Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Can do

Meet Boris.

He's an industrial-strength canning pressure cooker. Feast your eyes on all that steel. Those dials. The serious clamps. That... pressure. To be honest, he makes me a little nervous. (What's that? Yes, I have named my friend Mike's pressure cooker Boris. Paolo -- my espresso machine on loan -- finds this perfectly normal. Betty -- my food processor -- agrees.)

At the height of the summer produce bounty, I have begun to dabble in the food preservation arts. I've made ice cream and am getting better with the dehydrator. (Round two of the figs went much better, certainly less shoe-leathery. I've dehydrated and frozen tomatoes with varying degrees of success.) And now I'm teaching myself to can. All it took was a crate of really ripe peaches from one of my favorite local farmers, my friend Mike's recent investment in a pressure cooker, a 12-pack of mason jars, and a few books from the library and I was off ...or was I?

Mike insisted that I read an article on botulism before we got started. I suspect this was so I wasn't tempted to "wing it" like I do for other kitchen-related endeavors. For you see, appropriate acidity levels, temperature, pressure, and cooking times are critical. I'd hate to accidentally kill anyone off with a lethal birthday gift of homemade jam. Then there was the danger of incorrectly sealing/removing Boris' lid. We read the manual. Twice. As we were gathering our materials to make the first batch of lavender peach preserves, I began to wonder: would the first canning-related injury be in the form of food poisoning or a loss of flesh/limbs from an exploding pressure cooker?

As it turns out, I was so nervous about getting it wrong on my first go round that I wimped out and used Boris as a giant water bath (for warming jars) rather than as a pressure cooker (for processing them). This meant that the jam would be cooked but would have to be refrigerated. Yes, I realize this defeats the purpose of having a pressure cooker, the main point of which is to preserve food so that you can store it without refrigeration, but come on people, you must know by now that I am chicken-hearted. Sure, I flambe my risotto, but I always have a fire extinguisher handy. (I'd also deviated from the recipe, cutting the sugar portion in half -- I mean, really, 4 cups of sugar for 4 pints of jam?? It makes my teeth hurt just thinking about it. I know, I know: "Stick to the recipe, Ibti....") As soon as the jars of preserves were cooled they went directly into the fridge.

But a few tote bags of heirloom tomatoes following a workshare shift at Clagett Farm and a crate of tomato seconds from a generous farmer at the Crossroads farmers' market last week prompted us to try again. This time we decided to really do this.

We agreed to divide up the tasks: Mike largely handled the pressure cooking and timing pieces while I prepared the tomatoes and jars. Everything went into the pressure cooker in an inch and a half of water. Once it started steaming, we put the 10-pound weight on. Twenty minutes later -- the recipe called for ten, but you know that botulism article was pretty frightening -- we turned off the heat and let the pressure drop to zero. Mike loosened the lid and lifted the processed jars to the cooling racks while I stood a safe distance away. (I mean, one of us needs to be able to call 911 if something happens, right?)

I was nervous about the acidity levels even after adding the 2 spoonfuls of lemon juice to each jar and processing them for 20 minutes, but they looked alright. The lids seemed sealed, anyway. In the end, there were no explosions or poisonings, just a tired but triumphant pair of novice canners and 7 jars of preserved tomatoes.

Next up: pickling.

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