The Romance of Canning
When people inquire about my canning activities, I sometimes see a bit of romance creeping through. Are they dreaming of the farm ladies in their long aprons, trimming vegetables and gossiping around the table. Gleaming jars of finish product lined up with the sun filtering through. A blue ribbon from the County Fair respectfully attached to the best darned canned green beans in the region. What they rarely have a notion about is the work involved. While some of my canning friends garden or have spouses who garden, I drive out to the farms. It creates a layer of time, effort and learning resources nobody canning in an earlier era would have experienced.
Just for your edification, I kept a diary of my canning related efforts this week:
Wednesday: Telephoned a few farms I visit to determine what was at peak ripeness, which often translates into abundant and cheap. I was balancing in my mind toward making green beans or pickles and some tomato sauces. Green beans require quite a bit of handwork to snap beans. Pickles require a variety of preparations for dill (four week fermentation), 14-day pickles (a daily intervention for 2 weeks) and bread-and-butter (salting, chilling, pasteurizing). For the weekend preserver, pickles and green beans are big efforts with big rewards, though easier to do one at a time. My canning buddy married into an Italian family, she likes to have sauces for her children: roasted red peppers (not until September when they are abundant and cheap), marinara sauce, roasted tomato sauce, salsa and whatever catches our fancy. This year we are planning a batch of tomato sauce with WSM smoked tomatoes for fun.
Friday: Cleaned the refrigerator vegetable bins, sharpened knives and took inventory of canning supplies. I went to the Costco, Farm Fresh and Jewel to get some ingredient canning staples of onions, sugar and canning salt. Could not find any Morton canning salt, which then put a visit to Woodman’s the next day on the agenda. Made arrangements for my canning buddy to arrive around 7 or 7:30.
Saturday: Canning buddy arrives around 9 AM (yes, there is the plan and then there is what happens). By 9:17 we are out the door, the trip odometer set to the zero, cooler in the trunk and our day begins.
10:02, 32 miles from home base, we arrive to Woodman’s to buy canning salt as well as dig through their cheese section for the Wisconsin parmesan’s recommended by Cook’s Illustrated. We enter through the bread section, which inspires a hot dog bun purchase with the Usinger’s beef frankfurters and veal knockwurst to be found later. Just cannot beeline in a grocery store when there is so much to see. Never did find the parmesan recommended, instead we bought Bucky Beaver parmesan for fun. We don’t leave Woodman’s until 10:59.
11:50, 57 miles (with construction detour) from home base, we visit the farm stand we fondly refer to as, “The Hippies.” This farm, which I believe is a commune, is just east of Richmond. In addition to offering organik (sic) produce, they also sell furniture, clay garden pots and rugs. If you are out this way and value organik produce, then this is a must-stop because the prices are largely $1 per pound for heirloom tomatoes, new potatoes, several varieties of eggplants, onions, carrots and beets. I bought a softball sized beet for 50 cents, which will be grated to make a salad. I spent $12 for quite a lot of vegetables.
For the first time ever, we met the organik farmer. We didn’t quite know who he was until he opened the honor-system cash box. Pulled out some money holding it out for inspection commenting triumphantly, “Who says there isn’t money in farming!” He gave us a verbal tour of the half dozen varieties of tomatoes. A few were specific to this farm, because some of the tomatoes had cross-pollinated creating some improved varieties. He did not use Luther Burbank’s method of hand pollinating. He simply planted tomato varieties adjacent to each other and let Nature do her thing. If he liked a tomato, then he kept the seeds for planting the next year.
We had not had breakfast, because if we had left earlier, then it would have been at the Coffee Cup in Kenosha. Starting a bit late, this was cut from the agenda. Leaving the Hippie farm at 12:05 PM, we beelined to our lunch destination at Royal Oak Farms. We did pass some locations I planned to visit, but to give you a sense of distance from the Hippie farm: we passed Von Bergens in 12 minutes and 7 miles. Kammer Road leading to Hebron Apple Orchard was a mere 2 miles beyond Von Bergens, though to reach the orchard you drive an additional 2 miles. Royal Oak Orchards is an additional 5 miles, though you leave IL-173 to reach it. In downtown Hebron (stop sign), turn right onto Main St. At the very next street turn left onto Bigelow, then proceed a few miles to Royal Oak Orchards.
12:30, 71 miles from home base, we arrive to Royal Oak Orchards. While lunch was our ultimate destination, I visited their farm stand first. I met the farmer/owner who when I inquired if crops were early this year, to confirm information my canning buddy had gleaned the week before. He launched into an analytical explanation why crops were one week early on average this year. We learned statistics are kept on how many days/hours over 50 degrees in temperature for 24 hours are maintained. Fifty degrees is the magic temperature for plants beginning to stir to life as well as pest eggs laid last fall begin to activate. Royal Oak Orchards is now part of the University of Illinois Extension statistical collection station for temperature readings as well as moth activity. The closest station is west of Rockford, otherwise there are none until mid-state.
The moth he tracks we often meet when we slice an apple to find a worm aka moth larvae. At least 15 traps are kept and recorded at Royal Oak Farms, which are reported to the U of I Extension on a daily basis. For his orchard’s use, he will gauge by the moth activity if and when to spray for moths. While they are willing to tolerate the level of economic damage finding 5 moths in a collection trap. They cannot tolerate the economic damage when 50 moths are collected in trap, this triggers a spraying of the orchards. Kindly remember these are rough numbers to give you an orientation.
