Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Home Canning Pays In Dividends

Canned food rates low on the list of gourmet foods. In general, fresh is best, frozen is okay and canned…well, canned goods don’t get any respect at all.

Perhaps canned food gets its bad name from the stuff we buy in the store. These vegetables are raised with little concern for taste or flavor. Instead, commercial companies must get the highest return for their cash outlay. So lots and lots of, for instance, big but not-too-tasty green beans outweigh a smaller crop of tender and sumptuous green beans.

But some canned goods truly rate as fine food or, as Alton Brown would say, “Good Eats.” Some home-canned products fall into this category.

As a forager, much of my diet consists of wild plants that I harvest in season and then either pressure-can or freeze for later use. As with domestic vegetables, I’ve found that some plants lend themselves well to home canning and others are best frozen. A few excel as either canned or frozen foods. Let me tell you about two of my favorite home-canned products.
Taraxacum officinale
Okay, I used a fancy word…actually, the official botanical name, for the common and lowly dandelion. But dandelions are more than just a favorite of old-time country people. And they have more to them than simply their inestimable value as vitamin powerhouses. Dandelions excel as a home-canned food.

It seems to me that something happens to dandelions in the pressure-canning process, something that enhances their inherent sweetness and diminishes that bitter taste that so many people object to. While I revel in fresh dandelions each spring (also in fall, after the first few killing frosts make dandelions less bitter), I absolutely go nuts for my home-canned dandelions in winter. These are so good that I save them for special times, to go with extra-yummy cuts of lamb or perhaps, fresh fish.

I would feel totally unprepared and even slovenly were I to head into winter without my shelf filled with home-canned dandelions.
Plantago juncoides
Okay, I did it again. Plantago juncoides is the scientific name for seaside plantain, or what old-timers once called, “shore greens.” The other common name, “goosetongue,” seems most appropriate, though, since the individual leaves are shaped much like their namesake.

Without going into detail about how to find or identify goosetongue (it’s all available in my book, Wild Plants Of Maine), I will say that goosetongue rates right up there with dandelions as a superb canned food. In fact, today I had a noontime meal of shrimp Scampi. This used my own, homegrown garlic and a side dish of home-canned goosetongue sprinkled with white vinegar and some Cajun seasoning. The end result was a gustatory treat.

For me, home-canned goods are preferable to even fresh, commercially-grown vegetables. My “freezer foraging” provides many inspired and elegant meals.

By the way, my next column in the upcoming winter issue of Maine Food & Lifestyle Magazine features freezer foraging and includes some recipes.

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