One of the highlights of the long trip I took last week is that it put me in in huckleberry heaven, an area of Montana where they are so plentiful if you are willing to get out your checkbook you can buy them.Local folks collect them by the gallons and sell them for crazy folks like me. I did just that, took out my hard-earned cash, and came home with a gallon of the rare delight, huckleberries
I had never heard of huckleberries before moving to Montana other than Huckleberry Hound and Huckleberry Finn. Once here, like all the natives I became enamored with the fruit. For those of you who have not experienced them here is a little primer. They are sort of like a blueberry, but they have a much more distinct fruity aroma that any blueberry. They will create stains on any and everything, and huckleberries make the stains from blueberries, beets and black walnut skins look like amateur hour. If you intend to pick them you need to go in twos one to pick and one to carry the bear spray. Don’t expect anyone to take you to their spot to pick. Spots are more sacred than a gold find and are never shared with anyone.
Having said all that I now have five pints of huckleberry sauce that can be used on everything you can think up. Last night it was served on ice cream. For breakfast we had it on french toast. Tonight we plan to have it on cheese cake. Tomorrow a little will go on my yogurt with my granola. There is nothing that isn’t a little better with a little huckleberry sauce.
We picked up a small bunch of apricots last week at Costco. They were the last package and they called my name as I love apricot jam. I love to can and make jams but have no need to make or desire to have a dozen pints of anything. I have been doing lots of reading about small size jam making and decided that this was the perfect opportunity to try it out. I was going to make two or three half pints of sunshine in a jar…apricot jam with a little bit of apricot brandy in it.
I grew up with a mother who canned and have done a fair amount myself over the years, but nothing like I was going to try this time. Part of it plays into the fact my house is at 6,000 feet above sea level and that impacts how long things have to process and the temperatures that it reaches are not the same as the cookbooks state. I was going to have adjust for where I lived. The second factor was most of my tools were nothing like what I had used in the past. No big old white and blue speckled enamel canner and not measuring ingredients in pints, quarts and pounds. I was going to use my stock pot to do the water bath not the big old kettle. I bought a nifty little jar holder on Amazon. It was a simple wire rack just like Mom had, no sturdier or fancier. This one fit in my much smaller stock pot (just under 9 inches across) and could only hold 5 half-pints. I also used my largest in diameter skillet to cook the apricots, no big heavy old pot. The theory in all of this is that the larger air surface allowed for “quicker” evaporation i.e. shorter cooking times. I honestly don’t know if it was true, but I ended up with jam.
Making jam in a very small batch
When I was done I had two 8-ounce jars and two 4-ounce jars of jam. It all set up very nicely, in spite of the fact I could not find my thermometer and had to use the sheet test. Thank heavens I still had an old Ball canning book from years ago when people tested by look and not temperature on a thermometer. Some of the jars did not seal, but I attribute that to the instructions having me pulling the jars and setting them on a towel while I cooked the jam. In the future I will leave them in the pan of hot water until I fill them like in times past and the old Ball book suggested and I used to do. So my first small jars of sunshine in a jar will need to be given and used as gifts immediately instead of saving for the winter, but oh well I had fun and it is pretty yummy.
Sunday I spent some time canning, sort of. What sort of means, is I was creating batches of pickles that would only give me a pint or two and involved no time spent in the canner. Now before you food safety critics go flipping your lids, everything I am making has lots of vinegar, went in sterile jars and are going immediately into the refrigerator.
There are many of you out there who still can, freeze and dry. I grew up doing it and did it for years. Now there doesn’t seem to be as much free time, nor do I want to put as much by with just the two of us.
I thought about downsizing my heirloom recipes from my mom, but cutting down a recipe that calls for gallons of vinegar, pounds of sugar and half-bushels of vegetables seemed even to someone who likes the challenge of math too much work.
Off I was to the internet to find smaller recipes that I could either cut down or make in just a couple of pint jars. I found some and work on them. Tweaking them to make them more similar to mom’s or reflect my households evolving tastes.
I ended up with dill pickles, bread and butter pickles and beet pickles. I made two pints of each. One to keep and one to give away. Perfect. No hot water bath. No canner. No dozens of jars that you know you will not finish in the next five years. I love it.
Kudos to all of you still keeping the art alive on the larger scale. Those of you who have quit canning because it is a lot of hassle for a small family I hope you will give it a try on a small scale. The newbies and wanabes out there who are just starting or dreaming of canning, go forth, explore. There are many ways on a small scale to try you hand and the art of canning.
