Tools of the trade

Having written about my food preservation activities quite a bit, I thought that it might be useful for any of you considering doing this yourself to know a bit about what’s required. I have collected my equipment over a number of years and when I started, I managed with the most basic items: a preserving pan, a funnel and a ladle. Since those days, I have gathered more equipment, but this is mostly because I now feel confident enough to try different techniques and preserve more challenging foods.

In the UK we have a very dull approach to preserving. Pick up a British book on the subject and you will find recipes for jams, pickles and chutneys, with perhaps lemon curd and fruit leathers. More recently, dehydrating food has become fashionable, but I’m not keen. To get really inspired, you need to cross the Atlantic (metaphorically, at least) and see what the Americans are doing. In fact it was Willowscottling who pointed me in the direction of the most useful book that I own on the subject: Putting Food By. Apparently this is an American classic, but hardly anyone in the UK seems to have even heard of it. It was because of this book and a discussion with Kate Chiconi that I finally bit the bullet and invested in a pressure canner (again not something people in the UK are familiar with, where most people think it’s the same as a pressure cooker).

So, what do I have in my collection? First there are a few books. As well as Putting Food By, I also like The Ball Blue Book of Preserving. And the I also have two books by Marisa McClellan, which are full of excellent ideas for more small-scale preserving:

Then I have two preserving pans – a stainless steel one and a brass one – as well as a pressure canner.

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pots and pans

If you are making jams and pickles, then the pans are probably sufficient, but if you are embarking on bottled (canned) vegetables and low-acidity fruits, then the pressure canner is an important piece of equipment. I’ve been told by several Brits that I could just have bought a pressure cooker for this purpose, but I disagree. The difference between a pressure cooker and a pressure canner is this:

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getting the pressure right

This is a pressure gauge and without it you cannot be sure that the food you are processing has reached the correct pressure for the right length of time. If you don’t know this, you cannot be sure that you have destroyed all possible sources of contamination – botulism being a particular hazard. I want my food to be safe, so I would not be happy bottling without this piece of equipment.

As well as pressure, you need to check that you’ve achieved the right temperature, so a thermometer is essential, Plus you need tongs to remove hot jars from hot water, and I also have little silicone mitt (the purple thing in the picture below) that is useful for handling items that are both hot and wet.

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some of the essentials

The photo above also shows some of the preserving jars that I use – various sizes, but all have lids and separate screw bands. I do actually use jars with spring clips too sometimes. And to get hot food into hot jars without spilling, a funnel is essential.

There are some other items that I have which, whilst not essential, are very useful: a stainless steel bucket (easy to sterilise and ideal for washing fruit or holding prepared fruit or vegetables prior to cooking), my passata mill (which saves me hours of work with a sieve and ensures that there is minimal waste) and a pH meter (very useful for peace of mind – allowing me to check whether the threshold pH of 4.6 has been crossed).

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not essential but oh-so-useful

And finally, although I haven’t been using them recently, I have a jelly bay and supporting frame, for making clean jellies and juices.

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jelly bag and frame

So, those are all my bits and pieces. Do you have useful equipment you can recommend? Or a particularly good book?

Sticky Sunday…

… and Saturday as well.

Over the past two days I have mainly spent my time in the kitchen. I started Saturday by making the custard base for some vanilla ice cream*… because we had lots of eggs and some cream that needed using up (well, that’s my excuse anyway). Then I processed the tomatoes I had roasted on Friday and bottled up 25 jars of passata.

I put the roasted tomatoes through the passata mill three times to extract all the pulp and the small amount of skin and seeds left goes on the compost heap. I then reheat the passata and bottle it using the hot water bath method, having checked the pH is below 4.6 and therefore safe to preserve. I’ll do another batch later in the season and then we won’t need to buy tinned tomatoes for a whole year and we will have avoided a whole load of cans that would have had to be recycled (the jars are reusable).

Then I set the now cool custard to churn to turn into ice cream and then returned it to the freezer before starting to make nectarine nectar (just a fancy way of describing purée), which I bottled this morning (Sunday), and which I have just realised will be perfect for Nectarine Bellinis:

And finally, I bottled peaches and nectarines in light syrup combined with the left-over nectar (just one picture because of the stickiness):

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bottled summer

And then I noticed that Mr Snail had dressed appropriately:

Now, I just have a lemon cake to make with the egg whites left-over from the ice cream and then I will be having a lie-down!

-oOo-

*I can’t eat ‘normal’ ice cream because of my lactose intolerance, but if I pre-treat the milk and cream with lactase enzyme, I can make my own that I can eat.

Preservation, preservation, preservation

It’s that time of the year again when produce is abundant – both in the garden and on the market – and so my mind turns to preserving it for those future lean times.

