Preparing For A Maine Winter Means Learning To Can
Labor Day weekend is all about taking it easy, but when the garden is spilling over with produce and the fruit trees drip with fruit, you have to pay attention.
This past weekend I got together with a group of friends and spent an entire day and night, in the sweltering heat, canning our summer produce. Canning is a rite of passage, a way of acknowledging that the summer is fading and colder days are to come. It’s hard to even imagine those cold days when you consider the recent heat wave, but the garden is winding down and it's time to get to work.
The idea of a canning party may sound a bit strange, but there’s no better way to have a good time while you’re working hard. Everyone brings produce from their garden, CSA, or farmer’s market, as well as canning jars, pots, pans, and garlic, onions, spices, herbs, and olive oil.
We crank the music, put the fan on high to keep cool, and start chopping. We divide up the chores. Miles boils the water and sterilizes the jars. Sharon chops onions. Michael peels garlic and chops basil. Karen and Jane peel the peaches and chop the tomatoes. And slowly, as the day grows hotter and brighter, the work gets done.
We put up a huge batch of roasted tomato sauce, plain sauce and two variations, one flavored with olives and capers (Puttanesca) and one spiked with big chunks of roasted mushrooms. We simmer local peaches and nectarines, laced with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice, and let the thin slices cook for hours until a thick, fragrant peach-nectarine butter emerges. We boil a pot of simple sugar syrup flavored with grated and very thin slices of fresh ginger and pour it over peeled and cored local pears.
Day turns to night, and night turns late, and the jars get filled, and then processed until the lids have a tight seal. The entire day could be filmed as an example of what good teamwork is all about. We stop and eat dinner under an awning on the night Hurricane Earl is supposed to hit (but, thankfully, brings only buckets of rain). We drink wine, even though it will eventually make us more tired, and laugh and complain about aching backs and sore shoulders. We joke about hiring a masseuse to join us next year.
We put up close to 100 jars of sauce and preserved fruit, label the jars, and divide it evenly. In February we will all try to get together to have a big dinner and savor the “fruits of our labor,” and taste those summer tomatoes and fruit like they are gold. All winter, as each jar is unsealed, we will appreciate the work we’ve done. All the sweat. All the teamwork.
When I get home much later that night I line the jars up on a table and admire them. The next morning there they are, with the sunlight streaming in, making those jars of fruit and vegetables look like Hollywood movie stars about to have their closeups. They look so deliciously fresh and natural, so effortless I am almost fooled that it was all fun and no work. But my back knows better.
Spiced Peach-Nectarine Butter
This is like a cross between a jam and a fruit butter. I go to our local peach farm and ask for seconds – lots of them — and make up this sweet peach butter. Nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger, and allspice provide the spice and a touch of sugar adds some extra sweetness. The only other ingredient is patience — you want the butter to simmer slowly for about two to three hours until thick and full of the fragrant sweetness of a perfectly ripe peach.
You can place the butter in a clean glass jar and refrigerate for up to two weeks or process it and keep for a year in a cool, dark spot. The butter is excellent on morning toast, muffins, pancakes, waffles, or serve with a cheese platter or roasted meats. It also makes an excellent glaze on roast pork.
About 10 pound ripe peaches and/or nectarines
About 1 ½ cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoons ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
Take the ripe peaches and, working over a large bowl, use your fingers to peel off the skin from the fruit. Discard the skins and pits and chop the peach flesh making sure to catch all the juices in the bowl. Place all the chopped peaches and juices in a large pot. Add the sugar, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and let simmer, uncovered, for about 2 to 3 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally, depending on how much juice the fruit contains. Be careful to stir the bottom of the pot and make sure it doesn’t burn. Taste for seasoning and add more sugar if you like and more spices if you want a spicier fruit butter. When the fruit has broken down and the juices have thickened enough to coat a spoon remove from the heat and let cool a bit.
The butter will keep in a covered jar in the refrigerator for several weeks. If canning, process the butter for 30 minutes. Makes about 10 pints.