I just cannot tell you how many times I have heard that as a kid. Don’t like your spinach? Just twirl it with your fork and hopefully Mom will think you have eaten some. Got French fries? Oh, yeah. Building material! Today, as an adult, I love to ‘play’ with my food – taking a recipe and adding my own tweak to it. Staring in the pantry at a myriad of supplies, and coming up with something new and different. Playing with your food isn’t all bad. But there is one time when you definitely do NOT need to play around…
I am in the throes of trying to get my garden harvested and preserved, with the cucumbers coming in at astonishing numbers. I have done the requisite pickle relish and bread and butter pickles. I always like to keep a few jars of sweet pickles on hand, even if we don’t eat a lot of them. Normally, I prepare them using the tried-and-true recipe that was handed down from my Aunt Evelyn. However, I am always hyperaware of the fact the initial soaking is in Lime water. Using Lime for pickles can be dangerous if you do not know what you are doing. Every bit of that Lime needs to be rinsed off. The rinsing can take hours – especially considering I usually do a double batch. That is a lot of cucumber slices!
To try and get around that, this year I decided to do a Vintage recipe from 1952 that I found in a well-respected cookbook on canning. It would take five days to complete – but basically that’s what it would take to make the others. I just wouldn’t have to deal with the Lime. This recipe calls for pouring boiling water over the whole cucumbers and allowing them to sit for 12 to 24 hours. This step is repeated three more times. On the fifth day, you mix up your vinegar, sugar and spices and bring them to a boil. Slice the cucumbers, return them to the bowl, pour over the vinegar mix and let it sit for another 24 to 48 hours.
I got to the slicing part. As I began to pour the vinegar mix over the slices, I happened to notice one of the slices had a very tiny white spot on the side. Ever cautious with my canning, I put the hot pot back on the stove and started looking. I mean really looking. I scratched gently at the spot with my fingernail. I checked other slices. Several had that same white mark. I let out a deep sigh as my shoulders drooped. I shook my head and went in search of a five gallon bucket.
I still am not sure if it was just a part of the cucumber that became soft after all that soaking. And I cannot tell you that it was some type of mold that was beginning to form. Since there was some doubt, I refused to take the chance. All those pickles, wasted. All that sugar, vinegar and pickling spices – wasted. But when I consider the possible alternative outcome, I really didn’t care.
Canning takes skill, a watchful eye and extreme caution. Keep in mind that you are preparing food today that people will be eating months and possibly even a year from now. Improper canning can cause botulism or other foodborne illnesses to grow, causing serious illness or even death. The Country Boy and I have been known to toss a full just-opened jar of a canned item just because it ‘didn’t seem right’. We do not take chances.
Preparing or consuming home-canned items is definitely a time when you don’t want to even consider playing with your food. If your jar doesn’t seal, then either refrigerate it and eat it within a day or two, or toss it out. Never try to reprocess it. And in my case, I wouldn’t even feed those cucumber slices to my chickens, who love fresh cucumber. Instead, I had the Country Boy haul it off and bury it.
Let me add this – don’t let this post scare you off of canning. It is truly one of the greatest joys of living a simple life. There is something magical about seeing all those glorious jewel-toned jars lining your pantry shelf. Every bite is even more delicious because you know of the labor that was put in to growing them yourself, and then preserving them. However, make sure you pay close attention to what you are doing. If you don’t know how to can, find someone who does that will teach you. This is the first year I flew solo with the pressure canner. Normally, the Country Boy is hanging out and double checking my work. Did you add salt to that jar? Wait. Wipe that rim again. I’m going to go get a magazine, can you watch the canner for a minute? This year, he has had to work. So canning those beans and squash probably took twice as long, because I was double checking myself with every step.
So, go ahead. Can all those vegetables. Just keep a close eye on each step, and if anything at all makes you question (like some mystery white dot on the cucumbers), don’t hesitate to dump it out and start all over. Cucumbers this time of year are a dime a dozen. I can’t replace the Country Boy, no matter what the cost.
Feel like playing with your food? Fine. Build towers out of your French fries, or feed the dog your spinach. Just don’t get playful when you can your own food. You really won’t like the way it turns out.