Friday, October 30, 2009

I Think I Can, I Think I Can

Before coming out to the orchard, I think the only time I really saw Ball jars in use was when I would drink milk from them out of my aunt’s kitchen cabinet of drinking glasses. I always thought they were neat since they had some sort of vintage feel to them, and I felt really cool drinking from something that wasn’t designed to be a drinking vessel. A great way to recycle or use glass jars…but not their true purpose.

To me it really seems that the practice of canning or preserving food is a lost art. There are probably boxes and boxes of dusty Ball jars scattered around peoples’ attics around the country from their grandmother’s generation, either being sadly ignored, or used for something like a funky flower vase, change jar, or, say, drinking glass.

As I grew older and my interest and passion for food increased, the concept of canning became more and more compelling to me. But I think what fascinated me more than the actual process of canning (which still remained a mystery to me), was why it had almost disappeared from most peoples’ habitual tasks of food preparation. It is just such a simple and lucrative concept. Bought too many tomatoes at the market in August, or have an overabundance in the garden? Don’t even think about letting them go to waste. Jar them and enjoy that succulent heirloom flavor in mid February when everyone else is eating the styrofoam, flavorless, sad excuse for a tomato that is grown to be packaged and is shipped from who knows where to your grocery store produce section. Hmf! Glad to get that off my chest.

Even with these sentiments, though, I still found myself on the loser side of the Clueless and Uninvolved. I was determined to learn, someway, somehow, but I knew it would have to be a situation that would force me to do it. That way I would have no choice. So, when Elane first explained that my potential duties on the orchard would be preserving and making value-added products to sell, you should have heard my reaction. “Elane,” I said, and paused on the phone (I may have even stuck out my arm sitting there on the front steps, as though she could see my need to have her stop and notice how important her last statement was). “You don’t understand how much I have been wanting to learn how to jar food.” Hook, line, and sinker, she had me at ‘preserve’.

Luckily I was able to find a situation where part of my work was literally to invent as many recipes as I could to preserve the fruit still left at the end of the season. Over these past 5 weeks they have become a part of me; my little jars of invention, experimentation, failure, success, deliciousness, profit, and creativity all at once. I feel the need to show off my little off-springs, and hopefully they will give you enough inspiration to start your own jarring tutorial too.

1) Zesty Pear Chutney
You wouldn't believe the amount of flavor that is packed into these little 8 oz. jars, thanks to Cedar's unbeatable recipe. The perfect balance of sweet from the pears and raisins, bite from the apple cider vinegar and the accompanying spices, and heat from the ginger and cayenne. It's been a hit at every market we've been to. My favorite part was seeing people's face light up after taking a sampling spoonful. Eyebrows raised, a surprised smile, "This is really good!" (Duh!) Excellent on grilled chicken or pork, stirred in rice or couscous, or my personal favorite, on a cracker with a slice of sharp cheddar cheese (Vermont cheddah of course).

2) Peach Jam
I became very acquainted with the peaches that went into this jam after a marathon of blanching and peeling each and every one that went into the stock pot. Elane showed me the ropes of basic canning procedures with this batch: cooking and heating the ingredients, adding the pectin, funneling the mixture into each jar, wiping the edges, applying the lid and ring, and boiling. It was one of the first things we had canned, and it captured the last hints of summery peachiness for us and our customers to savor into the fall and beyond.

3) Pear Conserve
Nope, I didn't know what a conserve was the first time I heard it either. Apparently it's an older type of recipe that combines fruit, spices, and some sort of extra sweetness. We were able to use the honey from the orchard's bees which was great, since guess what flowers the bees pollinate from? The fruit tree blossoms of course. It's a slightly similar idea to an applesauce, but replace apples with pears, and make it chunkier and thicker. Excellent on toast, spread on muffins or breads, in yogurt, and oatmeal. You can even replace oil with it when baking.

