Late spring 2004, I received a letter from the Creative Activities supervisor at the Minnesota State Fair and I’m paraphrasing, “Since you have won 1st place three years in a row for your Vidalia Onion Relish we request that you do not enter it again for at least two years.” At first it felt like a small bee sting, then an hour passed and it hurt like a slap, then after gardening and walking to the corner grocery store it hit me. How would I feel if every year I entered my canned or baked goods and the same person took top prize? I would have felt discouraged. From that moment on I considered that letter a badge of honor.
Then, a couple of years later I received another letter explaining that I was banned from all competition at the Minnesota State Fair as I was now a professional. The rules state that cooking must be a hobby or that you be a homemaker. At first that felt like a baseball bat across my head but I soon got over it and, again, wore it like a badge of honor.
Who would have thought canning pickles, relish, jam, and jellies could cause such a ruckus?
Canning and preserving foods has been in my blood since I was a small boy growing up in the Red River Valley of North Dakota. I was fascinated by all the busy work in the kitchen and continually begged my grandma if I could help. Finally, when I was eight years old, she said yes.
My first lesson in preserving food was a trip to a local farmer who sold produce out of a garage. Shelves of fresh produce lined the walls and it smelled earthy and fresh. We were pickling that day so we picked through medium cucumbers. Grandma pointed out blemishes, discoloration, and damage. She explained that we needed the freshest but the best quality vegetables or spoilage could occur resulting in mold or botulism.
One of the other items Grandma mentioned was to shy away from cucumbers at a grocery store as they are usually covered in a fine layer of wax. This prevents the pickling brine from soaking through the skin and seasoning the pickles not to mention the possibility of spoilage.
Back in Grandma’s kitchen everything was ready. The canning jars were washed and ready to be sterilized along with new lids and ring bands. “Going Green” wasn’t a popular term when I began canning but it was one of the first ways to recycle. Ring bands can be used year from year unless they begin to rust. Lids should never be reused.
Sterilizing is easy by first using warm soapy water to wash your jars. After rinsing, submerge the canning jars in boiling water right in a large stainless steel or enamel water bath canner or stock pot. This only needs to be done for about ten minutes. I also submerge my lids, for about 5 minutes, to soften the rubber bands for better sealing.
One of the most important things I learned at a young age is to not to try and can too many recipes in one day. It can be rough work and canning two recipes may be the limit for an eight hour day. I recently canned my Sweet Cucumber Pickle Relish and Bread and Butter Pickles and it took all afternoon.
If you don’t have equipment it’s easy to find. My favorite is Frattallone Ace Hardware on Grand Avenue in St. Paul west of Snelling Avenue. I call their store “Canning Central.” Everything is set up so you can get everything you need including every size canning jar, canning kits with water bath canner and equipment, plus they offer salsa and pickling kits to make your canning easy as pie.
I have spoken to groups and taught classes about canning. The majority of questions are always about safety. Everyone has heard about botulism, mold, foul smells after opening a jar, and so on. By simply following the guidelines in books such as The Ball Blue Book of Canning and Preserving or visiting the National Center for Home Food Preservation (University of Georgia) at www.uga.edu/nchfp/ you will be successful on your first try as a canner. My advice, read carefully your tried-and-true canning recipe before beginning. Write down a list of what you need to purchase and make sure your produce is fresh and canned within a day or two of purchase.
There is nothing more satisfying then producing your own food. You know what’s in the jar, preservatives are not an issue, you’re recycling your jars after the first purchase, and you’re serving and eating food that was at its freshest when you preserved it. Next, you’ll have to start a garden or begin entering county and state fairs but be careful not to go professional too soon.
Frattallone Ace Hardware
1676 Grand Avenue
Saint Paul, MN 55105
Phone: (651) 288-5981
Other canning and preserving websites:
John Michael Lerma is a local chef, author, “lifestyle guru” and Food Network personality. His company Garden County Cooking offers cookbooks, cooking classes, consulting, private events, and culinary vacations to Tuscany, Italy. He also teaches food writing at The Loft Literary Center. www.GardenCountyCooking.com
BREAD AND BUTTER PICKLES
4 quarts sliced medium cucumbers (about 4 ½ pounds)
8 medium white onions, sliced (about 2 ½ pounds)
1/3 cup pickling salt
3 cloves garlic, halved
4 cups sugar
3 cups cider vinegar
2 tablespoons mustard seed
1 ½ teaspoons turmeric
1 ½ teaspoons celery seed
In a large bowl combine cucumbers, onions, salt, and garlic. Add about 2 inches of cracked ice. Refrigerate for 3 hours; drain well. Remove garlic.
In an 8- or 10-quart Dutch oven or kettle combine sugar, vinegar, mustard seed, turmeric, and celery seed. Add drained mixture. Bring to boiling. Pack cucumber mixture and liquid into hot, clean pint canning jars, leaving ½-inch headspace. Remove air bubbles, wipe jar rims, and adjust lids. Process filled jars in a boiling-water canner for 10 minutes (start timing after water begins to boil). Remove jars from canner; cool on racks. Makes 7 pints (70 servings).
John Michael Tip ~ Supermarkets often wax cucumbers. Do not use waxed cucumber for whole pickles because the wax won’t allow the brine or pickling solution to penetrate the skin. For sliced pickles, you may use waxed cucumbers if you wash them well with a soft vegetables brush to remove the wax.
GRANDMA’S SWEET PICKLE RELISH
6 Medium cucumbers
3 Sweet Red peppers
6 medium Vidalia onions
½ cup of pickling salt
3 cups of sugar
2 cups of cider vinegar
2 ½ teaspoons celery seed
2 ½ teaspoons mustard seed
½ teaspoon turmeric
Wash the cucumbers and peppers. Discard stems and seeds from the peppers. Choose medium cucumbers with little or no seeds. Using a food processor, chop cucumbers and peppers into small bits—(Chopped cucumbers should produce no liquid. That is the true measure of a successfully crisp and chucky relish). Measure 6 cups of cucumbers and 3 cups of peppers. Peel and chop—in processor, Vidalia onions; measure 6 cups. Combine cucumbers, peppers and Vidalia onions in a large bowl or crock. Sprinkle with pickling salt; add ice cold water to cover. Let stand, covered, at room temperature for two hours.
Pour mixture into a colander and drain well in the sink. Rinse with fresh cool waters and drain again. While the mixture is draining, in a large kettle or 8-quart Dutch oven combine sugar, vinegar, celery seed, mustard seed, and turmeric. Heat to boiling on low heat. Add drained vegetable mixture, turn heat to medium-high, and return to boiling. Cook uncovered and stirring to make sure relish doesn’t burn. Continue to cook for about 10 minutes until any excess liquid as evaporated.
Thoroughly wash and scald 8 (half-pint) jars. Keep hot until needed. Prepare lids as manufacturer directs.
Remove cooked relish from heat. Immediately ladle into hot jars, leaving ¼-inch headspace. Remove air bubbles by running a plastic knife inside edge of jar.
Wipe jar rims; seal with hot lids and screw bands. Process filled jars in a boiling-water canner for 10 minutes. Remove the jars from the canner; cool jars on racks. Makes 8 half-pints.