Monday, July 13, 2009

Pee Before Canning

We learn some of life’s most important lessons when we are in kindergarten. Robert Fulgham wrote a lovely book on that premise. One of those critical lessons is to always use the potty before setting off on any adventure. I dragged my canner out for the first time this season and learned the hard way that one really should use the potty BEFORE one starts canning. Now, that’s not advice you find in the Ball Jar Book of Canning and Preserving!

I’m going to make that my first rule of canning – use the potty first. Now, my second rule of canning is PAY ATTENTION. Not that canning is difficult. I’m going to attempt to convince all you people who are afraid of jars and lids and boiling water and fresh produce that it’s quite simple. It’s so simple in fact that I tend to do a little too much multi-tasking while I’m canning. That might be OK when you are canning jars number 265 and 266, but when you are canning jars 1-7, you need to be focused on what you are doing.

I’ll tell you the story of this past Friday morning, not so much to amuse you or make you feel sorry for me, but to help you see that even those of us who have canned hundreds of jars, can still screw it up. And that’s OK. The thing is not to let it discourage you.

My tale really starts on Thursday morning when I dragged my three children to the blueberry patch to pick blueberries. This was their third trip there and let’s just say they were less than enthusiastic. One (and she will remain nameless) refused to get out of the car when we got there and rather than making a scene that might make some suspect me of child indentured servant crimes, I let her stay there with her attitude and her book. The boys and I hiked out to the fields. The smallest found a very full bush and parked himself under it and ate his fill and then spent the rest of the time calling, “Are we ever going to leave?” to which I always replied, “Yes,” because we would leave eventually.

So I was down to one other picker, but the two of us managed to fill our bucket and enjoy a peaceful conversation about how you know when a blueberry is the ripest and the meaning of the word “ameriocracy” (At least that’s how I’m guessing you spell it. He picked this word up in his reading and couldn’t be sure of the context, so that left us open to lots of interpretations). This isn’t the part where you feel sorry for me, I’m just trying to make it clear that these blueberries were harvested under great effort and sacrifice.

On Friday morning I decided to make blueberry syrup. It wasn’t really difficult to make, but it took some time to crush the blueberries and cook the blueberries and then strain the juices. We taste tested the first batch on pancakes and unanimously decided the syrup was awesome. So I set to cooking up some more to can. I pulled out seven pint jars from the basement and found seven lids and put them all in the canner and got it boiling to sterilize the jars and lids. No problem there. The problems began as I waited and waited and waited for the huge vat of blueberry sauce to reach a boil. The directions were to bring to a boil and boil for five minutes. The real problems began when I had to pee. I kept putting it off thinking the syrup would boil and then I’d simmer it and get it in the jars and then I could go. But like I said, it was taking a long time to reach a boil, so finally I couldn’t wait any longer and I dashed off to use our downstairs powder room. But there wasn’t any toilet paper and as many of you probably know, only mothers are capable of finding the extra toilet paper and replacing the roll. So now I had to hurry off to the closet upstairs to get more toilet paper and then I really had to pee. By the time I made it back to the kitchen there was a blueberry catastrophe. The syrup had boiled and since it was a sugar based concoction it boiled up and over the top of the pan, all over my stove, down the cabinets, in to the jennair vents and all along the counter top. It was lovely. I said some not so nice things and spent the next 20 minutes cleaning up the stove and kitchen. Then I put the pot back on to boil and I watched it very carefully. The next time it boiled I was ready. I supervised it and kept the heat just high enough to keep it from boiling over. My husband brews beer on occasion and he loves to quote his beer making guide that says “a watched pot never boils, but when this pot boils you better be watching.” Those words haunted me all day.

Not to be discouraged, I was still able to fill six jars and save a small amount for breakfast on Saturday. Here’s what I thought I did next – I put on all the little round lids and screwed them down with the rings. I placed each jar in the canner and I processed them for 10 minutes according to the recipe directions. I say thought but I obviously wasn’t really thinking about it because I don’t remember exactly what I did since while I was in the kitchen anyway, I set up my yogurt maker, emptied the dishwasher, mixed up a batch of dough for hamburger rolls and negotiated a truce between warring parties over the computer. I’m sure there were a few phone calls in there also. When the timer went off I lifted the lid on my canner expecting to see six cans of blueberry syrup but there were only five. I vaguely remember registering that I had an extra lid ring leftover after I started processing my jars, but figured I’d miscounted when I set them out originally. Turns out there were six jars in my canner, it’s just with the dark blue water I couldn’t find the sixth jar that some idiot had put in to the canner without screwing on the ring that secures the lid until the vacuum forms. More blueberry mess to clean up, but in the end I did have five jars of delicious blueberry syrup. Have to focus on that and not all the work it took to pick and process all those blueberries just to lose over 25 % of my product because I didn’t pee before I started and I didn’t pay close enough attention to what I was doing.

I hope my tale doesn’t discourage you. My next post will explain the basics of canning. It’s not hard, I promise, and it’s incredibly rewarding. Plus, it always impresses the neighbors and you’ll feel like you’re in touch with your ancestral roots. All good stuff. Just in case you want to can some blueberry syrup of your own, here’s the recipe:

Blueberry Syrup
(from the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving)

Makes three pint jars

8 cups blueberries, crushed (I use a potato masher)
6 cups water, divided
1 Tablespoon grated lemon zest (it does make a difference if you use a fresh lemon)
3 cups granulated sugar
2 Tablespoons lemon juice (again, fresh lemon if possible)

1. In a large stainless steel saucepan, combine blueberries, 2 cups of water and lemon zest. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat and boil gently for 5 minutes.
2. Transfer to a dampened jelly bag (I don’t know what this is) or a strainer lined with several layers of cheesecloth set over a deep bowl. Let drip, undisturbed, for at least 2 hours. (I used my regular spaghetti strainer without the cheesecloth and it worked fine, I did have to mash the last bit out. I don’t mind if my syrup has specks of skin in it and none of my kids even noticed)
3. Prepare canner, jars, and lids.
4. In a clean large stainless steel saucepan, combine sugar and remaining 4 cups water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar, and cook until temperature reaches 230 degrees (mine never made it that high and still turned out fine). Add blueberry juice. HERE’S WHERE YOU NEED TO PAY ATTENTION. Increase heat to high, bring to a boil and boil for five minutes. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice.
5. Ladle hot syrup into hot jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Wipe rim. Center lid on jar. Screw down band until resistance is met, then increase to fingertip-tight.
6. Place jars in canner, ensuring they are completely covered with water. Bring to a boil and process 10 minutes. Remove canner lid. Wait 5 minutes, then remove jars, cool and store.

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