First of all, they look so pretty, those rows and rows of canning jars -- red ones full of strawberry jam, the gold of brandied peaches, the confetti flecks of caponata, and deep green jars packed with relish. And when you are tired of feeling proud of your creative cookery, you can open them up and turn a mundane meal into an occasion.
"People are afraid of it, if they haven't done it," says Helen Witty, whose new book, Fancy Pantry (Workman Publishing, $11.95) takes the terror out of "preserving, pickling, potting, jamming, and bottling." No, you will not die of botulism if you follow the directions, and many of the recipes which Witty offers will lead you gently into the kitchen and, before you know it, lead you right back out with an armful of brilliantly colored jars to store in your pantry. "So many of these you just leave, and time does the work," says Witty. "Put a notice on your refrigerator to check the pantry in two or three months."
Assuming, that is, that you are lucky enough to have a pantry. The houses of childhood all had them, large, shelf-lined rooms where food could be saved for the winter months. If your house was built during the era when the standard approach to preserving was to let Birdseye do it, you can make do with a cupboard, or line the jars up on top of the kitchen cabinets, away from strong sunlight.
There are two ways of deciding what to put up: The first, the sorcerer's apprentice approach, is to attempt to use up fruits and vegetables that are being produced in such excess that ordinary efforts to eat them fail. Undoubtedly, there are people who can watch as masses of tomatoes rot on the vine and consider their surplus strawberries a gift to the slugs; but unless you are one of them, you will first force cartons of peaches and plums on your neighbors and then, when window shades are hastily drawn at your approach, you will begin to look through the cookbooks for relishes, chutneys, jams, sauces, syrups anything at all that will mop up the garden overflow. The exhortation to waste not want not has led many a cook to spend an entire summer chained to the stove and inspired an astonishing number of attempts to use up all the green tomatoes that fail to ripen before first frost.
The problem with this approach is that it often leads to rows of jars containing food that no one wants to eat. One surprising year absolutely nothing bad happened to the plum tree -- not bugs nor birds nor disease -- and the tree, astonished by its good fortune, responded with an incredible fecundity. I still have 10 jars of whole plums, preserved in a simple but tasteless syrup, which no one has ever wanted to eat, though the plum catsup, which I thought I'd made too much of, vanished long ago. Make what people like and if you try something new and it is not met by rousing cheers, empty all the jars into the sink. (This very night I will take my own advice.)
The other approach is to steal recipes from friends, whose preserves you have tasted and enjoyed, or roam through a cookbook, mark the recipes you know you would enjoy and which compliment the kind of cooking you do, and then go out and buy the ingredients. It used to be that you had to drive out to the country to get fresh and inexpensive food; now the city is pocked with farmer's markets and as various fruits and vegetables hit their peak you can stock up and preserve them. If you have the sun and a bit of garden for herbs, it will help to have them on hand. If not, many gourmet stores carry them. Hardware stores and even supermarkets carry canning jars and replacement lids and any large kettle will do for sterilizing and sealing the jars. I have found that a wide mouthed funnel saves mess and that it's much easier to remove the jars from the boiling water with a pair of tongs. But past that, how much equipment you invest in is up to you.
Once you've gotten over the fear that your forays into canning will be the death of your friends, you will be delighted at how easy it is to turn leftover blueberries into syrup or jam, scrape the battered raspberries off the bottom of the carton to flavor raspberry vinegar, or store enough tomato sauce for a winter's worth of pasta. Reading Fancy Pantry will lure you into making purple basil and orange jelly to serve with cold meats, or sweet and tart pickled cranberries to sit on the side of Thanksgiving's roast turkey, or purple plum jam with orange liqueur or a peach and raspberry dessert sauce or a gingery rhubarb chutney.
If you've never put up summer before, Witty's book will give you the courage to try. In addition to the recipes there are instructions on what to do (and what not to do) and a glossary of "Ingredients, Equipment and Techniques," which is clearly written and pleasantly opinionated in the confident fashion of someone who has been doing this for a very long time.