Summer bounty means an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables—produce that tastes as if it was just minutes from the field. Take tomatoes. Whether you grow your own or purchase them at the Uptown or Lion’s Club farmers’ markets, you can count on juicy summer tomatoes to have a sweet acid taste and a fresh, tangy aroma, unlike their winter counterparts, which are mealy, amorphous in taste with a whiff of plastic container.
For generations, people have preserved summer produce to enjoy over the winter. Traditional preservation methods—some thousands of years old—include salt, oil, sugar, alcohol, vinegar, drying, cold storage and fermentation. Vacuum processing—basically the dehydration and rehydration of foods—was introduced in the 19th century; there are records of British officers ordering peas from the ultra-upscale Harrods department store to be sent to the Crimea during that war. Home canning began around the turn of the twentieth century and really caught on with the World War II impetus to grow Victory gardens. Then came freezing—the biggest twentieth century contribution to preserving food.
Our forebears had no choice; they had to either preserve food or starve in the winter. That is not a dilemma for us today—we can just run to the grocery store. Happily, with food preservation no longer a necessity, we can simply have fun collecting plentiful summer produce from our local markets and experimenting with ways of combining flavors in unusual ways to create singular winter treats. You can still “put up” tomatoes or peaches, but how about lemon verbena jam, rose hip jelly or strawberry jam with a grind or two of black pepper? Just ask Woodhaven Drive resident Susan Marquesen, a certified master food preserver.
Marquesen received her certification in 2011 at a three-day training program at Penn State and says she is one of only two master food preservers in the state. Graduates of the program volunteer to help the university’s extension services teach people about preserving. She has spoken all over southwestern Pennsylvania, including at Mt. Lebanon Public Library. “I thoroughly enjoy it,” she says.
Marquesen grew up in Iowa where, as in many Midwest farming states, preserving food is an ingrained part of the culture. She returned to her roots as a young mother; today she even grows some of her own food. Her cupboards and freezers are filled with glistening containers of relishes, jams, salsas, beans, pickles, sauces and herbs.
She finds preserving summer’s fresh-picked produce gratifying, particularly because when winter comes, the produce available in local stores is shipped from warmer climes and loses nutrients as it travels from field to plate. Preserving is economical, she adds, because you can buy food at peak season when it’s inexpensive and use it later. And philosophically, she adds, “You can always eat local. Plus, you know what’s in your food, key points for those with health issues, religious dietary laws and preferences for absolute organic.”
There’s a lot of food chemistry involved in preserving, and there are safety concerns; great-grandmother’s favorite piccalilli recipe may be a target for today’s new strains of bacteria for instance. Although freezing is relatively straightforward so long as sanitary precautions are taken, for other methods Marquesen advises using only tested recipes from trusted sources. Drying works best with a dehydrator, she adds.
Once you’ve finished and placed the finished products in containers, she suggests labeling and dating the contents. “We think we’ll remember what’s in the container, but we usually don’t,” she says. “All food has a shelf life.”
Marquesen has years of experience, but even she has not explored the full range of food preserving. “I’ve never done fermenting, salting or smoking,” she notes. “I’ve not done meat, either. I’d like to make my own prosciutto. I keep meaning to try rullepølse, which is flank steak rolled and pickled. My family used to get it when we visited our ancestral home in Elk Horn, Iowa (also the home of a yearly Danish festival). It was a very big deal.”
Admittedly the easiest methods of preserving are with freezing, sugar, vinegar and alcohol. Yet even with these methods, the results can be mixed, as this writer’s many years’ home preserving experience can testify. Fresh peach ice cream is a sublime treat, for example, but the texture is not as silky after long term storage. And mincemeat and brandied fruit are challenging—it may take multiple tries to achieve a satisfactory result. On the other hand, delicious results are possible with jam and chutney creations, hot pepper infused vinegar and black currant brandy.
Marquesen offers some recipes. Give them a try. The summer sunshine will brighten your winter table. The recipes that follow are from the National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia. Many of the ingredients are available at the Uptown Farmers’ Market, Saturdays, 9 a.m.-noon or the Lions Club Farmers’ Market at Mt. Lebanon United Lutheran Church, Wednesdays from 4-7. Both markets run through October.
Uncooked Berry Jam with powdered pectin
(Use only locally grown, very flavorful strawberries.)
