Preserving The Season's Fruits With A Canning Evangelist

Jun 29, 2013
Originally published on June 29, 2013 3:44 pm

Shopping at a farmers market on a weekend morning can turn bittersweet if your eye for just-picked summer fruit is bigger than your refrigerator and appetite.

That's a crisis first-time cookbook author Kevin West found himself in a few years back. After one particular farmers market spree, West's buyer's remorse came from a big package of fresh strawberries.

With too many delicious strawberries to eat, West turned to a family tradition: canning and preserving.

This old-school kitchen ritual is the topic of his book, Saving the Season: a cook's guide to home canning, preserving and pickling.

On a sunny and bright day in Washington, D.C., Weekend Edition guest host Lynn Neary hit the farmers market with West to find the right ingredients to preserve.

"With strawberries, I smell them first," West said. "They should have that rich nostalgic smell of strawberries. And if passes those two tests, look and smell, then we want to do a taste test."

The taste test might be the most important selection technique:

  • Don't mistake a small berry for a bad one — tiny fruits often have the best flavor.
  • Don't use only sweet berries to make jam. Combine tart with sugary ones to get the right balance.

West is truly a canning evangelist.

"This is a real moment. It's a moment in the year, it's a moment in our lives," he said.

He says the time between spring and summer seasons can often bring the most rewarding preserved products later in the year.

"And that's part of what I mean by saving the season is you take this experience in the annual cycle ... and you put it in the jar. And six months from now we will re-experience that moment."

RECIPE: Basic Strawberry Jam

Yields 2 pints

2 pounds ripe strawberries

2 1/2 cups sugar

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

Optional: a few scrapings of lemon zest

To get started, go shopping at a farmers market or roadside farm stand if at all possible, and seek out the smallest, reddest berries. Fragrance is a good indicator of quality, but tasting is better still. The giant strawberries favored by supermarket produce managers are not a good choice. I call them "Pamela Anderson fruit," artificially enhanced and tasteless.

  1. Briefly rinse the berries and remove their caps. Combine with the sugar, lemon juice, and zest, if using, in a large bowl, and crush with a potato masher (or your hands).
  2. Turn the fruit-sugar mixture into a preserving pan, and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring regularly. Reduce at a full rolling boil, stirring all the while, to the gel point, 8 to 10 minutes, depending on the size of your pan and the strength of the heat source.
  3. Once a gel set has been achieved, skim if necessary, and ladle the hot jam into four prepared 1/2-pint jars, leaving 1/4 inch head space. Seal, and process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.

The sugar content in this recipe is lower than in many traditional farmhouse recipes, but there's still enough for a soft-set consistency and to ensure a reasonably long shelf life once opened. ...

Also, do not double the quantities, at least not initially. A small batch is cheaper, faster, more manageable, and better suited to the size of standard household equipment. If you want more jars, make two small batches. I can assure you from personal experience that you'll be happier with the outcome. In fact, the more experienced I get, the more I'm inclined to do three or four jars at a time — a nice little job to knock off in an hour, rather than a labor that wrings the fun out of the afternoon.

RECIPE: Cucumber Dill Spears And Chips

Yields 2 quarts

Processing your pickles in a hot-water bath rather than a boiling-water bath will give you a firmer texture. It follows that if you want pickles with real snap, don't process them at all. These dill-pickle spears — or sandwich chips, depending on how you slice them — can be processed, if you want, for long-term shelf storage, but first try making a batch to keep in the refrigerator. They will be crisp, and the flavor of raw cucumber comes through. It's the freshest-tasting pickle in this book, and perhaps my favorite. The recipe can be scaled up.

1/4 cup kosher salt

6 cups lukewarm water

2 teaspoons coriander seeds

1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds

3 large flowering dill heads (4 inches across)

3 pounds Kirby pickling cucumbers

4 cloves garlic, crushed

2 cups white-wine vinegar

  1. Dissolve the salt in the water, and add the coriander, fennel, and dill. Set aside.
  2. Scrub the cucumbers well, rubbing off any spines. Cut away a thin round from the stem and blossom ends, and slice lengthwise into quarters. Put the spears in a large bowl, and cover with the brine. Weight the cucumbers with a plate, cover the bowl with a kitchen towel, and set aside for 24 hours. If the bowl won't fit in your refrigerator, it's fine to leave it out at room temperature.
  3. The next day, pack the cucumber spears into two scalded quart jars, saving the brine. Measure out 2 cups of the brine and reserve. Strain the remaining brine through a fine sieve to capture the aromatics, and divide them between the jars. Tuck a dill head and two cloves of garlic into each jar.
  4. Mix the vinegar and the 2 cups reserved brine, and bring to a boil. Pour it over the pickles to cover. Seal the jars, and store in the refrigerator for a week before using. For long-term shelf storage, leave 1/2-inch head space when filling the jars, then seal. Process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes, or in a hot-water bath, between 180 and 185 degrees, for 30 minutes.

Excerpted from Saving the Season by Kevin West. Copyright 2013 by Kevin West. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House Inc.

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A few years back, Kevin West got a little carried away at his local farmer's market. He bought a flat of fresh strawberries and then wondered what he would do with all of them. So he decided to make the strawberry jam his grandmother used to make. He failed the first time, but he kept on trying until he got it right.

That was the beginning of an obsession that has culminated in his new book, "Saving the Season: A Guide to Home Canning, Preserving and Pickling." One day recently, I met with West at farmer's market here in Washington. It was a perfect day, sunny and bright and, rare for Washington, no humidity.

