Canning Zucchini Relish

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Fermenting pickles (summer squash with onions and garlic) and apple cider vinegar.

Fermenting pickles (summer squash with onions and garlic) and apple cider vinegar.

As I’ve mentioned before, my post on not using a water bath for jams and jellies sparked all kinds of discussion, even several years latter. Today, one of my readers commented:
“I know that this post deals with jams and jellies, but I make zucchini relish every year and I don’t use a water bath or pressure cooker for that either. I was on another site that says a person must use a pressure cooker on all veggies. Well, zucchini, bell peppers and onions are all veggies and I haven’t had a problem with them sealing. They have to be simmered for half an hour before the jars are filled. My family loves this relish and even people that hate store bought relish, absolutely love the zucchini relish. Every time I read about veggies having to be pressure cooked, I get a little un-nerved. What’s your take on this? thank you..” – Judi Jones

Basic canning safety: clean jars, no nicks, well washed and sterilized in boiling water.

Basic canning safety: clean jars, no nicks, well washed and sterilized in boiling water.


So, OK, let’s talk about this. The big issue in home canning is botulism, caused by a toxin produced when spores of the bacteria Clostridium botulinum germinate and begin to grow. First, how big a problem is it? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that of the 145 cases in the US each year, only about 15 percent are caused by home-canned foods; that’s about 21 cases. When treated, the mortality rate is 5-10% (meaning two of the 21 die); untreated, it’s more like 40-50%. Car accidents are a much bigger risk, but that doesn’t seem to stop people driving…
Infant botulism — primarily from honey, which is why you don’t feed honey to babies under the age of one year — is the source of most C. botulinum infections. Alaska has a relatively high rate of botulism compared to other states, according to the CDC, which seems to be related to eating traditionally fermented meats or fish, and in one case, fermented seal oil. No details on preservation methods, salt contents, etc. Meats are unquestionably low acid foods, and pressure canning is strongly recommended.
The bacteria C. botulinum is found in soil, which is how it gets onto garden vegetables. The bacteria itself is relatively fragile and killed by heat, and the toxin is neutralized by heat. However, the bacteria can also produce spores, which lie dormant until conditions are right and then produce toxin as they grow. Good growing conditions are a warm, moist, low-oxygen environment, just the sort of thing found in home-canned foods. However, acid (a pH of 4.6 or less) and salt prevent growth. Most vegetables and meats are low in acid; tomatoes are considered an exception, but some of the more modern low-acid varieties may not have a high enough pH to make the grade.
Hotting up the canner with filled jars (grape juice).

Hotting up the canner with filled jars (grape juice).


What about spices, as one reader commented? Spices are known to have antibacterial effects (which is why they’ve been used for food preservation for thousands of years), but the only research I could find related to C. botulinum indicated bay leaf was the only common spice that inhibited the bacteria. Mustard seed, which is often added to zucchini relish, has no effect, nor do other common ingredients like celery seed, turmeric or nutmeg.
Canning instructions for zucchini relish vary considerably; waterbath instructions run from five to 20 minutes. I spent a good bit of time searching and didn’t find any sources that recommended pressure canning. When I make fermented zucchini relish and pickles, I refrigerate them after the first week but don’t can them. They’re still good at least a year later, and nobody’s gotten sick from eating them.
Judi notes that she’s making zucchini relish. She didn’t share the recipe, but most of the zucchini relish recipes I’ve seen use vinegar and salt. I make a fermented version (fermented foods produce acid), to which I add salt. She also cooks the relish for 30 minutes before she puts it in the hot, sterilized jars.
So, what’s the bottom line? I suspect (mind you, I’m not an expert, this is based on my research and common sense) that Judi’s relish is safe due to its salt and vinegar content plus the fact that she cooks it 30 minutes and puts it in hot sterilized jars. Her experience supports that suspicion. Obviously, my own experience with fermented zucchini relish (and similar foods like pickles) has been positive. The wide variability of processing instructions (and many zucchini relish recipes don’t have instructions about either water bath canning or pressure canning) indicates that there are plenty of people out there who just cook and seal in hot jars. If it were a major problem, I would expect the CDC investigations would have turned up zucchini relish as a botulism cause; so far, canned asparagus is the home-preserved food at the top on the list, but that’s only a few cases.
Can I say there’s absolutely no risk? Nope, and I’m not going to. This is one of those situations where every food preserver is going to have to make up his or her mind.

