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Sustainable Happenings August 2011

Preserving Summer’s Bounty
photographs and story by Joan Gough

Fruit in mason jarsSustainable Moab means sustaining relationships. Talking to people about chickens in the backyard, line drying clothes, or preserving food, as I did this month, so often comes down to getting to know neighbors, recalling how grandma did it, or using recipes passed along by friends and family. Whether talking to Katherine F. Holyoak about canning and drying, or Sue deVall about her outdoor canning kitchen and freezing of convenience foods, or Kalen Jones about his storage cellar, stories were as abundant as the techniques they shared.

On this late June afternoon Katherine is drying apricots in her electric dehydrator. I notice she has it outside so that it doesn’t heat up the house. She also has cookie sheets lined with plastic wrap, then blended apricots spread thinly on them to dry in the sun. To keep out flies, she has a fine mesh cloth over the trays, and they are on five foot high racks to keep out larger pests (grand children?). When we go back inside, she gives me a jar of apricot jam which she has just put up. She uses her blender to puree the apricots, saying that she doesn’t like “glumpy” jam. Besides drying and making jams from her apricots, she puts them up fresh in a light syrup.
Katherine still has a few bottles of cucumber sauce from 2010. One of the advantages of canning (most people use bottles, but still call it canning) is that it doesn’t require the electricity of freezing or refrigerating. A cool, dark storage place is ideal to maintain the fruit’s color and texture. The other advantage is that canned fruits and vegetables can be stored for more than one year while most frozen goods really are best used within three months. Using a chest freezer that doesn’t self defrost will extend the life of frozen foods.

Katherine’s cucumber sauce is a recipe from her mother-in-law, Ruth Holyoak, who called it chow chow. Another of her favorite recipes is for chili sauce from Liza Burr. Katherine recalls her fourteenth birthday party in Salina Canyon when a friend indignantly demanded, “What’s this watermelon seed doing in my chili?” Katherine explained that during the Second World War sugar was so tightly rationed that her grandmother used watermelon juice to sweeten her chili sauce. Other products Katherine cans are raspberries, peaches, pears, tomatoes, pickled beets and cherries. To keep it simple, she only cans fruits and vegetables that do not require a pressure cooker. Her motto is, “If it’s not simple, I don’t do it.”

Simple and easy is also one of Sue deVall’s criteria for canning. Hence, she does it outside on her deck in Castle Valley. “It is just too damn hot to do it inside, it’s greener, and the cleanup is just a matter of turning on the hose.” When they could glean tomatoes from the Day Star Academy’s fields, Sue might have had three canners and four friends putting up whole tomatoes, juice, and Bloody Mary mix. She also cans peaches, apricots, and apple sauce on the north side deck.

Sue takes advantage of her chest freezer to store “convenience” foods. For example, when she can get the Saratoga, Utah onions in the fall she caramelizes and freezes them in small portions in freezer bags, ready to flavor anything from a roast to soup. She does the same with garlic from her garden. I have found that eggplant sliced, brushed with olive oil, and grilled keeps very well frozen and makes great moussaka or lasagna.

For the technical details of canning and freezing foods of all kinds, Utah State University Cooperative Extension has a web page with a link to food preservation. From there you can get the overview of safe food handling and specifics such as “Getting Crisp Home Pickled Vegetables”. Utah fruits are listed. Under apples, for example, you can learn how to can, freeze, pickle, make jelly and chutney, dry, and cellar them. My favorite print source is a book called Putting Food By by three Vermonters--Greene, Hertzberg, and Vaughan. An expert at your elbow is important for safety and good quality products. After spending the time to raise, harvest, prepare, and preserve your produce, the last thing you want is mushy broccoli because you didn’t blanch it long enough to stop the enzyme action.

Kalen JonesGetting back to easy, the easiest way of storing some produce is in the root cellar or just in the ground. Kalen Jones stores cabbage, potatoes, apples, onions, garlic, shallots, and beets in his root cellar. The cellar itself is a five-foot long piece of culvert five feet in diameter. Before burying it in the north facing slope, he had a metal plate welded on one end and a door on the other. On the exposed end with the door, there are two screened vents, one low and one high to encourage circulation. He has shelves built in, and the food is stored in crates or cardboard boxes. Some vegetables do well stored in sand to preserve moisture and others such as apples do well wrapped in paper to slow their own ripening and their natural exhausting of ethylene which encourages other things to ripen. In Kalen’s words, “The cellar is an important part of providing our own food throughout the year.”

drying cherriesThe easiest way of preserving root vegetables is just to leave them in the ground. Carrots, parsnips, and beets can be left in the ground and dug as needed all winter when mulched well with leaves or straw. A trick from Kalen is to put the mulch inside of a large plastic yard bag and place the bag over the row. Then you lift the whole thing off to dig the roots with little mess.

Simple is relative, of course, and so is cost. A can of heavily subsidized corn is cheap on the super market shelf, but comes in a poor second on taste and nutrition scales compared to corn you took from garden to freezer in an hour. When you add in satisfaction, the work balance swings into the “It’s Worth It” part of the scale.

Correction for the June article on bees implied that drones, like workers and queens, grow from fertilized eggs. They are the product of unfertilized eggs.

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