Sherri Brooks Vinton says there's no need to fear canning as long as you follow one simple rule: Follow all the rules.
Much like baking, successful canning relies on easy, but precise, steps. "When you're canning, you need to stick to the recipe," said Vinton, an Easton resident who is the author of "Put `Em Up: A Comprehensive Home Preserving Guide for the Creative Cook from Drying and Freezing to Canning and Pickling" (Storey Publishing, 2010).
"It's like baking," she said. "You can't say, `I love sugar so I'm going to add twice as much and I'm gluten-free so I'm not going to add any flour at all.' You just need to stick to the program and follow the script."
Before you envision dusty jars of Grandma's pickles and succotash, though, let it be known that Vinton shares recipes for all sorts of culinary treasures, such as preserved lemons, sticky fig jam and cucumber sake.
Vinton's passion for preserving food started about ten years ago when she took a cross-country motorcycle trip with her husband. She expected to get out into the heartland and find tons of little farms selling lots of fresh vegetables. She did find many farms, but they were huge and growing corn and soy for industrial food companies. When she returned home, she attended a conference hosted by Slow-Food USA, where she learned about shopping at local farms and markets, the benefits of grass-fed beef, and all the other locavore secrets that are now out of the bag.
In 2005, she wrote her first book, "The Real Food Revival," which explored how and why to support sustainable agriculture on a practical level. As she toured to promote the book and gave cooking classes, she kept encountering the same question over and over: "How am I supposed to cook all this stuff?" That question led her to write "Put `Em Up," which gives ways to take whatever extra fruits or vegetables you may have and preserve them for future use. "You can take that flavor from the abundant season and squirrel it away for later," she said.
Vinton doesn't have a formal culinary background. "I'm not a nutritionist or a chef," she said. "I'm a home cook. `Big food' makes you feel like you need a degree to put food on the table for your family," she said. "But if you can boil water, you can can."
Vinton's first foray into food preservation came about when she was given a flat of strawberries after teaching a class at a farm market. She watched as they began to wilt on her counter, and thought she couldn't let them go to waste. "I threw them in a pot with some sugar and lemon juice," she said. They cooked down into a sauce that she used on pancakes and ice cream.
"I had stopped time," she said. "This stuff was destined for the compost heap."
Vinton's recipes range from jams and jellies to relishes, pickles and infusions. But, she points out, the purpose isn't to have summer foods all year long. "I don't try to flip the season on its head," she said. "It's just nice to have a little something to perk up your palette. Like if you've been cooking a low and slow stew, it's terrific to have a little chutney on the side."
But what about the Big "B" -- botulism? Probably every new canner has the fear of inadvertently poisoning family and friends with well-intentioned tomato sauce.
"Botulism spores are a natural part of the environment," said Vinton. It's only the toxin, that's created when the bacteria reproduce, that's dangerous. The toxin can only form in a low-acid, air-tight environment, so following the recipes exactly will ensure the proper level of acidity.
In other words, don't try to improvise by adding beans to your salsa or meat to your marinara. It'll throw off the acid ratio.
When Vinton's not busy canning and writing (she has two books scheduled for publication in 2013: "Put `Em Up! Fruit" and "The Put `Em Up! Answer Book"), she's started a side business. She transforms classic canning jars into funky drinking glasses with metal straws. She sells the "Drink It Up Cups" ($15) at Kaia Yoga in Westport, Sport Hill Farm in Easton, Catch a Healthy Habit Cafe in Fairfield and Saraswati's Yoga Joint in Norwalk, as well as on Etsy.com.
The jar-glass lids are perfect for ensuring that you won't spill your Watermelon Agua Fresca or Cantaloupe Rum, two of the interesting cocktail recipes which can be found in "Put `Em Up!"
For more information, check http://sherribrooksvinton.com
Patti Woods is a freelance writer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Following is Sherri Brooks Vinton's recipe for a drink she simply calls, Strawberry Vodka:
2 cups not-your-best vodka
1 pint strawberries, hulled
1. Pour the vodka into a clean quart jar, and then add the strawberries. Set in a cool, dark place for a week, shaking the jar every few days.
Strain through a fine-mesh sieve, pressing the berries to release remaining juice, and return the infused vodka to a clean jar or the original vodka bottle. Keeps at room temperature for up to a year.
Serve chilled or in your favorite cocktail.