Wednesday, September 20, 2006

It All Started with a Purple Box

Last year around Christmas I saw a neat thing: a jelly making kit. I always wanted to try to make jelly. It seemed a mysterious process fraught with all kinds of super-mom lore. Warm, fuzzy images of my boys having peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with homemade jam made with my own hands went through my mind in soft focus like a Johnson & Johnson commercial.

I got the kit and discovered the one thing it was missing was a canning pot. Turns out Ball does make a complete canning kit with the pot, jar rack, and everything, but this wasn't it. Pooh-poohing making freezer jam I kept my eyes open until I found a pint canner at a decent price (at Wal-Mart, imagine that).

My first batch was strawberry. I had no idea it took so much sugar to make jam. The stuff darn near qualifies for candy. But it came out great, and the good news is I know exactly what's in it. The next batch I discovered sugar-free pectin. Pectin is what makes jellies gel. It's a natural chemical found in lots of fruit, but mostly apples. So I made sugar-free blueberry spread. Sugar-free jams don't gel up the same as sugar-full ones, but it's a nice spread. I used one cup of Splenda to cut the tartness, and boy did that come out nice. The blueberry is my family's definite favorite, and I'm going to have to make some more (probably with frozen berries) some time soon.

Grandpa has raspberries and rosehips in his back yard, so I did raspberries next. I did have to buy a couple pints to make up the full measure. This tastes great but has way more seeds than I like; now that I have a food mill I'll run them through it next time to crush and/or remove some of them. This batch was sugar-free too; I used three cups of Splenda to sweeten it.

My most ambitious project was rosehip jelly. It was very difficult to find recipes and information on rosehip jelly, even though I'm in Alaska where wild rosehips are abundant. Rosehips are a phenominal source of vitamin C: three rosehips have the vitamin C of a medium orange. But they have no natural pectin, so the jelly requires special treatment. I decided not to go sugar-free, since I didn't have a recipe from any of the major canning companies (they all put recipes in their pectin boxes). You actually find more syrup recipes than jelly recipes, and that's why. A couple resources recommended making apple-rosehip jelly to help the gel, and I'll probably try that next time. The result was something thicker than syrup and thinner than jelly - it's rather honey-like. But it's great on pancakes, on oatmeal, and spreads just like honey on a peanut butter sandwich.

I also got ambitious with vegetables. Hubby put up some salsa (which didn't last long at all!) and I pickled some cauliflower. I was determined this year to make the best value of my WIC Farmer's Market coupons.

After I went canning-crazy, it was time to do something with my garden. Grandpa had a garden box he wasn't using and we planted carrots, potatoes, parsnips, peas, tomatoes, peppers and lettuce. The only complete failure was the peppers, which never produced. But I have about a million sweet, bright, absolutely delicious carrots to take care of. So I learned to blanche and freeze them. The parsnips require a hard frost to develop their full flavor, so I'm waiting for that (September 20 in Fairbanks Alaska and we haven't had a hard frost yet. Will wonders never cease!). I planted Yukon Gold potatoes, which have a marvelous texture and flavor and are usually outside our budget.

Hubby and Grandpa decided not to go hunting this fall. Grandpa had surgery and Hubby couldn't get time off. Hunting is always a gamble; you take the time and spend money on game tags, camping equipment, bags, saws, and all kinds of stuff, and you may or may not get anything. Murphy's Law worked for us this time: Grandpa darn near stumbled over a moose and took it neatly. So along with freezing produce, we've been butchering moose.

If you've never butchered your own meat, let me tell you, it's an experience. Without a band saw and a huge diagram of a cow nothing looks like any cut of meat you've ever seen. The goal is to get rid of undesirable stuff, like fat and the bit the bullet got stuck in, while mangling it into manageable chunks, which you then peer at and declare "That's a roast! No, really, doesn't it look like a roast?" Then you label them something which you hopefully will be able to interpret when you pull it out of the freezer in three months. "Honey, what was M06 FLK STK?" When in doubt, use the crock pot.

The problem with saving money by putting up your own food is that, like any investment, it takes money to save money. To do proper canning you need special equipment. Hunting requires, if nothing else, game tags, ammo, and a freezer. Even the garden requires you buy seeds. But my potatoes gave back about six times their investment; when the best price you can get on red meat is around $2 a pound for cheap burger a moose in the freezer is a great investment. And the $1.29 pack of carrot seeds definitely gave great value for the money.

For more information on canning you cannot go wrong by getting the bible of canning, the Ball Blue Book. I found a wonderful website on home canning, Pick Your Own, that has very easy to follow, concise guides. Your local Cooperative Extension Service is a gold mine of information on food preservation. If you're hunting to fill your freezer, be sure to follow all local regulations; failure to do so can cost you more than you'd like in fines.

I have a lot of information collected on using rosehips which I'll publish in the near future.


RavinRed said...
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Ulric said...

I had to laugh reading of the moose meat cutting and labelling. It reminded me of listening to some of my families "old timer" stories. The rather large cuts of moose were wrapped in brown paper and labelled "Elephant Ears". Grandma was never quite sure where Grandpa managed to bag an elephant in northern Alberta, but they do make good stew meat.

I'm glad you and yours have a freezer full of meat for the winter. It is a blessing to be appreciated. As for the rest, I commend you on your hard work. It tastes better when you do it yourself for some reason.

Growing, canning, and preserving isn't a lost art, but all too often I act like it is. It would do me good to get back to my country roots. I'm still trying to figure out how to get a good internet connection there. I sure miss the view of the stars.

If you get down a good rosehip jam recipe I'd love to hear it. I've never done anything with them before aside from eating them while hiking through the bush. They sure are plentiful this time of year.

My compliments on your blog. It's honest life, helpful and entertaining. You're doing a great job!

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