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Preserving The Season's Fruits With A Canning Evangelist

Kevin West is a "canning evangelist," and he's the author of <em>Saving the Season,</em> a colorful guide to preserving the bounty from a backyard vegetable harvest — or a compulsive farmers market shopping spree.
Josh Norris
Kevin West is a "canning evangelist," and he's the author of Saving the Season, a colorful guide to preserving the bounty from a backyard vegetable harvest — or a compulsive farmers market shopping spree.

Shopping at a farmers market on a weekend morning can turn bittersweet if your eye for just-picked summer fruit is bigger than your refrigerator and appetite.

That's a crisis first-time cookbook author Kevin West found himself in a few years back. After one particular farmers market spree, West's buyer's remorse came from a big package of fresh strawberries.

With too many delicious strawberries to eat, West turned to a family tradition: canning and preserving.

This old-school kitchen ritual is the topic of his book, Saving the Season: a cook's guide to home canning, preserving and pickling.

On a sunny and bright day in Washington, D.C., Weekend Edition guest host Lynn Neary hit the farmers market with West to find the right ingredients to preserve.

"With strawberries, I smell them first," West said. "They should have that rich nostalgic smell of strawberries. And if passes those two tests, look and smell, then we want to do a taste test."

The taste test might be the most important selection technique:

  • Don't mistake a small berry for a bad one — tiny fruits often have the best flavor.
  • Don't use only sweet berries to make jam. Combine tart with sugary ones to get the right balance.

West is truly a canning evangelist.

"This is a real moment. It's a moment in the year, it's a moment in our lives," he said.

He says the time between spring and summer seasons can often bring the most rewarding preserved products later in the year.

"And that's part of what I mean by saving the season is you take this experience in the annual cycle ... and you put it in the jar. And six months from now we will re-experience that moment."

RECIPE: Basic Strawberry Jam

Yields 2 pints

2 pounds ripe strawberries

2 1/2 cups sugar

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

Optional: a few scrapings of lemon zest

To get started, go shopping at a farmers market or roadside farm stand if at all possible, and seek out the smallest, reddest berries. Fragrance is a good indicator of quality, but tasting is better still. The giant strawberries favored by supermarket produce managers are not a good choice. I call them "Pamela Anderson fruit," artificially enhanced and tasteless.

  1. Briefly rinse the berries and remove their caps. Combine with the sugar, lemon juice, and zest, if using, in a large bowl, and crush with a potato masher (or your hands).
  2. Turn the fruit-sugar mixture into a preserving pan, and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring regularly. Reduce at a full rolling boil, stirring all the while, to the gel point, 8 to 10 minutes, depending on the size of your pan and the strength of the heat source.
  3. Once a gel set has been achieved, skim if necessary, and ladle the hot jam into four prepared 1/2-pint jars, leaving 1/4 inch head space. Seal, and process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.

The sugar content in this recipe is lower than in many traditional farmhouse recipes, but there's still enough for a soft-set consistency and to ensure a reasonably long shelf life once opened. ...

Also, do not double the quantities, at least not initially. A small batch is cheaper, faster, more manageable, and better suited to the size of standard household equipment. If you want more jars, make two small batches. I can assure you from personal experience that you'll be happier with the outcome. In fact, the more experienced I get, the more I'm inclined to do three or four jars at a time — a nice little job to knock off in an hour, rather than a labor that wrings the fun out of the afternoon.

These snappy dill pickles were once Kirby cucumbers. The canning liquid is made with vinegar, fennel and coriander seeds that give them their distinct tart flavor.
Kevin West / Knopf
These snappy dill pickles were once Kirby cucumbers. The canning liquid is made with vinegar, fennel and coriander seeds that give them their distinct tart flavor.

RECIPE: Cucumber Dill Spears And Chips

Yields 2 quarts

Processing your pickles in a hot-water bath rather than a boiling-water bath will give you a firmer texture. It follows that if you want pickles with real snap, don't process them at all. These dill-pickle spears — or sandwich chips, depending on how you slice them — can be processed, if you want, for long-term shelf storage, but first try making a batch to keep in the refrigerator. They will be crisp, and the flavor of raw cucumber comes through. It's the freshest-tasting pickle in this book, and perhaps my favorite. The recipe can be scaled up.

1/4 cup kosher salt

6 cups lukewarm water

2 teaspoons coriander seeds

1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds

3 large flowering dill heads (4 inches across)

3 pounds Kirby pickling cucumbers

4 cloves garlic, crushed

2 cups white-wine vinegar

  1. Dissolve the salt in the water, and add the coriander, fennel, and dill. Set aside.
  2. Scrub the cucumbers well, rubbing off any spines. Cut away a thin round from the stem and blossom ends, and slice lengthwise into quarters. Put the spears in a large bowl, and cover with the brine. Weight the cucumbers with a plate, cover the bowl with a kitchen towel, and set aside for 24 hours. If the bowl won't fit in your refrigerator, it's fine to leave it out at room temperature.
  3. The next day, pack the cucumber spears into two scalded quart jars, saving the brine. Measure out 2 cups of the brine and reserve. Strain the remaining brine through a fine sieve to capture the aromatics, and divide them between the jars. Tuck a dill head and two cloves of garlic into each jar.
  4. Mix the vinegar and the 2 cups reserved brine, and bring to a boil. Pour it over the pickles to cover. Seal the jars, and store in the refrigerator for a week before using. For long-term shelf storage, leave 1/2-inch head space when filling the jars, then seal. Process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes, or in a hot-water bath, between 180 and 185 degrees, for 30 minutes.

Excerpted from Saving the Season by Kevin West. Copyright 2013 by Kevin West. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House Inc.

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Jessica Naudziunas
Jessica Naudziunas is Harvest Public Media's connection to central Missouri, working out of the KBIA offices in Columbia, Mo. She joined Harvest in July 2010. Jessica has spent time on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday and WNYC's Soundcheck, and reported and produced for WNIN-FM in Evansville, Ind. She grew up in the city of Chicago, studied at the University of Tulsa and has helped launch local food gardens in Oklahoma and Indiana.