Heaven Preserve Us
When I was eight months pregnant with my son, Mo, I went into what's known as the nesting stage. For some women, that means buying lots of little sheets or tiny booties or opening a CD account. For me, it was canning. But what started innocently enough quickly became a weird obsession. I say weird because I had never had the inclination to can before, even though I had grown up with a father who was a dedicated preserver. I just got into this crazy frame of mind, convinced that I would be housebound for months and would likely starve.
When I told my father that I wanted to take up canning, he became my co-conspirator. We must have preserved 60 pints of tomatoes in glass jars that first year. Of course, my fears of domestic incarceration passed soon after my son was born, but the pleasure of having all those jars of tomatoes in the cupboard stuck with me.
Still, it wasn't until we bought a summer place in Crawford, Colorado, a few years ago that I started to can with a vengeance. Crawford is in the North Fork Valley, on the western slopes of the Rockies, an agricultural region that produces fruits and vegetables of exceptional variety, quality and quantity. Not only were there dozens of kinds of marvelous fruits to be canned, but I found myself happily ensconced in a culture of canning. By August, the hardware stores are stocked with home-canning gizmos, and every pickup truck on the road seems to have a case or two of fruit on its flatbed, surrounded by buzzing, greedy bees.
I'm now totally hooked. I can't see a bushel of peaches at the fruit stand without estimating whether I have enough sugar at home to can them. I can all kinds of cherries: Bings in sugar syrup to make cherry soda, golden Rainiers with basil to roll up in sweet crêpes, sour cherries to make a terrific sour-cherry pie or to throw into sauces for game birds. I puree apricots and can them to pour over pancakes or stir into coffee-cake crumble. And peachesbreathtaking, voluptuous Colorado peaches: I can these for eating with cottage cheese and black pepper when I'm too tired to cook, or for crushing and freezing into quick ices. Blood plums get turned into a conserve to pair with fried ricotta fritters or to serve in a puddle with poached pears and crushed amaretto cookies. I've made jalapeño-mint jelly to attend our outstanding Colorado lamb chops and combined crab apples and spearmint to make something I call candy-cane jelly, which, to my delight, won a ribbon at Colorado's Delta County Fair. I can pears, tomatoes and pickles of all sorts, up until the day I have to head home to New York City. And then the cases and cases of glistening, colorful jars get lugged all the way back East, and my shelves are stocked once again.
For me, there's more to home canning than simply having excellent ingredients on hand for off-season cooking. Home canning is therapeutic. I highly recommend it, no matter how small your kitchen or asphalted your world. You can always find at least a few fresh, seasonal ingredients to play with, and canning in small batches is particularly enjoyable, because it can be done quickly and with minimal cleanup. Best of all, canning is easy; just make sure you follow the steps necessary to keep your preserves bacteria-free.
It wasn't so long ago that everybody canned, and with a little digging you might find wonderful recipes from your own family. Canning also preserves a moment in timedeliciously so. I spend only the summer months in Colorado, but when I open a jar of bright yellow peaches on a snowy day in New York, I remember everything: the smell of purple sage heated by the sun, the feel of a vast, soft Rocky Mountain breeze through my straw hat. It reassures me that, yes, summer is only a few more months away.
Eugenia Bone's first book, Cooking in Crawford, will be published in 2004.