Dirt Therapy: By Marianne Taylor
Dirt Therapy: By Marianne Taylor

Transforming Summer Crops into Homemade Holiday Gifts

By Marianne Taylor 
Connect with your family and your garden while harvesting and canning seasonal produce

Nothing tastes better than homemade jams or preserves. If you’re lucky enough to have a fruit tree or vegetable garden this summer, now is the time to consider making jams from your abundant harvest. If you don’t have the space for a fruit and vegetable garden, this is the time to purchase seasonal produce from your local farms or organic markets—think of all the yummy delights you can have on hand all year, from apricot preserves to tomato jam. Canning food is a good time to connect with your food and garden, while also bringing the family together with a project that can become an annual tradition any time of the year.

Jamming has been a tradition in our family since our children were little. This is a great opportunity to teach a skill that will benefit your kids for years to come. Each June, our family’s apricot tree bursts with fruit at the same time of the month, and all within a few days. With all hands on deck, we get to work quickly as the ripe fruit is ready to be picked.

With the kids in tow, I’d bring out the necessary tools to get our project started—ladders, buckets, gloves and loppers to prune those lovelies into the pales, followed by the kitchen equipment and canning items. All of us would take a turn clipping and gathering, which can take a few hours depending on fruit yields. Following the harvest, the fruit is then brought into the house for inspection and washing. While I prepare the pots, jars and tools for canning, the kids share chores like inspecting, washing and de-pitting.

Our kitchen counter transforms into a factory with jars and lids lined up, pots filled with fruit cooking on the stove, crazy canning tools and readily available oven mitts so you don’t burn your hands from the hot water. We each take turns stirring the sweet apricot liquid, getting it ready to pour into its final place. Once sealed, each jar gets labeled and cooled in the refrigerator a few weeks before storing in a dark cabinet. Our apricot tree yielded close to one bushel of apricots, or 48 pounds, which made 32 to 48 pints of the best jam. Holiday gifts become an instant success from our summer crop made all from our labor of love to share with our family and friends.

The following is what you’ll need to get you started to make your own jams and preserves.

The good news is that most of the equipment you’ll need for canning is already in your kitchen.

Equipment you may already have:

Dutch oven for cooking, chopsticks for getting air bubbles out of can, kitchen timer, food processor, food thermometer, bowls for mixing and holding fruit, ladle, oven mitts, measuring cups, wooden spoons for stirring, sharp knives for cutting and peeling, tongs for lifting hot jars out of the pot, slotted spoon for draining excess liquid and a strainer for seeds.

Equipment you may need to purchase:

Canning jars, lids and rims. They come in several sizes depending on what you are canning. For jams, half pints and 4-ounce jars are best. A water bath canner with a rack that fits half pint and quart jars, or a large pot will do for small batches. You must have a rack on the bottom so the jars don’t crack. A jar lifter, so you don’t burn your hands getting the jars out, and a canning funnel for pouring.

A few helpful tips for beginners:

 

  1. Get all your tools and ingredients out before you get started.
  2. Allow enough time for it—canning is a fun activity but it’s time intensive. Save it for the weekends.
  3. Stick to the recipe—there is a whole science behind canning, including making sure enough acidity is in the food to keep bacteria away.
  4. Can with your kids or a buddy—there’s a lot of work to do gathering, cleaning, skinning, chopping, cooking and canning. It goes by fast when you have someone to keep you company.
  5. If you can, learn from someone with more experience than you.
  6. Community members are invited to a free jam and preserves class on Saturday, July 23 from 9:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. at the Reata Park & Event Center, located at 28632 Ortega Highway in San Juan Capistrano. Learn the basics and everything you need to know to make jams and preserves and get your holiday gifts started. Hosted by Goin Native Therapeutic Gardens and taught by the UCCE Master Preservers of Orange County. Email marianne@goinnative.net to reserve your seat!

Marianne’s Simple Apricot Recipe:

10 cups ripe apricots (about 2.5 pounds)

half cup sugar

juice of one lemon

splash of water

No pectin (almost no sugar)

Wash, halve and pit the apricots. Place all ingredients in a saucepan over high heat (no lid). When it starts to bubble, turn the burner down to the lowest heat setting. Cook three to four hours, stirring occasionally. If you like a thicker jam, spoon off the watery liquid several times midway through cooking (you can save this for another purpose). Reuse some store-bought jam jars and place in the refrigerator for up to two weeks (if it lasts that long!)

Makes about 3.5 cups.

Marianne Taylor, of San Juan Capistrano, is the founder and executive director of Goin Native Therapeutic Gardens, a 501(c)(3) teaching gardening and life skills as a way of empowering, engaging and connecting people. Goin Native focuses on educating local families, special needs adults, seniors, at-risk youth and members of the military.

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