Thursday, July 31, 2014

I Can and So Could You

National Geographic is currently doing a serious on Hunger in America, which you can read more about here. I've read every article on the subject that they have published in their past few issues and I'm finding the coverage to be encouraging. They are focusing on awareness of what hunger truly looks like, the steps needed to reverse the epidemic of hunger, and how corporations are cutting out small-scale farmers. These are subjects that the average person doesn't consider in their day to day lives, but which you should consider to be an engaged citizen.

Bread n butter pickles, dill pickles, sweet pickle relish, peach bourbon bbq sauce, and peach salsa. Missing the quart of pickles I gave away, the half pint of pickles that I didn't seal, and the half pint of salsa I already devoured. Not a bad haul for one weekend. ;)
One of the subjects broached in "The New Face of Hunger" is that many people have lost the knowledge, and therefore the ability, to preserve food during the more productive months of the year for those times when food can be scarce. A skill that I gained from my grandmother is the ability to process foods in mason jars (which can be stored for several years as long as they are sealed properly). I actually had a very productive weekend canning several different types of pickles and some peach creations.

A great resource!
I have canned vegetables from the garden since I was a young girl. It was only a few years ago that I really got into canning fruits in jams, butters, etc., however, I always enjoy the process and the rewards of my labor. I actually picked up a spiffy book when I was in Powell's amazing bookstore in Portland, Oregon last year: Food in Jars. I have followed several of the recipes in this book and each one has turned out amazing. The directions are easy to follow and the ingredients are all simple. I definitely recommend buying it if you are looking into making your own "canned" food. Or, if you aren't able to splurge on books like myself, you can always look in your local library. I recently discovered that the Conway library (located on Tyler Street) has a plethora of books on cooking, including a decent section on preserving your own foods. I found a couple of books there that I also used in my canning adventures over the weekend.

Sweet pickle relish or peach lavender preserves, anyone?
 If you are wondering where I got fruits that were perfectly ready for canning, the answer is several sources. One of Wayne's co-workers brought a ton of cucumbers to work last Friday and gave them away. Wayne brought home what was left after everyone got their pick, which was half a 5-gallon bucket of smallish cucumbers. When I saw them, my immediate though was "pickles!". I mean, what else are you supposed to do with that many cucumbers? (Plus I have always had an affinity for pickles.)

That bucket made about ten quarts of pickles and two large bowls of cucumber-tomato salad (which I devoured delightedly).

For my peach creations, my friend Mollie and I spent about an hour Saturday morning picking peaches at the Cadron Crest orchard in Guy, Arkansas. It's only about a twenty minute drive from Conway and has amazing peaches, white and yellow, and nectarines. If you prefer a shorter drive, you can always visit Collins Orchard on Round Mountain, which is my usual go-to. Peaches picked yourself are only about $1.20-$1.50/pound. Be sure to bring a cash or check though! If you plan to can the peaches immediately, make sure you get ones that are already slightly soft on the tree. These are the ripest peaches and make the best canned foods!

My point is, canning doesn't require a lot of special equipment, nor much technical skill. You need a large pot to boil the jars in a water bath to seal them, jars with new lids and rings, and a pot to cook whatever you plan to can. Personally, I'm superbly excited to have dishes with peaches when winter comes around because I'm always craving them, but my desire to eat seasonal means I can only get them fresh in the summer. Canning helps you preserve food picked at it's prime, especially when you can local food (which, of course, is my suggestion). This means that the food you eat later will still contain most of the nutrients from the ingredients.

Peach trees are a gorgeous sight!
As I've mentioned before, food shipped thousands of miles ripens in truck beds and is less nutritious than food picked locally at it's prime. I could go into the science of how nutrients from the sun are transformed by the plant into energy to store in its fruit, but I'll spare you the science lecture. Another aspect about home preservation that I enjoy is the use of glass containers. Canned food that you buy from a store in metal containers are usually sprayed with Bisephenol-A (BPA) resin, a lining that I cannot figure out the specific purpose of. This chemical is especially dangerous in acidic foods, such as tomato based products, as they leech the chemical into the foods. There was a lot of hype recently centered around the harmfulness of canned foods in terms of effects on the health thanks to BPA contamination (read more about that here and here). Needless to say, I try to eat fresh foods as often as possible, but sometimes canned food is necessary. It is quite worrisome that the lining in canned foods could affect me, but the damage was done years ago.

It may not seem this way to someone who grew up in the generations of the world market, but we are extremely spoiled by the ability to buy fresh produce year-round and never have to change our diet with the seasons. I've learned, however, that it is cheaper to buy produce in-season and preserve it than it is to buy higher-priced produce out-of-season. Preserving foods in jars allows us to continue our regular pattern of eating foods out of season, while also keeping the nutritional value of in-season foods.

I recommend that you take the time to try canning your own foods this summer and enjoy the fruits of your labor all throughout the winter. Happy eating!

P.S. Canning can be addicting, I swear. I have too much jam in my cabinets, so I only made a half pint this year, and only because I am already dreading the cravings for peaches I will have all winter. Can never have too many pickles or too much salsa though!

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