The Waiting Game: Pickling at The Talking Farm

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October 20, 2009 at 9:23 am

Brad Moldofsky

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).

chutney

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.

pickles

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.

canning

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.

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4 Comments

  1. Gregg says:

    Rolling does more than just cook the pickle and set the lid: Remember that fluids and gases expand when heated.
    Thorough rolling forces any remaining bubbles to expand and rise to the top of the jar. The expansion of the rest of the jar’s contents helps force the air out under the seal on the lid.
    This is one of the reasons most canning recipes refer to the amount of “headspace” at to leave in the jar. If you didn’t allow room for expansion, the contents of your jar would spill into the water bath which is precisely the kind of wastefulness old-school home canners abhor.
    Forcing as much air out of the jar as possible helps ensure an anaerobic environment which is integral to the magic of preserving food safely.

  2. Thanks, Gregg. I didn’t know that. But it must explain why Toni said it was important that the jars remain upright in the boiling water bath–otherwise the air couldn’t escape as easily.

  3. Judy Mendel says:

    Brad, Thanks so much for writing this wonderful article. Now that our benefit is over (we exceeded our expectations!!), we can think about organizing more classes. We have had wonderful feedback.

  4. Kay Branz says:

    You really captured the essence of our pickling class, Brad. .as well as the tenacity and passion of The Talking Farm effort. We Will Get The Land! In the meantime, I’m counting the days until I can unseal and savor my pickled produce. Stay involved with The Talking Farm.

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