Preserving Food by Canning
Learning to Can
It was something I looked forward to each year with dread and excitement. The smells filled the house: sweet, spicy, sour, hot. The lazy days of summer were hardly lazy in my mother’s house, or her mother’s either. There was so much work to do and very few breaks, but the rewards were so pleasant. Each summer was filled with canning preserves of every description. My mother believed as her mother before her, that the harvest was not to be wasted. To waste God’s bountiful foods was considered a sin. She canned everything from pickles to watermelon rind, from peaches to spaghetti sauce.
I think I am lucky to be living here. The San Joaquin Valley is rich in all kinds of farm produce. We had many farmer-friends and acquaintances who would let us know when the fields were ready for us to pick. It always seemed incredible to me that so much food was to be plowed under for “manure crop” but the farmers could only afford to pay the pickers during the peak productivity of the plants and after that it wasn’t worth the harvester’s wages. So tomatoes, bell peppers, and other vegetables were allowed to dry up and then were plowed under. During the drying-up time, we were allowed to enter the fields and “glean” just like Ruth in the Bible. My mother’s eyes would gleam as she announced, “Tomato picking time!” She would gather all of us together with all the boxes and buckets we could lay our hands on, and out to the fields we went.
Tomato FieldsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Gleaning the Fields
It was always early in the morning when the sun was barely up and the air was still cool and sweet from the evening's rest. The smell of already over-ripe tomatoes filled the air and the red warm fruit was begging to be picked. This was when my sisters and I discovered that we wanted a college education so we would not have to labor like this for a living. There is nothing like good hard farm work to remind kids why higher education is important.
Before two hours were up we had filled every container we brought and were ready to return home for the long day of cooking down the fruit and processing. My sweet, mild-tempered mother became a slave driver during those canning days. She couldn’t stand to see any of the precious fruit we brought home allowed to spoil so we worked till we dropped. The stove burned all day and into the next one. The kitchen reminded me of some fabled punishment; an inferno. My feet ached from standing over the stove stirring pot after pot of sauce. I am still in awe of my mother who never complained and never stopped even when my sisters and I couldn’t make ourselves continue to stand there another minute.
Mom had a number of recipes. Some put the seasonings into a bag that was simmered with the sauce and others where the seasonings were added directly into the sauce. We peeled some tomatoes, ran some through the ricer, which would remove the peels and cores and some seed, and some with all that left on. We usually made the Mexican salsa with the seed and peels, but the spaghetti sauce without.
Tomato Sauce ElementsClick thumbnail to view full-size
Spaghetti Sauce Timing
Mom’s Favorite Spaghetti Sauce
- 20 cups tomato sauce, cooked and run through a ricer
- 2 onions, chopped fine or coarse as desired
- 3 green bell peppers, chopped or cubed
- 2 Tablespoons salt, to taste
- 4 Tablespoons oregano, or Italian seasoning mix
- 4 teaspoons ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons mustard powder
- 2 teaspoons coriander, if desired
- 2 teaspoons garlic powder, or chopped garlic
- These seasonings are to taste. If you like more salt, add more; if you like less pepper, add less. The mustard powder must be mixed with a little water or sauce and blended smooth before adding to the sauce. Add a couple of bay leaves if desired but they need to be fished out before canning. You can put them in a cooking bag that is boiled with the sauce and is easier to pull out later.
- Cook till it is as thick as desired. This could be anywhere from 1 hour to 2 or 3 hours. Ladle into hot quart jars and affix the lids and rings. The naturally acidic sauce will keep bacteria from growing as long as the lids seal. A sealed lid is depressed and will not sound hollow when tapped. Sealed jars will last on a pantry shelf for a number of years. We always used ours before the next picking season but I understand they stay good for about a decade.