I bought half a peck of early apples named Red Free. I passed on the peaches at $40 a half bushel, then proceed to lunch at their cafeteria. They no longer make their pies on the premises, rather someone local makes them to the their recipes. My disappointment vanished when I tasted their quality, double-crust chicken potpie. This was much better than many restaurant versions with minimal gravy, though filled with diced chicken, green beans, carrots, potatoes and pearl onions.
We left with our minds and bellies filled at 1:32 PM.
Driving east toward home, we stopped at an intriguing sign:
Just to collect information for the future, I pulled into the farmyard with a welcoming committee of two barking dogs. I didn’t get out of car, waited a bit and finally tooted the horn waiting for their owner. A smiling lady came out who when we inquired about her chickens advise, “They are 7-8 pounds for $12, though all I have is already spoken for. These chickens are going to slaughter in a few days. I won’t have more chickens for maybe three months.” I got my name on the list for four birds.
We were offered eggs, which I declined because my cooler was at capacity. I have a friend around Dixon who also raises chickens, so I knew a few practical questions to ask. “How long have your chickens been laying eggs?” It may seem silly until you know the older they are the larger the egg they produce. We then learned she raises a unique variety of chicken not usually considered commercially viable. More commercially suitable laying chickens lay their first egg at 3 months and continue for 5-6 years. Her chickens lay their first egg at 6 months and produce for maybe 3-4 years. Her breed choice was largely due their sweeter personality to allow the children in her life to interact without any problems. It was when she said her chicken’s eggs varied from pink, green and blue, I immediately found room in my cooler. These eggs aka Easter Eggs were a dozen for $1.50.
As our conversation was winding down, I inquired what kind of meat was offered. “Meat? No, no meat, only ‘meat chickens’ are raised for slaughter. ‘Meat chicken’ seems to be a distinction from ‘laying chickens,’ which never crossed my mind.
We did visit Hebron Orchards to check into their early ripening apples. We learned these early apples had been smaller than usual, but due to recent storm activity had all dropped to the ground. She advised in early September we should drop by.
2 PM, 83 miles from home base, we arrived to Von Bergen’s for our major vegetables purchases. We bought two-25 pound boxes of plum tomatoes for $22 and two- Boxes regular tomatoes for $14. In addition, we got some corn to eat and some Michigan Peaches. I postponed green beans until next weekend, when I get the Moms to help snap beans around Mom2’s kitchen table. Several people can get the job done in an hour, which really helps to speed the process. My car was already loaded from my earlier purchases, the guys and I had to do some rearranging to make it fit.
We left Von Bergen’s at 2:30 PM, then proceeded to make two more stops: Mike’s Grocery in Highland Park for carrots, red peppers and flat leaf parsley. Sunset Food’s hoping this may be high season for basil, which we were rewarded grandly.
We almost got sidelined, though I had to remember I had quite a commitment in fresh vegetables that needed processing.
4 PM return to home base for final trip mileage of 132 miles in 6 hours, 43 minutes.
When I returned home, I immediately scrubbed down the kitchen sink, then filled it with one box plum tomatoes to clean. I started my fryer-slow cooker to boil water once I had nearly cleaned the second box of plum tomatoes. I dropped maybe a half dozen tomatoes into the hot water, then into my sink filled with cold water to shock and cool. Meanwhile my Mom was peeling carrots and garlic, that were chopped up by my canning buddy. As vegetables were chopped, then they were added to the stock pot. After canning buddy checked the plums, she insisted a green core be removed before they went to pot.
6 PM – we dined on the Usinger’s sausages, sweet corn and heirloom tomatoes from the Hippies.
9 PM – while the sauce was simmering, we went to Jewel for tapioca and tomato paste.
10:30 PM – we finally began ladling sauce into freshly cleaned quart jars.
While canning buddy stripped basil leaves for future sauces and pesto. I blanched and peeled 9 pounds of peaches. Once sliced, I had 3-1/2 quarts of peachs, which were mixed with sugar, lemon juice, salt and tapioca for three future pie fillings. These were packed in 1 quart freezer ziploc bags until this winter.
1:30 AM went to bed with the following accomplished: 7 quarts and 9 pints marinara sauce with another quart to be processed with the next batch. Three pie fillings. Basil leaves for at least two batches of pesto sauce.
Sunday … more!
The above was written on August 12th. Canning resumed on Sunday and finally finished on Monday evening after work.
The final production over two weekends:
Basil/Pesto: several quart bags of frozen cubes.
Green beans: 15 quarts, 8 smaller quarts*
Tomatoes: 11 quarts, 1 pint
Tomato juice: 7 quarts
Marinara sauce: 15 quarts, 17 pints
Peach blush jam (peach and raspberry jam): 7.5 pints
Peach pie filling: 3.5 9-inch pie fillings
In early October, I tried to get plum tomatoes but I was one weekend too late. For the first time in many years, I will buy plum tomatoes from the store. Next year it has risen to the top of my list of must-dos.
I never made pickles because my pickle source didn't feel the crop was pickle worthy. I have enough to get by, though next year it will be on my must-do list, too.
I was pleased with the sauerkraut to make more next year. The bonus was no foul odor, which was the sole reason for not pursuing it before.
I can because I can. It is a considerable investment in time and money, though a time saver later on. Instead of many individual of batches of marinara throughout the year. I bite the bullet to make several stock pot quantities, which satisfies my needs. Unfortunately this effort is at the height of heat and humidity in summer, when it would be a much better winter activity. However you can make marmalade in winter, which is not ideal in summer.
For those considering this effort, you now have a realistic idea of the effort involved.
All the best,