Can Doers

Posted Wednesday, November 25th, 2009 at 5:42 pm

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The constant sunshine and good weather can lull us Angelenos into believing that we live in a land of plenty.  Put a seed in the ground and chances are it will grow. Yet, the reality is that hunger remains a serious problem here.

Here come the hard facts.

According to Fed Up With Hunger’s “Blueprint To End Hunger” (click here for PDF):

  • 1,000,000 Angelenos feel hungry every day.

  • The recent economic crisis has exacerbated the situation, resulting in increased unemployment, home loss and a 41% rise in those seeking emergency food services.

  • Most disturbing is that children and the elderly are the most at risk with 25% of LA children and 50% of independent elderly facing food insecurity on a daily basis.

Rick Nahmias of Food Forward came up with a juicy idea to help combat these staggering statistics.  Started in 2009, his organization gathers volunteers to glean excess fruit from trees in private residences and then donates the bounty to food banks.

They work with SOVA, JFS’s Community Food and Resource Program and M.E.N.D Poverty.  Combined, these food banks distribute the fruit to 30,000 hungry people a month.

As of November 12, Food Forward has collected 60,649 pounds of fresh fruit in 2009.

Though this number is astounding, it is not hard to believe.  As a native Angelino, I’m used to seeing trees sitting in yards pregnant with fruit that is never picked. Many home-owners treat their trees as mere decorations.  They don’t know what to do with all they produce and they don’t have time pick it.  So the fruit dangles, like so many dusty Christmas ornaments, rotting away.

With Food Forward in the picture, hopefully there won’t be many un-harvested trees left in LA.

So, how do we preserve all that fruit?  Can it of course!

On Sunday my husband and I were lucky enough to participate in Food Forward’s brand-new canning venture at M.E.N.D’s kitchen in Pacoima.

M.E.N.D stands for Meeting Each Need With Dignity.  Started in the early 70’s in a garage, the organization has now grown into the largest poverty agency in the Valley.  They provide emergency food, clothing, medical, vision and dental care in addition to several other services. In 2008, they served over 368,969 individuals.

Kevin West of the savingtheseason.com and Surfas Canning Class fame, and Nina Corbett of putsup.com were generous enough to donate their time and lead a workshop for Food Forward volunteers in M.E.N.D Poverty’s kitchen.  The idea being to train gleaners to preserve their fruit to donate or sell as a means of raising money for the organization.

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On this Sunday afternoon, about 20 FF volunteers gathered around a table  filled with fruit and listened as Nina and Kevin gave instruction.

The canning process is straightforward and, in practice, pleasing in its Zen-like repetition.  First peel the fruit, then chop it, wash the jars, heat them, boil the water, make the simple syrup, poach the pears, stuff the jars with as much fruit as possible, then seal the jars, boil them, cool them, and eventually eat them.

Each volunteer brought 12 jars to donate.  So with 240 jars, 10 crates of pears, and 7 huge pots we split into groups and got to work. I grabbed a peeler with the dullest blade I’ve ever used and picked a pear to peel (say that three times fast).

Soon, everyone was moving apace: peelers, choppers, syrup makers, water boilers, timekeepers, jar washers, talkers, photographers, and jokers. We were a jolly group, buzzed with the easy camaraderie of folks who think spending a Sunday afternoon canning is a fun idea.

My husband seemed to be having the best time, challenging anyone close by to try squeezing more pears into a jar than him. Needless to say, nobody could – for which he gave praise to many years of playing Tetris.

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After a few hours, it was time to can the canning.  There was no official count, but I’d say we made about 50 jars of pear preserves which were all donated to M.E.N.D.  Not bad!  Plus, FF now has a small army of expert canners at the ready.

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Nina Corbett of putsup.com

Afterwards, we were treated to a smorgasbord of Kevin and Nina’s gourmet preserves.  Kevin’s Fire-Roasted Peppers in Red Wine Vinegar (a recipe that is thankfully published on his blog) were transcendent.  Nina’s raspberry jam was about the best I’ve ever tasted.  Oh and the pickled okra – yum!

For those of you out there with fruit trees in your yards, Food Forward is always looking for new trees to harvest.  Contact Erica, the Property/Harvesting Coordinator at erica@foodforward.org.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

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Yes, I Canned

Categories: Canning | 5 Comments
Posted Tuesday, November 17th, 2009 at 10:50 am

I have two words for my first canning experience.  Nerve.  Wracking.  I suppose I’m an excitable type, but rarely in the kitchen have I gotten my adrenaline going to such a pitch as I did puttin’ up chutney.

It began simply enough.  Peeling the leathery skin off the sunset-hued persimmon and  chopping the sweet smelling apple all created a meditative calm.  Then mixing the ingredients with the vinegar, lime juice and spices, releasing an exotic, sour aroma.

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Putting the chutney in a pot, I was soon lulled by its gentle simmer.  Then I remembered I was in the middle of an experiment.  I  pulled out what I intended to use as a canning rack and saw that it wouldn’t work at all!

A canning rack is something used to elevate the jars from the bottom of the pot so they aren’t in direct contact with the flame or the metal…so they don’t explode.  I panicked.  Wasted fruit.  Time I would never get back.  Zero jars of chutney to show for it.