Spaghetti Sauce Ratings
Mom's Mexican Salsa RecipeClick thumbnail to view full-size
Mom’s Favorite Salsa Recipe Mild
12 tomatoes cubed
2 to 3 onions, chopped
5 to 10 hot jalapeno peppers (depending on the level of hotness you want)
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons pepper
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons mustard seeds
several sprigs cilantro leaves, optional as desired
Cook only till there is a rolling boil. If cooked too long the tomatoes turn to mush and the salsa doesn’t have the same texture. Ladle into pint or quart jars, as desired, and affix the lids and rings. Again the naturally acidic sauce will keep bacteria from growing as long as the lids seal. You can assure a seal by submerging the jars in water and bringing the water to a boil, for about 5 minutes. This is a hot water bath. You should hear the seal shortly after you bring them out; “phump” and the lid will not sound hollow when tapped with your fingernail.
Nutritional Value of Spaghetti Sauce
|Serving size: 1 cup|
|Calories from Fat||9|
|% Daily Value *|
|Fat 1 g||2%|
|Saturated fat 1 g||5%|
|Sodium 388 mg||16%|
|* The Percent Daily Values are based on a 2,000 calorie diet, so your values may change depending on your calorie needs. The values here may not be 100% accurate because the recipes have not been professionally evaluated nor have they been evaluated by the U.S. FDA.|
Jars are reused year after year. Only the lids are replaced.
It seemed I was always on the cleanup team; assigned to washing the quart jars in the bathtub since the kitchen sinks were full of tomatoes. This was the dreaded part of the job, not because of the hard work, but because it was so far from the action and interesting conversations in the kitchen. I would rather be in the thick of the heat of the kitchen and be included in the topic discussed than to be banished in a quiet bathroom with suds and a scrub brush. As soon as the jars were washed, I quickly returned to the delicious smells and conversations surrounding my mother’s pots.
The hot spicy sauce was ladled into 2-quart jars and the lids affixed with rings. The kitchen table and all the counter-tops were filled with jars, hot, cooling or cooled, awaiting labels. As the jars cooled, the lids would make that happy noise, “Phump” as they sealed. My mother would stop us and say, “Isn’t that wonderful? Another one sealed, phump!” We rejoiced with her as though it were music to our ears too, “phump, phump, phump!”
Agricultural Extension Office
By the end of the summer our pantry was stocked with sweet pickles, dill pickles, pickled watermelon rind, relish, spiced peaches – light on the cinnamon and heavy on the cloves, sliced peaches for cobblers, sliced apples for pie, sweet apple butter, pear butter, corn, green beans, spaghetti sauce, our own Mexican salsa, whole stewed tomatoes, and every kind of jam and jelly; all just aching for their favorite partner: peanut butter.
When I started my own family, I couldn’t go a summer without doing the same as my dear mother and preserving every fruit and vegetable I could get my hands on. I even tried a few recipes that my mother didn’t try, such as corn cob jelly (tastes like strawberry), cured olives, green tomato relish, and lemon mead (which is a mild fermented fruit wine). I inherited many of my grandmother’s canning jars, some of them so old they were blue and green with age. I find them almost too precious to use for canning.
Many preserves, jam and jelly recipe books can be found for free at your local Agricultural Extension Service. Look them up on the Internet or in the Phone Book.
I Love Canning
Now a summer doesn’t arrive without my thoughts returning to those days of picking, cleaning, peeling, slicing, dicing, stewing, ladling, sealing, and labeling with my mother. The hard day ending with the music of “phump, phump” coming from the kitchen as I lay down to dream of sweet pickle relish in my potato salad and on my hot dog, of apple cobblers and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
There was a special frugality that my mother passed on to me. It was more than just saving money. She taught me that by saving money on groceries we would not need to by that year, we were in fact, earning it. We were earning money for the family and for my father. This was a lesson I never forgot. It was the legacy I passed onto my daughters; the lesson that you do not need to be in a paying job to earn money. Saving money is earning money too. In the spend-thrift society we live in today, our children need to know that simple truth. Benjamin Franklin said it before my mother did: “A penny saved is a penny earned.”