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Put 'em up: Virginia Willis tells us how to throw a preserving party

Virginia Willis

Spicy dilly beans, scuppernong jelly and ginger pickled beets

Put 'em up: Virginia Willis tells us how to throw a preserving party

There’s something wonderfully old-fashioned about preserving food, which is one of the reasons it remains an integral part of any good Southern cook’s repertoire. In this month's entertaining column from renowned cookbook author Virginia Willis, learn how many hands can make light (and fun) work preserving the best of September produce.

I grew up in a family committed to canning and preserving. My grandparents always planted a large garden near the house and kept another plot in the rich, black soil near the river. We ate produce when it was fresh and in-season, and we also preserved the garden’s goodness for later.

My mother and grandmother taught me how to transform local peaches, hand-picked wild blackberries, scuppernongs and muscadines into jams and jellies. They also showed me how to can fresh-picked green beans and sun-ripened tomatoes in the summer, and to fill the canning kettle with quarts of spiced apple butter, bracingly salty boiled peanuts and tangy pear chow-chow in the fall.

I firmly believe that if you can boil water, you can make a pickle or a jar of jam. Many people are intimidated by preserving — they're scared of working with pressure cookers or worried they're going to inadvertently poison someone. Some just have memories of their grandparent’s all-day canning marathons.

It doesn’t have to be that hard. Small-batch recipes don’t require truckloads of produce and versions of preserves for the refrigerator or freezer don’t require a pressure cooker or a canning kettle.

With help from a few friends, and using the guiding principle that “Many hands make light work”, you can turn what would otherwise be a day's work into a preserving party. It’s not as overwhelming to make multiple batches of pickles, jams and jellies when you aren’t the only one peeling, chopping, filling and cleaning.
The keys to pulling off such a party are all about planning: 

  • Spread the projects around the kitchen — have preserves cooking on the stovetop as well as in the oven, and maybe plan a project that can mostly happen at the kitchen table. It’s all about real estate and the number of people headed to your house.
  • Develop a schedule with a time frame to keep things on track. For example, start with pickled beets first (the recipe is below), because they cook in the oven for an hour before being pickled and canned.
  • Don’t be overly ambitious your first time or two, until you get the feel for how the party will run. Choose two or three pickles and preserves to tackle for your first event.
  • Most importantly, have fun! Set out some nibbles and libations, and have a good time. At the end of the afternoon, everyone will leave with a selection of preserves to take home.

One other note to keep in mind: The process of canning is a tad more complicated than simply putting ingredients in a jar. There is some food science involved. The key to canning safety is to use a reliable recipe with good directions and a bit of common sense. Work clean, and be careful with hot jars and liquid. When in doubt, my go-to website for all things preserving is Georgia’s own National Center for Home Preservation. It’s the absolute best source for current research-based recommendations around most methods of home food preservation.

There’s something amazingly satisfying about puttin’ up. The feeling of seeing an array of colorful jars cooling on a window sill, lit by sunbeams and glowing like stained glass, is pure joy. I love the pungent aroma of vinegar simmering with warm spices. Slowly pushing a fingertip through a puddle of gemlike liquid on an ice-cold plate and seeing that your jelly is, indeed, gelling, brings a feeling of satisfaction like no other. I grin every single time I hear the “pop” of a lid dimpling down on a cooling jar, the audible sign of a successful seal.

With this selection of end-of-summer recipes, I am sure you and your friends will delight in preserving, too.

Bon Appétit, Y’all!
Virginia Willis


Boiling Water Canning
High acid foods such as fruits, pickles, sauerkraut, jams, jellies, marmalades and fruit butters with a pH level of 4.6 or lower can be preserved by boiling water canning (low acid foods, such as canned meats and fish, require a pressure cooker).

Boiling water canning makes use of a large pot that's tall enough to fully submerge canning jars by at least an inch of water. The pot is used for both sterilization of jars prior to filling and for boiling the jars once they are filled. You don’t necessarily need to purchase a boiling water bath canner if you don’t already have one. Any large, deep stockpot equipped with a lid and a rack can double as a boiling water canner. Keep in mind: The pot must be large enough to fully surround and immerse the jars in water by 1 to 2 inches and allow for the water to boil rapidly with the lid on.

