30 July 2010

A Lesson in Canning Demystification

Can't beat Zoe's Favorites pickled beets

“It’s a miracle,” Michelle Cooper of Zoë’s Favorites Pickles and Preserves told me in response to my question about her small-business beginnings. Michelle, a former General Manager for Gustavs and the Rheinlander, and later Director of Food and Beverage at a large hotel, found herself busy, successful, and totally out of balance.

“I was working too much…I wanted a simpler life.” So she grabbed all the canning and recipe books she could get her hands on, made friends with national food scientists and the FDA, and introduced us all to Zoë’s Favorites. Named after her oldest daughter, Zoë’s Favorites is a buzzing booth at the market that specializes in small batch pickled asparagus, garlic, carrots, jams and jellies, and famous picked beets.

There are some people who would say that ordering 200 pounds of local asparagus at a time, raising 4 girls under the age of 12, and running a small business is far from simple, but Michelle doesn’t skip a beat. For her, canning is a way to stay connected to local communities, support small farms, and keep her family happy and healthy by serving up seasonal produce year-round.

I have to admit, prior to writing this article I had only really canned twice before. The first time was a 5 hour adventure making raspberry jam with a friend who jokingly reminded me that one false move could send my loved ones to the hospital with a serious case of botulism. Great. The second was a much more relaxed solo adventure where I canned yummy dilled carrots. I was surprised after both experiences at just how simple it was to put up my own food. I even felt a little rebellious thinking, ‘forget you Smuckers, I’ll make my own jam!’

Canning or “putting up” is a centuries-old tradition that seemed to have gone the way of the Dodo for many, but has recently resurfaced to become an integral part of the staying local food movement. You’d have to be in a long Portland hibernation to miss the locavore’s Stumptown-fueled cries: We need to know where our food comes from.

Michelle agrees, and her excitement for local food is contagious. She treats her canning business as a personal extension of the farm, buying from local growers and encouraging others to do the same. On Saturdays, you will see her at the PSU market, giving out canning advise to veterans and newbies alike with unwavering enthusiasm.

According to Michelle, canning is especially fun and easy to do because it doesn’t require much special equipment. A large pot to boil water, clean pint or half-pint jars with un-used lids, and a jar lifter to remove the jars from boiling water will get you going. Michelle also relies on her Ball Blue Book, what she cheekily referred to as ‘the Bible’ of canning. Biggest tip? Stick to the recipe.

So the next time you’re at the Farmer’s market, pondering whether or not you really can eat an entire flat of strawberries, consider putting ‘em up instead. There are hundreds of books, friendly farmers, and helpful Youtube videos to guide you along the way. Better yet, you can sign up for lessons in preservation right here through our own Portland Farmer’s Market! So go ahead, choose your favorite market bounty and give canning a shot. If you have trouble deciding what to do first, let Michelle guide the way. She even gave us her most popular recipe to get you started. Now that’s a miracle.

Nicolette Purcell Smith

Visit Nicolette’s blog

Beet Pickles from Zoë’s Favorites Pickles and Preserves

5 lbs of beets

4 cups apple cider vinegar

1 ½  cups water

2 cups sugar

1 ½ teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Boil the beets until fork tender. Peel the beets. Cut into wedges and loosely pack into jars. Combine remaining ingredients and bring to a boil. Fill the jars with the hot liquid, leaving ¼ inch headspace at the top of the jar. Remove any air bubbles. Attach the lids and rings on the jars. Process the jars in a boiling water canner for 20 minutes.

Yields 6 pints.