Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Canning with the Community

Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend "CanJam," a canning class/workshop hosted by the East Atlanta Village Farmers Market and Oakleaf Mennonite Farm. How much can I say that I LOVED it? Well, I'll show you pictures and you'll see. The idea of strangers coming together and learning from one another over cauldrons of boiling water and steaming pots of brine is just very exciting to me!

When I arrived, everyone was busily working away at a number of stations in the kitchen and fellowship hall of the church. Before I get into the whole story, let me digress for a minute. How cool is it for a church to have a large organic garden that feeds the community? Berea Mennonite Church and Oakleaf Mennonite Farm is located just a few miles from downtown Atlanta, but it feels like a world away as you survey rows upon rows of tomatoes, sweet potatoes, greens, squash and the multitude of produce they grow on their three-acre plot. The "first fruits" feed those in need and the rest are distributed through their CSA program and sold at local farmer's markets such as the EAV Farmers Market and Grant Park Farmers Market.

So, back to CanJam. My first task was to cut cucumbers into spears for dill pickles. Next to me, another person sliced cucumbers on the mandoline cutter for bread and butter pickles. Others tore leaves off stalks of freshly picked basil, chopped peppers and onions, peeled garlic and boiled jars and lids in large pots outside. The aroma of basil, dill, garlic, vinegar and all kinds of deliciousness filled the room  –  especially when the pesto making got underway. EAV Farmers Market chef, Seth Freedman, demonstrated how to make pesto and the food processor was in a constant whirl as individuals took turns whipping up basil, nuts garlic and olive oil into a delightful paste. 
Chef Seth demonstrates perfect pesto making.

This little guy really took to it and was quite the pro!
After much peeling, chopping, spinning, boiling and prepping, it was time to get down to the business of pickling. We place cucumbers, okra and jalapeno peppers in sterilized jars and covered them with brine. To seal the jars, you then return them to a hot water bath for 10 minutes.We made pickled okra, dill pickles, bread and butter pickles, pickled eggplant, pickled peppers and pesto all in an afternoon's time. Aside from some great pickles and pesto, what I got the most out of the class was inspiration to try this at home and to share what I learned with others. With so much going on, it was impossible to follow the preparation process for each item we made, but we did leave with some recipes and a sense of accomplishment. And for me, no more fear of canning!

Pouring the brine in jars -- pickle magic.
I grew up watching my parents and grandparents can green beans, make jellies and put away the summer's bounty for the winter. I have vague memories of making sauerkraut one year in my Granny's back yard. I also remember some pickling. My favorite was always the jelly-making because it meant lots of fresh fruit in the house, tasting the juice and skimming foam off the top as the juice and pectin boiled away. Despite fond memories, I have yet to take on a canning project on my own. Frankly, it seems intimidating. If you tell people you made your own jelly or pickles, they think you are some sort of culinary rock star  –  or a freak. Why spend all that time when you can just buy some at the grocery store?! Well, the answer is that the stuff you make yourself usually tastes much better and is better for you. What's more, you have a connection to it.

Lately when I've been giving my 3-year-old his baby carrots, he has been asking, "Who grew these?" I wish I could tell him. I dream of a world where we all know where our food comes from, what the ingredients are and what the real nutritional benefits (or detriments) are  –  but that's a post for another day. When he devoured the pickled okra I brought home, it was nice to be able to tell him that it was grown just down the road and that "Mommy helped to make it." I think I am going to attempt some pickled okra soon. You'll definitely be hearing about it!

For now, I leave you inspired and encouraged by coming together with a community of folks that I didn't even know and making something beautiful. The pesto that we made was so delicious and made a perfect meal the next day. We did not "can" it, but placed it jars to be stored in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. You can also freeze it (in a freezer friendly plastic or glass container). I will work on getting the recipe for the pesto, but for now, here's a picture of the finished product and what you can do with a little forethought  –  and a food processor. Stay tuned for more canning and preserving experiments and recipes coming soon!



  1. This looks like a great time. I am excited there are local classes on canning. I think once you have conquered your fears, there is nothing you can't do. Our pressure canner cooker is still going at 9 pm tonight! Have a great weekend. :)

  2. This was such an exceptional fellowship day. We all learned that the jar a pickles you buy on the store shelve is hard work to do yourself but, the satisfaction you get when you open and jar and serve your family is so rewarding. I met many new ladies that live in the neighbor.
    This past week I canned Quince preserves.