Author Archives: Amy Antonucci

Food Preservation: Canning

August is Harvest Time Here in NH

I found it challenging this month to write about food preservation in the midst of multiple, converging US and world crises. However, this is a truth we always live with: at the end of the day, while so many large scale happenings shape the world, we still have to eat, and how we do that further influences the larger whole. So… back to food preservation!

When I started canning, it was considered weird. I would go to my local hardware store to ask for supplies and they would laugh, goodnaturedly, and say: “aren’t you a little young, by, say, 50 years, to be canning?” (I was in my 20s). Then they would have to special order whatever I needed. Now, there are whole sections of stores dedicated to canning, even grocery stores have at least bands and lids. It really made a comeback!

Compared to drying as a preservation method, canning is a modern invention. It’s development was largely inspired by war-time needs in Europe and then the US beginning 200 years ago. More recently it has been a way to store food in uncertain times when supply chains might break down or when people want economical ways of eating (versus going out to eat). Along the way, it has also become a great way for homesteaders to stock up on food when it is abundant for leaner times and to allow for local eating year-round. Here, that means canning in the summer for consumption the rest of the year.

Strawberries, a High PH Food

I exclusively practice water bath canning which is simpler than pressure canning but can only be used with high-acid foods and recipes. That includes most fruits and tomatoes, plus veggies in vinegar solutions.

Botulism is the big concern when canning. Clostridium botulinum spores are all over the place causing us no problems, but when they grow a toxin is produced. Canning works by creating an environment without oxygen, which most microorganisms cannot live in. However, botulism actually needs to have low oxygen to thrive. The heat level in a water bath canner or by boiling the food ahead of time is not enough to kill the spores, so choosing food with enough acidity to stop spore growth is critical.  The high acidity (which means a low ph) doesn’t kill Clostridium botulinum but it stops it from growing, thus no toxin is produced.

There are also mixed reports about whether or not sugar helps prevent botulism. White sugar has a neutral ph, so that doesn’t help. I personally would not depend on sugar to stop botulism. I also don’t eat processed white sugar, so have only used honey when making jams and jellies that call for extra sweetener, following recipes from Pomona’s Pectin. Again, it’s choosing high acid foods that provides the check on botulism.

What’s tricky about botulism is that there isn’t an obvious bad smell or visual clue that it has grown. With all other methods of preserving, it’s obvious when it’s gone wrong. That inability to know through our own senses is kind of creepy and turns folks off from trying. To me, it just means that I take seriously the recommendations and recipes provided.

The USDA’s National Center for Home Food Preservation is a great resource for “research based” recipes and information so you can be sure you are canning safely.

Beyond safety, research continues to find that canning is a good way to keep nutrition and make it bio-available.

To get started there is some equipment needed. The investment is very much worth it if you like it and do it for years. You’ll need: a big pot to cook in, another big pot with a canning rack inserted to hold the jars, canning jars, lids and bands, a timer, plus a set of helpful tools that might not be necessary but are worth getting: wide-mouth funnel, ladle, jar lifter, magnetic lid lifter, and bubble popper/head space measurer.

Cooking Peaches

For the bulk of my canning, I cook fruits like peaches, blueberries or strawberries in their own juices (I start with a little water to cover the bottom of the pot to keep it from burning initially) and can them from there. The peaches are sweet enough to eat straight from the can as one of my favorite winter-time desserts. I also add the peaches and berries to yogurt smoothies that I make and can add some honey then if I feel it needs it. I generally aim for 75 quarts of canned fruit a year. I often end up with extra juice after processing, so turn that into smaller jars of jelly. I make my jam and jelly with Pomona’s Pectin which has honey sweetened recipes included. 

Canned Peaches

One of Our Peach Tress

A few notes on peach canning, which I have done a lot of: I slice them but I do not bother to peel the peaches. If they are not organic, I do wash them in a baking soda solution. If you have any land, I highly recommend growing your own peaches. It’s very difficult to grow them to look good enough for market without a lot of chemical treatments, but you can grow them for yourself organically and you will not mind the cosmetic imperfections once you taste them! It has lately been shown that white peaches may not be acidic enough for safe canning, so stick to the orange varieties. I dry my white peaches instead – yum!

My biggest complaint with canning is that I am boiling a lot of water during the hot summertime making the house less comfortable. Some folks actually have outdoor kitchens for canning, but I have not gone that far. There are some items such as blueberries that I will freeze as I pick them, then wait until it cools down in the fall to process them.

The reason it is worth going through all the work is that you end up with a great, ready to use, shelf-stable for a year or more product which I don’t have to worry about in power outages. Plus, opening a can of peaches in January is like experiencing a little bit of summer when I really need it!

Canned Peaches

Canned Peaches, Full of Summer!

