by Lily Stoicheff on Aug 14, 2012
Jennifer Alexander puts a lid on a jar of fresh dry-farmed tomatoes. Photo by Chip Scheuer.
It’s 11am and I’m chopping my way through the largest pile of organic dry farmed tomatoes I’ve ever seen outside of a farmers market with nine other burgeoning homesteaders at Live Earth Farm outside of Watsonville. Jordan Champagne, our ringleader and canning queen at the Happy Girl Kitchen Co., is teaching us how to can tomatoes with the confidence, patience and optimism of a sage.
“Preservation is very primal,” explains Champagne, who is as effervescent as her name. “Not only does it extend the life of food, but it’s the healthiest and safest way to preserve food. It can be safer than fresh!”
Wait, huh? The skepticism shows on some of my classmates’ faces, and someone brings up botulism, a dangerous bacteria that can grow undetected in canned foods. Champagne sets us straight: even if botulism were to survive the hot water bath, she explains, all native U.S. fruits are acidic enough to kill it all by themselves. We breathe a sigh of relief and get on with out our tas
There are a few sacred rules to canning. Rule Numero Uno is that acidity is key, and Champagne stresses that non-experts should only follow published recipes. “If you don’t know how an experiment will change the acidity, don’t experiment,” she says. It’s also imperative to keep the mouth of the jar and the lid perfectly free of debris, because even “one chili flake or strand of dill” is enough to break the seal.
Unexpectedly, the most important thing we learn is that canning is not only easy, it’s really fun. After we have assembled a mountain of fresh salsa and set it on the stove to cook, we move on to crushed tomatoes. This involves quartering the tomatoes and smooshing them into jars. We add a pinch of salt and a splash of lemon juice and set it aside for its bath. Done. Smaller tomatoes are halved and arranged prettily with sprigs of fresh basil, some pickled garlic cloves and a few peppercorns before being covered in brine. The excess juice we strain away from our salsa is bottled away for tomorrow’s Bloody Marys. Double done. That’s it. See what I mean?
Our fears of lengthy cooking times, of sanitation, of a prohibitively complicated task evaporate over the course of an afternoon. We learn tips and tricks gleaned from Champagne’s 15 years of experience that set our minds at ease and our imaginations spinning—if tomatoes are this easy, what else might we preserve? Our trepidation is transformed into a can-do attitude as we slice, squish and tuck away our cache of ruby red jewels. The class oohs and ahs as the luscious jars emerge steaming from their bath, and as we tighten the lids one last time on the kiss of summer, we clutch the still-warm jars with excitement and little bit of awe.