Homemade GoodnessPublished on September 11, 2007

  • Walter Gray and Joeís Dills

Find out why Ottawa residents are embracing the lost art of food preservation, plus check out our easy how-to hints and zesty recipes.

The Patrick household loves the taste of their homemade strawberry jam. Each summer, the busy family of eight plans an outing to a local pick-your-own strawberry field. Once they've gathered bushels of berries, a canning frenzy overtakes their Ottawa kitchen. Everyone takes a turn around the kitchen table to crush, mix, boil and bottle the ruby-hued fruit until they have lined the counter with jar after jar of delicious jam.


Tim, dad to this brood of six kids who range in age from one-and-a-half to 10 years old, learned the traditional art of canning fruit from his mother. He says his entire family enjoys the activity, especially the tasty final product. "With a large family like mine it becomes an outing," says the 33 year old, adding he sees the whole process as quality - albeit sticky - family time. "They always end up with strawberries all over their hands and faces."


Decades ago, canning and preserving fresh produce was common practice in Canadian kitchens. Mothers and grandmothers spent hours putting away everything from applesauce and jam to jellies and pickles. But in today's fast-paced lifestyle, more and more people choose to buy their food from big-box grocery stores. With imported fruit found at grocery stores all year round, preserving food for the winter is no longer essential and food preservation has become a lost art.


But Just Food, a local organization that reconnects people to local sources of food, is dedicated to bringing back an interest in canning. The group held a number of food preservation workshops this summer, with more planned for the fall.


Just Food coordinator Juniper Turgeon says she has been surprised by the enthusiastic turnout they've received. "There was a wide range and a diversity of ages, ethnicity, income and gender, which is really exciting," she says about a recent strawberry preservation workshop.


One of the main purposes for facilitator-led classes is to encourage people to stretch their dollar and make buying from local markets and farms pay off in the winter months. "People are seeing it as an art form, but we're trying to make it a necessity again to preserve food that's locally grown," says Juniper, adding they also focus on safety. "People need to know how to do it properly because of botulism."


The bacterium, caused by consuming the toxic substance C. botulinum, is difficult to detect and can be fatal. However, the toxins that produce botulism can be easily killed at a temperature of 116-degrees C with the use of a pressure canner.


This fall, Juniper says Just Food will hold six to eight workshops focused on preserving tomatoes, which are abundant in the local area. The workshops will be held near community gardens and farmers' markets around the city, plus the group is willing to bring a workshop to anywhere in the Ottawa area, as long as there are at least 20 enthusiastic participants and a communal kitchen. For more information go to www.spcottawa.on.ca.


Another place to discover a passion for food preservation is at the Canada Agriculture Museum near Dow's Lake. The museum is hosting an exhibition called Food for Health, which depicts food preservation in the early 1900s when the activity was all people had to rely on for fruits and vegetables during the harsh winter months.


According to museum curator Franz Klingender, Canadian women learned to preserve food safely and scientifically through organizations, such as The Women's Institute, that offered courses about home economics and food safety across the country.


Franz says food preservation began to lose its popularity in the 1970s as populations became more urbanized. Parents worked outside of the home and no longer had as much time for the lengthy canning process.


He adds that the recent resurgence in preservation is most likely surfacing because people are becoming more concerned with what's in their food. Not only does buying from farmers support the local economy, but it allows people to speak directly with the supplier about how the food is grown. "That kind of connection with your source of food is becoming more important to Canadians," says Franz, who admits to his own passion for canning local fruits each year. "When the jars are on the rack to cool, I just wait for the sound of popping lids."


The sound is music to his ears, because it means the lids have popped inwards and his batch of jam has sealed in all its goodness.


Preserving food can also be a thoughtful gift, with many home food preservers choosing to provide their friends and relatives with handcrafted foods. Retired journalist Walter Gray has been pickling for decades, and still makes dill pickles at least once a year in his Ottawa apartment. "It's therapeutic and rewarding," he says, adding his friends always enjoy receiving a jar or two each time he makes a new batch.


In fact, Walter's dill pickles have become legendary among certain social circles in Ottawa, not only for their taste, but their story. In the early 80s, Walter worked as research director for former prime minister Joe Clark. Even though Canada's 16th PM's term in Parliament only lasted a short nine months, Walter continued to work for him afterwards.


One summer, Walter was enjoying some free time at home making his annual batch of pickles when he was summoned to the office. When he arrived, he was abruptly fired.


Walter says he returned home to finish off the pickles, and to commemorate the frustrating situation, he labeled his pickles "Joe's Dills".


Walter has been making Joe's Dills for 35 years now, giving them as gifts to select friends in the city and on Parliament Hill.


Whether food preservation is for gift giving, family fun or as a way to save money, it can be a fulfilling pursuit.


With six children to feed, Tim says he's motivated to keep canning strawberry jam each year. "I do it for selfish and practical reasons," says the family man. "We just love jam so much. I will absolutely pass the tradition on to my kids."