I had a collection of plums I had received as part of my last Bountiful Basket. They were not yet ripe so I let them set on the counter top a few days and then threw them in the refrigerator. Out of sight, out of mind. Today I decided that if I could find a recipe that I could adjust for my very tiny batch of plums I was going to make them into jam. I got out my old canning books and it was as I remembered I would need a bushel, or at least a peck of plums for any of those tried and true recipes from Ball or Kerr. So I headed to where we all go now the internet. I found my answer, an 100% scalable recipe for my plums.
Plum Jam Recipe
1:1 ratio, chopped plums to sugar. Cook 5 minutes and can.
Ok it wasn’t that simple. I did not expect it to be that easy. I had to cook it longer than 5 minutes to get my sheeting off the spoon test to work. I suspected such would be true at my altitude. No biggie. I then decided that I would finish my 3 half-pints off in a water bath since things never get as hot as they need to when water boils at 198 degrees. New problem. I no longer had my hot water canner. I had given it away after living in Montana for 5 years and not using it. I threw a cotton dish cloth in the bottom of a tall soup pot, brought my water to a boil and put my precious cargo in. Twenty minutes latter I pulled my precious cargo out.
It was a wonderful flashback moment of the joys of when I canned all the seasons bounty.
Beets are on of the few things pickled you are not sure what you are going to get. It seems that bread and butter pickles, dill pickles and sweet pickles are all pretty universal in their flavor. There may be subtle nuances that each family adds to the recipe, but you can depend on that basic flavor. Beets on the other hand are pickled differently by every family and every company. You never know what pickled beets on a salad bar might taste like.
Pickles made from cucumbers are always call variety pickles, pick your variety. No one calls them pickles dill, no they are dill pickles. Sweet pickles, 14 day pickles, lime pickles, kool-aid pickles. I can’t think of a single cucumber based pickle that does not announce the variety before calling it a pickle.
Beets on the other hand can be called beet pickles or pickled beets. I wonder why that is? Does that freedom to refer to beets any way you want, also give folks who can the right to take huge creative liberties when canning beets?
I had not thought much about this until the Saturday when a friend gave me beet pickles. I looked at the bright purple beets swimming in their bath of sugar, vinegar and spices. We opened them tonight and had them with dinner, and found it full of whole cloves, beets, cinnamon and onions. It had a wonderfully complex flavor but a 180 degree change from my mom’s. Mom’s recipe is very simple sugar and vinegar, sort of sweet sour sort of thing no spices. It has a strong beet flavor. Though vastly different I sure enjoyed them.
Today was Bountiful Basket day again and I still had half a case of tomatoes left. A case of tomatoes is a lot for a family of two. This morning found my husband and I preparing tomatoes for the freezer before we headed in to town to get our next batch of produce. All of this reminded me of my mom who was the preservation queen. What this means is she could figure out a way to put anything by for use to feed our family in the winter. We were like the Salvation Army of food; nothing was ever turned away or wasted. She made grape juice one year when some one gave her a couple of bushels of concord grapes. My family had a recipe for canned carp, that tasted very much like salmon. Carp were the fish, that the local fishermen did not want and our family could get them for the price of gas to the commercial fisherman’s dock. The year our freezer failed, my mom was pulling things out and reprocessing them in fruit jars to prevent a loss. We had a preference for our veggies frozen but that year they were all canned.
I used to can, dehydrate, and freeze quite a bit. I had learned from the best. I had gotten away from it since moving to Montana ten years ago. Produce here stinks to put it mildly. I must admit I was a little intimidated by the alterations that you need to make for the decreased of pressure at this altitude. I got rid of my old pressure canner. It was ages old from a rummage sale when I got it and I could not get weight adjustments that I would need for here. It seemed like the right thing to do.
I do have a “Food Saver”, though I call it a “Seal-a-Meal” (that dates me). We bought it to use when we butchered our chickens. Today we learned how to use it to save our tomatoes. I made two batches of a crock-pot marinara sauce, fire roasted salsa, and prepared cooked tomatoes. All of these I put by using my vacuum pack system. I must say when I am done, it doesn’t have the same impact of looking at all those pints of tomatoes all lined up in crystal clear Ball jars. I can say that it was much quicker. It also allowed me to put up small batches as needed without hauling all my canning stuff out and then processing for the extended length of time required. I am not sure that I save much if any money, as these Food Saver bags are not inexpensive or really reusable like fruit jars. I do know that we are going enjoy knowing our chili and spaghetti meals are made with tomatoes that are not full of salt, and extra’s that we don’t want or need.
This co-op system may have me rethinking about pulling out my dehydrater and if I need to replace my canner. Stay tuned.