Saturday, August 31, 2013

Day 111 - Canning Vegetables

I have never learned how to can food. While obtaining such a skill wouldn’t have been a priority earlier in my life, my efforts to grow a variety of vegetables in recent years has left me with few options to use all of them before the season turns. As a result, I figured learning how to can food would be a good skill to learn and use so I could reap the benefits of my gardening efforts year round. This objective set me to work finding time to learn the skill sometime this summer or fall and finding an outlet to learn the process. Fortunately, my Mother was well versed in canning and also took an interest in growing her own food over the past years. In turn, I contacted my Mother, Kathy, to find a time to learn how to can, which resulted in us making plans to work through the process this evening.

You know what we need? More vegetables...
Upon arriving to my Mother’s house this evening, I was immediately stunned by the quantity of vegetables and supplies strewn about her kitchen. As someone coming into my canning lesson with no previous experience, the sight of overflowing bowls of vegetables, food processing equipment, massive pots, racks, rows of jars, and a variety of tools set me back a bit. Of course, this was likely due to the fact that I knew next to nothing about canning before tonight’s experience. I knew the process involved jars and food, I knew boiling water was somehow involved, and I knew the jars pinged when the process was complete. Otherwise, I was oblivious to the process of canning. As I stood at the edge of my Mother’s kitchen questioning the necessity of each item, my Mother and her fiancé, Rick, reassured me the canning process was relatively easy. Acknowledging my uncertainty, my Mother said she would walk me through each step to make I gained the full experience before throwing her hands up and saying, “Ok! Let’s get to work!”

Step one!
Although I was still uncertain about how the process would come together, I knew the only way I was likely to learn how to can was to get my hands dirty. As a result, I entered the kitchen and prepared to receive direction. In response, my Mother explained we would be making and canning salsa during my first canning experience and proceeded to give me a brief run through of the entire process in a series of simple steps. Her explanation of the process and the tools we would use helped me gain a better understanding of the fundamentals, but I knew guidance would be necessary for me to be successful in my first canning effort. With her explanation complete, my Mother explained we would first have to load a wire rack with empty jars and submerge the jars in a large blue metal pot full of water sitting on her stove. Following her direction, I grabbed empty jars from the counter filled them with a bit of water, and placed them in the rack, which was now resting directly over the blue pot. Once the rack was full, my Mother instructed me to fold in the handles of the rack, drop it into the pot full of water, and turn on the stovetop. Explaining the reasoning behind my actions my Mother continued, “We need these to get hot, so we’re going to turn this on ant let it boil while we work.” Understanding the intent, I nodded my head is agreement and looked over the kitchen. “Ok, what next?” I said in anticipation.

In response, my Mother moved to heaps of vegetables on the island table at the center of her kitchen and began making a workspace. “Step two is chopping!” she said raising a single finger in the air. “You can start by chopping up the peppers. I’ll take care of the tomatoes” she said as she placed a cutting board on the table in front of me. Confident that was a task I could handle, I immediately set to work quarter groups of bell and jalapeño peppers. Behind us, Rick worked the food processor to mince our cut vegetables in preparation for the salsa. Once finished processing each grouping of vegetables, Rick them poured each container into a massive metal pot on the other side of the stove top. As we continued working I was astounded by the quantity of vegetable we were working through. After nearly 15 minutes of chopping and mincing, the pot was little more than half way full, which meant we still had a lot of work to do. With each passing minute the once massive pile of vegetables at the table diminished further until we were left with several empty bowls and a small pile of remaining tomatoes.

The full pot
“Well, that should do it,” Rick said with a chuckle as he poured the last container of minced vegetables into the nearly overflowing metal pot. Amazed at the quantity of chopped vegetables in the pot, I promptly responded with a question of how many of salsa the pot would yield. “Oh, about eight,” Rick replied frankly. While I knew the jars we were preparing were substantial in size, the number seemed surprisingly low to me. Considering the effort we were putting in, I guess I was hopeful we would walk away with a massive haul, but I also knew the fruits of our labors would be well worth the effort. With the estimated yield sinking in, I stood before the pot of mixed vegetables for a moment before my Mother grabbed my attention. “Ok, the next step is adding the ingredients to the pot and bringing it to a boil,” she said as she hurriedly prepared for the next step in the process. After turning on the heat beneath the pot of vegetables, my Mother moved to a nearby counter and instructed me to get the next ingredients ready. At her direction, I added vinegar, seasoning, and a few herbs to the pot of vegetables and stirred the heavy mix of vegetables. “Now we keep an eye on it and wait for it to boil,” my Mother said looking over my actions, “Then we will be ready to can.”

Mix that s***!

While we waited for the mixture of vegetables, vinegar, and seasoning to boil, we busied ourselves with some simple tasks meant to assist us in the final phases of the process. Eventually, small bubbles began to form on the outer rim of the mixture, which prompted my Mother to direct me in taking the empty jars out of the large blue pot on the other half of the stove. Using a tool somewhat like a curved tongs, I plucked each of the jars out of the blue pot, emptied them of water, and placed them on the nearby counter. 

Let the canning begin!
Once I was finished, my Mother removed the massive pot of vegetables from the stove with two oven mitts and placed it on a cutting board to the left of the rows of steaming jars. “Alright, now we grab a funnel, fill the jars to the base of the rim, and add some pectin. Then put together a cap and screw it on.” Acknowledging her remarks I grabbed one of the empty jars and complete each of the three steps. This continued until I had eight lidded jars of salsa filled to the top. Satisfied with my efforts, I took a step back and said, “There we go!” which prompted my Mother to respond abruptly. “We’re not done yet!” she said with a smile. Confused, I took a step back and waited for more instruction.

Taking a dip
My Mother proceeded to explain the final step in the process was to place the jars in the rack and submerge them in the blue pot once more. “After boiling for 45 minutes,” she said, “They’ll be ready to go.” In turn, I started grabbing the jars of salsa and placing them in the rack once more. Eventually, this process made it apparent I would have to remove water from the pot to avoid forcing water over the rim and onto the stove and floor. Slowly and carefully I removed scalding hot water from the pot until enough water remained to cover the jars without causing a flooding incident. With my efforts a success, my Mother, Rick, and I took a break from the kitchen and let the jars roll in a boil for the next three quarters of an hour. When this time finally passed, I returned to the metal blue pot and lifted the rack out of its center. After carefully moving the jars of salsa from the rack back to the counter, I turned to my Mother. “That’s it! Now, we’re finished!” she exclaimed as I back away from the counter. The only step left was to let the jars cool.


Realizing it would be quite some time before the jars of salsa cooled to room temperature, I waited around for the first jar to ping before I called it a night and headed home. Although the canning process took several hours, the overall experience was a very positive one. Spending time with my Mother is always fun, and the insight and knowledge I gained from the experience is something I will be able carry with me for the rest of my life. While the process looked daunting at first, my Mother was correct in stating canning is relatively simple. It just takes time, a little know-how, and some tasty vegetables. Considering what you get from the work, I think it is worth contributing every one of those things to the process… but I should probably taste the salsa before I set that conclusion in stone.

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