As a result I had two main jobs this morning: first a visit to the Friday fruit and veg market and then cleaning the family preserving pan. The shopping trip can only be done on a Friday, so I had to miss going swimming. They set up in Newcastle Emlyn early, so I left home at 7am in order to make sure I got there before what I wanted had sold out. I arrived before 7:30 and started selecting my bulk purchases. I returned home through the early-morning mist with two large trays of tomatoes, two trays of nectarines and a bag of 20 peaches. I will return for more produce in a week or two (when, hopefully they will have plum tomatoes like last year and trays of peaches), but what I bought will keep me busy for a little while.

And so to the next task. All this preserving – passata, bottled peaches, nectarine purée – will be greatly facilitated by my second preserving pan. However, having spent several years in my mother’s barn, it needed a little cleaning. A quick internet search suggested that brass could be cleaned quite easily using a mixture of white vinegar (half a cup), salt (one teaspoon) and flour (enough to make it into a paste). All you do is dissolve the salt in the vinegar, add enough flour to get a spreadable consistency, smear the paste on your brass, leave for 10 minutes and then wipe/rinse off and dry. And I’m pleased to say, it worked. I did the inside of the pan twice and the outside once… and if it was for decoration I might do it again, but for my purposes, it looks good and was very easy – no elbow grease required!

So now, there are tomatoes roasting in the oven and for the rest of the weekend I will be getting sticky with peaches, nectarines and sugar syrup.

An apple a day…

…does not, in fact, keep the doctor away. I’m still here despite the raw apple population Chez Snail expanding. I have managed to keep accumulation of cooking apples under control, but I did arrive home at the weekend with rather a lot of eaters:

An abundance of eating apples

An abundance of eating apples

Fortunately, these will benefit from sitting in the fruit bowl awhile, so we are not having to consume nothing but apples at the moment. The ones pictured came from my dear friends Janta and Merav, who live in their forest garden in Shropshire. Janta grafts fruit trees, so the diversity that they have is amazing and it was a delight to see their trees (which I completely failed to photograph) absolutely dripping with apples.

Bottling has rather ground to a halt, although it’s due to resume today, but I did make cakes the other day: apple cider cake (which we are enjoying at the moment) and wheat-free apple ginger upside down cake (which was made for an event that was cancelled at the last minute, so is now in the freezer):

Two different sorts of apple cake

Two different sorts of apple cake

I think that we’ll have apple crumble over the weekend and I’m planning to make some sweet chilli sauce containing apples and home-grown tomatoes and chillies (picture below), but I’m on the look out for other good apple recipes… any ideas?

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Three different sorts of chillies currently ripening in the limery: lemon drop (foreground), pyramid (middle) and Bartlett’s bonnet (back)

Busy, busy

Whilst I wasn’t blogging, I was making…

I’m away for the next few days, but I” be back at the weekend.

The first of many

I make it a policy not to turn down offers of fresh produce. Far too much food is wasted in this country and I’m always sorry to see apples, plums and pears falling from trees and rotting. In our garden we have one tiny, fairly recently planted eating apple tree – currently growing exactly four apples. If we had more space we could have a bigger cooking apple tree, but there seems little point because we always get given apples.

Just a few to ease me in

Just a few to ease me in

And so, when I got home yesterday after a trip out, I was unsurprised to find a carrier bag of apples on the kitchen counter. These had been given to Mr Snail by our lovely next-door-neighbours, who had been given them by a friend. I know that we’ll have pounds and pounds of apples coming our way next week, but this small bag was still welcome. I considered whether to wait until I had more to add them to, but decided this morning to make a gentle start to this year’s bottling extravaganza.

So I peeled and cored, stewed, bottled and then sterilized in a hot water bath. The result… three jars for the store cupboard and some left over stewed apple for breakfast this week. They are not as exotic as peaches, nectarines or mangoes, but they do form a staple for me throughout the year and, once bottled, require no extra energy for storage (unlike freezing). Plus, I know exactly what the ingredients are (apples and a tiny bit of sugar in the syrup that I top the jars up with)… now, that’s my sort of processed food!

No doubt in two week’s time I’ll be sick of the sight of apples and bottling equipment, but for now I’m just loving all the abundance and generosity.

Back to the market

Living in a place where a car journey (or a long walk) is required to get to the nearest shop, it’s good to have a well-stocked store cupboard. When it comes to fresh produce, however, things are a bit more tricky. My success with peach and tomato bottling using produce from the local Friday market encouraged me to make a return trip and seek other produce to add to my stores. So, last Friday I returned home with six mangoes plus a tray each of nectarines, sweet potatoes and mushrooms.

My haul

My haul

We ate some of the fruit fresh, but my idea was to experiment with ways to store these goodies. You can’t safely preserve vegetables or low-acidity fruit using the hot water bath method, but I have a pressure canner and so the possibilities are wide open. In addition, freezing is an option.

