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Can It, You!

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There's no way to sugarcoat this: Canning can be a long, hot and occasionally frustrating process, especially if you're new at it. But is it worth it? I don't know, how do you feel about having a rainbow of local fruits and vegetables all arrayed in vintage glass jars lining your shelves, fruits and vegetables that you harvested and preserved yourself? Heck yeah, it's worth it!

For specific recipes and good advice, a good book on canning goes a long way. The Ball Blue Book of Canning is excellent. Find the recipe you want and follow the directions. Experimenting is for after you've got some experience.

For advice that's not in any book, reap the wisdom of my own canning disasters:

1. Find out if the fruit you're canning is in season, if you'll have enough and if it has to ripen off the tree prior to canning. Pears are a good example — they should be picked a week before you actually use them. Others, like blackberries, freeze well if you need to wait.

2. Get your supplies in advance. When the season gets into full swing, it's not unusual for stores in Humboldt to sell out of necessities. Stock up on jars, rings, lids, pectin and a canner (if you need one) well before you're going to use them. Make sure you have the right size rings for the jars you're using.

3. Give yourself enough time. Canning can be an all-day event. It's tempting to pile on the projects ("I'm going to make jelly and applesauce and beef stew and ... ) but unless you have a team, superhuman multitasking abilities and a lot of experience, your enthusiasm will only end in tears. Start slow, start easy and read those darned directions. Some recipes require that you simmer your concoction for a few hours before you even stick it in the jars. Start early in the day — it is no fun to be stuck by a hot stove in the middle of the afternoon.

4. Lay out your tools. Don't pick up a peeler and start whacking away at a pile of fruit without forethought. Canning is a multistep process, and a final product to be proud of requires an assembly line of tools prepped to clean, peel, cook, pour, seal and cool.

5. Don't panic. Sometimes when you lift the lid of the pressure steamer you'll hear the telltale "pop!" of the lids sealing, sometimes you won't. Walk away from the jars. Walk away. Start doing dishes and come back after they've cooled. Press down on the lids. If they don't pop up after you've pressed down, the jars have sealed. If they do, don't cry. You're just going to be eating a lot of pears over the next week or so. There are more on the tree. Try, try again.

This recipe is adapted from the one in Canning for Dummies.

The lovely thing about pears is that they have an unprepossessing flavor that lends itself to some creative recipes. There are milder chutney recipes, but this one has a sweet heat to it that makes it perfect with lamb or grilled vegetables.

Yields 8 half pints

Ingredients:

3 pounds pears, peeled, cleaned and diced (Pears should be firm and not overripe. Weight is post cleaning)

2 cups apple cider vinegar

1 ¼ cups packed brown sugar

1 onion, finely chopped

1 cup golden raisins

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground cloves

1 ½ teaspoons cayenne pepper

1 whole dried jalapeño pepper

Method:

Put the diced pears into a bowl of water with a little bit of salt so they won't brown. Place the vinegar and brown sugar in a 4 to 5-quart pot. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat and stir.

Add the pears, onion, raisins, cinnamon, cloves and cayenne pepper. Stir, then add the jalapeño pepper. Return the mixture to a boil, then turn the heat down so it simmers. Let the mixture simmer for 1-2 hours, stirring so it doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan. It should thicken and reduce by about one third.

Your lids and jars should be in hot water — like it says in your canning directions — until you're ready to use them. Remove them from the water two to three at a time so they don't cool before you've poured in the chutney.

Ladle the hot chutney into jars (use a funnel!), leaving about ½ an inch from the top of the jar. Stir the chutney in the jar with a wooden chopstick to remove bubbles, and add more if necessary. Wipe the jar rims and seal the jars. Don't worry about getting the bands super tight; they'll loosen in the canner.

Cook those suckers! Boiling them in a water bath canner will take about 15 minutes. Add 5-10 minutes more for a pressure canner.

When the time's up, put the processed jars on a flat surface to cool. Walk away. I'm sure they're fine. Go find a Sharpie to label the lids with pear-related puns. Suggestions: "A-PEARantly Chutney," "Chutney? I hardly know her!" Never mind. I'm sure you can do better than that. Enjoy the fruits of your labors. If things go pear-shaped, don't des-pear. There's always next year. Unfortunately, nothing rhymes with chutney.

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