The misadventures of Commander Merlin and the crew of RV-103
Tuesday March 12th 2013

The Misadventures of Canning

As most of you have probably noticed, prices for food and gas has risen quite a bit lately.  In fact, reports that our current annual inflation rate as of October 2010 is at 7.1%  Like other folks, we like to save money and thought that canning some of our food would be a good idea.

Preserving or storing food for long term storage is like putting money into a savings account that gives you a 7.1% return on your investment.  Being able to go to your pantry and pull out dinner that you stored away months ago instead of running to the local store to buy it that day at an inflated price just makes sense financially.  With canning, you can store meats, vegetables, sauces, jellies and jams, etc. for a long period of time and it still tastes fresh when it comes out of the jar.  It’s not hard, but it is time consuming, and as the crew of RV-103 found out, sometimes you have to think outside the kitchen and adapt.

While we were in NY, I received as a birthday gift a canning set.  I have been interested in canning for a while because I wanted a way to preserve the freshness of the farm grown food we had been eating up there during our stay.  We went out and purchased several dozen jars of different sizes because it was about half the cost of what we would pay in Florida (that’s if we could find any supplies in Florida).  Both of our mothers had canned when we were children and Gypsy had continued that practice into her motherhood days.  We were looking forward to some good jams and jellies made from fresh ingredients to spread on our toast during our decadent breakfasts.  Ummmmmm.

We had chosen to make and can first pumpkin butter and spiced cranberry.  We had some pumpkin left over from our New York trip that we had brought down for our Thanksgiving dinner and wanted to put it to use before it spoiled.  Gypsy had created a wonderful recipe for pumpkin butter that I was looking forward to trying.

Spiced cranberry is to die for.  It is cooked with and placed on top of lamb, venison, or pork chops adding a wonderful flavor to the meat that just can’t be described but sure can be savored once you have tasted it.  Gypsy had perfected her spice cranberry recipe and we had it on some lamb chops a few days ago for the first time.  I spent the rest of the week kissing her feet and shamelessly begging for more.

As we gathered all our ingredients and supplies in the kitchen, we ran into our first complication: our glass top stove.  Glass top stoves are wonderful, pleasing to the eye, and usually efficient but if anyone who has owned a glass top stove will tell you, there are certain pans or pots that cannot be used on them.  Our canner is one of them.  Hmmm…how are we going to sterilize the jars?

We brainstormed about the problem and came up with two possible solutions: Go to the RV and do all the cooking and  sterilizing there on the tiny three burner stove or use the BBQ grill out back for the canner pot.  We decided on using the BBQ grill out to sterilize the jars while Gypsy made the pumpkin butter and spiced cranberry on the glass top stove.

Soon enough we encountered our next problem.  We had estimated it would take about two hours for Gypsy to complete her pumpkin butter leaving plenty of time to get the jars sterilized.  Well, with glass top stoves and the right pans, cooking proceeds just a tad bit faster than anticipated.  In fact, it took less than an hour before the pumpkin butter was ready and we still didn’t have the canner up and running yet.  When we realized that the pumpkin butter was going to get done much sooner than we expected, I rushed to get the jars sterilized in the canner.

I filled the canner with water, jars, lids, and rings and carried the heavy load outside to the BBQ grill.  I fired it up on high and placed the canner on it.  That’s when I ran into our next complication: the weather.  Tonight of all nights a cold front just had to be coming through with scattered rain, high winds, and dropping temperatures.  After a half hour of trying to get the water to boil, I could see it was not working.  The wind was blowing the flames around, scattering the heat generated, and cooling the canner stopping it from reaching that critical temperature of 212 F.  Meanwhile, Gypsy was checking on me about every ten minutes expressing her worry that our batch of pumpkin butter would go bad if we didn’t get it in the jars soon.  What to do?

I remembered a similar problem I had faced while working at Kennedy Space Center.  One blustery wintery day I was about 250 feet up on the launch tower trying to do a tile repair on Shuttle Discovery.  This repair involved the use of heat lamps that needed to maintain a temperature between 250-300 degree F and with the wind blowing so hard and cold; I couldn’t reach the temperature required.  I built a tent like shelter around the lamp and tile using a fire proof fabric made of nomex and was able to block the wind and reach the temperatures needed.

Another spin-off from the space program!

So, I proceeded to build a “tent” of aluminum foil around the canner and grill diverting all the heat up and around it.  I laid two blocks on each side of the air intake of the grill to prevent the wind from blowing around the flames, and within 10 minutes we had boiling water.  Woohoo!  Another spinoff from the space program!  Somebody call NASA!

I got the jars sterilized, carried the hot canner inside and then Gypsy and I set up an assembly line filling and sealing the jars with Commander Merlin looking on and supervising.  You have to be careful not to touch the rim or inside of the jars or lids or you will contaminate them risking your food going bad.  Total sterile technique is required.  I joked with Gypsy that I wish I had some “bunny suits” from KSC that we could wear.  We got all the jars done for that batch, and then it was off to the grill again for some more sterilizing.

By the end of the evening we had done 22 jars of pumpkin butter and spiced cranberry.  Only one jar failed to seal and that promptly went into the fridge for later consumption.  All in all, despite the complications, things went well.  In the next few nights we will be making some jellies to add to our pantry.

Pumpkin Butter...ummmmmm!

If you want to learn more about canning, I would suggest going to this site here or find someone you know that does canning regularly.  I am sure that if you assist someone while they can their food, you will not only learn much about how to do it, but will probably get to take some home with you after your lessons.  Canning is a time consuming and detailed oriented process that takes the better part of your day, but it will provide you with fresh food that will last up to a year that you can safely store in your pantry.

Related Tags: Canning
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