Preservation: Pickles, Jelly and Sanity

This post is a participant in the Green Moms Carnival.  This month, the topic is Food Preservation and is hosted by my fantastic bloggy friend, Abbie of the Farmer’s Daughter.  There are many, many posts to read and be inspired by (I know I am!), so take time to head on over to her blog, check out the posts by other authors and go through Abbie’s recipe book.  I for one, can’t wait to make her Cider Jelly in another month or two!

Every year, I sit down and make a list of my canning goals.  I haven’t been doing it for all that long, so each year as my confidence grows, so does my list.  I love to open the cupboard doors and see my neatly organized jars full of the fresh foods I put up with my own hands.  I thrill throughout the winter as I reach into the freezer and pull out a bag of my frozen green beans, labeled in my handwriting with the date they were blanched and sealed in those bags.

When I first began canning, I was able to set aside whole days and dedicate my energy and focus to the task.  That first year, it was a great idea to spend the entire morning grilling tomatoes to be canned.  The next year, I had a brand new baby and no energy or time to speak of.  Last year, our son was just a year old and I was newly pregnant with our daughter.  Oh.  And we moved into a home we were renovating.  In the midst of this, I canned when I could during the week and spent one very long 10-hour day with a friend to can a couple bushels of tomatoes.  The tomato day worked out well since we were able to use an industrial kitchen and completely devote our time and energy to it.  The next day, we were both exhausted and I honestly wondered how on Earth Amish women are able to do it in homes with no air-conditioning, fancy supportive mats for their feet and husbands to run errands for them at the drop of a hat.  Some people are stronger than others I guess.
Last year, I managed to do the tomatoes, peaches, hot pepper jelly, applesauce and blackberry jam.  The tomatoes were a success just by merit of the circumstances by which they were done.  The blackberry jam was ill-fated.  I just threw out the last jar a week ago… we ate none of it.  Reason being I had made a poor decision to start the jam close to the end of Liam’s afternoon nap.  The jam got a little burnt on the bottom of pan, so I tried to salvage it and only use the top part.  What resulted after it had settled was a smoky-flavored blackberry cement that you couldn’t even spread on a slice of toast.  On the upside, the hot pepper jelly was a total success.  I started that after Liam had gone to bed so that before I myself collapsed for the night, the jelly was cooling on my countertops.  Bonus: the 8 hours between when I finished and my son rising for the morning was enough for the air to clear of the sting of 7 pounds of hot pepper fumes.
This year, I’ve already canned 22 jars of pickles and a dozen jars of strawberry jam.  I have a toddler and a 3 month old who need me to still be Mama and not super canning woman locked in the kitchen for hours on end.  Through trial and error these last 2 years, I’ve come up with a few tips to hopefully help myself and others sail through this season smoothly and come out on top.  On top of a good stash of canned goods to be proud of!
  • First and foremost, know your children!  If your baby is more demanding in the morning, this isn’t the time to start a bushel of peaches that need to be peeled, packed and processed before they turn colors.  If you have older children who can entertain themselves, use that time to get your work done.  For me, I know I have about an hour in the afternoon when both kiddos are sleeping that if I have things started before I can use to do anything that needs to be timed, like say, watching for jelling points.  The rest of my work needs to be done in the evening after my husband comes home.  He can entertain our son while our daughter and I hang out in the kitchen, working and nursing as we can until she goes to sleep for the night.
  • Work in small batches.  Yes, it seems like it’ll take longer that way, but I promise you, it will be worth your while.  Trust me when I say this because I was really upset about throwing away 42 dollars worth of inedible blackberry jam.
  • Since I’ve already mentioned the Amish, let’s talk about them again.  There’s a real merit to their canning bees.  As the saying goes, “many hands make light work”, and if you can find another person to work with it makes the day more manageable not only because you have someone to chat with, but also if you need to change a diaper, you don’t have to worry about that finicky point between perfectly jelled and totally scorched.
  • Get organized!  The way to having a successful canning experience to know what you have, what supplies you’ll need and the length of processing times.  Don’t waste precious naptimes by starting those peaches and discover that you don’t have any sugar to make your syrup.
  • Clean all your vegetables/fruits in advance if you can.  The remaining prep work really flies by when everything is already washed.
  • Ask for help.  This is a big one.  I ask my husband to watch our son while I’m working and if I have to stop and nurse, I have him on call to take jars out of the canner or peel peaches or shock the green beans.  The best part of this is that in time, he’ll be a valuable asset to me in the kitchen every year until our kids are old enough to really get involved and we can make food preservation a family affair!
  • And finally, bribe if necessary.  While doing the pickles a few weeks ago, I did have to offer an extra snack and movie to keep Liam occupied so that I could finish the last few batches in the canner.  I don’t want him in the kitchen right now since he’s too young to really help beyond the initial cleaning of the vegetable/fruit and I don’t want him to get burnt.  Maybe next year, he can help me pack pickles into the jars, but for this year it needed to be just Sylvia and I in the kitchen singing and working in between her feedings and naps.

With these tips in mind, head on out to your local farmer’s market, produce stand or (if you’re lucky) backyard garden and get excited about what you can do with little ones and a little advance planning.  Keep it up, because in years to come, you’ll have eager little helpers in your kitchen to make these days even more worthwhile!

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