Jam session: How to make the most of seasonal produce through food preservation

Want to savor the flavors of summer year-round? Peninsula preservation pros share their tips.

While the days of summer slowly fade, your produce doesn’t have to meet the same fate. In the depths of winter, a jar of fruit or vegetables can transport you back to a warm summer day.

For those who attended “Preserving Green Chiles,” an event hosted by San Mateo County Libraries on Aug. 24, this may soon become a reality. Dozens of eager, novice food preservationists gathered for an online talk presented by a Master Food Preserver, a volunteer expert certified by the University of California Campus Extension (UCCE) Master Food Preserver Program. While green chiles were the star of the show, participants soon developed a taste for the world of possibilities that freezing, drying, canning, fermenting and pickling fruits and vegetables can bring.

And for Belmont’s Michele Maia, the UCCE Master Food Preserver program coordinator for San Mateo and San Francisco counties, this taste has quickly blossomed into a full-blown passion. She only began preserving food at the height of the pandemic when looking for a safe hobby while sheltering in quarantine.

“I saw an advertisement for one of the online Master Food Preserver classes and it sounded interesting,” she said. She signed up for a class on making gifts in the kitchen. “It seemed like a fun activity to do at home and create some presents to share with friends and family.”

Since then, she has quickly grown into an enthusiastic proponent of food preservation.

“It’s delicious! Food that you preserve yourself has the best quality ingredients, some recipes can be slightly modified to suit your tastes, and gifts from the kitchen are always wonderful to share,” she said. She explained that while food preservation may initially seem daunting, it’s easy, cost-effective and more sustainable. “You can buy in bulk, use some of the food fresh and safely preserve the rest to use later.”

Half Moon Bay native Marilyn Johnson, owner of Spread the Love Jelly, a fixture at Peninsula grocery stores and farmers markets, is of the same mind. Growing up far from a grocery store, food preservation gave her family easy access to fruits and vegetables year-round. “It is also a wonderful bonding experience the whole family can participate in,” she said.

The novice food preservers at last month’s event quickly learned that food preservation requires strict adherence to standards. Improperly canned food can help dangerous bacteria proliferate.

“Use recipes that have been tested by university or industry professionals,” Maia said. “Recipes from university cooperative extension offices have been thoroughly tested to make sure that they are safe and will produce the desired results when followed.”

Once you’ve abided by these rules, the possibilities are endless. For Maia, any fruit or vegetable is ripe for preservation. From frozen green beans to pickled green tomatoes, there’s no limit on the different shapes and forms preserved food can take. Especially close to Maia’s heart are dehydrated mushrooms, a food she’ll add to just about anything.

“I love to dehydrate mushroom slices that I add to my spaghetti sauces, stews and soups later when I don’t have any fresh mushrooms in my fridge. I dry the mushroom stems and grind them into mushroom powder that I can add to gravies or sauces whenever I want a little more umami,” she said.

Certain fruits and vegetables are ideal for preservation this time of year, including berries, zucchini and cucumbers. Palo Alto resident Anne-Marie Bonneau, author of the cookbook “Zero Waste Chef,” thinks that while the foods you should preserve are the ones you like best, in-season produce like green beans and tomatoes are especially useful in preparation for the coming holidays and winter.

“Blanching and freezing green beans is pretty easy and you’ll have delicious green beans for Thanksgiving,” she said. “Tomatoes are my main focus in the early fall. I use them in everything in the winter — sauces and soups, chana masala, daal, and whatever recipe calls for canned tomatoes.”

For those with a sweet tooth, Johnson’s favorite fruits to make jam out of this time of year are peaches. 

“There are so many things you can do with peach jam,” she said, listing her favorites: “salad dressing, scones, cookies, cocktails, mocktails, glazes for protein, and, of course, good old peanut butter and jelly.”

Once you know what food you’re interested in preserving, you can get to work. Bonneau urges people to collect food-safe jars like Mason jars and lids as early as possible. After that, the prospective food preserver should familiarize themselves with the correct ways to preserve food. 

Thankfully for Peninsula residents, guidance is readily available. Maia encourages beginners to attend a Master Food Preserver class through San Mateo County Libraries. For those that want to become experts, the UCCE Master Food Preserver Program begins in November. Over a period of five months, you’ll learn to preserve food from squash to oregano, all while joining Maia and a cohort of passionate food preservers in the process.

After acquainting yourself with these food preservation standards, that idle peach or lonely tomato in your refrigerator might soon become the delicious relic of a summer past. You can join Johnson for a jam-making class to learn how to make the perfect peach spread, and Bonneau offers the occasional class on fermentation, teaching attendees how to turn an aging cucumber into a delicious pickle. 

You can also follow Maia’s lead. In the spirit of her first class, her summer produce isn’t just for herself; it’s also for her loved ones. When collecting oregano, thyme or sage, she likes to make an herb salt, which she uses to turn her passion into a holiday present. “The salts are super easy to make and fun to give as gifts,” she said.

Like Johnson, Maia believes food preservation is a way to bring people closer together. While preserving food can be a way to feast on the produce of summers past, it can also be the source of fond new memories.

“It’s fun! Canning is an activity that friends and family can do together,” she said.

To learn more about how to become a Master Food Preserver, visit the UCCE’s Master Food Preserver site for San Mateo County: https://cesanmateo.ucanr.edu/Programs/Food_Preservation_and_Food_Safety/

For those interested in approved recipes using preserved foods, the Master Food Preservers recommend Ball recipes: https://www.ballmasonjars.com/recipes?fdid=recipes

Visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation Website for more tips on food preservation and approved recipes: https://nchfp.uga.edu/#gsc.tab=0

For more information on upcoming Master Food Preserver events through San Mateo County Libraries, visit  https://smcl.bibliocommons.com/v2/events. The San Mateo County Office of Sustainability also has information on these interactive classes: https://www.smcsustainability.org/climate-change/sustainability-academy/food-preservation/.

This story was first published in The Six Fifty.

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