Wednesday, August 19, 2009

You Can Take the Girl Out of Georgia...

When I first came to Caretaker to interview, Don warned me of the brutal heat of a Berkshire summer. "There will be about a week in the 90's," he said seriously. "Only one week?" I asked incredulously, "I think I can handle that."

That week, in all of its sun-baked glory finally arrived last Friday, and I have spent every sweaty moment since in a heat-addled bliss. It is finally hot enough to swim.

Water, as I have noted, is abundant in the Berkshires (this summer in particular). Long-ago glaciers gouged ponds in the earth; streams bisect the valleys and trip mellifluously one into the next. Frankly, I'm not sure why farmers in these parts even both to establish irrigation systems. Unfortunately, most of this water is frigid, a shock to the system on all but the warmest of days. If I'm to cool off at 6 pm, when I get off work, by jumping in a swimming hole, it had better be a scorcher of a day. I've gone swimming for five days running now, and I couldn't be happier.

Of course, the ironic counterpoint to my love affair with cold water is that these hot days also send me into the kitchen to slave over a cauldron of hot water canning jams, pickles, salsas and just plain fruit. Rutabagas will only carry me so far through winter. Alas, my dreams of a pantry red with tomatoes is not to be, nor the "tomaisins" (sun dried cherry tomatoes) I had so eagerly anticipated. I'll replace them with pickled beets, dilly beans, and tomatillo salsa.

And peaches. Just as it wouldn't be summer unless I immerse myself in water, nor would the season seem complete until I have consumed and canned at least a bushel of peaches. Katie was kind enough to bring me back two bags of gargantuan Pennsylvania peaches when she returned from vacation, so I spent Tuesday night racing to can many of them before they crossed the fine line from ripe into rotten. I've improved since my first marathon cannings last year, when I managed to sully almost every pot in the house over the course of far too many hours. This year I'm avoiding the newbie mistakes: I started my canning bath water first--though after I had ensured that my pot was deep enough to hold my jars. So I skinned and I chopped and I pitted and I boiled, until the dust settled and I was left with 5 quarts of peaches in a light honey syrup just waiting for the winter doldrums to strike.

How To Can Your Own Peaches

First and foremost, set a large pot of water to boil--this will be your hot water bath. Place some sort of rack in the bottom of the pot, so that jars will not rattle against the bottom of the pot when processing.

Set a second, smaller pot to boil, and fill a small bowl with ice water. Cut a shallow "x" in the bottom of each peach, and when the second pot comes to a boil, immerse the peaches one at a time for between 30 and 60 seconds to loosen the skin. When you remove a peach from the hot water, immediately plunge it into the ice water (the goal is not to cook the peaches.) If the peaches are ripe, the skin will slide right off.

In the meantime, in a small saucepan, bring 1 quart of water and a scant 1 cup of honey or sugar to a simmer. This will be your canning syrup. The sweetness of your syrup is a matter of taste--my recipe is considered "light". Depending on how many peaches you can, and how full you pack your jars, you may need more or less syrup. I made 5 quarts of peaches with 1 batch of syrup.

Once all the peaches are peeled, cut them into halves or slices. Pack your (very clean!) jars with the peaches and pour the canning syrup over the peaches until it comes up to the bottom of the neck of the jar. Poke and prod the peaches to release any air trapped at the bottom. Screw canning lids on your jars--they should be sealed, but you don't need to really jam them down: the processing will do the real sealing.

Carefully lower the filled jars into the first and largest pot of boiling water. Water needs to cover the lids completely. Once the peaches have been processed 25 minutes in boiling water, remove them from the pot and allow them to cool on a counter. Store in a cool place for up to one year.

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