A friend of mine wanted to try making pickles: some dills and some bread and butter pickles, enough to have some to eat and some to give away. The plan was that she’d pick up the seasoning, vinegar and jars and I’d stop at the greenhouse on the way into town to pick up bags of cucumbers. As I was packing up my canning gear and going through the last minute requirements I remembered something … she has a flat top stove. You can’t use a regular water bath canner on one of those stoves – you can crack the glass. What to do?
We solved two problems at once by purchasing a single burner electric element: it sits on a table outside and not only did we have the kind of burner we needed, but we had the added bonus of all that excess warmth not heating up the kitchen! This was a good thing, as the temperatures here have been very, very warm (for us, I know that the Texans would think we were wimps for thinking that 28 degrees is really hot, but we’re just not adapted to temperatures like these).
Here’s a picture of the pickles we made – we ended up with about 2 and a half dozen jars of pickles as well as several jars of applesauce, some plain and some mixed fruit – apples, plums, apricots and peaches all blended together.
We made the applesauce the easy way: wash the apples and other fruit, slice everything into chunks and put it in the crock pots for a few hours. The crock pots don’t seem to heat the kitchen like stove top cooking does, and they work nicely in the background while you do other things. We sliced cucumbers and made brine while the apples cooked down, and by the time the fruit had turned to mush we were done with pickles and ready to start putting sauce into jars. The handy dandy food mill made quick work of pureeing the sauce and separating out skins and seeds (treats for the chickens), and a bath in the canner means the stuff is now shelf-stable. Yum.
While I was at the greenhouse getting cucumbers, I picked up a flat of lovely tomatoes to cook down into sauce. Those went through the slow cooker and the food mill just like the applesauce – the resulting tomato sauce is very watery as I didn’t bother cooking it down to thicken it. We use a lot of tomatoes in our winter cooking and the extra broth won’t be a problem in most of the dishes, so it’ll be fine the way it is. Fourteen dollars’ worth of tomatoes made 3.25 litres of canned crushed tomatoes – probably more expensive than store bought canned tomatoes but they were not transported a zillion miles and they weren’t harvested by ill-treated migrant workers, and that is worth a buck or two at least. Hopefully next year my own tomatoes will do better – I have a few tiny green ones out there in the garden, but not much hope of a harvest at this point in the year.
Today’s adventure was all about free fruit. Operation Fruit Rescue Edmonton matches fruit growers who have fruit they aren’t going to use with volunteer fruit pickers who will harvest and share the produce (a lot of the picked fruit ends up at local charities as well, when that’s possible). I happened to be headed into town anyway, so when a last minute request for an extra picker to help harvest apples and crabapples popped up, I volunteered. When I arrived, the Fruit Captain was already there working on the crabapple tree – the apple trees had only a few apples, and everything was at the point of being almost too ripe. There was, however, a little plum tree in the corner so I tackled that job. The tree was surrounded by rough shale landscaping rocks which made my ladder a bit wobbly and they had a tendency to poke holes in the skins of fruit that hit the ground, but I’d noticed an ambulance parked outside a house up the street and figured that if I fell, at least help was nearby, and the fruit was gonna be used right away anyhow, so a few punctures to the plums wouldn’t be too bad.
I didn’t fall, the plums came off the tree easily, and a good three litres of very juicy plums were the result of my work. The Fruit Captain offered me some of the crabapples, but I’ve really had my fill of those for the year … so I took half of the plums and a few apples and was quite content. I did the rest of my errands and came home to fire up the canning gear.
The plums and apples from today’s pick went into a pot on the stove, as I already had the rest of the tomatoes simmering in the crock pot. A quick boil and the fruit was turned to a mush that went through the food mill and back into the pan with plenty of sugar to boil for a little while longer. The resulting thick syrup was poured into jars and canned in the water bath – I could’ve made jam by adding some pectin, but I think it’ll be a lovely addition to muffins and baking just as it is, and we really do have a lot of jam already. I’m thinking a banana muffin recipe with a jar of sauce instead of the 2 mashed bananas (and a lot less sugar since the sauce is already sweetened). I’m also thinking about granola bars, cookies, and ice cream syrup. Yum.
I was able to use the canner outside, too … and boy oh boy I can’t believe I didn’t figure this out sooner. The little single burner element was on sale at Canadian Tire this week and I’d say it’s paid for itself in comfort already! If you’re tired of sweating over a hot stove, do consider one of these – or use your Coleman stove, or your gas barbecue if it has a side burner, or one of those propane turkey roaster things. I like using an electric burner, since at least some of my power comes from the sun thus it’s at least partially renewable energy – though heating elements use a lot of juice. If I had a woodstove outside like my friend down the road has, then maybe I’d use that for canning … but in the meantime, this is a workable solution.
Canning is a very energy intensive way of preserving food and I don’t use it for many things – I’ve dehydrated some tomatoes this year as well, and plan to adapt my cooking over the winter to try and use those more often than the canned tomatoes, but it’s a learning curve I’m just beginning and I want to make the transition slowly so as not to starve anyone. I did pick up a bag of peaches today as they were on sale, and I’ll make more jam and syrup from those – and that means more canning. But some of the peaches will probably go in the dehydrator for snacks and dried fruit bits to put in cookies and pies over the winter. I saw a bag of mixed peppers on sale today too so those are destined for the dehydrator in the next few days – I probably have almost enough peppers dried to see me through the winter now. Maybe not quite enough green … I use a lot of those.
The way I see it, each thing you can do for yourself is one way you can save spending money at the the store. Yeah, I didn’t grow the peaches or the plums or the apples or the peppers … but I can buy them now while they are in season and cheap (or get some of it for free just by volunteering to do the work of picking the fruit), and process the seasonal foods to preserve that goodness for the cold days of winter when the local greenhouses aren’t growing peppers or peaches, when I have to pay for them to be shipped halfway across the world if I want them out of season.
What I’m doing here isn’t self-sufficiency by any stretch of the imagination .. but it is at least a step closer towards local eating, and I’m happy to be doing that.