Preserving the harvest

Eat local through the winter by preserving fall’s bounty now.

Canning is making a comeback as more take the time to preserve local food and enjoy the bounty all year long.

The dish on canning

When Elena Embrioni was growing up on a farm in Argentina, each week of the summer was devoted to preserving a different fruit or vegetable. "We'd start with tomatoes. Cases and cases, bushels of fresh, plump tomatoes," recalls the Toronto-based chef. "The whole family got involved. Neighbours, too. It would be a big party."

Today, Embrioni continues her family's kitchen tradition at Dish Cooking Studio where she's the café manager. She still cans whole tomatoes — using them in salsas, pasta, sauces and soups — though she also preserves hot peppers, peaches and apricots. She even does up grapes covered with grappa to serve with manchego cheese and preserved quince in the winter. "It's such a pleasure because you know what's going into it," she says. "You get fresh, and organic if you like. You make the choices instead of purchasing some nasty tropical fruit from you-don't-know-where."

More than nostalgia

Canning is cool thanks to a growing interest, especially amongst localvores — people trying to eat local within a 100-mile radius. Having some kind of preserves in the larder is probably the only way to remain a localvore during winter in northern climates.

The majority of canners and preservers rave that once you've invested in the necessary tools (mason jars, proper lids, a big cooking pot or pressure canner with a bottom metal rack) and done it a few times, it's inexpensive and straightforward.

A celebration of food

There are various methods to preserve food — dehydrating, drying, smoking and freezing, among them — but the traditional way is canning using high heat. Lower-acid foods such as most vegetables should be prepared in a pressure canner, a special pot that can reach the greater temperatures necessary for safe preservation; tomatoes, fruit and pickles are high in acid content so require a lower heat threshold and can be done in a hot-water bath in a big pot.

Both processes involve first sterilizing the jars and lids in boiling water, then submerging the filled, tightly closed jars in boiling water again until the pressure difference between inside and out creates a vacuum seal. It's important to follow recipes and instructions carefully because improperly preserved food can become tainted. So if the lid on your jar of tomatoes has lost the depression on the top, pitch it.

Canning makes perfect

Either way, it takes time, but that's part of the pleasure. "The first time you do it, it may not be great," says Embrioni. "You have to crawl before you walk. But then you can get creative, mix a little of this and that. It can be a real celebration of food."

The National Center for Home Food Preservation has a complete manual with sheets on how to put up specific fruits and vegetables. Home Canning by Jarden Home Brands has a helpfully illustrated, step-by-step instructions on both high- and low-acid canning and fail proof recipes.

Andrea Curtis is a Canadian freelance writer.