By Merry Hall
“Be sure to wear gloves while handling the jalapeno peppers and avoid touching your face and eyes,” Kathy Savoie, our teacher, warns us. Following a brief lecture on processing tomatoes, our master food preserver class is about to make tomato salsa in the family and consumer science room of the Gorham Middle School. Savoie has explained new safety guidelines that require adding bottled lemon juice to acidify tomatoes, because their natural acidity can be pH 4.6 or above – and a pH below 4.6 is required for foods that can be processed in a boiling water bath instead of a pressure canner, in order to avoid deadly botulism poisoning.
Savoie is the Extension educator with University of Maine Cooperative Extension in Cumberland County. As master food preservers, we will share research-based information on safe canning, freezing and drying that she teaches us with other adults and youth, thus extending Extension’s education programs in food preservation. As the hands-on part of this salsa session, we follow the recipe in our textbook, So Easy to Preserve. After peeling, coring and chopping tomatoes, peppers and onions, we bring all ingredients to a boil and simmer for 20 minutes. We place the hot mixture in preheated canning jars, being careful to leave 1/2 inch of “head space” in each jar; wipe down the rim; cap the jars finger tight with special two-part lids; insert the jars carefully into the boiling water bath; bring the water back to a boil before timing the processing for 15 minutes; remove the jars to a cooling rack; and both listen for the “pop” and watch for the concave lid that indicate the jars have properly vacuum sealed. All this we have learned and practiced over the 10 three-hour sessions involved in the course.
“I enjoy training an army of volunteers to pass on such crucial food safety information,” says Savoie. “Interest in food preservation has increased over the past few years, and UMaine Cooperative Extension has responded to this demand with educational online and print resources as well as hands-on food preservation workshops, not only to educate, but also to help people gain the skills they need to preserve foods at home safely.”
Call 1-800-287-1471 to request a master food preserver brochure, but note that class size is limited and enrollment is selective. Each participant must meet the following qualifications to become certified as a master food preserver:
• Attend the 10-part, 30-hour course, including hands-on kitchen lab sessions.
• Successfully complete Preserving Food at Home: A Self Study, available online.
• Meet the minimum competency assessment.
• Complete at least 20 hours of volunteer service as a master food preserver.
• Report the impact of your volunteer time.
By becoming a master food preserver, you learn useful skills, help re-educate the public in traditional skills that have been scientifically updated for safety, and get to take home the food you processed in class.
Merry Hall is author of Bringing Food Home: The Maine Example, available at local bookstores and www.amazon.com; co-founder of Amasagu’nteg, an emerging ecovillage in Maine; and a board member of Food for Maine’s Future.