With our region’s wildly abundant growing seasons, Southerners have no shortage of fresh fruit and vegetables come summertime. Instead, we more often face the quandary of what to do with all of the garden overflow or farm stand leftovers.
So when we’ve eaten our fill of squash casseroles, tomato sandwiches, grilled corn, and fresh watermelon, we turn to the age-old wisdom of our mothers and grandmothers for guidance: waste not, want not.
In any down-home pantry, you’re sure to find jars of pickles, jams, preserves, and chutneys lining the shelves, stretching those summer flavors into the colder months. And while the practice of “putting up” is to many modern home cooks more a novelty or nostalgic hobby rather than the necessity it was to past generations, the conscious effort to preserve every last bit of sustenance seems to be engrained in our Southern DNA.
We crave the bright juiciness of summer tomatoes and the crisp zing of dill pickles year-round, so that’s what we stock our shelves with while plump heirloom tomatoes are ripe on the vine and cucumbers abound. From tangy chowchow and spicy pepper jelly to sweet strawberry preserves and tart pickled peaches, many of our iconic Southern flavors are built on produce being cooked or brined, packed, and sealed into glass jars for months to come.
It was this realization that motivated Ashley English’s latest cookbook, Southern from Scratch: Pantry Essentials and Down-Home Recipes (Roost Books, April 2018), and led her back to the kitchens of her mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother for inspiration. “When I started planning how I was going to approach my book, I had to think about the background of the Southern pantry,” she says. “And a lot of what makes up a classic pantry, or larder, involves pickles.
Sure, you’ll have cornmeal, buttermilk, and bacon in the kitchen. But then you’ve got traditional pickles, canned vegetables, sauces, condiments, vinegars, hot sauces, jams, jellies, and fermented food.”
Although many of the canning and preserving practices and techniques used to create such a collection actually originated in Europe and Asia, only coming to America with the early colonists, there’s a special place in Southern culture that still clings tightly to the tradition.
“With our climate, we tend to get things in the ground sooner, so our harvests are more abundant and we have a longer growing season,” Ashley says. “So there’s more to can and save.” And whether you grow your own produce or frequent local farmers’ markets, there are a few details to keep in mind if you want to start preserving and canning your haul. “You’ll need some kind of large pot—it doesn’t have to be a canner, a large stockpot will do,” she explains. “And you need to be using canning-specific jars. You can’t reuse the glass jars that your condiments came in, because they are only meant for single use.
They can’t withstand repeated high temperatures like the tempered glass can that comes from canning-specific jars. And those usually come with canning bands and lids.” A jar lifter and a canning funnel are also handy tools to have in the kitchen to make the process easier.
If you’re new to the game, Ashley suggests starting with a water bath canning recipe, rather than the trickier pressure canning technique. “The very first thing I tell people is to read the recipe all the way through,” she laughs. “There’s nothing more disappointing than thinking, ‘Oh! I’m going to make dill pickles for lunch!’ And then realize that the cucumbers have to soak for eight hours before you do anything.”
Once you’ve read over the recipe, follow it to a tee. A good canning recipe should tell you exactly when to start filling the pot to get the water boiling, should instruct you about inspecting your jars for cracks and warming them properly, and should note how much headspace to leave when adding the ingredients to the jars.
“Headspace is the amount of space that you want to leave between the top of whatever you are adding to the jar and the underside of the lid,” Ashley explains. “It’s basically room for expansion. The larger the pieces of whatever you have in your jar, the more headspace you will need.”
Once your contents are in place, you’ll need to release any trapped air bubbles by running a utensil around the inside of the jar—some people like to use a wooden spoon or non-metal spatula, but Ashley prefers the agility of a thinner chopstick.
“Once you’ve dislodged any air bubbles, you’ll want to wipe the inside of the rim of the jar, put your lid on, and put the screw band on to what I call ‘fingertip–tight,’” she says.
“And that means that you tighten it until you meet resistance with your fingertips. So the band won’t be loosey goosey and float off in the water bath, but it also won’t be so tight that pressure can’t escape, which needs to happen.” Once the lids and screw bands are in place, add the jars to the jar lifter, place them in the pot, and process based on the recipe.
And when you pop open that homemade jar of dill pickles, pickled green tomatoes, or fruit preserves, think beyond sticking them on a sandwich or spreading on a biscuit.
“When I talk with people on online canning forums, one of the most common questions I get is, ‘What can I do with this other than putting it on toast?’” Ashley says.
“So I started to think about how I use these condiments in my own kitchen. My husband and I don’t just use muscadine jelly in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, we turn it into a gastrique and put it on a piece of meat. And when we make bread and butter pickles, we incorporate them into something else.”
From adding pepper jelly to sweet and sour pork for a spicy spin to stirring peach chutney into your favorite Indian recipes, there’s no limit to the uses for our favorite Southern staples. And in Southern from Scratch, that’s just what Ashley wanted to prove.
“I think people get stuck creatively, so I thought it would be fun to approach the book as bringing these iconic Southern preserves into a modern kitchen context,” she says. “So these days, you might throw in a little cardamom, or something else a little more global and new, into your favorite recipes.”
So next time you have an overflowing bag of green tomatoes from your backyard garden or a bowl full of leftover watermelon rinds, don’t let them go to waste—they could become the backbone of your new favorite meal. And an afternoon of canning could make your favorite summer flavors last all year long.
The temperature at which water boils changes based on altitude. So if you’re canning at a high altitude, adjust your processing time as necessary to be sure the germs are killed.
- 1 pound ground beef
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil 1 medium onion, diced
- 1 red, yellow, or orange bell pepper, diced
- 1 pint (2 cups) Pickled Watermelon Rind (recipe on page 84)
- 1 cup ketchup
- 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce Freshly ground black pepper
- Sea salt
- Hamburger buns, lightly toasted
- Warm a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add beef and brown for 6 to
- minutes, until cooked through. Remove pan from the heat. Place a mesh sieve or colander over a bowl. Pour in beef and drain off the juices. Discard juices.
- Return pan to stovetop and warm over medium heat. Add olive oil, onion, and bell pepper, and sauté for 10 minutes, until vegetables are browned around the edges.
- Chop pickled watermelon rind into a fine relish-like consistency. Add watermelon, beef, ketchup, Worcestershire, and several grinds of pepper to the pan with vegetables. Stir to combine.
- Bring to a simmer, turn heat to low, and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes, until sauce thickens a bit. Add salt to taste, a little bit at a time, until salty-sweet balance is right for you. Serve between hamburger buns.
Ashley also loves to chop Pickled Watermelon Rind into small pieces and scatter over a romaine and goat cheese salad or mince it, mix with mayonnaise, and spread onto a toasted Kaiser roll with roast beef for a sandwich.