10 December 2013

Snow day at the homestead

Courtesy of Channel 6
Got the word as I was clambering out of bed this morning that my daughter's school is closed, so we're settling in for a snow day here at the homestead. They probably didn't need to close the schools -- looks as though the city pre-treated most of the arterial streets, so traffic will likely move smoothly all day -- but I imagine reducing traffic volume makes it safer and easier for everyone involved.

Although I didn't make it to the supermarket yesterday, I think we're good to go for a day in. I have about two quarts of soup leftovers sitting in the fridge. I've tossed it all in my smaller slow cooker and we'll have something piping hot for the daughter to tuck into once she's done shoveling the sidewalk. And other than soup, we have the usual complement of lunch fixin's and dinner options we would have had on any ordinary Tuesday, snowstorm or not. I'm reminded that I have some peaches in the freezer; maybe I'll declare the house too cold for civilized living, and bake them into a pie or something this afternoon.

05 December 2013

Care and feeding of canning jars

Recently, Marisa at Food in Jars mentioned that she's moving away from using her canning jars for tasks other than canning -- tasks like storing leftovers, carrying sack lunches, and drinking beverages. And for good reasons! She writes:
[I]n recent years I've learned that it can be hard on canning jars to constantly employ them for everyday use and then turn around and can in them. That's because when you eat out of jars and bang them around, it can weaken them and eventually lead to breakage in the canning pot.
I'm 100% in agreement with Marisa, for my usual home economics types of reasons. Understand, it's not that canning jars are hard to replace when you lose them to breakage. Since so many people are home canning lately, more and more stores have them in stock on a regular basis. It used to be that if I needed a box of jars, I would have to plan a surgical strike at the hardware store at the very beginning of the summer garden harvest season. Now, however, I can find a few different types year 'round at my favorite kitchenwares shop in the 9th Street Market.

Nope, the issue is that canning jars are expensive. I mean, they're not expensive expensive. But they are a specialty item, and it takes time, effort, and cash to replace when they chip or break and can no longer be used for canning. Here's where I'm coming from. Anecdotally, canning jars can last for anywhere from a dozen years to decades. In my experience, two or three dozen of my jars have been used every year for about 15 years. But whether jars last 50 years or 15, you don't want to hasten the likely inevitable day when you hear that ominous thunk in the pressure canner that tells you one of your jars of green beans didn't make it. And one super easy way to hasten that day is to subject your canning jars to unnecessary scratches, bumps, clatters, and thermal shocks.

Which is exactly what you will do if, for example, you pour 7 ounces of hot dinner soup into a pint jar, screw a lid on nice and tight, slide the jar into the fridge, heat up the jar of leftovers in the microwave at lunch the next day, and scrape out every last drop with a metal spoon. Or fill a jar with ice, pour hot coffee into it, and stir in sugar and creamer for an iced coffee treat. (To be clear! I'm not saying Marisa was subjecting her canning jars to such ungentle treatment! I describe completely made-up, worst-case scenarios to emphasize my point.)

Now, I do use some canning jars for leftovers and for dry food storage. But I keep myself to some rules:
1. Keep canning-only jars and food-storage jars separate. After emptying and cleaning a canning-only jar, gracefully and lovingly replace it in the area in the pantry where the jars are stored by size. (I use the cardboard boxes they were sold in. This is not wise if you're in a climate where you get silverfish or other insects that would go after the cardboard, but it works for me.) After emptying and cleaning a food-storage jar, toss it willy-nilly on a shelf for ease of access, and check to see if some item doesn't now need to be added to the grocery list. Store food-storage jars with bands on them, for convenience, but do not do so with canning-only jars, to avoid rust.

2. Second-hand jars go into the food-storage category unless I am very, very sure about the jars' provenance. Were they loose on a thrift-store shelf? Did I spot them in a bin of free stuff on someone's stoop during sidewalk sale season? Or is it an unopened, completely unused box, albeit dating from the 1980s? I'll can with the last type -- in fact, I did, with my rustic honey-cran sauce this year -- but not with the others.

3. Food-storage jars may go in the dishwasher. Canning-only jars do not, because dishwashing machine detergent can adversely affect home-canned foods.

4. Metal scraping utensils are always OK for food-storage jars. They are never, ever OK for canning-only jars.

5. Do not use a new, unused lid for leftover or dry food storage. That would be a waste of money (lids seem to increase in price by about $0.20 per box every year). Use one of the used lids kicking around in the utensil drawer, instead.

6. Do not use any jars for consuming beverages.
That last rule notwithstanding, I used to use jars for drinks -- I had a half dozen Classico pasta sauce not-quite-a-quart jars, which were a satisfying size for a glass of iced tea, and which fit my hands nicely. But though I have pals who have successfully home-canned with the jars, you really shouldn't; and I got a little weary of the hillbilly look on my dining table. I tossed them in the recycling bin as I replaced them, one at a time, with sturdy pint glasses and a lucky find of some French-made, molded-glass stemware.

Though when all was said and done, I did keep two 8-ounce Classico pesto jars, for those chilly winter nights when I want to kick back with a wee dram.

02 December 2013

Holiday home canning: rustic honey-cran sauce

We're a day late and a dollar short at the homestead here, posting this recipe the week after Thanksgiving. (Marisa at Food in Jars was more timely with her enviably tasty spiced cranberry jam a few weeks ago.) But cranberries are still on store shelves, and a lot of people will serve cranberries with Christmas dinner in a few weeks' time, so maybe a couple of readers will find this recipe useful still.

I'd promised to supply the cranberry sauce at my family's Thanksgiving gathering last week. As I set out my canning gear and the sauce ingredients, I found that I was short on sugar. I had some honey kicking around, though, so I improvised a little. Now, usually you want to be wary about varying from a USDA-tested recipe when you decide to home-can and store your final product. But I wasn't worried at all about safety here, because cranberries are so very tart and acidic that you have quite a bit of leeway before you would bring the sauce's pH up to an unsafe level. And they have so much pectin in them that they're pretty foolproof. In short, you can mess around a lot with home-canned cranberry recipes, and the result will almost certainly set up nicely and be safe to eat after keeping forever.

So that I would have enough sauce for Thanksgiving and Christmas, I started with two 12-ounce packages of cranberries. This recipe can be halved, but doing so would make for a very small batch for canning. The yield as presented here is 2 pints, 1 half-pint, and a few ounces left over for immediate use. The end result is a rustically chunky, honey-imbued cranberry sauce that stands up well with turkey and wild game.


  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 cup honey
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 12-ounce packages of cranberries, rinsed


    Combine sugar, honey, and water in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Boil for 5 minutes. Add the cranberries and bring back to a boil. Cook the cranberries gently for 10 minutes, stirring as necessary. Press berries with a potato masher. Turn off heat and skim foam.

    Fill hot pint and half-pint jars with hot sauce, leaving 1/4 inch headspace, apply lids and bands, and process 10 minutes in a boiling-water bath canner.

    Use immediately, or let sit a few weeks for flavors to blend.

    Note: If you don't skim the foam from top of the sauce, then it will end up in the jars, and you'll have artificially full jars. The foam won't be unpleasant to eat, but the sauce won't be as aesthetically pleasing in the jar or on the table. Your best bet is to let the sauce sit for a moment after you take it off the heat and then run a large spoon over the surface, generously scooping out foam. I like to drop it into a small bowl and use it on toast or an accompaniment to cheese and crackers.