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August 8, 2012

Capturing summer in a jar

Home preservation ensures local food all winter long

By Cortney Casey
C & G Staff Writer

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Howard Collens of Huntington Woods shows off some of his pickles, prepared with cucumbers and dill he grew at home and canned in his own kitchen.
Can do

Eileen Haraminac will teach several upcoming food preservation courses at the Macomb MSU Extension office at 21885 Dunham, Assembly Room A, in Clinton Township:

• Aug. 18: hot water bath jams and jellies.
• Sept. 15: hot water bath dilled vegetables.
• Oct. 13: freezing fruits and vegetables/hot water bath chutneys.
All sessions run 9 a.m.-noon.
Registration is typically required 10 days in advance, but the last day to sign up for the Aug. 18 class is Aug. 11. The $20-per-session cost includes instruction, food and supplies. Class sizes are limited to 15 people.
To register, visit http://events.anr.msu.edu/homefood preservation.
For questions on the courses or home food preservation, email Haraminac at haramin2@anr.msu.edu. For general information on local produce and food preservation, visit the MSU Extension’s Michigan Fresh website, http://msue.anr.msu.edu/programs/mi_fresh, and the National Center for Home Food Preservation’s website, http://nchfp.uga.edu.
The MSU Extension also runs an informational kiosk at Eastern Market in Detroit, 11 a.m-6 p.m. Tuesdays at Shed 2 and 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturdays at Shed 3.
 

On days when the sun’s searing, fields and flowerbeds are in full bloom, and farmers markets are brimming with inventory, it almost seems as if summer will never end.

But as Michiganders know too well, it soon will — taking with it access to the bounty springing forth now from farms and home gardens.

A self-described “lover of Michigan summer produce,” West Bloomfield resident Chris Kassel started canning as a teenager as “the best way to home-preserve these flavors.”

“(There’s) no comparison to store-bought,” he said. “Cukes, peppers, beets, green beans — you add spice, herbs from same garden; life in January is good.”

Before the rise of “global food” allowed someone in Detroit to purchase an avocado in the dead of winter, residents had to take matters into their own hands to ensure year-round availability of out-of-season fare, said Eileen Haraminac, supervising extension educator for the Michigan State University Extension.

“I think we’ve kind of gone back to that,” said Haraminac, who teaches classes on canning, pickling, freezing, drying and other home food preservation methods. “I think there was a lull there for a while, but I think a lot more people have an interest in it and want to do that.”

She theorizes that the swelling “locavore” movement has a lot to do with it, fostering a desire to buy or grow local. But the practice has other benefits, too: exercising control over food content, saving money, and instilling a sense of personal satisfaction and self-sufficiency, she said.

Cost and commitment vary by technique. Pressure canners are available for around $100, she said, but a novice can perform the hot water bath method with just a large pot, jars, lids and rings.

It basically entails filling the jars with the desired substance, prepared from a recipe; securing the lids and rings on the jars; submerging them in hot water; and “processing” them for the recipe-indicated period. Undamaged jars and rings can be reused; lids must be purchased new, said Haraminac.

It’s not difficult to learn, she said, but shortcuts and nonchalance can cause things to go awry.

“Food preservation is a science, so it needs to have the respect that it is a science, and that it be done properly and in a way that preserves the food in a wholesome way,” she said. “The whole point of it is to preserve it so that we’re preventing the growth of bacteria, yeast, fungi, all kinds of microorganisms.”

There are countless “canning sins,” primarily involving “time and temperature abuse,” said Haraminac.

Adding extra starch to tomatoes, jams and jellies can result in undercooking. Excess vegetables in a salsa can dilute acidity and cause botulism poisoning. Substituting the oven for a hot water bath can lead to under processing — and the jars could blow up.

Haraminac recommends relying on U.S. Department of Agriculture-approved recipes versus recipes from random websites or developed on the fly. She declared the National Center for Home Food Preservation’s website her “bible,” with instructions, recipes, troubleshooting tips and more.

Heat isn’t the only way to go: Haraminac also teaches freezing techniques. The key is blanching vegetables — boiling them, then plunging them into cold water to stop enzyme action that can reduce flavor, color and texture — and removing excess moisture before freezing them in proper containers, she said.

She noted that people should only can, freeze or otherwise preserve whatever can be consumed within a year.

“After a year, even if the jar’s still intact, they’ve lost the quality and the texture, and probably some of the nutrient content, too,” she said.

Personally, Haraminac prepares jams and chutneys annually, mostly for gifts, and often picks her fruit at farms in the Thumb or Southwest Michigan. She also dries her own herbs and makes pesto she can freeze for consumption throughout the winter.

Kassel, who taught himself canning through trial and error, continues the practice decades later as “great nostalgia, great lessons for the kids to pass on a legacy of home preserving.”

For beginners, he suggests trying pickles — which is exactly what Huntington Woods resident Howard Collens did.

“We’ve had gardens for a long time,” said Collens. “I like messing around in the kitchen. It was sort of the natural progression of things.”

Collens grows his own cucumbers and dill, sometimes garlic. Part of the fun is the “scavenger hunt” — rooting around beneath the shroud of giant cucumber leaves with his children to find the vegetables underneath, he said.

The pickles — which he prepares from recipes he finds online using the hot water bath canning method — can last quite awhile, but Collens admits they’re usually consumed quickly at his house.

As he munches on them in the cold months, he said, he reflects on “the joy of the summer.”

While “there’s a learning curve, like anything,” Collens pointed out that his parents, grandparents, and most likely, great-grandparents did it before him.

“People have been preserving food for a long, long time,” he said. “It’s really a learnable skill.”