Come summer, I dream of the carefree days of my childhood, when endless sunshine meant days spent outdoors or trips to the lake or just a general sense of freedom from drudgery.
I dream of those, of course, because I now work through the summer and spend a good deal of my free time working in the garden and preserving the fruits of my labor. While I'm the first to declare that it's worth the effort, I do admit to getting overwhelmed by the neverending stream of fruits and vegetables in and out of the dehydrator or the canner.
And though I enjoy as much experimentation with flavors and new tastes in preserving as I do in my cooking, once the harvest begins, I don't find much time to sit down and browse new recipe books. That's why it has taken me most of the summer to read, digest, and finally summarize the review copy of "Canning and Preserving Your Own Harvest," by Carla Emery and Lorene Edwards Forkner, that I received earlier this year.
This slim volume, described as part of a series of single-subject guides drawn from Emery's classic tome, "The Encyclopedia of Country Living," summarizes the major methods of food preservation and expands on the recipe theme so lightly covered in the original. As Forkner, the main author of this work, notes, "Everything old is new again. We are in the midst of a contemporary revival of almost-lost kitchen arts with a newfound respect for food integrity and healthful living." Chief among those arts, in her view, is that of preserving the harvest to augment winter meals.
Forkner reviews the basic procedures for freezing, canning, and drying produce as well as setting up and using "live" storage (also known as root cellaring). As in most preservation guides, she details what equipment you need and why, explains the safety precautions needed in each form of preservation, and offers straightforward charts on things such as optimal storage conditions and times. In addition to these four basic methods, she also describes other "cures" such as vinegar, sugar, salt, oil, alcohol, or smoke.
For those who find such techniques daunting or dread the idea of eating solely from the pantry and the freezer in the lean months, Forkner offers sensible advice. Don't try to overdo it, but recognize what you are capable of achieving from year to year: "Busy lives, demanding careers, and precious little leisure time dictate our limits." She suggests that those limits need not be all-encompassing: "Process only what you can eat or give away before the next harvest."
Forkner also recommends a variation on something I've found useful. She points out that by keeping track of your preservation work in a notebook, with room for inventory and favorite recipes, you can monitor what you actually use over the year and plan the next year's preservation accordingly. She adds, "Notes to yourself at the completion of each project can suggest improvements or variations, as well as help you avoid repeating the same mistake twice."
The recipe section, covering over half the book, offers old favorites and variations on themes. Following the Chunky Peach Jam recipe, you can find a recipe for no-cook freezer jam applicable to most berries. In discussing the making of fruit butters, she describes the traditional slow-cooking method but adds that these butters can also simmer in slow cookers, the oven, or the microwave. She also goes beyond produce to share meat recipes such as beef jerky, gravlax, or duck confit, which is helpful.
The book aims for the beginning home food preservation audience, offering a slightly more down-home feel than the USDA's excellent preservation guides (available online through the University of Georgia's National Center for Home Food Preservation). Emery covered more of the how-to and what-not-to-do information in her "Encyclopedia," and though Forkner seems to have added the critically necessary information to this smaller guide, I do feel that a little something has been lost. I would also prefer to have the recipes arranged by preservation technique, as most such guides do, or even by particular foods or seasons rather than by broad food groups (fruits and vegetables, meat and dairy, herbs).
Still, this small book gives a helping hand to those who are just starting their own modest efforts at preserving the harvest, avoiding the intimidation that some might feel in the face of more comprehensive volumes such as “Putting Food By” and “Stocking Up” (which I reviewed briefly earlier this summer). And anything that can encourage more people to put up food for winter so that they can enjoy seasonal delights later gets a thumbs-up from me.
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