BY NOELLE ORLOFF

Our first real frost this fall was forecast for a
night in early October, and it didn’t sound
like the temperatures would be too cold;
maybe 28 or 30 degrees. I wasn’t willing to
give up on the garden yet, so I wrapped my
tomato plants in a cozy blanket of row cover
fabric, tacked it down with clothespins, and
went to sleep. The next morning the tomatoes
appeared to be solidly frozen—it was colder
than I thought. Upon further inspection, I saw
that while the outside tomatoes were green ice
cubes, the ones closest to the stem were fi ne. It
was obviously time to pick them, and like many
gardeners in Montana each fall, I had boxes of
green tomatoes to deal with.
Like many other hunter-gatherers and garden-
ers, I spent summer and fall looking for serviceberry and
huckleberry
patches in the
woods, seeking good deals
on pickling cucumbers at the
farmer’s market, and sniffing out the occasional
unpicked tree full of apples or plums down the
street. The key to putting all this excess good
food to use is preserving it. Preserving and storing food (even green tomatoes) at the peak of its
abundance and quality allows you to acquire it
relatively cheaply, or for free, and to enjoy it all
year.
My favorite preservation techniqueis canning. Though some foods lend themselves to
freezing or drying—both of which are simpler
and less time-consuming—canning is ideal for
putting up salsa, relish, jam and other beautiful
and tasty foods. Plus, canned food does not take
up valuable freezer space. Last October, green
tomato relish joined the ranks on my pantry
shelf next to applesauce, plum chutney and
cucumber pickles.
Home canning is a daunting task for beginners,
but if you like to work in the kitchen and can
follow a recipe carefully, it is fun to learn the
process and rewarding to enjoy the end result.
My first canning experience happened when
I made a deal with a friend to preserve all the
vegetables in his prolifi c garden in return for
half of the spoils. I made a jar lifter and can-
ning rack out of wire coat hangers and selected
a horrible pickle recipe—all vinegar, no sugar!
Somehow, I choked down my dilled kohlrabi
preserves that winter, and no one contracted
botulism. With experience, my canning adventures have become easier and more productive.
The main purpose of home canning is to sterilize food in an airtight environment so it can be
stored at room temperature without becoming
a breeding
ground for
botulism or
other dangerous food borne
illnesses. Pickles, relishes
and jams processed in a boiling water bath are
the simplest and safest recipes to start with.
It is critical to follow directions exactly when
canning food at home, and to use a reputable,
current source for recipes such as a university
Extension service.
This winter would be a perfect time to explore
home food preservation so you are ready to try
it during our next growing season. The Montana State University Extension MontGuides
can be found on the internet and are useful for
finding good, tested canning recipes and learning about food safety.
Noelle Orloff is a Graduate Research Assistant
plugging away at Montana State University. Look
out weeds! She likes gardening and skiing, especially with her husband Shawn and her mutts.