Labor Day weekend is upon us, and if you're wondering what to do with your brood, why not get the gang involved in a summer preserving project? It'll keep everyone busy and you'll be rewarded with delicious treats for many months to come.
On a typical canning day, we start our day at the U-pick or farmers market, loading our baskets with Ontario peaches, wild Quebec berries, or an entire sack of fresh corn. This is a classic late-summer haul for us. Tomatoes and apples can wait a month, as I have a strict "preserve only what is in peak season" policy.
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Back home, I get the blueberry-plum butter simmering in the slow cooker and measure the honey for the peaches in syrup. The kids help load the dishwasher with various sizes of Mason jars, and I run a hot cycle to sterilize them for canning. Then we gather our equipment and move outdoors.
It's all hands on deck, literally, as I get us set up in the backyard with a canning station on the stone patio and picnic table. Here in the shade, we escape the heat of the kitchen and benefit from a summer's breeze – and as a bonus, I avoid sticky floors and a sticky stove.
Taking the work outdoors also seems to feel more relaxed for some reason. Perhaps because the kids take turns skipping off to the swing or to dunk their bare feet in the plastic wading pool. I never want our summer canning efforts to feel like a chore, even if we do have a fairly ambitious task list.
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Creating a backyard party vibe keeps the job fun. We plug in a Sonos speaker on an outdoor bench and crank up tunes to set the mood. I set out drinks and nibbles for all-afternoon grazing. Sometimes it's a jar of pickles and a plate of garden crudite; other times it's a basket of crispy croissants and a jar of the warm blueberry-plum butter that we are currently putting up. A pitcher of the children's favorite honey-sweetened peach lemonade is on hand to keep us cool.
We head to the garden to gather pickling cucumbers, garlic, fresh herbs, and baby carrots for all-important snacking. Everything is plunged into a galvanized tub of cool water and scrubbed by the kids.
Just for fun, shucking corncobs becomes a speed challenge between siblings, and when my youngest, Clara, needs to move, she slings jar rings up and down her arms like silver bangles and performs a dance for us on the lawn. Soon I hand her a pair of little scissors and she marches over to the garden to snip dill seed heads for the pickle jars.
All About Corn
We hit a groove somewhere between loading the sandwich pickles into the canner and packing the peaches into pint jars. I find myself saying cheesy mom phrases like "When you're in the zone, you're in the zone!" and "Many hands make light work."
Before long, the processed blueberry-plum butter is cooling in jars on the table, and the corn has all been shucked and cut off the cob. Later I will blanch and then cool the kernels before packing them away in bags for the freezer stash.
Of all the fruits and vegetables we could preserve, pickle, and freeze, our family canning projects only include the children's top picks. Not only does this conscious decision help to hold their attention, but they also know that without their help, those favorites simply won't get put up in jars.
"I bet you could eat this entire jar of peaches" I say to my 10-year-old as we funnel hot honey syrup into the jars of sliced fruit. "Mom," he says, completely serious, "I could eat five jars." Point made.
The mess sprawls across our entire patio table; drips of fruit butter, wadded up sticky tea towels, half-eaten peaches and corn kernels galore. Thank goodness we're working outdoors.
We finish as dusk falls on the homestead. The boys haul a pail of scraps to the chickens and Danny drains the water from the canner. I scrape the remains of the blueberry-plum butter from the pot and slather it on buttered bread for the kid's supper. Danny and I will share a salad and a cider later, when they are asleep.
We cool our feet off in the wading pool and watch as the fireflies start to flicker dimly along the edge of the forest. There are corn kernels floating in my glass of lemonade, but I don't care. I survey the table laden with our late-summer favorites and feel a sense of satisfaction, knowing how much they will be savored mid-winter.
Mentally I begin planning our next canning day, featuring Concord grape jelly, sweet pepper salsa, whole tomatoes, and jars upon jars of applesauce. It's a good thing I have the best little crew of helpers around.
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What are your favorite fruits and vegetables to preserve?