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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Canning In The Off-Season

For the last two months I've had a one-gallon crock of saurkraut sitting on the counter. There's a lot of other stuff sitting around on that counter, so a big jar of fermenting cabbage didn't really stick out the way you might imagine it would. Still, it was long past time to move the kraut to a more permanent home.

When I was growing up, my mom didn't exactly celebrate the domestic arts. She was a good cook but never really enjoyed it the way I do. Nonetheless, mom was a faithful canner of tomatoes from our garden and jelly-er of grapes from my nearby grandparent's vines. Every summer, my distant grandparents would arrive with bushels of fresh peaches and Lodi apples. I remember my mom and great-aunt working in the kitchen for hours, peeling, slicing, freezing, and saucing. (Was I helping? Mostly not. I was probably busy being a surly teenager). My point being that, despite the frequent appearance of Spam at our supper table, home preservation of fresh, local foods was part of my family's food culture.

In spite of my initially unhelpful attitude, I've done a bit of canning myself. The summer after I graduated college I decided to grow pickling cucumbers in my parents' garden. Two weeks into my post-graduation trip my mom called to say that the cucumber vines were taking over. Sure enough, those suckers were quite productive and kept me busy harvesting, pickling and canning for the rest of the summer.

Every few years I have the urge to can again. In grad school it was jellies and jams, then for a while I flirted with canning tomatoes and peaches. The saurkraut habit started as a side effect of owning too many books about pickling: I browsed through the fermented pickles chapter once too often. I tried a small batch a few years ago and, having met with success, gave it another go this year.

It's really pretty easy to make: if you can slice cabbage and measure salt, and tolerate a large crock that occupies prime counter space for two months, you can make saurkraut. The kraut probably finished fermenting several weeks ago but I just didn't make the time to deal with it. Plus it was fun to skim off the "bloom," some fungus or whatnot that appears on the surface of the brining liquid, and watch it grow back again. You've just gotta love a recipe that directs you to remove surface scum every three weeks.

Canning saurkraut is not a very traditional New Year's Eve activity, at least not in any tradition that I'm aware of. It's not really necessary to can it anyway, if you have a nice spot in your house that's a constant 38 degrees for kraut storage. But it had reached the point where the kraut had to be tended to, so that the counter would not have been occupied in vain. Truthfully, it felt a bit odd to get out the canning gear on the same day that I shoveled 10" of snow. Canning is supposed to be a summertime sport. It was rather nice, however, to boil a huge cauldron of water on a cold, dry day. Too bad there's no way to make tomatoes wait until winter.

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