By Ginna Parsons
BELDEN – When I was growing up in south Alabama, summers were marked by endless early-morning trips to the pea patch (where we also picked butterbeans, corn, tomatoes and okra) and afternoons bathed in steam from my mother’s canner.
I loved the days when she canned plum jelly. I didn’t care for the jelly as much as I enjoyed eating the sweet foam she’d skim off the top of the bubbling mess. It was enough to induce a sugar coma that lasted for days.
Her homemade chow-chow was legendary in our small town. She’d spend hours turning the handle of a meat-grinder that temporarily attached to the edge of the kitchen counter. On the floor beneath sat a big dishpan ready to catch minced bell peppers, green tomatoes, onions and cabbage that would go into the relish we liked to put on top of peas.
I decided last summer that I wanted to learn to make chow chow. I bought a grinding attachment for my Kitchen Aid mixer and I found a recipe in Mississippi Gardener magazine that looked similar to the one Mama used.
But it used terms that went over my head, like “sterilized jars” and “hot water bath” and “headspace.” And it didn’t go into detail about what these terms meant.
So I tucked the grinder away and stashed the magazine and decided my family would have to do with store-bought chow chow.
And then in February, I saw an ad in the Daily Journal about continuing education classes at Itawamba Community College-Belden. One of them was on canning.
I signed up immediately.
I attended the class this past Thursday, along with seven other women. Some had experience canning; others were as green as I was. We were to learn how to make strawberry jam.
Janet Jolley, county coordinator in Marshall County, was the instructor. She went through a PowerPoint presentation and then showed us a 30-minute video made by some folks at the University of Georgia.
Here’s the 10-cent version of what I learned in the class. I had a ball, as did the other participants, and we each went home with two half-pint jars of delicious, if I do say so myself, strawberry jam.
• There are only three to four ingredients in homemade jam: fruit, sugar, pectin (what makes it gel) and sometimes acid (in the form of bottled lemon juice).
• The canning equipment you need includes a hot water bath canner with a lid and basket (about $20) and a canning funnel, a plastic wand for removing bubbles, a jar lifter and a magnetized lid wand for lifting hot lids out of water and setting them gently on top of filled jars (the kit that includes all this is $8 to $12).
• Tempered-glass jars produce the best results. Reputable ones will have names on them, like Kerr, Ball and Mason. Inspect them for chips, nicks and cracks. Wash them in hot, soapy water.
• Sterilize jars and lids that will be processed less than 10 minutes. To sterilize empty jars, put them right side up on the rack in a boiling-water canner. Fill the canner and jars with hot water to 1 inch above the tops of the jars. Boil 10 minutes. Keep the jars in hot water until they’re ready to be filled with jam.
• You can re-use the metal bands or rings that you screw on the jars multiple times, but the flat lids can be used only once.
• Foods that can be canned in a hot water canner include jams, jellies, pickles, tomatoes, pickled okra, salsas and, you heard this correctly, chow chow!
We started by washing our jars and lids and sterilizing them. Actually, instead of using a canner to sterilize them, we used a big turkey roaster filled with water heated to 180 degrees, which freed up the canner and kept the jars hot until we needed them.
Next, we washed the strawberries and took turns chopping them up and then mashing them. We put them in a heavy stockpot with the gelatin and took turns stirring the mixture over high heat until it boiled and bubbled. Then we added the sugar and continued stirring until it came back to a hard boil. After 1 minute, we removed the pot from the heat and skimmed the foam off the top. (Yes, I ate it, but I wasn’t the only one.)
We took turns lifting hot sterilized jars out of the turkey roaster and placing them on a soft towel. Using a small ladle, we filled them with the hot jam to just 1/4-inch from the top of the jar (this is called headspace). Then we took a plastic ruler-type gadget and stirred the jam to remove any air bubbles. With a damp paper towel, we carefully wiped the jars and especially the rims of the jars. If there are any food particles left behind, the hot lids won’t seal properly. After putting the lids on, we added a metal ring and tightened the jars with our fingers (not too tight).
Using tongs, we eased the filled jars into the basket of a canner filled with boiling water that covered the jars by a couple of inches. We put the top on and let them process (rolling boil) for 5 minutes. Then we turned off the heat and let them sit in the hot water for 5 minutes.
We took turns lifting the jars out of the canner and placing them on dry towels (put them on a cold counter and they’ll explode) about 1 to 2 inches apart. It wasn’t long before we heard the jars “pop,” meaning they had sealed properly. We were told to remove the rings from the jars after 24 hours or a couple of days (to reuse the rings) and store the jam in a cool, dry place.
Now that I know the basics of water bath canning, I feel totally confident about making chow chow this summer!