For the people who attended “Preserving Green Chiles”, an event recently hosted by the San Mateo Public Libraries, this may soon become a reality. Dozens of eager novice food preservationists gathered for an online talk presented by a Master Food Preserver, a volunteer expert certified by the University of California Campus Extension (UCCE) Master Food Preserver Program. While green chiles were the star of the show, participants soon developed a taste for the world of possibilities that freezing, drying, canning, fermenting, and pickling fruits and vegetables can bring.
And for Michele Maia, the UCCE Master Food Preserver Program Coordinator for San Mateo and San Francisco Counties, this taste has quickly blossomed into a full-blown passion. While only beginning her foray into food preservation during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, she has rapidly grown into an enthusiastic proponent of its benefits.
“It’s delicious! Food that you preserve yourself has the best quality ingredients, some recipes can be slightly modified to suit your tastes, and gifts from the kitchen are always wonderful to share,” she said. She explained that while food preservation may initially seem daunting, it’s easy, cost-effective, and more sustainable. “You can buy in bulk, use some of the food fresh, and safely preserve the rest to use later.”
Marilyn Johnson, owner of Spread the Love Jelly, a San Mateo County market fixture, is of the same mind. Growing up far from a grocery store, food preservation gave her family easy access to fruits and vegetables year-round. “It is also a wonderful bonding experience the whole family can participate in,” she said.
The novice food preservers in Thursday’s event quickly learned that food preservation requires strict adherence to standards. Improperly canned food can help dangerous bacteria proliferate.
“Use recipes that have been tested by university or industry professionals,” explained Maia. “Recipes from university cooperative extension offices have been thoroughly tested to make sure that they are safe and will produce the desired results when followed.”
Once you’ve abided by these rules, the possibilities are endless. For Maia, any fruit or vegetable is ripe for preservation. From frozen green beans to pickled green tomatoes, there’s no limit on the different shapes and forms preserved food can take. Especially close to Maia’s heart are dehydrated mushrooms, a food she’ll add to just about anything.
“I love to dehydrate mushroom slices that I add to my spaghetti sauces, stews and soups later when I don’t have any fresh mushrooms in my fridge. I dry the mushroom stems and grind them into mushroom powder that I can add to gravies or sauces whenever I want a little more unami,” she remarked.
Certain fruits and vegetables are ideal for preservation during this time of year, including berries, zucchinis, and cucumbers. San Mateo County’s Anne-Marie Bonneau, author of the cookbook "Zero Waste Chef", thinks that while the foods you should preserve are the ones you like best, in-season produce like green beans and tomatoes are especially useful in preparation for the coming holidays and winter.
“Blanching and freezing green beans is pretty easy and you’ll have delicious green beans for Thanksgiving,” she mused. “Tomatoes are my main focus in the early fall. I use them in everything in the winter — sauces and soups, chana masala, daal, and whatever recipe calls for canned tomatoes.
For those with a sweet tooth, fear not. Johnson’s favorite fruits to make jam out of this time of year are peaches. “There are so many things you can do with peach jam,” she said, listing her favorites: “salad dressing, scones, cookies, cocktails, mocktails, glazes for protein, and, of course, good old peanut butter and jelly.”
Once you know what food you’re interested in preserving, you can get to work. Bonneau urges you to collect food-safe jars like Mason jars and lids as early as possible. After that, the prospective food preserver should familiarize themselves with the correct ways to preserve food. Thankfully, for San Mateo County residents, guidance is readily available. Maia encourages beginners to attend a Master Food Preserver class through the San Mateo County Public Libraries. For those that want to become experts, the UCCE Master Food Preserver Program begins in November. Over a period of five months, you’ll learn to preserve food from squash to oregano, all while joining Maia and a cohort of passionate food preservers in the process.
After acquainting yourself with these food preservation standards, that idle peach or lonely tomato in your refrigerator might soon become the delicious relic of a summer past. You can join Johnson for an upcoming jam-making class where you can learn how to make the perfect peach spread. Bonneau offers the occasional class on fermentation, teaching you how to turn an aging cucumber into a delicious pickle. You can also follow Maia’s lead. Her summer produce isn’t just for herself; it’s also for her loved ones. When collecting oregano, thyme, or sage, she likes to make an herb salt, which she uses to turn her passion into a holiday present. “The salts are super easy to make and fun to give as gifts,” she said, noting how her summer produce turns into a wintry holiday treat.
Most importantly, like Johnson, Maia believes food preservation is a way to bring people closer together. While preserving food can be a way to feast on the produce of summers past, it can even more so be the source of fond memories altogether new.
“It’s fun! Canning is an activity that friends and family can do together.”
To learn more about how to become a Master Food Preserver, visit the UCCE’s Master Food Preserver site for San Mateo County: cesanmateo.ucanr.edu.
For those interested in approved recipes using preserved foods, the Master Food Preservers recommend Ball recipes: ballmasonjars.com.
Visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation Website for more tips on food preservation and approved recipes: nchfp.uga.edu.
For more information on upcoming Master Food Preserver events through the San Mateo County Public Libraries, click here: smcl.bibliocommons.com. The San Mateo County Office of Sustainability also has information on these interactive classes: smcsustainability.org.