My boyfriend and I learned quickly that when you buy a really old house in a really small town, everyone has a story about it. When word got out that we had purchased our first home, a bright pink, 110-year-old folk Victorian on our town’s main drag, we were instantly inundated with “pink house” tales: “Did you know it used to be yellow?” “Geronimo made tortillas on the porch,” and, my personal favorite, “I was married in your guest house because it used to be a chapel.”
Before we even closed on our home, a friend of ours passed along a multipage, photocopied newspaper biography of Hattie, the woman who, in the early 1900s, raised her children in our home, spoke many languages, and—most importantly to me—filled the cellar off the kitchen with home-canned food, which she subsequently gave away to those in need around town. After I learned Hattie was a preserver like me, I knew we had found our house, and I felt so proud to be stocking the cellar again. Between Hattie’s time and mine, preserving hasn’t really gone anywhere. In the same way that it made sense for Hattie to put up her surplus each year, preserving still makes sense to a growing number of people who are looking to source more of their food locally year-round and maintain a connection with traditional food ways. It remains an essential tool for those looking to cut back on food costs without compromising on quality and taste.
My favorite way to illustrate the economics of preserving is to talk about preserved lemons, the dead-easy yet completely transformative preserve made from salt, lemons, and time. Can I cook without preserved lemons? Absolutely. Indeed, I did for many, many years. However, in the depths of winter, do they infinitely improve my go-to roasted carrots? Without a doubt. I had never had them until I made them myself, because store-bought preserved lemons are cost prohibitive for me. Put simply, preserving empowers me to eat better for less.
Finally, there is much to be said for the social and community-building aspects of preserving. The first time I canned was years ago during a canning party at a friend’s apartment. Today I maintain many of the connections with fellow preservation enthusiasts that I made during that single afternoon. The joy that comes from honoring the harvest by gathering friends and family to put up food and share knowledge and stories is perhaps the greatest argument for preserving food. I can only hope that in a hundred years, the person living in my house hears a story about me filling up the cellar and feels at home, just as I did with Hattie.
My secret mission in writing this, which is indeed now not so secret, is to get more folks to see themselves as preservers. I think many of us, myself included for a long time, see the work of preserving as something separate from cooking. There are home cooks—plenty of them—and then there are preservers. At its best, I think preserving is just another, albeit invaluable, tool for the home cook’s toolbox. Particularly as the excitement around eating locally and seasonally continues to grow, I argue that passionate home cooks can become better at what they love by having the skills to preserve.
A sweet preserve with a savory character.
Before living in the desert, I considered figs a rarity—a somewhat mythical, hard-to-transport fruit that was often out of my price range. When I lived in Queens, there was a fig tree in a nearby yard that I would visit just to admire and check on its progress.
Here, when monsoon season starts at the beginning of July, the fig trees explode. It’s truly magical.
Even with the added lemon juice, which provides the necessary acid to can the figs safely, the figs are quite sweet. Just a touch of balsamic vinegar added at the end of the cooking period adds balance and brings out the savory side of the figs and fennel.
A fresh, herb-infused brine perfect for tomatoes.
The degree of ripeness greatly affects how tomatoes behave in a ferment. Some folks like to ferment whole, ripe cherry tomatoes, which transform into something often known as cherry bombs due to their effervescent, explosive quality. Here, we’re using green or significantly underripe tomatoes. Using these firmer tomatoes means that they can be sliced and brined without fear that they’ll turn to mush. Plus, they maintain a nice bit of crunch, even when they’re fully fermented.
In general, less is more when it comes to fresh herbs in ferments. Their flavor will amplify as it infuses the brine throughout the fermentation period. Likewise, for long-term storage, it can be a good idea to pick out the herbs. If you’re eating them regularly and tasting, it may not be necessary to pick them out initially, but do so if and when the flavor of the herb becomes overpowering. The same can be true for the garlic.
A spicy, Southwest-inspired take
on the classic Southern relish.
Chow-chow is a mustardy, end-of-season relish, meant to be a bit of a catchall for what has to be pulled from the garden. Green tomatoes often make an appearance, as does cabbage. Because it has its roots in utility, there are as many versions of chow-chow as there are folks who make it. This one has a Southwest bent and includes poblanos in place of sweet green or red peppers, cauliflower, and tomatillos instead of green tomatoes.
This recipe takes just a bit of planning, as it needs to be salted and allowed to sit for 4 hours before going into jars. If you start it on a weekend morning when you wake up, it will be ready to process after lunch.
Introduction and recipes adapted from Beyond Canning: New Techniques, Ingredients, and Flavors to Preserve, Pickle, and Ferment Like Never Before by Autumn Giles (Voyageur Press 2016) and photographed by Grace Stufkosky.