I've always known, everyone around me, family, friends or neighbors have been canning vegetables in the fall. And not only those who had a big family, but also people who were living alone, men or women. The same for making preserves, this is a tradition in our country of Romania. I can't imagine going through winter without having a sauerkraut barrel or a few jars of pickled sweet peppers and cucumbers!
Maybe this is just a reminder of the last communism years, when the store shelves were empty and everyone had to search hard for their food, including for fresh vegetables to can. Canning was a must back then, because if one couldn't find vegetables in the fall, there is no way they could find vegetables throughout the winter, nor any preserve, for that matter. Those pickles and the sauerkraut were very important as food, but also for our nutrition. It is known that they contain vitamin C, which is very important for the human body, especially during winter when not so many fresh vegetables and fruits are available. See, I'm writing using the Present Tense, as this would still happen nowadays!
Luckily, those days are over and now we can find most of the fresh fruits and vegetables in our superstores all year long, the same for pickles and sauerkraut or other cans. The problem is with all of us in Romania, because we're all set on those old customs and it's hard to get rid of them. The question is, do we want to get rid of it?
Not that I would want to forget of the old customs, yet I'd like to have options. I could buy pickles from the store, but not all are good and most of them are too expensive, considering the price of the fresh vegetable, which is low. If I buy fresh cucumbers and make my own pickles, a jar's price is more convenient, not to mention that it tastes like home. I believe this is the reason for which most of my people are following the old traditions, coming from ancient times, when people grew vegetables in their garden. They were canning their vegetables, grinding their own corn and wheat, thus having food for them and for the animals which grew on their farm.
Even while living in the city, my grandparents' and parents' roots were still deeply buried in the countryside from where they came. Even while working in large factories in the city and living in a flat, they never gave up traditions. Every fall they would buy large quantities of vegetables for canning, which they prepared after coming home from work. Those were times when one could find anything in the stores for affordable prices.
Nowadays, more and more people are going back to their roots because they prefer not to live in the city. Many of them just want to breathe clear air and have peace and quiet, to be away from the city's noise. But most of them also like gardening, this being the most important reason for which they want to have a house into the countryside.
My husband and I are some of those lucky people who had the chance to leave the city for a house in a village. It had to be close to the city, because we were still working. Driving a few miles every day doesn't leave me much time to garden. Nevertheless, gardening has been my first priority, ever since I've moved in. I've been learning and practicing and now I have my own vegetable garden, even if it is a small one. Some years I get more beans or more green peas, but onions, tomatoes and carrots are always too many. I have to find ways to save my harvest for the winter because it would be a pity not to. The big challenge is to preserve vegetables during summer when it's hot outside and pretty warm inside the house. All the canned vegetables need to stay in a cool place because I don't add any chemical preservatives to my preserves, only organic, such as vinegar, salt and sugar. I use a boiling hot water bath which kills the bacteria inside. Just in case, I keep the cans inside my cool basement where it's cold, but not freezing. Having a basement, even a small one, like mine is very important for keeping the preserved vegetables in a good condition throughout the winter, but, also during summer. Inside the basement, the temperature is constant, meaning it's cold even during summer. It's so cold that, if I need to stay very long, for cleaning or arranging the cans and shelves, I have to wear a sweater.
Thanks to this small basement I've started again, after many years, to make tomato juice, with the tomatoes I pick from my garden. Also, when I had almost forgotten the recipe for our traditional eggplant spread called 'zacusca', I've decided to start making it again, by using onions, carrots and tomatoes from my garden.
But those are only a small part of my vegetable harvest. It may be amazing, but I can harvest all the onions, carrots and cabbage I need for me and my husband to last all winter long. I even share part of the harvest with my daughter's family and with my friends. I preserve the rest of the vegetables, according to our traditional canning recipes or preserving methods. If I want to eat all those vegetables throughout the winter, I need to preserve them properly.
Even if they are not canned, the onions need special care so they can remain healthy all winter long. When I pick onions up from the garden, I lay them down on a cloth, in full sun, so they can dry and form a skin, which keeps them healthy inside. Also, I have to rip off the dry leaves, so the "tail" of the onion would dry too. I fill a netted sack with the dry onions and keep it in the dry basement during winter. This is where I also keep the sour cabbage barrel, the pickle jars and the tomato juice bottles. Sauerkraut can stay fresh in there even until August - it happened one year!
Not too long ago, I thought I'd never use my beautiful, huge tomatoes for other than salads. But since I've been growing more and more plants every summer, I've started to pick so many tomatoes, which we couldn't possibly eat. This is why I've decided to start making tomato juice again. I can make it in August and keep it in good condition until winter inside the basement. Having the tomatoes in my garden, I don't need to make a big amount of juice all at once. When I have too many ripe tomatoes in a short time, I make a bottle or two of juice and I repeat this until it gets cold and the tomatoes don't ripen anymore. Then I pick all the green tomatoes and make pickles and even preserves. To paraphrase what the famous chemist Lavoisier said, nothing gets lost at my place, but everything changes into cans!
Well, I don't can any of the other vegetable I have, although I have many old recipes, some from my mother-in-law. She was canning green beans in bottles and they were so good that you could eat right from the bottle. I used to can green beans when I was young but since the freezers appeared on the market and we bought one, it seemed easier to freeze green beans, rather than can them. The same goes for the squash, green peas and cauliflower, which are then easy to be cooked, without thawing them first.
I have to confess that I've learned this method of freezing, not only vegetables, but also any food - from my Dave's Garden friends. So thank you all, dear friends!
I don't freeze many casserole dishes, like my American friends, only occasionally. But I have some half-cooked vegetables, which I prefer to freeze and finish cooking after thawing them. Those are roasted eggplants, which I use for making a delicious spread and roasted bell peppers (or kapia peppers) for making an amazing salad. I roast the whole vegetables on the grill, then peel them. Eggplants need to drain in a sieve, then I put two of them in a plastic bag, just enough for two servings, and freeze them. Roasted bell peppers have to be peeled, deseeded and only afterwards I put a few in a plastic bag, also, enough for two servings.
Another American friend taught me how to freeze the pesto in a plastic casserole and so I do, every summer. I like it very much and always have one in my freezer, made with the basil leaves I grow in my garden.
Having too many pumpkins in the garden is fun, but they don't do well in my basement during winter where they get moldy. That's why after harvesting them in the fall, I take one by one (they aren't many, at least three or four) chop and grind them and then, fry until tender, the same as for any pumpkin pie. Whether I make a pie or not, I prepare the pumpkin puree from all my pumpkins, not all at once and only when I have some spare time. I fill some plastic boxes or even plastic bags with the puree and put them in the freezer and I get one whenever I want to make a pie.
Well, that's how I go about saving money by canning the vegetables from my garden. Would you like to try?