Guest Post: Yes, You Can!

Guest Post: Yes, You Can!
orchard.jpg

A happy fruit-picker hard at work.

Fruit season is upon us in the Midwest! I don't know about you, but we are trying to take full advantage of all the delicious foods that summer has to offer. To that end, I am excited to welcome Emily Paster. A fellow Chicago-area mama and blogger, Emily is here to share her expertise when it comes to picking your own fruit and home canning -- with the kids, of course. Emily isn't new to Wee Windy City. A few months ago, she wrote about raising her family in the Oak Park/River Forest area for my Neighborhood Spotlight Series.

If you are interested in learning how to make your summer blueberries last long into the winter, read on to learn more about the home canning process and how Emily can help you get started.

Lots of Chicago families enjoy picking blueberries on their annual summer trips to
Michigan's beach towns, or Wisconsin's Door County. But there is no need to leave
Illinois to experience the fun of picking your fruit and vegetables. There are lots of great
pick-your-own farms in the greater Chicago area.

Recently, my husband and I took our two children, ages 6 and 3, to one of these, Garden Patch Farms in Homer Glen, for a morning of picking fruit. With no traffic, Homer Glen is only a forty-minute drive from our River Forest home: long enough to see a real change in the landscape, but not so long that the children were at each other's throats. (That would wait for the drive home.)

When we arrived at Garden Patch Farms, my children immediately headed for the hen
house and the bunny hutch, both of which are adjacent to parking lot. The good news
is, Garden Patch Farms's market store sells the eggs that the hen house chickens
produce, and eggs do not get much fresher. The day we were there, a man was
bringing my newly laid, still warm eggs in from the hen house as I paid for them. The
bad news is, the bunny hutch is dirty, fly-infested and stinks to high heaven. But we
were there to pick fruit, right? So we hustled the kids out of the bunny hutch and into the
farm store, where the friendly staff explained to us exactly what fruit was picking well
and where to find it.

In mid-June, when we were there, the strawberries were almost all picked
over,
but there were abundant Rainier cherries, some early raspberries, and
some more
unusual crops that I would have never found at the grocery store, like
black currants
and gooseberries. As the summer wears on, you will also be able to pick
peaches,
blackberries and grapes, and vegetables too, such as zucchini, tomatoes
and peppers.
August and September offer the possibility of apples and pears. The
diversity of the
crops means that we can make multiples trips over the summer and pick
different crops
each time.

It never ceases to amaze me how excited my kids get about picking their
own fruit.
My three year old is like Sal in the classic children's book,
Blueberries for Sal
: he
eats as much as he picks. (Perhaps that is why Garden Patch Farms
charges $5 for
each person over the age of three who ventures into the field, in
addition to the per
pound price for what you pick.) My 6 year old, on the other hand, is an
industrious little
worker who insists her parents admire each berry she picks. And both
kids swell with
pride, whether they deserve to or not, when they see all the goodies
we've picked.

Of course, when you arrive home from the farm and unload basket upon
basket, panic
can set in. What on earth does one do with so much fruit? This panic is
especially
pronounced if you picked something that is great to eat straight, like
gooseberries. A
pie only uses up so many berries. Freezing is a great option, but many
of us do not
have enough freezer space for bags and bags of fruit. The solution is to
turn to another
fun, old-fashioned activity: canning. Canning has made a comeback in
recent years,
perhaps due to the recession or fears about food safety. Jarden Home
Brands, the
makers of canning jars, have noted an 25% increase in sales over the
past two years.
(Check out the website Canning Across America for links to articles on
the recent
canning resurgence.)

I started making homemade jams and preserves because I was looking for a
kitchen
project that I could do with my 6 year old, who has multiple food
allergies. We have
been canning for over a year now, and we must have made hundreds of
different jams,
pickles, chutneys and preserves. I absolutely love the process of taking
the best of the
summer's bounty and turning it into delicious homemade concoctions that
my friends
and family can eat all year round. My daughter is still my enthusiastic
helper, pitting
cherries and measuring sugar whenever I ask. Our homemade goodies make
terrific
gifts for holidays or just a special thank-you.

Canning is not hard, but it can seem intimidating at first. Many canning
recipes call for
unfamiliar ingredients, like pectin, and you have to follow very
specific steps to ensure
that your jam sets and your jars seal properly. You can learn from a
book, but it takes
a lot of trial and error. Many of my friends who have tried my homemade
jams and
pickles have asked me to teach them to can, and it is great fun to show
others how
satisfying putting up your own preserves can be.

This summer, I have started offering canning lessons to anyone who wants
to learn this
old-fashioned craft. A canning lesson typically takes two to three hours
and at the end,
you will have a detailed recipe and several delicious jars to eat or
share. This is a great
activity for a moms' night out, or for parents and children
(elementary-school age and
above) to do together. I will come to your house and bring all the
equipment, so you do
not have to invest in any more kitchen gadgets until you are sure you
want to become a
canning enthusiast. Once you know the basic technique, it is easy to
apply it to make all
kinds of different products, from jam to relish to pickles!

So, if you come home from the pick-your-own farm or the farmers' market
with more
fruit than you know what do to with, consider canning it. You'll be
amazed at how fun
and easy it is.

For more information about Emily's canning lessons, go to her website
West of the
Loop
or her Facebook Fan Page. Rates start at $75 for a private lesson. You can read more about
Emily's tips about canning with kids here and here.

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