Zesty pickles & relishes

by the canadian living test kitchen

Zippy Zucchini Relish

This sweet, tangy, hot zucchini relish gives your mouth a thrill. Use it on everything from hamburgers and hot dogs to tuna salad sandwiches. 9 zucchini (about 3 lb/1.5 kg), cut into 1-inch (2.5 cm) chunks 3 onions, chopped 2 sweet red peppers, diced 1/4 cup pickling salt (50 mL) 2 1/2 cups granulated sugar (625 mL) 1 1/2 cups cider vinegar (375 mL) 1 tbsp dry mustard (15 mL) 1 tsp celery seeds (5 mL) 1/2 tsp each ground ginger, turmeric and hot pepper flakes (2 mL) 1 tbsp cornstarch (15 mL) 1 tbsp water (15 mL) In food processor, pulse zucchini, a few pieces at a time, until size of rice with a few larger pieces. Transfer to large stainless-steel or glass bowl. Add onions, red peppers and salt to bowl; stir to blend. Let stand for 1 hour, stirring occasionally. Drain well; rinse and drain again, pressing out moisture. In large heavy shallow saucepan, combine sugar, vinegar, mustard, celery seeds, ginger, turmeric and hot pepper flakes; bring to boil. Add drained vegetables; reduce heat and simmer, stirring often, until vegetables are tender, about 15 minutes. Mix cornstarch with water and stir into relish; simmer, stirring, until spoon pulled across bottom leaves trail that fills in slowly, about 5 minutes. Pack into four 2-cup (500 mL) canning jars, leaving ?-inch (1 cm) headspace. Remove any air bubbles, readjusting headspace if necessary. (See "Canning Basics," on page 45.) If necessary, wipe rims. Cover with prepared lids. Screw on bands until resistance is met; increase to fingertip tight. Boil in boiling water canner for 15 minutes. Makes about 8 cups (2 L). per 1 tbsp (15 mL): about 19 cal, trace pro, 0 g total fat (0 g sat. fat), 5 g carb, trace fibre, 0 mg chol, 0 mg sodium. % RDI: 1% iron, 1% vit A, 7%vit C, 1% folate.

Bread-and-Butter Pickles

These pickles are just like Grandma used to make and definitely better than store- bought. For the best size and crunch, look for small pickling field cucumbers, often found at farmer's markets or stands or in produce stores. 14 cups sliced small cucumbers (3.5 L) (about 4 lb/2 kg) 2 onions, thinly sliced 1 sweet red pepper, sliced 1/4 cup pickling salt (50 mL) 32 ice cubes 3 cups granulated sugar (750 mL) 2 1/2 cups cider vinegar (625 mL) 2 tbsp mustard seeds (25 mL) 1 tbsp celery seeds (15 mL) 1 tsp turmeric (5 mL) 1/4 tsp ground cloves (1 mL) In large stainless-steel or glass bowl, toss together cucumbers, onions, red pepper, salt and 16 of the ice cubes. Sprinkle remaining ice cubes over top; let stand for 3 hours. Drain well; rinse and drain well again. Set aside. In large heavy shallow saucepan, bring sugar, vinegar, mustard seeds, celery seeds, turmeric and cloves to boil; add vegetables and return to boil. Pack with liquid into six 2-cup (500 mL) canning jars, leaving ?-inch (1 cm) headspace. Remove any air bubbles, readjusting headspace if necessary. (See "Canning Basics, page 45.) If necessary, wipe rims. Cover with prepared lids. Screw on bands until resistance is met; increase to fingertip tight. Boil in boiling water canner for 10 minutes. Makes about 12 cups (3 L). per 2 tbsp (25 mL): about 23 cal, trace pro, trace total fat (0 g sat. fat), 6 g carb, trace fibre, 0 mg chol, 145 mg sodium. % RDI: 1% calcium, 1% iron, 1%vit A, 5% vit C, 1% folate.

Indian Refrigerator Pickles

South Asian flavours spice up a crunchy jar of harvest ingredients to keep in the refrigerator for up to three weeks. Enjoy them with grilled chicken, meat and fish and with Indian appetizers, such as samosas. 2 tsp each cumin seeds and brown mustard seeds (10 mL) 2 carrots 1 sweet red pepper 3 cups small cauliflower florets (750 mL) 1 cup chopped green beans (1 inch/2.5 cm) (250 mL) 1 tbsp curry powder (15 mL) 1/2 tsp fenugreek seeds - optional (2 mL) 2 cups cider vinegar (500 mL) 2 cups water (500 mL) 1 cup granulated sugar (250 mL) 6 cloves garlic, sliced 4 slices gingerroot 4 cloves 2 small dried hot peppers 1 tsp salt (5 mL) In small skillet, toast cumin and mustard seeds over medium heat, shaking pan often, until fragrant and starting to pop, about 3 minutes. Set aside. Peel carrots and slice diagonally into scant ú-inch (5 mm) thick slices. Seed, core and cut red pepper into ú-inch (5 mm) thick strips. In large bowl, combine carrots, red pepper, cauliflower and green beans; sprinkle with cumin and mustard seeds, curry powder, and fenugreek seeds (if using). Set aside. In saucepan, bring vinegar, water, sugar, garlic, ginger, cloves, hot peppers and salt to boil, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Pour over vegetables and stir to combine; let cool. Pack with liquid into canning jars. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 days or for up to 3 weeks. Makes 8 cups (2 L). per 2 tbsp (25 mL): about 12 cal, trace pro, trace total fat (0 g sat. fat), 3 g carb, trace fibre, 0 mg chol, 19 mg sodium. % RDI: 1% iron, 8% vit A, 8% vit C, 2% folate.

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