4) Peachy Green Chili
The first time I made this - sprouting from Elane's excellent idea of combining the sweet with the heat - I guess you could say I was a bit liberal with the amount of green chilies added to the pot. We stood there in the kitchen, faces red, mouths on fire, wondering how the heck we were going to cool this thing down. How could a girl with such bad chronic heartburn create a sauce this hot?? After a few attempts to cool it down, we finally said the heck with it and jarred it anyway. I guess people like things hot around here, since it nearly sold out the next day at the harvest festival. Used on anything you would with a regular green chili: on enchiladas, quesadillas, on eggs, in soups or stews, with nachos, or on meat. Love that peachy heat!

5) Zippy Pear Grilling Sauce
I turned to Cedar as we stood at the stove. "Something's burning," I told her - a statement no cook ever wants to hear, especially when making large batches of soemthing to eventually sell to other people. One of the pots we had split the 20 quarts of diced pears in had scorched at the bottom. Uh oh. It couldn't be salvaged to become more jars of Pear Conserve...but what about something that should already have a 'smoky' flavor in the background to begin with? We began brainstorming different ingredients to add to turn this initially intended sweet sauce to a savory one. The kitchen already had almost every ingredient we desired: onion, garlic, salt, cayenne, oregano, apple cider vinegar, even a lime! Hence the birth of the pear grilling sauce. Perfect on top of a juicy pork chop, grilled chicken breast, hearty burger, or grilled veggies.

6) Preserved Bartletts
Since the pears are so good on their own, I thought that preserving them in an ever so slightly sweet syrup would keep them going well through winter. I kept the skins on some, and peeled the others, just to have some variation. Sure beats any grainy, over sugared canned pear at your regular store.

7) Peachy Keen Sauce
The whole story of this recipe's creation is fully explained in 'The Peaches' Last Hurrah', but in short, this was my solution to the long process of making peach jam. Forget blanching, peeling, and pectin...and enjoy full peach flavor and great variance of texture from the left-on skins, not to mention the nice rosey hint of color to the strict orange. A Jack of All Trades in yogurt, with granola, on ice cream, in a smoothie, as a turnover filling, in baked goods...That is, if you can get past just eating it straight out of the jar first.

8) Lemon-Ginger Pear Jam
Have this on your favorite bakery toasted slice of bread with a skim of butter in the morning and you wont go back to any other fruit spread again. The bright lemon, spicy ginger, and distinct sweet pear are a trio to be reckoned with. The smoother consistency can also make it a great pair with yogurt too. This was a fun one to create, and an even better one to eat.

9) Chipotle Pear Green Chili
So we had done the Peachy Green Chili, but then the peaches were gone, and a whole sack of peppers remained. What to do? How about use some of the 100s of boxes of pears up...and that's what we did. Adding the smokiness of the chipotle pepper flakes really made this one have a great complexity of flavor, playing off the pears and the straight heat of the peppers. One family bought a jar at a farmer's market only to come back 20 minutes later with it completely empty. Once they had bought their breakfast burritos, the thing didn't stand a chance!

10) Apple-Raisin-Walnut Pie Filling
I can honestly say there aren't many more comforting foods than a serving of apple pie or crisp on a chilly night with a dollop of whipped cream or good vanilla ice cream on the side. Am I right people? So with all of the great Galas and Fujis around, especially with the holiday season coming up, I thought it would be nice to create a pie filling that people would be able to literally open and put into their favorite pie crust and have a taste-like-homemade pie ready for them in no time. In the same amount of time and effort you would put into baking a store bought industrial pie (bleck!) this filling though would have pure ingredients, showcase the superb flavor of the fruit, and encapsulate those wonderful spices of fall. And with the original twist of added raisins and walnuts, you have a pie that stands out from the rest. With this jar you have that comforting taste at the ready whenever you need it.

So there's the line-up. Recipes you say? Hmm, they may just be top-secret. But, if you convince me that you’ve decided to dedicate yourself to learning the indispensable life skill of canning, I think we could be able to work something out. And don’t be deterred by that supposed intimidation of it all. Just think about the trusty words of our old friend ‘The Little Engine That Could’, and you’ll be on your way.

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