My Favorite Mistakes

Friday, September 5, 2014

Sheryl Crow got one. I gots many. Of the gardening kind that is. No -- the wife that is Venus is not my favorite mistake. However, there may be times when she might feel that way. Like most husbands, uh, I tend to "push the envelope."

Canning Jars
And then she snaps me back to reality with a well placed rubber band. But, I digress. This is about gardening -- more succinctly -- gardening MISTAKES. Lord knows, I've made my share of them. See those jars? Those jars in our dishwasher are the proof of my many mistakes when it comes to canning and saving fresh from the garden foods.

But mistakes also tend to make me excited. Is that strange? Most people seem to think so -- especially by the way I react when they tell me the following: "I made a mistake." YOU DID, I say in an excited voice. "THAT'S GREAT!!!"

I see mistakes as learning achievements in gardening life. Yes, you made a mistake. Guess what the good thing is about that? You'll never make it again. You've learned a hard lesson. You zigged left when you should have zagged right. That's OK. We all make them. And this is how we learn. Because, after all these years, I'm still learning.

I write this post on the weekend after I dumped every mistake that was occupying a spot in the cupboard pantry set aside for all things home-canned products. My friends -- that was a lot of dumping -- representing years of gardening errors and "I'll never do that again." Here's a short list of what went down the drain or into the trash can.

Refrigerator Pickles (Tasty!)
PICKLES: Venus and I have been canning all things pickles for six or seven years. We've tried many different recipes and solutions. I suppose our favorite would be the old fashioned dill pickle. But I've come to learn that it's downright impossible to safely can pickles without them turning soft during the Boiling Water Bath or Pressure Canning Process. I've tried many solutions. Pretty much all of them have failed.

The last failure took place two years ago when I added a solution that I believed would keep our dill pickles hard and crunchy after the canning process had taken place. Should I have tested the idea first on one jar? Of course I should have! But -- no -- instead I canned a dozen quarts of pickles on that day.

Six months later I would come to find out that the pickles I'd canned with this "special ingredient" came out soft, bitter and left this rather unpleasant alkaline taste in our mouths. Perhaps it was a bad jar, we thought. So, we opened another. This one tasted even worse. Blech! No thank you. One dozen jars of pickles sat in the pantry, untouched, for the better part of two years.

So -- we're sticking with the tried n' true refrigerator pickle instead. Ten jars is enough to get us through all those winter celebrations and holidays. If there's one thing that family members and friends love, it's a good pickle.

GRAPE JELLY: When you add nine grapevines to the Bird Back 40, guess what happens? You get a lot of grapes. Not just a lot of grapes -- but so many grapes that you cannot possibly consume them all. I'm at that point now where if I see grapes in the store or at the farmer's market, I get ill. That's what happens when you eat too many grapes.

Grape Jelly!
So what does a gardening couple with far too many grapes do? Well -- they make a fine juice. And who doesn't like grape jelly? I suppose they would also make a fine wine. Too bad I don't like wine. And so, on one particular Sunday last August (2013), the wife and I set out to make our very first and special batch of grape jelly. The recipe sounded simple enough: grape juice, sugar and pectin. That's it

I'm here today to tell you -- it ain't that easy. This is especially true for first timers like me and the wife. We didn't just screw this up -- we royally screwed it up. How can you possibly screw up grape jelly? My friend, let me count the ways...

The cooking and canning part actually worked out fine. The jelly was actually starting to set before we processed them in the canner. Long time jelly makers are now thinking the following: "I sure hope they used that water bath canner."

No -- we didn't. Stupid (that would be me) decided to run them through the pressure canner. Know what happens when you run jars of jelly through a pressure canner? You get grape syrup -- and not a very good syrup at that. The 12 beautiful jars of jelly we canned on that day came out the consistency of a runny syrup. That's not good for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. It's not good for anything to be brutally honest.

Those jars of jelly sat -- untouched -- for a year. Until last weekend that is.

OLIVES: Ever had the pleasure of tasting a home canned olive or two? I have. They are delicious! That's why I was bound and determined to can my very first olive crop last fall. Olives in a home brine of your own making are WONDERFUL. They are far better than the crap -- uh -- stuff you get in a store.

Storage Pantry with Lots of New Space!
I've brined my own olives on many occasions. But I'd never taken the next step of actually pressure canning the product for long-term storage (you cannot use water bath canners to process olives). I'm not really sure what went wrong, since I followed these instructions to the letter.

The first report that something went terribly wrong during the canning process would come some weeks later, after I gifted a jar of these special olives to gardening pal Nels Christensen. He messaged back later that evening to tell me the olives were soft to the point where they felt and tasted like a salted mush.

That wasn't right. "Try putting them in the refrigerator overnight," I advised. He did just that. And the next day, the olives were just as mushy. Did I give him a bad jar perchance? Nope -- as I opened one of my jars I was rewarded with olives that were just as mushy. Quart after quart -- pint after pint -- they were all bad.

Weeks of curing and fermentation went literally down the drain. The olives were safely canned alright. They passed the safety test with flying colors. But who wants to munch on olives that have the consistency of Cream of Wheat?

CONCLUSION: The time finally came last weekend to get rid of all those gardening and canning mistakes. I was tired of looking at them. Plus, hey, we needed the jars for other canning projects. This is September after all. The months of August and September are critically important for preserving the home harvest for treats to be shared during those cold winter months.

Did we manage to preserve everything? No -- not quite. Perhaps, one day, when I'm retired and have a little more time on my hands. But I can promise you this much: Those jars of grape jelly and pluot jam are going to make someone happy this winter.

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