Sitting in neat rows in Cathy and Billy Bennett’s pantry, jars of fruit and vegetables glow with color and provide satisfaction to the cook. Golden peaches next to green beans and onions, cantaloupe preserves and catsup glow in the pantry light. The rows of filled jars in their diverse colors and shapes are a reminder of the homemade goodness that is locked inside each of those sealed lids. Cathy was letting me try one of her meals in a jar. Even better, she was going to walk me through the canning steps to make the stew-like concoction. The jar she opened was layered with meat on the bottom, then carrots, onions and cabbage. After a few minutes warming on the stove, it tasted even better than it looked. The venison was tender and the vegetables were cooked perfectly, the flavors enhancing one another.
New Fast Food
Fast food takes on a whole new meaning when it’s canned, or actually jarred. Not only are jarred foods quick to prepare, they are tasty, nutritious and often use food that would probably go to waste.
“We fed the eight hungry guys building our deck one cold evening using these meals,” said Billy. “The venison came from our property and the vegetables came from the garden, so the meals were practically free. The guys raved about the flavor and all it took was popping the lids and warming it up.”
The Bennetts moved to the tiny community of Dolph, Arkansas, about two years ago. But Cathy’s skill as a canner started when she was 15 and discovered she had a knack for working with food. Her mother, grandmother and aunt all enjoyed canning, so the ladies had a willing pupil to teach the art and science of making tasty, well-preserved food, and how to put love in every bite.
Meals For Hard Times
During the Great Depression, canning kitchens helped many country gardeners get through the bad times. Ladies would get together, share vegetables and can produce in central locations with all the equipment. In those hard times, it gave women a rare chance to get together. They could share gossip and experiences as they put up food. Today, in many kitchens, generations of cooks still unite and share experiences over a recipe.
These early experiences with canning led Cathy to become an expert with food. She went on to get a Bachelor of Science degree in home economics from Baylor University in Texas. Then she taught school until the move to Arkansas. She now teaches canning for a variety of groups all over the Ozarks.
“Just about anything that can be imagined can go in a jar,” said Cathy. “Cake, pie filling, salsa, bacon, salt-preserved lemons, all are great out of a jar. Canning isn’t just for jams and jellies these days. If you can imagine a food, you can can it.”
“There has been a renaissance in canning during the last few years,” Cathy said. One of the bigger changes in canning today is the number of men who have taken up canning. “About 15 percent of the people who attend my canning classes are guys,” she said.
“People are growing gardens again and want to make the home-grown flavor last beyond the short growing seasons. So they end up canning the extras. Because many canned foods are sealed before they are cooked, the foods retain the vitamins and minerals that are lost in many of the over-processed and chemically treated foods in grocery stores. The best part of canning is knowing that properly put up food will last for decades.”
Today there are a lot of resources if you want to go beyond the basic canned jam, beans, carrots and okra. The Ball Blue Book and Dinner Is In The Jar both have recipes for a huge variety of odd foods. There are dozens of other excellent books, and the internet has a great variety of information, how-tos and what works in a jar. [Ed Note: The USDA canning guides are comprehensive and available on the internet. They provide recipes and timing instructions according to altitude.]
Part of the reason canning is getting so popular is that many people are uncomfortable about eating the so-called “frankenfoods.” These are genetically engineered plants, or GMOs, in which genes from a different species are inserted into a plant’s genetic code. Many have been modified not to germinate at all,ecause they are patented, it is illegal to plant their seeds.
To avoid eating such food, one answer is to grow a big garden using heirloom plant varieties, save the seeds from year to year and can the vegetables and fruit.
Canned foods also guarantee tasty meals when it’s impossible to get to the grocery store. There are many reasons to have a supply of preserved food—the loss of a job, catastrophic weather or an illness in the family.
“It’s very satisfying to know that, no matter what takes place, Billy and I have enough food for any emergency. We have prepared food, and that will last several months,” Cathy said. “When I hear the pop of the lids sealing, it tells me that something good just happened. Excellent flavors are being created that we will enjoy with a memory.”
Getting Started Canning
“To start canning, all that’s needed is a pressure canner, jars, lids, a recipe and a little imagination,” Cathy said. “Then let the whistling begin. I usually start with my Ball canning book, which is tattered and dog-eared from years of use.”
Grandma never saw a pressure canner like the ones that are available today, and the newer style canners have excellent safety features and a pressure scale (gauge) on the cover that allows for exact cooking. Unfortunately, the new pressure canners like Cathy Bennett uses can cost several hundred dollars.
Larger retailers may carry one or two models, but to find a good selection of canners your best bet is the internet. There are several online stores that offer dozens of different sizes and models, as well as canning supplies like jar lifters, fruit peelers and ladles. Just go to your browser and type in “pressure cookers” for a variety of choices and manufacturers.
Seal The Meal
To make meals in a jar, you need a pressure canner big enough to hold the filled jars separate from each other and upright, with a heat diffuser under the jars. For a single meal for one person, pint jars might work, but using quart jars makes enough for two.
Proper sanitation is very important in canning. The jars should be clean and given a boiling water bath prior to using. Use either new metal or reusable plastic lids. And the jar ring sealers can be reused. All the sealing parts should be kept in hot water until the jars are filled and ready to put in the pressure canner.
Cooking time will vary considerably depending on what is being cooked. It is important to stay by the pot until it starts to steam, so the temperature can be regulated by turning down the heat source. When the pot is whistling gently as steam escapes through the vent pipe, it can be left until the cooking time is finished.
After the food is cooked and the lids have sealed, it’s a good idea to remove the rings. If they are not taken off, in time it will take a hammer to open the jars.
You can let your imagination guide which meats and vegetables you jar, but fresh, frozen, leftover or dehydrated vegetables all work. Jars can be filled with just meat, vegetables or a combination of the two. Almost any meat or fish will work. The only things that don’t can well are potatoes.
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