Everyday Green – Preserving Food
- Buying foods from local farmers in season when costs are lowest, and preserving is an important way to support the expansion of a local food supply.
- Preserving your own foods, varying the seasonings, brings the possibility of endless variety to your meals.
Fall is the season of abundance, good prices on food, and if we stop to hear an inner voice, the time to start putting food away for the winter. Growing some of your own fruits and vegetables or buying in bulk from a farmer and preserving it will keep local food available through the coming months. Whether your interest in preserving food is for cutting costs, creating a healthy supply for your family, contributing to the expansion of a local supply, or just being creative in the kitchen, it is a fun activity that makes good sense. Recovering and teaching traditional food knowledge is one way of keeping people in the regional sustainability equation.
Ways of Preserving Foods
In addition to saving money and buying locally, preserving food affords the convenience of cooking ahead and having those “emergency meals” that keep us from purchasing processed foods laden with sugar and fillers. Plastic containers and cans are not a healthy way to store food. Make a slow cooker full of your favorite soup or stew, cook beans, make low-sweetener preserves, pickles, or preserve seasonal vegetables as they become available through the growing season. (See www.freshpreserving.com)
Canning – involves packing fruits or vegetables into canning jars fitted with lids, and heating in either a water bath or a pressure canner. Do not try to recycle food jars from the grocery store, since canning jars are made to withstand higher temperatures without breaking. Following a recipe is important to know the appropriate canning time. There are two types of canners: the old-fashioned water bath canner is recommended for acid foods only (e.g. fruit, tomatoes). The pressure canner (not the same as a pressure cooker) is recommended for all other foods. If you are using a water-bath canner, food may need to be cooked before packing into jars. When using the pressure canner method, food can be packed into jars raw with liquid, and cooked during the canning process. Advantages of the pressure canner include better avoidance of bacteria for non-acid foods. (See
Drying – removes the water to avoid spoilage, an ancient food preservation tradition. Whether drying beans or corn on the stalk on a blanket indoors, using drying screens or an electric hydrator, and then storing in airtight jars, this saves storage space. Remember the New Mexico ristra method of hanging chiles to dry! Keeping dry food to use in cooking or for sprouting expands the options for tasty and nutritious off-season use. Just make certain to dry thoroughly to keep mold from forming, and store the food in a dry place. (See www.thefarm.org)
Salting – A time-honored tradition, salting is an excellent way of preserving herbs and greens. When cooking later in the year, put a tablespoon into your stew and omit the salt from the recipe. Use about 1/2 cup of salt (non-iodized, coarse grain) per 6 cups of herbs. The herbs will cure and condense over a period of two weeks. Then, pack into jars and store in the refrigerator for use up to a year. (See www.homecooking.about.com)
Freezing – Although freezing may seem more convenient than canning, the downside is plastic containers. Perhaps the worst contemporary food practice is freezing in plastic and then microwaving food in the plastic. High heat does drive the plastic (a petroleum product) into the food, and freezing does also to a lesser extent as well. Not healthy! You can freeze in canning jars if an adequate “headspace” is left between the top of the food and the lid to allow for liquid expansion. Experiment with one jar. (See www.fsis.usda.gov/factsheets/focus_on_freezing)
Storage in Root Cellars – Storing food in underground cellars is another time-honored tradition in Northern New Mexico (el soterano). Root vegetables, apples, tomatoes, canned goods, salted foods, and jars of dried foods can be stored throughout the winter this way. (See www.motherearthnews.com)
Equipment and Costs
The essential basics in equipment are a canner, jars, a jar lifter, and a funnel. Once the initial investment is made for equipment, jars and screw bands can be reused if kept in good condition. Only the lids need to be replaced each time (about 20¢ per lid). Consider this as an investment for a lifetime of healthier eating.
• Water bath canner ($20) or a pressure canner ($65 to $79).
• Jars with screw bands and lids ($1 each, in packs of 12)
• Canning kit – jar lifter, funnel and additional tools ($6)
There are two types of jars: wide mouth (Kerr) and regular (Ball). These are easy to find at grocery and discount stores in New Mexico. My personal favorite is the wide mouth jar since it is easier to fill. A funnel is recommended for filling. Although the jars need to be sterilized before filling, the dishwasher is a modern shortcut.
Dehydrators for drying food can vary from just over $50 to $300, depending on quality and size. Screens for drying can be hand built.
How to Learn
For safety reasons, it is preferable to learn from someone who is experienced.
• Family members – Renew familial ties by having extensive conversations about the “old ways” of preserving and storing food. Just remember, when talking with Aunt Flora in Florida, altitude adjustments may be necessary for Central to Northern New Mexico.
• A class – local sources include community colleges, agricultural extension agencies, and private lessons. Many high schools are now giving classes to students to encourage self-sufficiency skills.
• Guidance from an experienced friend – throw a canning party!
Some good books to learn from are: Preserving Summer’s Bounty (Rodale Press); Canning for a New Generation (Liana Krissoff); Canning & Preserving for Dummies (Amelia Jeanroy); The Dehydrator Bible (Jennifer MacKenzie); and The Everything Canning & Preserving Book (Patricia Telesco).
Easiest to start with are jams or applesauce processed in a water bath. With jam and jelly recipes, for health reasons, beware of recipes that call for a cup or more of sugar. This amount can be cut way back, and low-glycemic sweeteners can be used (honey or agave).
Just Apples Applesauce
. (Pick or buy the food as ripe as possible to reduce the amount of sugar needed.)
2 to 3 pounds of apples per 1 ½ quarts (about 7 large)
2 tsp. cinnamon
2 1/2 cups water
Sugar to taste (optional)
Cut apples in quarters and core, leaving the skin on (antioxidant rich); cut in chunks. Cook apples with ½ c. water on medium heat in a covered saucepan until soft (about 20 min). Add cinnamon and 2 cups water in blender (2 batches) to pulverize skins. Taste to see if you can make this dish without a sweetener. If necessary, use a small amount at first and then try tapering. Fill hot applesauce into sterilized canning jars, leaving ½ “ headspace and process in a water bath canner for 20 minutes, according to directions. Remove jars with a jar lifter for safety. After cooling, press on center of lid. If lid does not depress, a good seal was created.
Preserving food as a family activity is creative, interesting, and bonding. As a must for reducing our dependence on the external food supply, incorporate food storage areas, edible landscaping and family gardens into green design and building. Let’s bring back the root cellar!
Susan Guyette, Ph.D. is Métis (Micmac Indian and Acadian French) and a planner specializing in cultural centers, cultural tourism and native foods. She is the author of Planning for Balanced Development: A Guide for Native American and Rural Communities. E-mail: santafeplanning.com.
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