Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Preserving the Seasons: May, Week 2

So here we are in May. If you're like me, you're getting really sick of eating frozen or canned foods -- and you're well and truly grateful for the fresh food that's starting to sprout up in the garden!

But though the garden produce is a little scarce right now, and the farmers' market isn't even open for some of us, it won't be long before we'll have way more fresh produce than we can eat in a given week. (At least I know that will be true for me, between two gardens, a shared CSA share, and weekly market visits.)

That's why this month, instead of focusing so much on the various methods of food preservation, I'd like to spend time getting ready for the next season. And for this week, that means checking equipment and stocking up on the materials needed to preserve the fresh produce.

First up: if you do a great deal of canning, as I do, or you plan to put up lots of pickles or jams or tomato sauce, you'll want to get your canner out of storage, clean it up, and check for any potential problems (like those little rust spots in the bottom; I'm keeping my eye on them to make sure they don't develop into holes).

Make sure you can find all your other canning equipment, too: the rack for the canner, a jar lifter, a jar funnel, tongs, and, if you make sauces or jellies, your chinois and one or two clean jelly bags. You might not need all this yet, but when you do, it's good to have everything all together and ready to grab.

Of course, you can't can without your Mason jars. Hopefully you've been emptying last year's preserves at a steady pace, washing the jars, and storing them carefully. Now is a good time to check the jars for cracks or nicks as well as to count what you have available to use at the beginning of the season.

Along with the jars, pull all your lids and rings together in one place. If the lids have been used to seal jars already, you might want to store them in a separate bag so that you know you can't use them for canning again. (I use my jars and such all the time for food storage throughout the year and save the old lids for that.) You might want to stop by the store and stock up on boxes of lids if you don't have many unused ones left.

If freezing is one of your preservation methods of choice, now would be a good time to stock up on heavy duty freezer bags or hard plastic storage containers. (Freezing produce in leftover yogurt containers or other previously used plastic is not a good idea; stick with the containers that are made to withstand the cold over and over again.)

If you have plans to dry lots of produce this year, pull out your dehydrator and wipe down the trays. If you dry produce in the oven, stock up on parchment paper to line cookie sheets. Here's a good place to use any glass jars you've checked and found to be nicked or cracked: storing dried produce doesn't require the vacuum seal that can be damaged by these flaws, and you can also reuse canning lids for this since you don't need that seal.

By the way, this is also a good time to consider spring cleaning the kitchen, especially the stovetop and the oven, since you're not likely to have time for several months after this!

Depending on what kinds of preserved foods you plan to put up for winter, you may want to watch grocery flyers for sales on sugar, salt (kosher or canning), pectin, vinegar, and spices. These will keep a long time, unless you're preserving in large quantities.

Don't forget about stocking up on labels for your jars, too, or a marker for freezer bags. Keep those handy so you can mark down the kind of produce and the date preserved. (You'll also find that it helps to keep track of what you've preserved over the season; more about that next week.)

And because there's always cleanup to do, you might want to set aside a few dish towels and potholders for potentially messy preserve-making. I'd also suggest you pull out or invest in a good sturdy apron. I've got mine (thanks to Emily at Preserving Traditions).

So get ready, because yes, we can (and dry, and freeze...). And we will!

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