While the days are still long, the weather warm, and the Island verdant, it’s easy to forget that the long barren months are upon us.
But there is a way to capture a little bit of the summer in a jar and save it for a snowy day. Preserving some of the Vineyard bounty now in the form of pickles, relishes, jams, or salsas is a great way to eat local year round and, in the depth of winter, enjoy a reminder of warmer days to come.
Of home canning, Liz Packer of SBS in Vineyard Haven says, “The best part is that you get to crack the jar open on some really dreary day in February.” Ms. Packer maintains an extensive home garden and has been preserving her own crops for years. She’s a big advocate of growing your own and notes that SBS carries supplies to facilitate the entire process, including the preserving of your homegrown fruits and veggies.
“It’s almost the end of the process. You get the seeds and the soil. The final part of the process is you enjoy it. It’s just another piece of the experience.”
SBS sells a kit that includes an enamel pot for sterilizing and lifting trays for $86. Basic canning jars come 12 to a case for $17.95. SBS also carries pectin for use with jellies and jams and a variety of decorative jars.
Sheila Ben David of Edgartown is also an avid gardener and canner. For the past two years she has led workshops at The FARM Institute for those interested in making their own pickles and jams. She has won a number of ribbons at the Agricultural Fair over the years for her jams and relishes, but has yet to earn top honors for her pickles.
“That’s what drives me to keep making different stuff,” she says/ “I say, ‘All right, I’m entering this in the Fair. Next year I’m going to win.’” She notes that the increase of entries for preserved goods is a good indication of escalating interest in sustainable living.
The inspiration for Ms. Ben David’s first efforts was a bumper crop of cucumbers. “I just learned by getting books and reading and trial and error. I think it’s pretty easy,” she says. She mixes up her own pickling spice but notes that you can buy premade mixes in the supermarket.
Ms. Ben David’s first experiment with jelly was similarly inspired by an over abundance in her garden.
“When I first started out making jelly, I had peppers in my garden. That’s how I got started in my jams,” she says. “There was such a big response. Everybody in my family just loved it.” Jellies made from sweet peppers, as well as jalapenos, are now a staple in Ms. Ben David’s yearly canning repertoire.
She likes to experiment a bit, using different types of vinegars and spices, but notes that in some respects the recipes must be followed accurately. “As long as you stick with the basic amount of vinegar or water you can mix up the spices. You need safe acidity levels. You want to keep the same ration of sugar to fruit.”
She adds, “I use pectin. You can make jam without it where you cook it a long time but I like using pectin. You don’t have to cook the fruit so much and it just tastes better.”
Not surprisingly, Ms. Ben David gifts friends and family members with pickles and jams every Christmas. “Everybody now has their favorite stuff but I try to make something new every year,” she says. This Christmas she is planning to make up packages with hot and spicy Thai dipping sauces and spring roll wrappers. “I try to do some kind of theme,” she says.
For the pickling workshops, Ms. Ben David also demonstrates a simple recipe for pickles that do not need to be cooked and can be stored in the refrigerator, but don’t have a shelf life. It’s a good starter for people who aren’t quite ready to try out the whole preserving process. But, generally, most people are sold on the benefits of home canning once they taste the difference.
“Homemade pickles and jams are just better than the ones you can buy in the store,” Ms. Ben David says. “I just think everything tastes better when it’s homemade.”
8 1/4 cups sliced trimmed pickling cucumbers (1/4″ slices)
2 cups white vinegar
2 cups water
6 Tbs. pickling or canning salt
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 Tbs. pickling spice
7 1/2 tsp. dill seeds
5 tsp. mustard seeds
1 1/4 tsp. whole peppercorns
5* cloves of garlic, halved (optional)
crushed red pepper flakes** (optional)
Place cucumber slices in a large glass or stainless steel bowl. Set aside.
In a medium stainless steel saucepan, combine vinegar, water, pickling salt, sugar, and pickling spice. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve salt and sugar. Reduce heat, cover and boil gently for 10 minutes. Pour pickling liquid over cucumber slices. Cover and set aside until cooled to room temperature, about 30 minutes.
In each jar, place 1 1/2 tsp. dill seeds, 1 tsp. mustard seeds, 1/4 tsp. peppercorns, and two garlic clove halves, if using. Add cucumber slices to within a generous 1/2 inch headspace of top of jar. Ladle pickling liquid into jar to cover cucumbers, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Apply lids and refrigerate.
For best results allow cucumbers to marinate in the refrigerator for at least 2 weeks and use within 3 months.
*You can add more garlic if you like your pickles more garlicky.
**For spicier pickles, add a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes to each jar.
1 Cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
5 Bay leaves, crushed
2 Tbsp. Mustard seeds
1 Tbsp. Whole Allspice
1 Tbsp. Coriander seeds
1 Tbsp. Whole Peppercorns
1 Tbsp. Ground Ginger
1 Tbsp. Dill seeds
2 tsp. Cardamom seeds
1 – 2 tsp. Hot pepper flakes
1 tsp. Whole cloves
In a small bowl combine all ingredients. Store in an airtight container, for up to 1 year. Makes about 1/2 cup.