A little research suggested that the best way to store mushrooms (other than drying, which I didn’t want to do) is to cook them and freeze them in their lovely mushroomy juice. I decided to use 250ml Kilner jars for this purpose, thus avoiding plastic and using a container that is very versatile.

Ready for the freezer

Ready for the freezer

The nectarines are acidic enough to bottle without using pressure, but the mangoes aren’t unless you use an acidic juice (e.g. orange) as the preserving liquid. I had some beautiful red syrup from bottling the nectarines (the colour leaches out of the skins) and wanted to use this for the mangoes, so out came the pressure canner:

Up to pressure

Getting up to pressure

And I was able to safely preserve my precious mangoes, although I only managed to get two jars once I’d eaten some fresh! The result of Saturday’s activity was this:

A row of jars

A row of jars on my dresser

They’ll actually have to be stored in the dark, but they do make a handsome display for a little while.

Because the sweet potatoes last quite a while without processing, I’ve only got as far as making some of them into soup (a glorious colour) and freezing it, but I have discovered that they too can be pressure canned and so, that’s next on my list of things to try.

The lack of produce from the garden this year is encouraging me to explore other sources of fresh food, which is no bad thing. I wonder what a trip to the market will yield in another month or two?

Playing Ketchup

In normal years I make all my tomatoes into passata and guard it closely so that we can use it instead of commercial tinned tomatoes throughout the year. But this year is different. The huge numbers of tomatoes that I was able to buy cheaply last week mean that I can experiment with something different, namely.. ketchup.

IMGP6194The recipe I wanted to try out (from River Cottage) starts with a litre of roasted tomato passata, which I already have after the weekend’s activity. To that you add cider vinegar, lemon juice, pepper and various spices, plus some demerara sugar. I looked at the list of spices and decided to modify it a bit, I did use the suggested mustard powder, ground ginger and freshly ground pepper, but I omitted celery salt (Mr Snail does not like celery) and ground cloves (they make me think of toothache) and instead added some hot paprika.

In hot water

In hot water

Because of the vinegar, this concoction will apparently keep for a couple of months if you simply put it in a jar, but I want to be sure that my stored produce will last a good long time, so I decided to immerse the jars in a hot water bath for 20 minutes just to be sure. We do eat commercially-produced tomato ketchup and I will be very interested to see how this compares, because if we like it, that would be another processed food that I could cross off my list… and, in fact, there aren’t very many of them left that I still buy.

I’m interested to know whether anyone else makes tomato ketchup and, if so, what spices you put in it.

On the bottle

Three and a half days and almost all the preservation is done….

My kitchen table on Friday morning

My kitchen table on Friday morning

My kitchen table now

My kitchen table now

And in the interim, all this has happened:

And  this:

In fact, I got so involved with the process, I didn’t photograph all the stages. The tomatoes were all made into roast tomato passata, some for the freezer and some bottled (canned). The bottled ones were processed in a hot water bath, which is safe as long as they are acidic enough, otherwise they need to be pressure canned (the threshold is 4.6 and mine were well below at 3.9). I’ve retained some of the passata to make into ketchup, but I need some more jars to store it and those should arrive later in the week, so for now I will freeze it so there is no chance of it going off. As for the peaches, those were peeled (they were so ripe the peel came off without immersion in boiling water) and the stones removed, before being poached in a light syrup and bottled. Again, they were processed in a hot water bath. The left over peel and stones are now fermenting naturally to make vinegar. So, the two processes produce hardly any waste and what is left over goes into the compost.

It’s hard work, but well worth the effort – such a joy over the winter, plus the knowledge that I know exactly what has gone into the food that I’m eating and a reduction in packaging compared to buying tinned goods.

Under pressure

I have a confession… I’ve bought another a new gadget. It’s something that I’ve wanted for several years now, but have been unable to buy in the UK. Finally, however, thanks to the ‘global shipping programme’ available on a certain on-line auction site I was able to place an order from a seller in the US and pay all the import duty and shipping up-front for a very reasonable price.

So now (having coveted the ones belonging to several of my friends) I am the proud owner of a Presto pressure canner:

Hey Presto - a pressure canner!

Hey Presto – a pressure canner!

It was described on the Presto web site as an ‘entry level’ canner, since it only has a capacity of 16 quarts (US), but it’s certainly ample for what I need. Selecting an appropriate model took a while since I needed one that I could use on a ceramic hob. In addition, I had to read around to discover whether there was a difference between a pressure cooker (for sale in the UK) and a pressure canner (not for sale in the UK as far as I could find). It turns out that a pressure canner has a gauge so that you can maintain it at a specific pressure for a specific length of time (you can read more here).

Having a canner means that I can preserve all sorts of food in jars, not just acidic things like apples and tomatoes, without the risk of botulism. My first experiment is actually going to be with apples, because I still have lots of them to process, despite my dresser already looking like this:

It's an apple-fest!

It’s an apple-fest!

I will report back soon.

 

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