomato skins, and remove the herb sprig. In a saucepan, heat a little olive oil and sauté the onions until soft. Add the tomatoes and any juices in the roasting dish to the pan.

Squeeze the garlic out of its papery husks into the pan. Simmer, stirring regularly to prevent sticking, for ten minutes. Transfer to a blender or food processor, and puree (or if using a stick blender, puree the sauce in the pan). Transfer the sauce back to the saucepan. Taste and add more salt and pepper if necessary. Bring to the boil, and remove from the heat.

Remove and drain your jars with tongs, and place on a wooden or cloth-covered counter. Dip a clean ladle or large stainless steel spoon into your pot of boiling water, and use this to fill the jars with your sauce, leaving 1cm headspace. Dip the handle of a stainless steel fork or spoon in the hot water, and then run the handle around the inside of each jar, between the glass and the sauce, to remove any air pockets or bubbles (the less air in the jar, the less likely the sauce will go off).

With a clean, damp paper towel or dish cloth, wipe the rims of the glass jars to clean off any errant sauce. Remove the lids from the pot of hot water, touching them as little as possible, and close the jars, tightening the lids (or screw band) just until you feel resistance, about a quarter turn before the jar would be totally sealed (this allows steam to escape, creating a tight seal).

Place the jars back in the pot of hot water (still lined with a cloth or insert to keep the jars off the bottom of the pot). Add more hot water if necessary to cover the jars by at least 2cm. Bring to the boil, and simmer for 25 minutes (500ml jars) or 35 minutes (1 litre jars).

Remove the jars from the pot, and place on a cloth-covered counter to cool completely (this will take several hours).

Once they are cool, check the seal by pressing on the middle of the lid with a finger. It should be totally taut. If there is some bounce to the metal lid (after you press down, the lid bounces back up), the jar hasn’t sealed properly for room temperature storage and should be stored in the fridge and used within a couple weeks.

Label the jars, indicating the contents and date. All properly sealed jars are best stored in a dark cupboard or pantry, and should be eaten within a year – if they last that long!

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