Luckily I’m blessed with neighbors who love to cook.  I emailed Brooke and Edie an SOS: “Help!  Immediate need for canning rack.  You are my only hope.”  With the chutney half-way done, I knew I only had minutes to “MacGyver” a solution.

Like  canners’ angels they both wrote back right away. Brooke had the goods and said I could borrow hers.  But the water was boiling fast. Luckily, my brilliant husband called, responding to my anguished text, and came up with a quick solution: use our trivet.  Turned out it fit perfectly in the bottom of the pot.  Problem solved, I went back to work.

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After putting the jars in the oven for 15 minutes at 225, they were well heated.  The chutney was done, the water was boiling, the clock was ticking, the heat was rising.  Everything had to happen all at once.  I had no idea what I was doing.

I went into this with only cursory understanding of the process.  I figured learning in the heat of the moment  would permanently seal the correct methods into my brain, like summer tomatoes in a jar.

Opening for the first time my cute lil’ canner’s kit, I found the funnel and used it to ladle in the chutney (which was delicious, by the way!). Was I supposed to immediately seal the jars and place each one in the boiling water as they were ready, or put all the jars in the water at once?

Split second decisions all of which could lead to death by botulism!

Speed reading through the 400+ page tome Ball Complete Guide To Home Preserving, I gleaned that each jar should be immediately sealed and  placed in the water.  The rim of the jars should be wiped clean with a paper towels to ensure proper sealing.  The lids shouldn’t be screwed on too tight so that they may vent.  When all the jars are in the water, then turn it up to a boil and begin the timing.  In canning, as in comedy, timing is everything.

15 minutes and zero explosions later and voila!  Two jars or Persimmon Chutney!

I’m still kinda scared to eat it though!

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Surfas Canning Class

Categories: Canning , Recipes | 3 Comments
Posted Thursday, November 12th, 2009 at 12:49 pm

Yesterday was full of food adventures.  The day began with a free canning and preserving class I read about in a post on Slow Food LA.  Canning has always been something I’ve wanted to try, but the scientific complexity and potential danger of it was too scary.  I imagined exploding jars sending shards of glass into the flesh of my loved ones, pots boiling over with scalding water, long painful deaths by boticilism, and worse, all that wasted fruit splattered on the walls like a scene from a bad slasher film.  Okay, you got me.  I’m paranoid.

Anyway, this year, I’ve decided to face my fears.  My wonderful husband accompanied me to Surfas, everyone’s favorite cooking store in Culver City.  By the time we got there, the test kitchen was standing room only.  A grandmotherly lady in a cheerful cherry print apron, Bettina Birch, was busy chopping persimmons for a chutney.  She was accompanied by a handsome young fellow, Kevin West with a southern drawl and a quick wit.  Donning a fitted wool vest, his blonde hair cropped and parted to the side, he reminded by of a banker in an old western movie.

My gaze went straight to the colorful mason jars of preserves that decorated the perimeter of the counter. The brazen peppers the color of a bullfighter’s cape, the soft orange persimmon hugging each, the cherries, mysterious in their maroon syrup.

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Each jar had a handmade tag lovingly attached to its lid with twine, proudly declaring the the contents within.  There was definitely a craft to this.  It was the perfect intersection between individual industry and art.

I imagined my kitchen counter bedecked in such a way, creating a sense of culinary joy and pride such as I have never before experienced.  I grabbed one of the canning kits stacked before me and listened with rapt attention.

When my husband learned that canning doesn’t necessarily imbue the food with enhanced flavor, he lost enthusiasm.  “What’s the point?” he asked.  Especially in Santa Monica, where there is a farmer’s market practically every day of the week and everything grows all year round.

Well, there is the aesthetic value I described above.  Also, there is the “Little House On The Prairie” effect.  I love the idea of carefully preserving food to survive the winter, even though the temp may only drop to 60.  And we can always give them away as gifts for the holidays!

Below are the recipes and my notes.  Reader, these are the recordings of a half-cocked lady.  Please consult a USDA approved canning recipe book like Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving before tryin’ this at home.

Canning Recipes

The chutney recipe above also calls for  a 1/2 teaspoon cardamon!

Notes

- The key to canning is getting as much air out of the can as possible. Canning kits come with a special wand designed to help you pack down the fruit and remove air bubbles from the jar.

- When choosing fruit that is firm and maybe even slightly unripe.  You want it to be able to withstand all the cooking.

- Botulism can only exist in low acid/PH environments.  Most fruits are already high enough in PH (raspberries, strawberries). However, if not, vinegar or lemon or lime juice will do the trick.

Preparing The Jars

- They must be hot before adding hot food. Wash jars and then dry them by putting them in a 225 degree oven for 15 minutes.  Not necessary to “sterilize.”

- When placing a jar in a boiling pot of water use a canning rack to elevate the jar above the bottom of the pot.  Placing glass on metal can lead to accidents.

- Put jar in water immediately after putting on the lid.

- Start the timing of the “water bath” from the time the water starts to boil.  Boil the water and then put all the jars in at the same time.  Turn up to a boil again and start timing.

- Sealing the jars. Essentially you just want to seal the jars as airtight as possible to protect it from the world of pathogens.  People over the centuries have had many techniques including using beeswax, or even paper soaked in brandy.

- Jars lids can take up to 24 hours to “pop.”

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