The Waiting Game: Pickling at The Talking Farm
Growing food is a test of patience to begin with. Preserving it stretches that patience further in anticipation of a bold, new taste to come. Or sometimes with the result being a messy waste of otherwise good produce. In either case, it hearkens back to an era when greens in winter weren’t as easy to come by and a well-stocked root cellar meant the difference between starvation and surviving until spring.
Happily, that’s not an issue now. So when canning queen Toni Camphouse demonstrated pickle making on a chilly October Wednesday evening, it was all about the flavor. And the snap of a crisp pickle.
“Compared to store-bought pickles, homemade ones lack preservatives but are more flavorful,” she told half a dozen canning acolytes in the basement of the Evanston Society of Friends building, “And you get to determine how spicy or bland they are.”
Now, if you thought Quaker cooking was all about oatmeal, take a look at this fantastic chutney (though not, technically, a Quaker recipe).
A sweet, flavorful mélange of the fall harvest: apples tomatoes and cucumbers, peppers garlic and ginger, boiled down with vinegar, salt and sugar, then packed away by a woman who knows her way around a kitchen.
The event was sponsored by The Talking Farm and the theme of the class was patience. Watching The Talking Farm grow has also been a lesson in patience. For several years, the nonprofit organization has negotiated with Evanston, Skokie and the Metropolitan Sanitary Waste District to farm a vacant plot near the channel along McCormick Blvd. Everybody concerned seems to think an urban/suburban farm is a great idea, but working with three bureaucracies takes time. I admire the fortitude of the Farm’s volunteers in pursuing the matter tirelessly. As proponents of improving our reliance on local food production, The Talking Farm also hosts classes on canning, dehydrating and other preservation methods.
The pickling class fits in nicely with the Farm’s mission to educate the suburban/urban community on how to make the most of local food sources. Toni brought with her a bushel of fresh produce that six participants helped her cut, peel and boil to create an aromatic extravaganza. The foods smelled so good that it was torture to know we wouldn’t get to eat them for at least a month. Watching her put away the colorful, mouth watering chutney was an exercise in endurance.
Watching the canning process is quite an exercise as well. “Canning is all about community,” Toni said, noting that canning by oneself is harder work and requires even greater patience. Although Toni had several of us to help her, the laborious process looked like, well, a lot of labor anyway. And it’s the kind of labor you’d only want to do in the chill of fall, what with all the steaming pots and scalding metal and glass to manipulate.
First the jars and lids must be sterilized in boiling water. After the veggies are prepared with vinegar, salt, and a variety of herbs and not-so-secret ingredients, they are ladled through a funnel into the jar. The acrid smell of cooking vinegar contrasts the pleasant odors from the fruits and vegetables, and the entire enterprise is conducted in the haze of steam rising from several pots.
Then, using a plastic spatula, excess air is poked out of the bottom of the jar (to make more room for the veggies and brine, as well as eliminating bacterial hiding spots). The metal seal is held in place by a screw-top lid, then the cans are “rolled,” by immersion in rapidly boiling water for several minutes. This cooks them a little bit, but, more importantly, seals the specialized lid to the rim of the jar.
Toni also prepared dilly beans, pickled ginger and, the star of the evening, a faster version of dill pickles she calls “quickles.” We all went home with several glass jars too hot to handle bare handed. For better or worse, we ran out of time and Toni was unable to seal a few jars of chutney, so I was able to eat it within a few days. It was fantastic. I’m keeping the flavors in memory so I can compare a month from now when the sealed jars are properly pickled. Canning offers something to look forward to in the middle of a bitter Midwestern winter.