You Can Take It With You

Preserving the bounty of the season

Photographs by Lane Johnson

Canning, preserving, pickling, fermenting, putting up… Whatever you call it, it isn’t just for farm wives and grandmas. People from all walks of life are relearning the skill of preserving fruits and vegetables and passing on the bounty of their labors. Along the way, they are eating healthier, saving produce from the compost bin, and sharing a wealth of good food with family and friends.

Feeding the Family

Christa Sinclair’s Santa Cruz Mountains home is sandwiched between a grove of mixed stone fruit and citrus trees and a generous vegetable garden. Having grown up on a Vermont farm, she learned to can and pickle from her parents. She has carried this tradition through her life, making at least a small amount of jam every year. Once a vice president at a toy and game company and now a full-time mother who stays home with her two young sons, Sinclair finds that preserving her own food plays a key role in her family life.  

“I control the ingredients,” she says. “I decide how much sugar to use, if any.” Sinclair chooses organic and locally grown ingredients whenever possible and takes her boys to the farmers’ market and local “you-pick” farms to collect produce she doesn’t grow in her own garden.

Sinclair’s jam is made in small batches to meet her family members’ various tastes. “My sons love simple fruit jams and preserves. I like more interesting flavors and my husband is the total canning wild card,” she says. “Strawberry lemonade jam is a huge favorite. It’s so bright and tasty.”

Sinclair makes both savory and sweet jams, including her recent creation: Ginger Peach Lemongrass jam. “I love that I can play around with flavor combinations,” she says. “Ginger Peach jam is ubiquitous, but Ginger Peach Lemongrass is unique.”

Faced with an overabundance of tomatoes in her garden last year, Sinclair invented a recipe for a spicy, savory tomato jam and made 30 jars.

“My cautionary tale to would-be preservers is to be mindful of what and when you plant. A dozen cherry tomato plants sounds heavenly when you’ve suffered through flavorless, store-bought tomatoes all winter, but when you’re harvesting 20 gallons at once, it's overwhelming.”

The week after the cherry tomato glut, Sinclair had a surplus of heirloom tomatoes, which she turned into plain tomato juice. “Simpler was better,” she says.

Nourishing Your Health

Nishanga Bliss is an acupuncture practitioner, teacher, and author of the book Real Food, All Year. Her book is based on the idea that optimum health comes from eating seasonally and using traditional recipes, and that healthy, homemade food should be easy and accessible to everyone. The book’s list of 10 tips for busy cooks includes the suggestion to preserve and ferment food at home. By doing so, Bliss says, “You control the flavors and quality of the ingredients. The food is much better for your health, and you have fun doing it.”

Bliss often relies on fermenting when preserving food. “Fermentation actually increases the nutritional value of food,” she says. Bliss recently fermented a batch of Japanese plums that came from a friend’s tree. “The plums and especially the liquid they produce—plum vinegar—are favorite condiments of mine,” she says. “Most condiments were originally fermented foods, and every culinary tradition has methods of fermentation.”

Bliss also recommends fermented foods to her acupuncture clients. “When people start incorporating foods like raw sauerkraut and yogurt into their diets, they usually notice improvements in digestion, immunity, and health.”

Making What You Can’t Buy

Geoff Brown is a soft-spoken software engineer and not someone you would picture as an accomplished home-preserver. But his face lights up when he talks about the recipes he’s tried. Brown was introduced to the health benefits of raw sauerkraut a number of years ago, but could only find pasteurized varieties for sale, so he learned to make his own. When he found a source for raw kraut, he moved on to making other hard-to-find foodstuffs, including preserved lemons, pickled vegetables, and dehydrated zucchini and tomatoes.

Brown and his wife follow a gluten- and dairy-free diet and limit their consumption of eggs. This can make breakfast a challenge, especially when they travel. But while visiting North Africa and Morocco, they were introduced to the Levantine-style breakfast: savory lentil or garbanzo bean stew, served with pickled vegetables and olives in oil. Back home, Brown went looking for pickles to recreate the meal but couldn’t find the right kind.

“Pickles can go far beyond cucumbers,” Brown says. So he began making his own pickled carrots, zucchini, and beets. He adds ginger for flavor and peppers for a bit of heat. “I found some traditional recipes and then experimented,” he says.

“My current thing is preserved lemons,” he says. “They aren’t something I’ve seen for sale, but I want to cook with them, so I make my own.”

Saving the Abundance

Artist Donna Thomas’ pantry is filled with jewel-toned Mason jars stacked high—and not a single can of store-bought food. Thomas grew up in a family who canned to preserve the abundance of fruit from their backyard trees.

“We’d have the whole neighborhood of kids there around the kitchen table having peeling races,” she says. “It was fun, and we canned so much fruit.”

She cans now because she wants to control the quality of her food, and also because homemade preserves save her money. Thomas makes jam and tomato and apple sauce using organic, ripe fruit and a minimum of sugar and salt. She only occasionally has to buy her ingredients. “People like to share their abundance,” she says.

In addition to jam and sauce, Thomas makes wild-fermented pickles, sauerkraut, and wine. “I make wine when I have an excess of fruit or can gather for free,” she says. “I use my blackberries from the yard, culled fruit from the farmers’ market, and wild-gathered elderberries and dandelions.”

You Can Do It

Want to try canning yourself? Start simple with small-batch recipes and build from there. Bliss says, “You can start several batches of interesting ferments in an hour or two.” Her book includes several recipes. She says that “fermentation is great because most of the work is done by the bacteria. All you do is set it up and wait.”

Brown’s pickles and preserved lemons are also simple recipes. For the pickles, you need only veggies, vinegar, and spices. For preserved lemons, you need only lemons, lemon juice, and salt. The art is in the subtle variations of spices and preserving time. But while the pickles and lemons only take a few minutes to prepare, they need to cure for a few weeks before they are ready to eat.

For faster results, a batch of jam is a great way to enjoy the flavor of perfectly ripe late summer fruits, like peaches and strawberries, in the middle of winter. Farmers often offer flats of fruit that are not visually perfect for a reduced price, and these are great for preserving. Look for “freezer jam” recipes if you don’t want to go through the process of sealing your jars in boiling water. In all cases, use a detailed recipe and read through the USDA safety recommendations.

Canning 101

Prefer to learn from an expert? Introductory classes in fermenting, pickling, and canning are available:  
Love Apple Farms, located just north of Santa Cruz, offers classes like Canning 101, Pressure Cookery Basics, as well as a pickling class and several jam classes.
• Kathryn Lucas, owner of Farmhouse Culture, offers a basic fermenting class.
• Bliss teaches both common and unusual pickling and fermenting methods at 18 Reasons in San Francisco.
Happy Girl Kitchen offers workshops in fermenting, canning, and pickling.