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Interdependence AND…

Kale Mix Harvested

This past spring saw a surge of interest in gardening and in articles on the topic. I came across one by a woman who had good advice, but made a comment that didn’t sit right with me. She said her family’s reason for growing their own food was not ideology since they believe in interdependence.

After much reflection, I realize my discomfort is in being asked to choose between interdependence and independence, as if anyone could be just one.

My Garlic

Certainly I am seeking to gain skills that make me feel strong and responsible and let me take back some power over my basic needs. But I don’t see that as isolationist – in fact, it often comes from a place of seeing and caring about my connections to the rest of the world and wanting to improve those relationships. I continue in the tradition of The Nearings and Wally and Juanita Nelson with a philosophy of food growing that strives to honor and experience my interdependence with the whole

Monarch Pollinating

planet and find ways to live here that avoid doing harm.

My goal is to do more for myself, and then to shift who I am dependent on to more local sources and relationships. That way, I can have some say in how things are done, as well as cutting the travel footprint of goods.  But I don’t expect to ever be going it alone.

I also find that the more I engage in these activities the more connected and interdependent I often feel, in both liberating and frustrating ways.

Canned Peaches

Canning Peaches

A full root cellar and shelves of preserved food in the fall brings me such pride and satisfaction and a sense of safety. But, being a gardener during a drought, as I am right now, is tremendously humbling, a moment when I truly understand how little control I personally have over the world and my own best-laid plans. Keeping bees also shows me the limits of my personal power. Although I can work hard to be a good beekeeper, I can’t control many of the problems they suffer from: exposure

My Apiary in June 2020

to pesticides and fungicides, forage opportunities lost to development and lawns, erratic weather including droughts, and new diseases and pests traveling quickly around the globe.

These situations help me understand the balance between what I can do by myself and what I must join with others to accomplish.

I live in the US, a culture that tends towards extremism and either/or dichotomies: you’re with them or against them; powerful or a victim; independent or helpless; useful or useless. I am also posting this a couple of weeks after July 4, US Independence Day, when people celebrate the concepts of freedom and self-reliance. Those are great qualities… but when they are emphasized by themselves, they become warped, even pathological, devaluing our connections to and care for others and exacerbating loneliness.

If anyone starts to really think it through, it quickly becomes clear how much we depend on others, especially in a complicated, industrialized society. Even if you have all the skills to fix your computer, your car, your health problems, pave your own roads, make your own clothing, grow your food, cook and preserve it – no one person has the time to do all that. When we pay others to do this work we somehow don’t count it as a dependency, but it is. Can we embrace that, or at least accept that it is the reality?

Hen with Chicks

I can relate to the wish of needing no one but myself. I grew up in a chaotic, stressful house with a mother who had Multiple Sclerosis. I watched her lose all her physical abilities and become increasingly dependent on others, while receiving the societal message that this made her less and less valuable. It was excruciating for my whole family, and from there the idea of living alone in the woods depending on only myself had a certain appeal. I started camping as a young woman, even took classes in “primitive skills” to learn how to survive by myself. 

One Bee on Gooseberry

However, I discovered that the amount of work and dedication that took was more than I could realistically do by myself for any length of time, shaking my illusions of truly doing it by myself.

There is now lots of research including in the fields of neuroscience and health that show how social our species is and how isolation hurts us. I also raise other animals so I have a comparison point. Our goats can stand, run and clean themselves within an hour of birth, and our poultry aren’t far behind,

Mom and Kid

while a human takes years to do those things and then lots more to be taught other necessary skills to live well. Yet we have this wish to see ourselves as needing no one.

 

It is both humbling and beautiful to see how connected we are. To consider how little control I really have over the world and my life scares me. But, to see how much a part of a larger whole I am, to feel how much support I receive just to be alive, and to know that I share the responsibility for the world with many others is a big relief.

I don’t think I’m alone in internalizing this more deeply lately. In this time of pandemic and economic crisis, many people see that we are truly in this together.  Can we find more ways of acting like it across race, gender, class, political beliefs and species? We have so much to gain.

“It is a law of life that man [sic] cannot live for himself alone. Extreme individualism is insanity. The world’s problems are also our personal problems. Health is achieved through maintaining our personal truth in a balanced relation of love to the rest of the world.” –Harold Clurman

Swallowtail Butterfly on Echinacea

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Food Preservation: Dehydrating

A couple months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the importance of food preservation is even clearer to me. More people are gardening now, and learning how to make that harvest last is so empowering. In past blogs, I talked about food preservation generally, then focused on nutrition issues. This time I will look specifically at one technique: Dehydrating.

Drying is the oldest known method of food preservation by humans, dating back at least 14,000 years. It was applied to meats, fruit, herbs, eggs and more. This method works by removing moisture from the food, historically using air, sun, wind or smoke, which stops microorganisms from growing in the food (Water is Life, remember!).