- 2 cups crushed strawberries or blackberries (about 1 quart berries)
- 4 cups sugar
- 1 package powdered pectin
- 1 cup water
Yield: About 5 or 6 half-pint jars
Procedure: Sterilize canning jars and prepare two-piece canning lids according to manufacturer’s directions.
Sort and wash fully ripe berries. Drain. Remove caps and stem; crush berries.
Place prepared berries in a large mixing bowl. Add sugar, mix well, and let stand for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Dissolve pectin in water and boil for 1 minute. Add pectin solution to berry-and-sugar mixture; stir for 2 minutes.
Pour jam into freezer containers or canning jars, leaving ½ inch headspace at the top. Close covers on containers and let stand at room temperature for 24 hours.
Store uncooked jams in refrigerator or freezer. They can be held up to 3 weeks in the refrigerator or up to a year in a freezer. Once a container is opened, jam should be stored in the refrigerator and used within a few days. If kept at room temperature they will mold or ferment in a short time.
- 6 cups diced unripe mango (about 3 to 4 large, hard green mangoes)
- 1½ cups diced red bell pepper
- ½ cup finely chopped yellow onion
- ½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped ginger
- 1 cup light brown sugar
- 1¼ cups cider vinegar (5%)
- ½ cup water
Caution: Handling green mangoes may irritate the skin of some people in the same way as poison ivy. (They belong to the same plant family.) To avoid this reaction, wear plastic or rubber gloves while working with raw green mango. Do not touch your face, lips or eyes after touching or cutting raw green mangoes until all traces are washed away.
Yield: About 6 half-pint jars
Procedure: Wash and rinse half-pint canning jars; keep hot until ready to use. Prepare lids according to manufacturer’s directions.
Wash all produce well. Peel and chop mango into ½-inch cubes. Dice bell pepper into ½-inch pieces. Finely chop yellow onions.
Combine all ingredients in an 8-quart Dutch oven or stockpot. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar. Reduce to simmering, and simmer 5 minutes.
Fill hot solids into clean, hot half-pint jars, leaving ½-inch headspace. Cover with hot liquid, leaving ½-inch headspace. Remove air bubbles and adjust headspace if needed. Wipe rims of jars with a dampened, clean paper towel; apply two-piece metal canning lids.
Process in a boiling water canner. Let cool, undisturbed, for 12 to 24 hours and check for seals.
Sweet Apple Relish
- 4 pounds apples, peeled, cored and sliced thin
- 1¼ cups distilled white vinegar (5%)
- 1 cup sugar
- ½ cup light corn syrup
- 2/3 cup water
- 1½ teaspoons whole cloves
- 4 pieces stick cinnamon (1½ inches each)
- 1 teaspoon whole allspice
Yield: About 4 pint jars
Procedure: Wash apples, peel, core and slice thin. Immerse cut apples in a solution of ½ teaspoon ascorbic acid and 2 quarts of water to prevent browning.
Combine vinegar, sugar, corn syrup, water, cloves, cinnamon and allspice; bring to a boil. Drain apples and add to syrup. Simmer 3 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Remove cinnamon from syrup and place one piece in each jar. Pack hot apple slices into hot jars, leaving ½ inch headspace. Fill jars with boiling hot syrup, leaving ½ inch headspace, making sure apples are completely covered. Remove air bubbles and adjust headspace if needed. Wipe rims of jars with a dampened clean paper towel; adjust two-piece metal canning lids. Process in a Boiling Water Canner.
Pickled Dilled Beans
- 4 lbs fresh tender green or yellow beans (5 to 6 inches long)
- 8 to 16 heads fresh dill
- 8 cloves garlic (optional)
- 1/2 cup canning or pickling salt
- 4 cups white vinegar (5 percent)
- 4 cups water
- 1 tsp hot red pepper flakes (optional)
Yield: About 8 pints
Procedure: Wash and trim ends from beans and cut to 4-inch lengths. In each sterile pint jar, place 1 to 2 dill heads and, if desired, 1 clove of garlic. Place whole beans upright in jars, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Trim beans to ensure proper fit, if necessary. Combine salt, vinegar water, and pepper flakes (if desired). Bring to a boil. Add hot solution to beans, leaving 1/2-inch headspace.