By Cheryl A. Wixson
By the time this harvest season is over, our cellar shelves will be lined with jars of spicy peach chutney, crisp bread and butter pickles, rainbow-colored marinated bean salad – even rows of canned applesauce varieties: ‘Sweet Sixteen,’ ‘Liberty,’ ‘Spencer’ and ‘Tolman Sweet.’ Quarts of dilly beans and kosher dill spears, pints of rabbit hill relish, mustard pickles, green tomato mincemeat, pickled beets, peach salsa, currant-raspberry conserve, pear butter, blueberry jam, cranberry ketchup and nasturtium berry capers will all be preserved in jars, patiently awaiting winter.
These pickles, relishes and chutneys are like the family jewels. They accessorize our meals, adding zest and interest. It is a visual and sensual delight to enjoy a dollop of cheery red, spicy cranberry ketchup with the Saturday night baked beans. Or to savor golden mustard pickles with a ham salad sandwich. Peach chutney spices up pork tenderloin, bright blueberry jam enhances the morning oatmeal. This bounty in my larder will tide us over, making the long winter months of eating seemingly endless root vegetables more flavorful and exciting.
One of my favorite Maine cooks, Marjorie Standish, said it best when she wrote in her book Cooking Down East, “Habit is strong. Part of the process of getting ready for winter in days gone by was the preservation of food and this is no by-gone achievement. The Maine housewife considers this part of her heritage.” For me, this part of our heritage is what local, seasonal, organic eating is all about.
For generations, frugal and creative cooks have pickled and preserved extra produce from the harvest, creating endless variations upon a theme and sharing them at county fairs and community suppers. Some of my earliest food memories are of the Norway, Maine, Heywood Club neighborhood turkey dinners. Mounds of mashed potato, roasted turkey with steaming gravy, turnip and carrots, canned green beans and coleslaw were present every time, but the sparkling jars of condiments made the meal: Marie Millet’s bread and butter pickles, Esther Kenney’s zucchini relish, Rowena’s apple butter, Winona’s refrigerator corn relish, Joyce’s ruby pickled beets.
My jars of condiments also offer tremendous flexibility and encourage creativity in our cuisine. At our table, Rabbit Hill relish and chopped nasturtium berry capers mixed with mayonnaise are the house tartar sauce, wicked good on clam fritters and shrimp cakes. Barbecue sauce and grated cheese go into homemade burgers, raspberry-currant conserve warmed to a syrup is spooned over canned peaches with vanilla ice cream.
Today, commercial preserving creates mass produced jars of sugary, salty, artificial, shallow tasting stuff. Preserving your own concoctions allows for pesticide- and additive-free condiments at a fraction of the cost. (And you can avoid consuming the synthetic estrogen bisphenol A (BPA), present in the lining of most cans and in most jar lids, by getting BPA-free, reusable canning jar lids from www.reusablecanninglids.com/.) Jars of condiments make wonderful holiday gifts. Best of all, nothing beats the taste, or the satisfaction, coming from rows of your own brightly colored preserves packed into jars.
Resources and recipes for canning are available from the University of Maine Cooperative Extension (https://extension.umaine.edu/food-health/food-preservation/),
National Center for Home Food Preservation (www.uga.edu/nchfp/) and the book So Easy to Preserve from the University of Georgia (www.uga.edu/setp/).
This recipe came from Vicki, who helped me at the 2008 Great Maine Apple Day. It originally appeared in America’s Cookbook, compiled by New York Herald Tribune Home Institute, a wedding present Vicki’s mother received in 1943.
4 lbs. cranberries (4 quarts)
1 lb. onions, chopped in food processor
2 c. water
Cook until tender. Recipe says to rub through a sieve, but we like the texture better when it is not.
4-1/2 c. sugar
2 c. cider vinegar
1 Tbsp. cloves
1 Tbsp. cinnamon
1 Tbsp. black pepper
1 Tbsp. allspice
1 Tbsp. salt
Bring to a boil and simmer until thick…a long time on the wood stove. Process for 15 minutes in boiling water bath. Yield: 13 1-cup jars.
Barbara Damrosch of Four Season Farm in Harborside inspired this recipe as she extolled the virtues of nasturtium capers in her weekly column, A Cook’s Garden (Thursdays in the Washington Post). The pungent flavor of these pickled “berries” adds piquancy to our favorite tartar sauce.
2 c. champagne or white wine vinegar
1 tsp. salt
1 small onion, thinly sliced
2 lemon slices
1/2 tsp. pickling spice
1 garlic clove, finely minced
1/4 tsp. celery salt
In a saucepan on the stovetop, combine the marinade ingredients, bring them to a boil and simmer for 5 minutes. Pack the nasturtium seeds into a glass canning jar. Pour the marinade over them. Store in the refrigerator. They are ready to use in about a week.
Cheryl Wixson is MOFGA’s organic marketing consultant and resident chef. She welcomes your recipes and jars of condiments, questions and comments at [email protected] or 852-0899.