Canning Mexican Pickled Vegetables (without the wreck of my heart.)

"I was driven to canning by the wreck of my heart." Debby Bull wrote this in her book called Blue Jelly, and these are the opening lines, the ones that I've remembered since I first read it, soon after it was published in 1998.

I remember not really knowing much about canning, or being interested it in at the time I first read that book. I grew up in a preserving household, both my Mom and Gram were avid canners before me. I suppose the deep roots of self-preservation were planted when I was young, but as I stood in the bookstore reading the first chapter of Blue Jelly while trying to escape the wreck of my own young heart, I could feel the first pangs of the desire to preserve something myself.

I was probably half way through the book when I realized that Debby must be from Wisconsin, and she is. She wrote with the West Coast wanderlust that I knew could only come from a Midwesterner. I was able to escape for that afternoon (after I bought it and went back home to read it), but it was such a short tome that it didn't seem to last me nearly long enough. A few more years needed to pass before my brokenheartedness was fully repaired, and this book did nothing to really help it along - but it did emphasize the virtues of canning, and making due with what you have, heartache or no.

In each chapter, she focuses on one canning project. The one that stood out most to me was this one with Mexican Pickled Vegetables. I think she called it Mexican Relish, but since my Mom cans relish and it does not resemble this at all (this is more in the giardinara realm of accompaniments), I took the liberty of renaming. Not too long after I read this book, I canned tomatoes in my small apartment. I did it wearing an apron adorned with blue Ball canning jars that my Mom had got me that said "Yes, I Can" in bold letters across the front. I also called her a few times during the process.

I still remember those lonesome days in that apartment, more than a decade ago, where I felt a lot of the time like I was waiting for my life to begin and where I first canned tomatoes and then jam. My working life got much busier in the future, and I had a several year hiatus from canning of any sort until I blissfully slipped into stay-at-home-motherhood. In the past 2 years, I have canned all sorts of new things, but I actually have never canned tomatoes since then. My Mom cans them for me, and we work out trades. I know I'll be giving her a jar or two of this Mexican Veg, and likely several pounds of Alterra coffee over the next few months...

While I usually always alter recipes, it is important when canning to follow directions exactly. Measure accurately, and don't skimp on the hygienic practices. Be sure your jars are fully sterilized and that you never eat anything that looks or smells strange after it's been on the shelf for a few months. Most importantly, acquaint yourself with canning basics, you can do this through websites such as the National Center for Home Food Preservation (or one of my favorites, Food in Jars), through local classes taught by master preservers, or through your county extension office. A quick Google search will put you quickly on your way to home preserving!

Mexican Pickled Vegetables (Debby Bull, from Blue Jelly)
  • pint jars (my batch made 5 pints)
  • 1 cauliflower, broken into florets
  • 1 red sweet pepper, cut into strips
  • 2 or 3 c. baby carrots, or sliced adult carrots (I used 2 cups)
  • 2 c. celery, cut into 1 inch slices
  • 2 c. small whole onions, or 2 medium onions, quartered (I used the medium onions)
  • pickling salt (do not use table salt)
Pickling Solution:
  • 5 c. distilled white vinegar, 5% acidity
  • 1 c. water
  • 1/2 c. sugar
For Packing in Jars:
  • garlic cloves, peeled (I used 1 per jar)
  • chile peppers, dried or fresh (I used 2 dried chiles de arbol per jar)
Put all the cut up vegetables into a large glass, stainless, or stoneware bowl and cover with cold water and 1/4 c. pickling salt. Stir the salt into a little water before adding it to the big bowl to dissolve it. Cover the bowl with a plate or another bowl that presses down on the veg to keep it submerged. Let it sit for at least one hour.

(Debby Bull tells a story here, in the midst of her recipe, about a country music singer she dated, someone famous - who I wouldn't have been able to Google in 1998 to find out who he was. I was holding my breath it wasn't Dwight Yokam... since she assured me that he turned out to be a louse. I found out that it was Marty Stuart - who'd of thought? I always thought he looked like a nice guy...)

Drain the veg.

Wash the jars in hot, soapy water, then sterilize in boiling water for 10 minutes. (I use my canning pot for this, then keep the water boiling when I fill.) Bring some water to boil over the lids in a small pan, then turn off the heat and leave them to sit in the warm water.

For the pickling solution, combine ingredients in a non-reactive pot and bring to a boil. Simmer for 15 minutes. (I kept the cover on to minimize evaporation.)

To each jar, add some garlic and chiles. Pack hot jars with veg, making sure to get an assortment of everything in there. (Be sure to really pack the vegetables as tightly as you can in there, otherwise after you finish boiling them, they won't be too full.) Fill with boiling hot pickling solution to the top, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Wipe rims with a clean, lint free towel dipped in hot water (my Mom taught me to use the water that is still hot from boiling the lids).

Place hot lids on the jars, then screw the rings on. Process in boiling water bath (water should cover the jars by at least 1 inch) for 15 minutes. Start timing from when the water comes back to a full rolling boil.

Remove to a draft free place, and let sit for at least 24 hours before moving. When you hear the gentle *ping* of the lids, remember to say "thank you" (like my Mom also taught me). Transfer to a cool, dark place and let sit at least 6 weeks before opening.

I have an addiction to canning once I get going. Then, I run out of jars, or realize that I can't make everything that looks and sounds interesting, since there would be no way for me to eat it all in the next year of it's shelf life, so I try and curb myself a bit. These jars came out of the hot water bath just after 11 last night, and while cleaning up the kitchen I realized that I could just keep going and can up a batch of salsa that I had started preparing. Then I remembered the laundry, and spent a couple hours of quality time washing, drying and folding before turning in just after 1 a.m. Where the time goes in a day, I just don't know. Sometimes I think if I can just elude sleep, I can keep track of more of it, but it is a precious commodity, and it still does slip from my hands just the same.

Canning reminds me of time, I guess. When a jar is pulled from the shelf and is cracked open, I remember the day I made it and what was going on. That is why I've taken to dating the jars with the exact date, rather than just the month and year - which would be totally acceptable. I like to think back to the day it went in, where I got the produce or fruits, and what the state of my household was.

It also brings me back to my Mom and Gram, I remember their pantries and how they looked when they were fully stocked with jars. My Mom was taught and taught me to clean the jars if they got a little sticky from processing before stocking them on the shelf, and to even face and line them up nice and neat: to take pride in the work that you have accomplished. I even think of my Dad, and how he built the shelves for my Mom's hard work... she even made little curtains for them, and they still stand full, though not quite as full as when the family all lived at home.

I like to can for preservation, but just as much, I like to can for nostalgic reasons. Not to forget, that things that come from home canning taste far superior to anything you can buy, organic or not. It is a pleasure to be able to provide for yourself and your family, and it is a pride that comes with the generations for me. Even if I'll be the only one in my house to actually enjoy these hot pickled vegetables! I think with a bit of coaxing, I'll get my Husband to try them, and if they don't turn out too spicy, even the Boy-O, since he does love pickles after all.