Putting Food By

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When I was a kid, winter supper was often accompanied by my ma’s homemade pickles and followed by canned plums or pears. I remember going down into the basement where the preserves were stored, and coming back with a jar full of the gleaming gold or purple essence of summer.

I remember going to a farm where we picked the slightly prickly small cucumbers ourselves. I remember the smell, of the dirt, of the cukes themselves. The afternoon taken up with canning them: the feathery strands of dill, the peeled globes of garlic like giant-sized pearls. The chaos of jars and lids and rubber rings, and the big pot used to sterilize them, steam and anticipation filling the kitchen.

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Sad to say, I haven’t inherited my mother’s canning gene. The sterilizing process intimidates me and I don’t have the patience it takes to peel fifty cloves of garlic.

So I’ve found my own ways of putting food by.

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Every year around this time I go into a compulsive tomato-buying frenzy. As the prices of organic tomatoes goes down, with farmers at Dufferin Grove eager to rid themselves of the final harvest, I bicycle home with huge bags of the stuff.

With a full course load, grants to write, graduate students to mentor and, oh yes, a literary manuscript to complete. I really don’t have time for this. Nonetheless, the kitchen sink fills with pots, cutting boards and utensils.My ma calls in the middle of this and I tell her I’m making a huge vat of tomato sauce, to place in small containers and freeze. I tell her I’m not really enjoying it but something compels me to do it. Wow,she says, as though I’ve just told her I’m butchering and curing my own meat. I’ve. Never. Ever. Done. That. Before.

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Chaque a son gout!

Sliced peaches and chopped rhubarb end up in my freezer, for a pie made in the winter with the surprising tastes of spring and summer.

There are a few small containers of pesto, for quick dinners at the end of a long day.

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In previous years (before the tenure-track job…) I’ve made oven-roasted tomatoes. You cut up a whack of plum tomatoes into quarters or halves and arrange them cut side up on an oiled, or parchment-lined, or nonstick baking sheet . Preheat oven to 200 degrees. Sprinkle tomatoes with salt and leave them in the oven for 7 hours. Watch them carefully to make sure they don’t burn, turning over occasionally.Basically, you need a whole day for this, preferably a rainy one. You need to invite a friend over, and drink wine and have long conversations.

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The tomatoes give out a sweet apple pie smell as they roast. They should have a “slightly macabre dried shrivelled appearance…but they shouldn’t be mud-coloured or brittle” (in the words of Nancy Steadman of the Montreal Mirror). As individual slices dry completely, remove from oven, dip each in vinegar and layer in a clean, dry glass jar. Cover tomatoes with olive oil and add fresh basil, rosemary, and/or garlic as desired. The tomatoes will last for several months, in or out of the fridge (I’ve also just put the dried tomatoes in plastic containers or bags and frozen them). The olive oil becomes smoky and fragrant as time goes by and can be used separately for cooking or for dipping. They make lovely gifts – a little time capsule of the end of summer, a jar of deliciousness.

Oh, and when my mother comes to visit next week, I’m asking her to bring a jar of her pickles. I have no shame.

3 Comments

  1. It’s difficult to do at the time (as you aptly mention) but won’t you be glad when you make that pie later in the year? I see what you’re doing like exercise – a hassle now but when your skirt fits perfectly, you’re awfully glad you did those laps!

  2. I’m not an experienced canner either (I’ve always wondered, for example, why it’s called canning when you put the food in glass jars). I have no family history of canning, although my mother made marmalade some years (and occasionally lemon butter). She lived through the war in London, and her definition of canning was to hoard cans and cans of food in our kitchen cupboard, just in case.

    But I love blueberries, always buy too many when I go to my local market, and I throw them in the freezer. They always get freezer burn, no matter how I prepare them, but in the winter, I can count on them to make blueberry sauce for blintzes.

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