At the end of September here at Skyline, we like to celebrate the harvest, the farmers and the fertile land around us with our annual Tour de Food. In this fertile land we call home, we can access locally grown produce for about half the year. Farmer’s markets and farm stands are bustling in the months of July, August and September. But if your palate is flexible and you either know where to look or how to maximize your own growing season, locally grown vegetables and some fruits can sustain you in May, June, October, and November. Throughout the winter months you can find local farms to supply your eggs, meat, apples, honey, maple syrup and some root crops.
“Let those December winds bellow ‘n’ blow, I’m as warm as a July to-ma-to!” One of my favorite folk singers, Greg Brown, sings about this long period with nothing growing. “You can taste a little of the summer, my grandma’s put it all in jars…She cans the pickles, sweet and dill, she cans the songs of the whippoorwill…” Many of us don’t have anyone in our family who cans the harvest, but you may see homemade jam at the markets and wonder why it costs twice what jam at the supermarket costs. Families used to can to save money and stock up for the winter. In our current food system which relies upon underpaid migrant workers and chemical laden fruits and vegetables, it is often cheaper to buy canned goods than to can them ourselves. So why would we spend hours over a hot stove canning the summer?
Greg sings, “Ah she’s got magic in her-you know what I mean. She puts the sun and rain in with her green beans.” What she does NOT add is high fructose corn syrup, food coloring or artificial flavoring. The preservatives used to give us cheap canned goods are not in most home-canning recipes. Real sugar, real salt, real vinegar: ingredients you can pronounce which your body has a chance of processing. Artificially cheap food is costing our bodies more than we save at the checkout counter. So this is why I try to preserve Michigan’s harvest.
I am not a Grandma, and I didn’t learn to preserve the harvest from my mother or my grandmother. Quite a few of my neighbors can; they make some amazing jams and pickles. I thought it was a lost art, but people are still canning. I use whatever little time I have to “put the sun and the rain in with [my] green beans,” so that I feel good going into the long winter. I still buy canned goods from the store, but every jar I can myself is a vote for a sustainable food system and a few more dollars for a local farmer.
My dad’s family has a huge garden in Illinois and preserves a lot of it in his freezer, his dehydrator, or by juicing or saucing and then canning. Canning takes a lot of time; dad will spend days canning the harvest. There are other options for those of us who can’t make the time. I’ve learned to freeze my fruit rather than can it, because it’s quick and you don’t have to add any sugar. Some fruits like blueberries actually gain nutrients after freezing. Small batch canning is easier than canning bushels of tomatoes. An even simpler way to start is refrigerator pickles.
Too many cucumbers in July? Pack a glass jar with alternating layers of thinly sliced cucumber and onion, about 5 cucumbers and a medium onion. Make a sweet vinegar brine with 2 cups of cider vinegar, 1 cup of sugar, ¼ cup sea salt, ½ teaspoon turmeric, ¾ teaspoon celery seed, and ¾ teaspoon mustard seed. If you prefer a different flavor, use different seeds like dill or coriander, I’ve even used fennel seed. Add as much brine as the jar will hold and save the rest for another day with extra cucumbers. Refrigerate the pickles for a few days, then enjoy!
Refrigerator pickles won’t take us into December, but they taste great and make the cucumber harvest last longer. Like all forms of food preservation, they give us a reason to support our local growers when the growing is good. Each year, I try to freeze corn, green beans, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, pumpkin, spinach, apple sauce, blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries for my family to eat over the winter and spring. I can a tiny batch of salsa, a few jars of beets, a few jars of jam, and whatever else makes its way into my kitchen. We are lucky enough to taste sun, rain, a little bit of magic and a lot of love all year long. We do “taste a little of the summer,” because we trap it in freezer bags and in colorful jars on the shelf