In the Garden:
Coastal and Tropical South
October, 2012
Regional Report

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Take a look at blue ribbon winners at your state fair and get inspired.

Save the Harvest

It seems that there is something to put up, cook down, or dry out in every month of the year. But fall is the season for canning and other food preservation competitions at fairs and harvest festivals. The sight of award winners is both inspiring and daunting, but each year I strive to do my best.

Sweet Rule Changes
The natural taste of fruit is all the rage, with more varieties of melons, apples, and berries available every year. Running counter to that healthy trend are the jams and jellies on the shelf at the store and made from our mothers' recipes. I do love cane sugar, agave nectar, and wildflower honey, but I want fruit taste to dominate.

Less is more, but to be successful, you can't just reduce the amount of sweetener. You need to follow special low sugar recipes, and you may want to use special gelling agents. First, check your pectin, the thickener used with sugars to thicken jelly. Modified pectin is made for use with either less sugar or no sugar. Follow label instructions carefully, because if you use a type intended for less sugar with a no sugar recipe, it will never set up. Other recipes use regular pectin but have been formulated so they work with less or no added sugar. Recipes are also available for many of the alternative sweeteners on the market today. Follow the recipes closely, and be sure to have a thermometer at the ready to be sure the mixture reaches the proper boiling temperature.

Some recipes reduce the amount of sugar and add unflavored gelatin to thicken the cooked fruit, but these jams and jellies shouldn't be processed in a boiling water bath or frozen. Store them in the refrigerator and use them within a month.

Low sugar jams and jellies require a water bath if they are to be stored without refrigeration. To safely preserve fruits and make pickles in accordance with current guidelines, get familiar with a publication such as the most recent edition of the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving. This volume is widely available for sale and in libraries.

Get Pickle Smart
The best produce makes the best pickles. Unlike making jellies or salsas where the ingredients are chopped finely, most kinds of pickles use larger pieces of produce, like jalapeno slices or whole green beans. The main requirement for a pickled vegetable is that it fit in the jar, but it will not be crunchy or tasty if it starts out at less than the peak of freshness.

Sterile jars, lids, and rings, just like for jams and jellies, are essential. But rather than cooking the vegetable as you would the fruit, you heat up a vinegar mixture rich in spices. It is the choice of these spices and the additions you make to the jar that sets the pickles of today apart from those of the last century. For example, I grow Tabasco peppers and garlic in part because I like to add both to pickled green beans for flavor and a little kick. Put up some of the pepper bounty this fall in spicy vinegars or as jars of sliced peppers for cooking and eating for a year. But be sure to be safe and always follow a modern recipe from a reliable source to make sure you are using an appropriate amount of vinegar and processing your pickles correctly. Discard homemade pickles after one year and make more. Or do as my neighbor did and schedule a clean-the-pantry party ten months after the pickling party.

Dehydration Tips
People have been preserving fruits by dehydration for ages, but I am a late bloomer to this type of food preservation. Last winter I learned to use a dehydrator by drying apples. The issues here are time and patience, how you slice and the way you lay the fruit into the dehydrator. This summer I dried blueberries and green onions with great success. This method is almost foolproof, unlike the sometimes complicated jar preservation process, and the end product takes up much less space and lasts longer. Dehydrating appeals to me for these reasons but also because it can be done indoors regardless of weather. Herbs take the least time to dry in a machine and can burn, while fruits are more forgiving. Vegetables take longer because they are more fibrous and need to be dried to a crispy condition for best preservation. This winter I want to learn how to dehydrate meat and make jerky as good as my brother-in-law does. Wish me luck in winning the family blue ribbon.


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