Preserving the Fruits of Your Labor

Preserving the Fruits of Your Labor

By Mary Kirk Menefee, Merrifield Landscape Designer (and food lover)

Have you come home from Merrifield Garden Center recently only to find that a blueberry bush, a peach tree or a few cucumber starts made their way into the back of your truck? You are not alone.  In recent years, serious vegetable and fruit gardening has experienced a Renaissance.

But what to do with all that produce? It stands to reason that food preservation is making a big comeback, too.  As my husband Sean, who is deeply involved in the DC restaurant scene, would smirkingly say, “It’s so hot right now.”

Top food magazines are featuring articles about the “Granny Pantries” of yesteryear and providing new twists and updated recipes. Chefs, food entrepreneurs and home cooks alike are exploring the possibilities of saving today’s bumper crops to enjoy when the garden is bare and the farmers’ market all but shuts down.

As someone who enjoys something new and fun to do in the kitchen, I’ve been happy to hop right on the bandwagon. For me, though, there is more to it.  Preserving is also a connection back to my own roots, to people for whom food preservation was less a novelty and more a way of life. It’s an intergenerational bridge, and I feel privileged to have a foot on each side.

With every new preservation project, I am reminded of winter breakfasts, eating my great-grandmother’s fried pies, made with apples she’d canned in the fall.  I am reminded of my grandmother’s pickles, which I was silly enough to think were yucky. I am reminded of making jars and jars of strawberry jam with my Dad, most of which became gifts for dear friends and family.

In some ways the projects of my husband and mine carry on the tradition, but at the same time, we are interested in trying new ideas. We experiment with modern flavor combinations and unusual ingredients. We especially like recipes that cut the sweet and add a note of savory or spice, such as blackberry jam with lemon zest and thyme, strawberry jam with black pepper or green tomato pickles with mustard and caraway seeds.

Because our own small garden is limited to herbs, most of our raw materials come from the farms that sell at the Del Ray farmers’ market – Three Way Farms, Shlagel Farms and Toigo Orchards to name a few. We also make the occasional road trip to pick our own. Shlagel (www.shlagelfarms.com) in Waldorf, MD and Hollin Farms (www.hollinfarms.com) in Delaplane, VA have U-pick operations and are both close by.  Any time a recipe calls for our herbs, it’s a bonus!

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We have had some good runs in the past few years – our peach shrub and our pickled beets were highlights – but not every one is a winner.  I nearly cried when we ruined our first batch of strawberry jam this past spring by adding a cup of powdered pectin instead of the homemade pectin the recipe called for. The mistake turned four pounds of some of the most beautiful strawberries I’d ever seen into a tasteless glue! We had to shake it off. Half the fun is learning and trying to see if you can exceed your own expectations.

Beyond the sense of accomplishment that comes from creating something delicious, our favorite part of preserving is sharing our efforts with our friends. Nothing beats exchanging a jewel-toned jar of strawberry-balsamic jam for a jar of delectable peach-saffron preserves, except maybe hearing my grandmother say she’s already emptied the jar I sent to her.

Getting Started

Perhaps the thought of Ball jars filled with hard-earned goodies stirs memories for you, too. Maybe you are more interested in exploring the latest frontiers in food.  Maybe you just like knowing what goes into what you eat. Or maybe there is a bumper crop of those blueberries, peaches or cucumbers sitting on the counter. No matter your motivation, now is the time to start preserving!

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To begin, you will need a few tools in addition to your raw materials:*

  • Clean glass jars with sealing lids and bands
  • A large pot with a rack that fits into the bottom
  • Regular kitchen tongs and/or a jar lifter
  • A wide mouthed funnel
  • A kitchen timer
  • A hand-held, instant-read thermometer
  • Measuring devices such as spoons and cups – bonus points if you use a scale
  • A recipe from a well-reputed magazine, Internet site or book

The easiest and safest preservation projects are those with high-acid ingredients, such as berries, orchard fruit and vinegar. Acid itself is a preservative, and in high-enough concentration, keeps botulism at bay.

Here are three great beginner projects:

  • Jam: Jams or preserves are typically macerated and cooked fruits, either left whole or cut up. Sugar is an important ingredient both in its role as a preservative and in drawing water out of the fruit so that the pectin can bond properly.  Many fruits have naturally occurring pectin.  For those that don’t you will need to add it.

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  • Pickles: Pickles are acidified foods like cucumbers or beets that do not have enough acid on their own to be canned safely. Usually, acid is added in the form of a brine made of vinegar, salt, sugar and spices. The salt and sugar draw out the moisture in the vegetable so that the vinegar can penetrate. There is a nearly endless list of foods that can be pickled from asparagus to zucchini.
  • Shrub: No, not the kind we sell at Merrifield. Shrub is an American colonial-era syrup that has recently re-entered the food scene. It is made from fruit, sugar and vinegar. To make it, the fruit and sugar are combined and sometimes allowed to ferment, then the addition of vinegar adds sourness, increases preservation power and stops fermentation if need be. The resulting syrup combined with carbonated water makes a delicious soda. It is also a great addition to cocktails and salad dressings.

Now that you have a mountain of fresh produce and a few ideas of what to do, here are a few tips to keep in mind as you begin:

  • Safety first! Food-born illness is a serious downer. No matter how tedious it seems, follow directions to the letter and take every precaution to ensure you are making a safe product.
  • Follow recipes. Reputable magazines and cookbooks include tried-and-tested formulas that will ensure your product is safe and tasty.With so many new recipes out there, there are plenty of opportunities to do something different and creative.
  • Cook with your preserves.  All of those jars need not sit on a shelf. Jams are fantastic additions to marinades, sauces and salad dressings. Pickles add punch to tuna salad and sandwiches. And you haven’t tasted the perfect cocktail until you’ve mixed one with your own shrub!

Take my advice and enjoy the pleasure of preserving the best of your garden. And if you make something you’re proud of, let us know about it. We’d love to see what our Merrifield Garden Center plants and your efforts can do!

* List and definitions adapted from The Preservation Kitchen by Paul Virant and http://drinks.seriouseats.com/2011/06/cocktail-101-how-to-make-shrub-syrups.html