To pre-sterilize jars using a boiling water canner, place the cleaned jars right-side-up on a rack in your canner, and fill the jars and canner with enough water to cover the jars by at least 1 inch. Bring the water to a boil and then boil for 10 minutes (at altitudes less than 1,000 feet elevation). Do not boil the lids.

When you are ready to fill the jars, remove them one at a time with the canning tongs, carefully pouring the water from the jars back into the pot. Let the jars air-dry and sit undisturbed.


Spicy Dilly Beans
Makes 5 pint jars

Southerners are almost as fond of pickling as we are of mayonnaise-based dishes. Preserving fresh produce in vinegar or a combination of sugar and vinegar meant there would be vegetables to eat in the winter months. Pickling recipes encompass not just simple cucumbers, but also more unusual ingredients, such as watermelon rind, okra and green beans. I like to use one of these crisp, spicy dilly beans instead of an olive for a Southern-style martini.

Ingredients
2 1/2 cups distilled white vinegar
2 1/2 cups water
1/4 cup pickling salt
3 pounds green beans, preferably a combination or green and yellow wax beans
5 sprigs fresh dill
5 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
5 teaspoons dill seed
1 1/4 teaspoons red pepper flakes, or to taste
2 1/2 teaspoons yellow mustard seeds
1 1/4 teaspoons whole black peppercorns

Instructions
Prepare a boiling water canner and sterilize five pint-sized canning jars (see above). Place the lids in a small saucepan over very low heat to simmer while you prepare the pickles. Do not boil the lids.

In a medium saucepan, bring the vinegar, water and salt to a boil over medium heat. Place one dill sprig, 1 clove garlic, 1 teaspoon dill seed, 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes and 1/4 teaspoon peppercorns in the bottom of each of the sterilized jars. Set aside.

Wash and trim the stem end of the beans so that they fit in the jar. (I like to leave the pretty curled end intact.) While the pickling liquid heats, pack the beans into the jars, leaving 1/2 inch of headspace in the top of the jar. Carefully pour the boiling pickling liquid over the green beans in the jars, leaving 1/2 inch of headroom between the top of the liquid and the top of the jar. Seal with the warmed lids and rings.

Using tongs, place the jars on the rack in the boiling water canner. The water should cover the jars by at least 1 inch. Cover the canner. Return the water to a boil and boil gently for 10 minutes. Using tongs, transfer the jars to a towel to cool. If the seal works and fits properly, the metal lid will be slightly concave within 24 hours of processing.

Store the unopened jars at room temperature for up to 1 year. Once the jars are opened, store in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.

Variation: For refrigerator dilly beans, skip the boiling-water canning step and refrigerate for up to 1 month.


Ginger Pickled Beets
Makes 2 quart jars or 4 pint jars

In this recipe I roast the beets instead of boiling them to intensify, not dilute, their flavor. More traditional flavorings for this pickle would include clove and cinnamon; these could be substituted for the star anise and ginger that I use here. The picking liquid is a simple combination of vinegar, water, salt and sugar. When pickling, you’ll need to make sure to use a vinegar that is labeled 5 percent, with a pH of about 2.6.

Ingredients
4 pounds beets (about 15)
8 cloves garlic, peeled
4 bay leaves, preferably fresh
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 1/2 cups white vinegar (see note)
3 cups water
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon pickling salt
1 inch fresh ginger, sliced into 1/4-inch-thick rounds
2 pods star anise

Instructions
Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Scrub the beets and place in a shallow roasting pan or rimmed baking sheet. Add the garlic, bay leaves and oil. Season with salt and pepper; toss to coat. Cover tightly with foil and roast until a paring knife pierces the beet with little resistance, about 1 1/2 hours.

While the beets are cooking, prepare a boiling water canner and sterilize two quart jars or four pint jars. Place lids in a small saucepan over very low heat to simmer while you prepare the pickles. Do not boil the lids.

In a medium saucepan, bring the vinegar, water, sugar, salt, ginger and star anise to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until flavorful and fragrant, about 5 minutes.

When the beets are tender, let them cool, covered. (This makes the beets easier to peel.) Once cool enough to handle, put on gloves and remove the stem end of the beet with a paring knife. Peel the beets, discarding the skin. Slice the beets into quarters.