KEVIN WEST: So, it's June, it's late June. We're kind of between the end of spring and the beginning of summer, and you see that right here. You've got strawberries and then you've got cherries. Cherries are stone fruit. Cherries are one of the Prunus clan. That includes, of course, peaches and all those other summertime fruits. So this really speaks to the season exactly.

NEARY: Strawberries were still in season here in D.C., so West decided we should make some of that classic strawberry jam. At the first stand we visited, there was a wonderful display of bright red berries.

WEST: With strawberries especially, I smell them first. Like, do they look nice? These look nice. Do they smell good?

NEARY: They look beautiful. What should they smell like?

WEST: They should smell like strawberries.


WEST: They should be perfume-y and fragrant and they should have that sort of rich, nostalgic smell of strawberries. And if it passes those two tests, the look test and the smell test, then we want to do a taste test.

Can we taste one of those strawberries?


NEARY: They are delicious. But West says he never buys at the first stall. He likes to look around to make sure he's getting the best - because everything begins with good ingredients. We spot another display.

Look, there's a whole sample plate here. And look how small they are. Little small ones. And they are the better ones, aren't they?

WEST: They have a lovely flavor and a little bit of a tang at the end.

NEARY: And that's the way it should be for preserving?

WEST: Yeah. I like that.

NEARY: A tart berry can help offset the sweetness of the jam, West says, but he also wants some sweet berries, so he gets some of each type.

WEST: A pound and half. Well, that's a nice basket of strawberries. So let's get one of these and we'll get a few more up the way...

NEARY: Loaded down with strawberries - and some cherries for eating, and zucchini for pickling later on - West glances back as we leave the market.

WEST: This is a real moment, you know, it's a moment in the year. It's a moment between spring and summer. It's a moment in our day. It's a moment in our life. And preserving is a way to capture all of that. And that's part of what I mean by saving the season, is that you take this experience, you take this moment in the annual cycle of agriculture and of nature and you put it in a jar. And six months from now we opened those jars, we're going to take off the lid and we'll re-experience that moment. That's what I mean by saving the season.



NEARY: Back in my kitchen, we begin to unpack our bags.

WEST: We've got berries and when you take them out of the bag, you can get a good whiff of that fragrance that attracted us to them in the market.

NEARY: West begins prepping the strawberries by removing the little green crown but leaving the berries whole. He pours them in a bowl.

WEST: Now here comes the fun part.


WEST: Instead of cutting up the fruits very neatly with a knife, we're going to get in there and crush it with our hands.


WEST: And I have to say, I love going hand-to-hand with my food.

NEARY: West pours in two cups of sugar - one for each pound of strawberries, then adds some lemon juice.

WEST: We are now going to turn the fruit sugar mixture into a wide shallow pot.

NEARY: He turns the heat up and brings the mixture to a boil, foam swirls on top of the red berries.

WEST: It's so beautiful, isn't it? It's a bright red color.

NEARY: It's a great color. Yeah. And it has pink in it too.

WEST: Yeah.

NEARY: And you still got that great strawberry smell.

WEST: Yeah. And you can see, I'm stirring this constantly.

NEARY: Mm-hmm.

WEST: I've really got that cranked up. It is at a full rolling boil.

NEARY: West continues stirring to prevent the sweet strawberry mixture from scorching and to get just the right texture. As he stirs, a kind of mesmerizing stillness overtakes the kitchen.

WEST: Making preserves is a contemplative time. As you stand here and you stir the pot and there's time for your mind to wander. And for me, it starts to wander in the direction of, when are we going to eat this? And who am going to eat it with? And I bet Uncle Dave and Aunt Barbara would like a jar of this jam. And the next thing you know your mind has gone down this avenue, and that's kind of how "Saving the Season" got started, was just this free associating about preserves.

NEARY: While you were stirring the pot?

WEST: While I was stirring the pot.



WEST: I don't know why it's such a nice smell. There's something nostalgic about it. It's very welcoming, isn't it? If someone walked in right now, they would feel right at home. I have to say, I find it really exciting about sweet preserves, because it happens so quickly, and as you were just saying, it happens in front of your eyes. You get some strawberries at the market, and that's nature, that's the raw ingredient, and then you do some stuff with your hands, and then you cook it and it becomes culture right there in front of you. And then you can take that and give it to someone and then it becomes community. And for me that's also part of the story of "Saving the Season," is how nature becomes culture becomes community. And we talk about how nostalgic it is to be here, or how it makes us think of our grandparents or, you know, a friend that we used to have, and all of that is part of the world of preserving - the memories, the stories. We know from our own experience that food and talk goes together.

Narrative, storytelling, talking is important around the dinner table. But if you've ever cook with a family member or maybe an older friend, you know that storytelling is also part of what happens in the kitchen. You learn the techniques. You learn the steps, you learn the real technical information and then you learn a lot of other stuff as well, and it's those stories that matter.

NEARY: Once the jam begins to gel, West removes it from the stove and pours it into jars that he will heat and then seal.

WEST: Strawberry jam going into a pint jar is the look of springtime.

NEARY: Kevin West, his new book called "Saving the Season: A Cook's Guide to Home Canning, Pickling and Preserving.

Time to taste. Ooh, that's delicious.


NEARY: You can find Kevin West's recipe for that classic strawberry jam and dill pickles on our website at

Would that jam taste even sweeter eaten on a silver spoon? Find out how your choice of cutlery can change the flavor of a meal. That, plus the latest news, tomorrow, on NPR's WEEKEND EDITION.

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