Preserving Summer

The first time I tried my hand at preserving, it was at a pickling class in Brooklyn, N.Y. I’m aware of how hipster that statement sounds, but I haven’t forgotten that pickling, preserving, and fermenting are time-honored culinary traditions. Here in the South, it’s how people preserved the abundance of summer and fall harvests to survive the winter while adding variety and nutrition to their diets.

These traditions were also a way of life for April McGreger, whose family canned tomatoes, turned peppers into pepper vinegar and jelly, and made fig, Muscadine grape, and pear preserves on their Mississippi farm. Later, when she was working as a pastry chef at Lantern Restaurant in Chapel Hill, N.C., farmers would often ask McGreger if she could make use of “a few more flats of strawberries.” She said yes, thinking that she’d easily turn them into preserves, but admits that she overcooked the first few batches. But she persevered and once she nailed the recipe, she was hooked.

“Preserving turned out to be a dynamic craft that engaged all my senses, brought me back to those days in my mother’s kitchen, and provided a method for me to further support our small, local farmers,” McGreger shares. After researching preserving traditions and experimenting in her home kitchen, she launched her Durham, N.C.-based business in 2007. Farmer’s Daughter has earned a following for its award-winning products, like luxurious, soft set jams made from locally grown fruits such as blueberries and Blue Ridge cherries, as well as its line of fermented foods, brined pickles and hot sauces. McGreger honors Old World techniques and Southern foodways, but puts her stamp on them with inspired combinations like Bourbon’d Fig Preserves, Watermelon Rind Kimchi, Sichuan-Style Pickled Cowpeas, and her best-selling Sweet Potato Habanero Hot Sauce, which recently won a Good Food Award.

For Augusta local Candace Zukas, her love of preserving was born out of necessity. “Having a large productive garden meant excess produce that we couldn’t eat before it spoiled. Naturally, canning was the next step to preserve the harvest,” she explains. She’s being modest about the “large productive garden.” Bottle Tree Farm is Zukas’ urban hobby farm situated on her .43-acre lot, and it provides a veritable edible landscape of vegetables, from zucchini to kale, as well as fruits like blackberries, figs and pears. Come summertime, she looks forward to turning cucumbers into pickles and relish and tomatoes into sauces and salsas, as well as experimenting with recipes for whatever abundance her garden provides. “Knowing I can reach into my pantry in December for salsa that I canned during the summer is exciting and comforting,” she shares.

Whether you’re making your first batch of jam or are a master canner, summer in the South offers ample opportunity for preserving the harvest. Read on for McGreger and Zukas’ top tips for preserving success—no hipster classes required—and reap the rewards all year long.

Read Up

When you’re tackling a new project, particularly one where food safety is crucial, it’s important to consult a trusted resource. “For canning and preserving, one of the best free resources is the National Center for Home Food Preservation. Their website is indispensable,” shares McGreger (Visit Zukas recommends investing in a reliable canning instruction and recipe book, like the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, which explains the science behind the canning process, explores various techniques and offers troubleshooting advice.

Start Small

“The easiest style of canning is water bath and for that you will need a water bath canner, a jar rack, a jar lifter, a lid lifter and a canning funnel. “And, of course, you’ll need canning jars, lids and rings,” says Zukas. Look for starter sets which include everything you need to begin, and don’t forget to check your cupboards to see what you might already have on hand. “Any wide pot can be a preserving pan and any stock pot can be a water bath canner,” McGreger notes.

Follow Recipes

Many of Zukas’ favorite jam and preserves recipes come from the insert in the pectin box (she prefers all-natural Pomona’s Universal Pectin). Simply find your fruit on the chart and follow the directions for making jams, jellies and marmalades. Some of her other favorite recipes include peach salsa and zesty peach barbecue sauce from the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.

Use Seasonal, Locally Grown Produce

For the best results, McGreger and Zukas are adamant about canning fruits and vegetables that are grown locally and picked at their peak. In fact, the strawberries for McGreger’s strawberry-honeysuckle preserves are grown a few miles away and delivered on the same day they’re picked. If you don’t have a green thumb like Zukas, shop local farmers’ markets like Augusta Locally Grown’s Veggie Park.

Try New Moves

If you’re ready to step up your game, Zukas suggests experimenting with new flavor combinations. “One of my favorite recipes from The Complete Book of Small-Batch Preserving is Madras Pickled Eggplant. “It has an Indian flavor profile using ginger, turmeric and chilis,” she shares. McGreger incorporates her preserves into desserts, saying, “I love making little panna cottas or mini cheesecakes in jelly jars and topping them with jam, or using them in my favorite rye and pecan thumbprint cookies.”

This article appears in the June/July 2017 issue of Augusta Magazine.

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