Tom Ross: Just can it, would ya?
February 26, 2011
Steamboat Springs — After attending this week's presentation about community-supported agriculture, I realized that most of these folks just need to can it. Their food, that is.
In case you've missed out on the trend, more and more people in Northwest Colorado are looking for ways to purchase fresh, healthy produce and meats grown closer to home. One way to do that is to form a relationship with a farmer by promising up front to purchase a "share" of produce in the coming growing season. The food producers are known as CSAs.
There is a certain emphasis on enjoying food in season when it's naturally ripest and most flavorful. As I reflected on the CSA movement, I realized that Steamboat pioneers almost certainly had to can food in their home kitchens to survive the winters.
They canned everything from sarvisberry jam to peaches from the Grand Valley. I'll bet they even canned a good portion of the native whitefish they netted from Fish Creek during the annual spawning run.
I grew up trying to avoid canning chores in a family of mad gardeners. We didn't buy dill pickles from the grocery store like normal suburban families. We grew our own pickling cucumbers and put them up in sealed glass jars full of vinegar with plenty of garlic and homegrown dill weed along with a wicked little red pepper.
We canned so many vegetables that they carried over from one season to the next. The labels read "Green Beans — 1963" and "Green Beans —1964." It wasn't because one vintage was superior to the other. I think my parents were undiagnosed veggie hoarders.
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Our pantry shelves were packed with homemade spaghetti sauce and sweet corn relish. We went as far as saving our watermelon rinds to make sweet watermelon pickles. Is that sustainable or just plain tight?
My grandmother, Mildred Ross, preserved deer meat by canning venison mincemeat — a sweet concoction that made hearty pies for dessert. More Routt County elk hunters need to learn to make mincemeat.
What I didn't realize until Friday is that the canning renaissance already is in full bloom.
Karen Massey, family and consumer science 4-H youth agent with the Routt County Extension Service in Steamboat, confirmed that just as Routt County has certified master gardeners, it has certified master food safety advisers who are prepared to help newbies safely can it.
"It has been a ball to see how interest in food preservation classes here has grown," Massey said.
Some of the people re-learning how to can watched their parents do it growing up. And others are experiencing it for the first time.
"With many people, it skipped a whole generation," Massey said.
In either case, it's not unlikely that old recipes need re-tuning to ensure people are canning healthy food, free of contaminants and harmful microorganisms for their families.
Canning homemade salsa for Mexican dishes is growing in popularity, Massey said, but the extra caution that must be taken with salsa is not widely understood.
She explained that the high natural acidity of vine-ripened tomatoes naturally inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria. But all of the other ingredients one puts in salsa — onions, peppers and herbs — reduce the acidity, increasing the need to can salsa at very high temperatures.
The best way to ensure safely canned food is to invest about $75 in a pressure canner (not to be confused with a pressure cooker). Temperature varies with pressure, and a pressure canner turns up the heat.
But there are a number of other ways to preserve fruit and vegetables, Massey said. Her office in the historic Routt County Courthouse has a large food dehydrator that it loans out to the public.
The Extension Service already was planning its first canning classes of the season last year at this time, but the schedule proved to be too early and has been pushed back to later in spring, when produce begins to appear. Watch for listings in the Happenings section of the Steamboat Today.
And look for the master food safety advisers when the Saturday Mainstreet Farmers Market returns to Sixth Street this summer.
They'll show you how to can it.
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