This is the time of year when abundance can be guilt-inducing; too much of a good thing often ends up as rot. I speak hyperbolically, perhaps, but the truth is that little hurts the soul more than mounds of uneaten kale, buckets of unused zucchini, and pints of shriveling cherry tomatoes.
Yet we are not produce-consumption machines. The fruits (and vegetables) of our green thumbs are often too much for our plates — even if we eat them around-the-clock for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When our backyard gardens offer more than we can use at the moment, we should, like squirrels, look toward the future. Food preservation techniques — canning, freezing, drying, and pickling — allow us to enjoy summer's bounty into the fall and winter. These tips and tricks aren't just for home gardeners. The farmer's markets are bursting with color and life — feel free to pick up some extra green beans, or more squash than you can use in a week. If you have the right supplies and know-how, they won't go to waste.
The University of Maine Cooperative Extension is a fantastic resource for those who want to learn preservation skills. In addition to videos, published fact sheets, and guides that you can print or buy online, the Cooperative Extension's Food and Health program offers hands-on "Preserving the Harvest" workshops around Maine (there's one in Westbrook on August 16 from 1-4 pm). For people who are really into it, UMaine offers a 25-hour Master Food Preserver course.
And the institution is organizing the 2010 Backyard Locavore Tour on Saturday, August 14 from 10 am-4 pm, which will feature demonstrations, self-guided audio tours, and food sampling at several Cumberland County farms. (The Locavore Tour has goals beyond public education — money raised from the $15 tour admission fee will go toward building a Cooperative Extension facility in Falmouth at the Tidewater Farm.)
Why take a class or do your reading? Isn't it easy to throw things into a jar and seal it? Well, no. As the Cooperative Extension Web site (extension.maine.edu/food-health) explains, "proper canning techniques will stop the growth and activity of microorganisms and can prevent spoilage and quality loss." If you don't do it correctly, botulism spores can grow inside a jar of food, producing a deadly toxin. So yeah, do your homework.
I've tried my hand at hot-water canning with the help of the legendary Ball Blue Book of Preserving. It came with the home-canning set I bought a few years ago, which included Mason jars, an enormous pot, and some auxiliary tools. The Ball Blue Book covers the basics and more advanced canning techniques, as well as freezing and dehydrating.
My most successful attempt has been with strawberry jam, which I keep for myself and give as a gift when the holidays roll around. I cook it without pectin, which makes for a slightly soupier (but still delicious) consistency. This year, with an early strawberry season far behind us, I'll try the same with blueberries (there's a simple recipe on the Cooperative Extension site).
Once you've got the fundamentals down, you can get fancier. There's something very Little House on the Prairie (and therefore awesome) about preserving your own food and enjoying it later in the year. It's the epitome of self-reliance. And if you are adventurous, it allows you to experiment with unique flavors (kumquat marmalade, anyone? — recipe at acookinglife.typepad.com). Imagine a mid-winter mash made with your own pickled cauliflower, preserves with summer-stewed onions, or desserts made with homemade strawberry-rhubarb or plum-grape jams.
Or think about turning a coat closet into a makeshift root cellar (it's been done)!