I was strolling through the produce section of my neighbourhood supermarket the other day when I came across some beautiful locally grown rhubarb. I've loved rhubarb all my life and have fond memories of Aunt Mabel's rhubarb pie with the lattice pastry top and my Mom's rhubarb tarts topped with Nestle canned cream. I also remember rhubarb pickles, rhubarb jam and rhubarb wine - which I wasn't old enough to drink but tasted anyway.
All of these food memories came flooding through my head as I stood in the aisle staring at a huge stack of local rhubarb piled high like kindling. I'd made up my mind to buy a batch of the reddish stalks but hadn't quite decided what to make from the vegetable - yes, it is actually a vegetable and not a fruit. I wanted to create something different with my bounty. Then something serendipitous happened.
I checked the mailbox on my way home and found a cookery book inside called "Well Preserved," sent to me by Whitecap Books for review. I thumbed through it and quickly found the solution to my rhubarb conundrum. It was a recipe called Rhubarb and Ginger Chutney. That's what I would make; not only that, since the book was about "small batch preserving" I would buy some Mason jars and preserve my homemade chutney for dining pleasure through the rest of summer and fall. Of course, I'd never canned anything in my life, but "what the heck," I thought. Mary Anne Dragan's book would show me the way.
Preserving or canning is not nearly as daunting a process as you might think. In "Well Preserved" Dragan points out that there are two types of canning, one is perfect for the casual cook. It deals exclusively with the preservation of small amounts of food containing higher amounts of acidity - like berries, fruit and some vegetables.
Essentially heat from a boiling water bath eliminates any beasties in the bottled food that might later cause problems.
The second type of preserving employs heat applied under pressure. This method must be used when foods with low acid are to be preserved, like meat, poultry, seafood and many vegetables. It's more labour intensive and requires specialized equipment, namely a big pressure cooker about three or four times the size of your soup pot. Most of us wouldn't be interested in getting that involved. However, when it comes to spending a few hours putting up berries or rhubarb, I think many would try.
At the beginning of "Well Preserved" Dragan gives all the information you'll need about the history of canning and the various methods. Most importantly she tells us how to can safely. After all, what's the point of using the highest quality ingredients if they are going to be spoiled because your lids didn't seal properly? Sanitation, boiling times and getting a tight seal are key factors in successful canning.
Dragon's book is full of wonderful recipes for canning practically every type of Canadian fruit as jam, jelly, chutney, preserve, sauce, relish or pickled treat. There's also a section at the back of "Well Preserved" with recipes using preserves as a cooking ingredient. For example, I saw a recipe for walnut loaf that used rhubarb chutney in the loaf, the same rhubarb chutney that I was planning to make. It seemed my purchase of local rhubarb had opened up all sorts of culinary possibilities.
The first step is to acquire bottles and rings and new lids. The lids must be new, as they can only be used one time. After washing the bottles and rings in warm soapy water the bottles then need to be placed in constantly boiling water for 15 minutes. The new lids must be boiled in water for no more than five minutes to loosen the sealing compound at the edge of each lid. Keep the lids in the water so they'll remain hot. Your bottles are now ready to be filled; but leave a quarter inch gap or "head space" between the tops of each bottle and the preserve.
Head space is important because if it's too small the bottle's contents might rise up during boiling and interfere with the sealing process.
If it's too big the lid might not seal properly or your food could become oxidized or possibly discoloured at the top. When the correct head space has been achieved each bottle must be fitted with one of the hot lids. Each bottle ring is then screwed on using just the tips of your fingers so as not to screw the lid down too tightly.
Finally, the bottles must be lowered into boiling water using something to grip them to avoid scalding your hands. The water should be at least a couple of inches above the tops of the bottles. Also, you'll need some sort of rack on the bottom of the pot to keep the bottoms of the bottles above the bottom of the pot. The pot is then covered and the full bottles are kept in the constantly boiling water for 10 minutes - for jam or chutney. The book gives exact boiling times for the various recipes.
After boiling remove the bottles and let them stand until well cooled. Eventually - perhaps as long as 24 hours later - the lids will properly seal. To make sure you have a proper seal just press on the centre of the lid. If it feels firm and does not give at all, then you have a good seal. The bottles can then be labelled with contents and date and placed in your cupboard for months, allowing you to enjoy your summer produce whenever you want.
My chutney turned out beautifully. It was sweet with tang and plenty of exotic flavour. Above all, the freshness and flavour of the local rhubarb set it apart from any store-bought chutney. That's why home canning is so great. You pick the ingredients and you make sure the quality and ripeness of the fruit or vegetables is high. That way you know that what comes out of the jar is going to be very good for you and great-tasting.
I quickly made myself a cheddar and chutney sandwich liberally slathered with chutney left from the cooking pot. After cracking open a bottle of chilled white wine I took my feast to the back garden and savoured my cheese and chutney in the warmth of the setting summer sun. It was glorious. Now I can't wait to can some blackberry jam and Well Preserved by Mary Anne Dragan has the perfect recipe.
Rhubarb and ginger chutney
Courtesy Well Preserved by M.A. Dragan
8 cups rhubarb cut into half-inch dice
2 cups finely chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
4 cups dark brown sugar
2 cups cider vinegar
1 cup golden raisins
2 thirds cup grated fresh ginger
2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. mustard seeds
1 tsp. dried chili flakes
1 tsp. ground allspice
1 tsp. ground coriander
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. ground cloves
Prepare the preserving jars. Combine all the ingredients in your cook pot and bring to a boil over a medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer, stirring often, for 35 to 45 minutes, until thickened. Remove from the heat. Ladle the chutney into hot sterilized jars, leaving a half inch head space. Wipe the rims clean. Seal according to manufacturer's directions.
Process the jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
Rhubarb dates back to at least 2700 BC.
Europeans began eating it around 1778.
Warm climates grow rhubarb year round.
The word rhubarb referred to low flying missions in WWII.
Rhubarb is a close relative of garden sorrel.
The Chinese use rhubarb as a purgative.