Canning is making a comeback. Despite the convenience of fast food drive-through's, take-out convenience stores, frozen entrees, and prepared meal-starters, many people are turning to their own resources to take charge of the food they consume. They are waging their own war against food that is over-processed, under-cooked, and laden with ingredients that only an organic chemist can spell or pronounce.
Cathy Barrow, a food blogger and landscaper based in Washington D.C., has been canning since she was a child and now spends most weekends in the kitchen, preserving the bounty of farmer's markets and local harvests. Her book, Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving, is a treasure trove of ideas and methods for capturing the essence of freshness and flavor when it is at its peak and enjoying it months later.
It isn't only increasing the quality of the food she eats that prompted Barrow to embark on this life-changing (and life-sustaining) way of cooking and eating. She, along with her husband, Dennis, are also concerned with the plethora of cans, bottles, Styrofoam trays, and other packaging that often accompanies food purchased at traditional take-out restaurants and grocery stores. Every jar of food that is preserved at home eliminates the extraneous packaging accumulating in our landfills.
Like Barrows, I too grew up canning, although my repertoire was not as varied as hers. In fact, my canning experience was basically limited to one type of produce: tomatoes. As the children of Italian immigrants, each year my parents “made” the requisite garden that produced bushels and bushels of tomatoes. Some of my most vivid end-of-summer memories consist of working side-by-side with my mother in a steamy kitchen, cutting, cooking, and then pureeing the tomatoes prior to ladling them into sterilized Mason jars. (No food processor for us – we pureed the “old fashioned way,” by hand with a Foley mill.) I recall the satisfaction of seeing 50 or so quart-sized jars lined up on a table in our basement, waiting to be transferred to the “wine cellar,” a small room in the back of the basement that we used as a pantry. And most of all, I remember enjoying the flavor of a fresh, off-the-vine tomato in the middle of winter when we sat down to Sunday afternoon and Thursday night dinners – the two times each week we ate “macaroni.”
One of the advantages of Barrows’s book is that anyone , no matter what their experience with canning and preserving, will learn something about what was once a necessity for survival. At over 400 pages, Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry is chock-full of step-by-step directions for preserving stocks, soups, beans, and other vegetables. The author walks the reader through meat preservation using brine and salt and air-curing. There’s also a chapter on making fresh cheeses. Beautiful photographs by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton compliment the easy-to-read text and instructions, and provide a step-by-step pictorial for many of the techniques
Whether you grow your own vegetables or buy them locally at the farmers’ market, canning provides an opportunity to eat healthier, save money, and help the environment. Pick up Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving and give it a try.
This content has also appeared on my Examiner.com site.