Well preserved

Photo: www.greenlivingonline.com
More and more people are taking the time to preserve local food and enjoy the bounty the whole year.
This article was originally seen in the Fall/Winter 2007 issue of Green Living Magazine. View the original article (pdf).
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." It's compelling reasoning, especially at a time when tainted-food recalls are in the news with regularity. And the powerful link between food and health -- not only our own physical well-being but also that of the environment -- has become impossible to ignore. Indeed, with the growth of farmers' markets in cities and a newfound enthusiasm about eating local year round, more and more people are getting back to the ancient art of "putting by." Jamie Kennedy, one of Toronto's top chefs and a long-time advocate of sustainable food, even decorates his restaurant, J.K. Wine Bar, with multicoloured bottles of his own delicious preserves. Canning is cool. More than nostalgia Christopher Jess, co-ordinator of the Guelph Food Skills Project -- innovative workshops aimed at teaching people how to live sustainably by cooking with local food -- hopes that canning and preserving aren't simply a passing trend. "If we're going to reduce the greenhouse-gas emissions created by using imported food and get back to local farmers and produce, we're going to have to relearn these skills," he says. "When someone takes the time and effort to can three cases of strawberries, it injects perspective into how their food is produced." Lynn Houston, a California-based academic, goes even further. In a recent article, she writes that in an industrialized food economy, simply making jam at home can be "radical" and "an act of defiance, however small," because it gives people a sense of control over what they eat -- and how it's made. The majority of canners and preservers, of course, are just glad to have sweet, tender peaches in the middle of the winter. Others love the way it sends them back to happy days spent gorging on grandma's raspberry jam slathered on toast. And all of them rave that once you've invested in the necessary tools (for canners, that includes mason jars, proper lids, a big cooking pot or pressure canner and a metal rack for the bottom of the pot) 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. Either way, it takes time, but that's part of the pleasure. Jess says preserving forces people to slow down, to focus on the health benefits and taste of their food: "It's a mediation on eating locally." He urges home preservers to think creatively and suggests having a party, like Embrioni's family, to share the work and the, uh, fruits of your labour. "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. Preserving is such a pleasure because you know what's going into it. You get fresh, and organic if you like. You make the choices." Once you've invested in the necessary tools and done it a few times, canning is inexpensive and straightforward." Can it yourself Check out www.homecanning.ca for helpfully illustrated, step-by-step instructions on both high- and low-acid canning. 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. Christopher Jess recommends the cookbook Simply in Season (Herald Press). Focused on local food, it includes an excellent canning section. Andrea Curtis is a Canadian freelance writer.