Pack the beet quarters into the sterilized jars, leaving 1/2 inch of headspace in the top of the jar. Carefully pour the boiling pickling liquid over the beets in the jars, leaving 1/2 inch of headroom between the top of the liquid and the top of the jar. Seal the lids. 

Using tongs, place the jars on the rack in the boiling water canner. The water should cover the jars by at least 1 inch. Cover the canner. Return the water to a boil and boil gently for 30 minutes. Using tongs, transfer the jars to a towel to cool. If the seal works and fits properly, the metal lid will be slightly concave within 24 hours of processing.

Store the unopened jars at room temperature for up to 1 year. Once the jars are opened, store in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.

Variation: For refrigerator pickled beets, skip the boiling-water canning step and refrigerate for up to 1 month.


Scuppernong Jelly
Makes 8 half-pint jars

Muscadines are wild American grapes native to the Southeast. Scuppernongs are a variety of muscadines. Both grapes have a tough, thick skin that ranges in color from deep purple to greenish bronze.

Ingredients
32 cups scuppernong or musadine grapes (about 12 pounds)
6 cups sugar
Juice of 2 lemons
Pinch fine sea salt

Instructions
Wash the fruit and remove the stems. Place the fruit in a large, stainless steel or enamel pot, and using your hands, a fork or a potato masher, mash the grapes until no large pieces of fruit remain. Add just enough water to keep the mixture from sticking and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until very juicy, about 20 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a jelly bag and let hang over a bowl for at least 6 hours, or up to overnight. (I usually hang it on a cabinet doorknob over the kitchen counter and place a pot or large measuring cup underneath.)

Measure the juice; you should have about 16 cups.

When you are ready to make the jelly, place a wire rack on a rimmed baking sheet. (This will help with cleanup of any possible spills.) Place several small plates in the freezer to use later for testing the consistency of the jelly.

Prepare a boiling water canner and sterilize eight half-pint canning jars. Remove the jars from the water and place upside down to drain on the prepared rack. Place lids in a small saucepan over very low heat to simmer while you prepare the pickles. Do not boil the lids.

In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring the scuppernong juice, sugar, lemon juice and salt to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally. The mixture will bubble up, rising high up the sides of the saucepan. Using a slotted spoon, skim off any light-colored foam as it collects on the edges. Cook the jam until it reaches the jelling point, 220 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, about 30 minutes. (To test the jelly without a thermometer, dribble a few drops on one of the frozen plates; if the jelly is ready, it will crinkle on the plate when you push it with your finger. If it doesn't crinkle, continue to boil the jelly for another 5 minutes and test again.)

Remove the jam from the heat. For each jar, insert a canning funnel and carefully ladle in the jelly, allowing at least 1/4 inch of headroom between the top of the jelly and the top of the jar. Clean the rims of the jars with a clean, damp towel, and tightly secure the lids.

Using tongs, place the jars on the rack in the boiling water canner. The water should cover the jars by at least 1 inch. Cover the canner. Return the water to a boil and boil gently for 5 minutes. Using tongs, transfer the jars to a towel to cool. If the seal works and fits properly, the metal lid will be slightly concave within 24 hours of processing.

Store the unopened jars of jam at room temperature for up to 1 year. Once the jars are opened, store in the refrigerator for up to 1 month.

Variation: For refrigerator or freezer jam, transfer the mixture to sterilized freezer-safe plastic containers or freezer-safe jars with lids, leaving 1 inch of headroom. Freeze for up to 1 year or refrigerate for up to 1 month.

Photo Credit (Dilly Beans): Virginia Willis
Photo Credit (Canning Jar Tongs): Cascadian Farms/Flickr
Photo Credit (Pickled Beets): Virginia Willis
Photo Credit (Jelly): Virginia Willis


Author image

Georgia-born, French-trained chef and food writer Virginia Willis has made cookies with Dwanye “The Rock” Johnson, catered a bowling party for Jane Fonda, foraged for herbs in the Alps, and harvested capers in the shadow of a smoldering volcano in Sicily -- but it all started in her grandmother’s country kitchen. Her legion of fans loves her knack for giving classic French cooking a down-home feel and re-imagining Southern recipes en Français. Her most recent cookbook, "Lighten Up, Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome," received a 2016 James Beard Foundation Award of Excellence. Learn more about Virginia and follow her culinary exploits at VirginiaWillis.com.

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