I’ve dried herbs for a long time, but I only expanded to other foods a few years ago after coming across one of those small circular electric dehydrators at Good Will. I have also recently circled back to another group of foods that can air dry. I’ll discuss all of these.

Calendula Blossoms

Air Drying Herbs

I’ve dried herbs for making infusions, salves and oils for a couple of decades now. Herbs generally are low in moisture already so I didn’t need added electricity. When I worked at Mill Valley Farm in Stratham NH we added dried herbs to our products one year. The owner of the farm built screened racks to set up in his attic. It was uncomfortably hot for us up there, but worked beautifully. On my own, even in tiny apartments, I had great success laying out my nettles (Urtica dioica), red clover blossoms (Trifolium pratense) or calendula flowers (Calendula officinalis) in a paper bag (to avoid direct sunlight hitting them) and hanging that in a sunny window or putting the bags in the car.

Electric Dehydrators

My First Dehydrator

But for foods with higher moisture content, I needed a more active approach. A friend of ours built a number of solar dehydrators, which probably work great in a dry environment. However, here in humid New England, the process took too long, and molds started to move in before we got out enough water.  (Anyone reading this have a solar option that works in New England – I’d love to hear about it!)

So, when I found the electric dryer, it was my chance to give that a try. I figured I could dry anything, but I didn’t know if I would like the end product or have a good way to use it. So, I just started experimenting, trying: kale, collards, summer squash, eggplant, tomato, radish, snap beans and any seedless fruit I came up with. Not everything was a hit. Here’s what I now know I like:

I Made Raisins!

-Fruits. I’ve long been a big fan of dried fruit, raisins and much more. To me, dried fruit usually tastes even better than the unprocessed fruit does. Often what I find commercially is from far away, like papaya and mango. Doing it myself gives me the opportunity to expand my options with what I can grow here: peaches, pears, hardy kiwi and more. I made my own raisins last year – delicious! A friend just shared dried watermelon with me – amazing! I look forward to trying persimmons and pawpaws once those are established here. The learning curve with fruit centers around how to dry it enough to be unfriendly to microbe growth, but still moist and chewy. At least that’s how I like it – you can try it and discover what you like. It can take a full day, depending on how small you’ve cut it up and what the weather is so start early!

Dried Kale

-Leaves. Kales and collards have been a great success. I cut out the stem and cut the leaves into pieces, which can be dry in just a few hours on a good drying day. They could be eaten as is, but I tend to put them into soups, stews, and braised vegetable dishes. They re-hydrate nicely.

-Tomatoes. Everyone knows about sun-dried tomatoes, and I think doing it in the dehydrator tastes just as good. At least that’s what my partner says since tomatoes don’t sit that well with my stomach. He can pop them into his own bowl of soup, or have them on his side of a pizza, or toss them in his salad bowl or pasta dish.

-Other. I will usually dry other items if I happen to have a lot. Last year I did some summer squash and radishes. For us, if we don’t end up loving them, we can always share them with our goats!

Drying Peaches in the Excalibur

Once I was sure I liked it, I bought myself an Exacalibur Dehydrator, complete with thermostat, timer and fan for air circulation and later add stainless steel trays. Less fussing (moving the trays around, turning over the food) is needed with this model and I get a more consistent end product.

Usually when I am drying, the weather is hot and humid so I am lucky to have a screened porch where running the dehydrator won’t add heat to our house. Ideally, I will set it up on a sunny morning so it’s working when there is the most heat and least humidity already.

Popcorn, Sunflowers & Winter Squash

Expanding My Air Dry Options

As my available garden space expanded, I wanted to try new things, especially long lasting staple crops like drying beans and grains. Not many people grow these for themselves, I think because the processing seems daunting. It did to me at first. But I came to realize that at the home-scale I could do much of it by hand.

These are crops that start drying on the vine or stalk, then just need some time in a relatively dry, airy place to finish up. We have a high ceiling in our living room and strung some rope for suspending corn cobs and paper bags of beans. Once dry, I can remove the dried pods from the beans or twist the kernels off the corn which sitting by the fire watching something fun. I now grow 6 varieties (there are SO many kinds!) of dried beans (True Red Cranberry, Jacob’s Cattle, Good Mother Stallard, Pinto, Turkey Craw and Dolloff), popcorn, and dent or flint corns for grinding into cornmeal. We already had a grain mill since I have been grinding grain for myself for years. I tried to grow wheat one year, but the

Dried Beans

birds harvested it for me. I will try again – maybe even this year! The sunflowers are for the chickens in mid-winter. I especially love the beans… this is a plant that feeds the soil while providing a yield, will climb up a fence for easy later harvesting, and is full of protein – a super-food-crop in my opinion!

What I love about drying is what a long shelf life these foods have (if you keep them dry) with no added energy after the initial processing. I don’t have to worry about a power outage like I do with my freezer.  Also, the prep time is not as extensive or heat generating as canning or freezing can be during our hottest season.

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