It’s early summer, irnd Western North Carolina is enjoying an abundance of fresh produce. Now the question becomes, what do we do with all these fresh fruits and vegetables?
The answer is to do what our grandparents did here in Southern Appalachia: Preserve them.
From peach jam to dilly beans to pickled beets, options abound, say local farmers and food educators. Already, local strawberries are harvested, and blueberries, raspberries and blackberries, both cultivated and wild, will be ready soon.
At Ten Mile Farm in Old Fort, beets, rainbow carrots, cucumbers, zucchini, turnips and yellow squash are plentiful, as are garlic and radishes, says co-owner Christina Carter. Part of maintaining a diet of food that is produced locally is to preserve it for when the harvest is done, Carter says. Food that is canned or fermented can last for months, even years, without spoiling, allowing us to continue to enjoy the bounty even in the dead of winter
At Rayburn Farm in Barnardsville, early garlic and beets are in, and farmer Michael Rayburn is preparing to preserve some of the harvest. “One advantage to preserving your own food is the fresh taste in the middle of winter,” he says.
According to the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, nearly 20 crops will be ripening and hitting the market in the coming weeks (see sidebar for a complete list). Chelsea Wakstein offers classes in both water-bath canning and fermentation at Villagers in West Asheville, helping people to preserve these harvests safely.
Wakstein started canning five years ago because she wanted to rely less on industrially produced and processed food, which often contains added salt, sugars, dyes and preservatives. “I want to know what’s in the food I eat, and if I preserve it, I know,” Wakstein says. “I know where it came from, and I know what’s in it.”
At a recent class, Wakstein went through the process for a dozen students, emphasizing that the most important thing to remember is sanitation. The purpose of canning is to prevent bacteria, molds and other harmful organisms from spoiling the food.
Jars should be clean, she says, but need not be sterilized before filling — the heat of the canning process will take care of that. Jars and the rings that hold the lids on the jars can be reused, but lids can’t be reused. They are available in packages of a dozen at most grocery and discount stores. Ball, the manufacturer of Mason jars and lids, recommends keeping them in simmering, but not boiling, water just before use.
As for the food itself, “It’s a good idea to look for seconds,” she says. “Food that’s perfectly fine, but not pretty enough to be sold at the market. You don’t need it to be pretty.”
Water-bath canning is for foods high in acid, mostly fruits. Vegetables processed in a brine of one part vinegar to one part water are also safe. For low-acid foods, the best canning method is pressure canning with a pressure-canning pot. (Wakstein says regular pressure cookers are not meant for canning and recommends buying a pressure canner.) Jams, jellies, fruit butters, tomatoes and pickles all can be processed safely in a water-bath canner.
Wakstein advises canning food that is hot when it is put into clean jars and processing it five minutes longer than recommended by recipes because the WNC area is more than 1,000 feet above sea level. Aside from that, simple recipes can be found online and in many books, including her favorite, Putting Food By ($17, Penguin Books), which also contains instructions for fermenting, smoking and salting to preserve fresh foods.
Fermentation is a preservation process that harnesses the power of beneficial microorganisms to fight off harmful bacteria and control the deterioration of foods. Sarah Archer began fermenting 12 years ago as a hobby, but she got more serious when she began reading about the benefits of fermented foods and started her own business, Serotonin Ferments.
“We know serotonin affects a lot of things, including depression,” she says. “But did you know more serotonin is produced in the gut than in the brain? And fermented foods aid in the production of serotonin.”
Research in recent years has shown the importance of healthy bacteria in the gut to human health, from helping strengthen the immune system to restoring the biome after using antibiotics and even helping to alleviate depression and anxiety.
Common, easy-to-make fermented foods include sauerkraut and kimchi, both made from cabbage, but other vegetables also are easy to ferment, including beans, carrots, onions and beets.
Commercially fermented foods usually are cooked, killing the bacteria that benefit the gut. So if probiotics are what you’re looking for, make sure you’re buying uncooked ferments (like Serotonin Ferments and some other locally made products) or doing it yourself. “Keeping food raw preserves and even enhances the nutrients,” Archer says.
The equipment for fermenting is pretty simple and inexpensive. Jars complete with airlocks ready-made for this purpose are available at Villagers and Fifth Season or through fermentation suppliers online. Or you can easily make your own. Airlocks, which allow gas to escape without letting wild bacteria and yeast into the mix, are available separately at brewing-supply stores for less than $5, and you can drill a hole the size of the rubber cork in a Mason jar lid. Just be certain the seal is tight, Archer says.