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Yes We CAN

By David Szanto

Forty-five years ago, in Thetford Mines, Claude and Janine Lessard didn’t preserve their own food for health reasons. It was just what they did: they grew, they ate, and what they grew and couldn’t eat, they canned. During the long, cold months of winter, it meant that dinner was more than an endless parade of cabbage and turnips and potatoes.

Today, canned food is mostly a grocery-store commodity. It gives consumers a variety of tastes and conveniences throughout the year, and has become a standard staple of the average kitchen cabinet.

Like most processed food, however, canned fruits and vegetables often contain elevated levels of salt, sugar, acid, and chemical stabilizers. For these reasons, among others, there is a growing wave of interest in eating good food all year round, without paying the environmental and economic price of long-distance shipping, and without questions about unnecessary additives or health hazards.

Many years and many kilometers from Thetford Mines, Claude and Janine’s son Jean Lessard lives in a loft overlooking Vieux Montréal. He no longer has access to a kitchen garden erupting with fresh fruits and vegetables, but he continues the family tradition, making herbes salées (salted herbs) and vinegared beets every year. A pinch of the herbs adds flavour without too much sodium to mashed potatoes and, as he recalls his father saying: “You just can’t eat pâté chinois or meat pie without beets.”

CAN-Do

Cookbooks such as The Joy of Cooking and The Cook’s Handbook offer extensive guidelines for home canning, and jar manufacturer Bernardin’s website gives complete step-bystep instructions for preserving both highacid and low-acid foods.

More hands-on still, canning workshops and community events are popping up across the country. Activist groups, such as the non-profit organization Slow Food, are promoting home canning as a way to not only eat more healthfully and affordably, but to enjoy locally produced food all year round. It also promotes healthier communities, as families and neighbours come together to share expertise, time, and the delicious results of their labour. Back in the Old Montréal loft, Jean Lessard rummages in the fridge and pulls out an unopened jar of preserved beets. Catching a beam of light from an overhead skylight, the garnet globes gleam temptingly. If only we had some pâté chinois.

Canning It

  1. Jars, rings, and all canning equipment should be sterilized for at least 10 minutes in boiling water. Always use canning jars and new lids. Other jars and reused lids may not provide a proper seal and allow spoilage to occur.
  2. Follow recipes carefully. Reducing salt, sugar, and acid may seem more healthful, but their preservative natures are necessary to avoid spoilage. Some fruit-preserve recipes use a low-sugar pectin: check the manufacturers directions. Do not overcook fruits and vegetables, which reduces the nutritional content of the food.
  3. Headroom is the unfilled air space between the top of the preserves and the top of the jar. During hot-water processing, the air in that space is forced out to create a sterile environment. Follow your recipe’s guidelines: headroom should be about 1/2 cm for a 250 mL jar, 1 cm for larger jars.
  4. During processing, jars should be on a metal rack in a single layer, with boiling water covering the jars by at least 3 cm to ensure enough pressure to drive out the air in the headroom. Processing times vary; follow the recipe carefully.
  5. During cooling, jar lids will snap down with a pop if properly sealed. Lids on cooled jars should be concave, with no flexibility if you push down lightly on them.
  6. Adding a small amount of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) to canned food will preserve colour and reduce oxidation of vitamins and other nutrients.
  7. Botulism is a serious illness that causes paralysis and even respiratory failure. Health authorities recommend boiling all canned food for a minimum of 20 minutes before eating.

Resources

Joy of Cooking, Irma S. Rombauer & Marion Rombauer Becker
The Cook’s Handbook, Prue Leith

On the Internet

The Bernardin canning website : homecanning.com
The Slow Food website : www.slowfoodmontreal.com

David Szanto teaches Gastronomy, Food Studies, and Communications at l’Université du Québec à Montréal, Concordia University, and the University of Gastronomic Sciences, in Italy. He lives in Montréal, where he will begin an interdisciplinary doctoral program in Gastronomy this autumn at Concordia.

Fall 2010, Vol 2 N°4

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