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Winter Preppers

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Winter waits for no ranch wife.

Winter waits for no ranch wife.

I suppose if you live in a city (especially in an apartment), the approach of winter is a fairly minor issue; maybe some leaf raking, clean out the gutters and in really cold climates, you might put heat tape on exposed pipes and wrap them with insulation. Our winter prep is a good bit more extensive.

Genovese Basil, just about ready for freezer pesto.

Genovese Basil, just about ready for freezer pesto.


Although I do have some garden going year round, this is the time of year when I need to push things to get ripe and/or set seed. We’re about six weeks from our most likely first hard frost date, so I want to get the tomatoes to ripen. Although we’re still picking some snap beans, I also need some to finish maturing and dry for seed, and of course the dry beans will be doing the same. Cutting back water is one way to push both of those processes along. Our climate is too arid (and still too hot in September) to just stop watering, so I gradually decrease the water over a period of a couple of weeks before I stop entirely. It’s a selective process, as the cucumbers and squash still need plenty of water and they will continue to set fruit until frost hits. In the kitchen garden, cutting back on water is not just for the plants’ sake; this is the time of year when the water table is getting lower, and the spring that feeds our well can’t recharge very quickly. If I were still watering full bore, I’d have to do it in two sessions, as there just isn’t enough water to run for the full garden round.
For a few years, we tarped the side of the barn and stored hay there, but it was a losing battle.

For a few years, we tarped the side of the barn and stored hay there, but it was a losing battle.


There are few outbuildings on this old ranch, since they were pretty much falling down when we bought it; we had to tear down the old barn, for example. That means tarping the hay stack and wood pile, the big tote bag of grain screenings and similar containers of things we need to have handy because we use them daily but also need to keep dry. Also along the line of covering things up, it’s time to get out the heavy winter blanket we use on the old stallion and check it for rips that need mending.
A properly tarped hay stack can withstand even high winds; if not weighted, the wind sneaks under the edges and the tarp leaves for the next county.

A properly tarped hay stack can withstand even high winds; if not weighted, the wind sneaks under the edges and the tarp leaves for the next county.


There’s always a collection of stuff outside that has accumulated during the summer: gardening tools, hay twine, containers of chicken litter and compost and — to be brutally honest — junk/trash. While it would be ideal to say “a place for everything and everything in its place,” the reality is we’re short on places for storage close to work areas like the kitchen and big garden, and summer is an extremely busy time. All too often, whatever we have in hand tends to wind up where we last used it. Things like used baling twine pile up, and the big plastic tubs we use to feed screenings to the animals (which they often break through overenthusiastic eating, pawing or squabbling for position) must be collected and either fixed or hauled off to be recycled.
Fermenting pickles (summer squash with onions and garlic) and apple cider vinegar.

Fermenting pickles (summer squash with onions and garlic) and apple cider vinegar.


While we’re doing all this covering and cleaning, there’s still plenty of preserving going on: apples, pears, and grapes right at the moment, plus the big jars of fermenting cumber pickles, herbs drying (at the moment all the lamps in the living room are festooned with basil). As soon as it cools just a bit more, my daughter and I will need to get the lard rendered (way too hot in the summer, and if you do it outside in a crockpot, the meat bees swarm!).
This is presumably some sort of Concord grape; very vigorous -- if we didn't hack it back to nubbins each year it would soon take over the whole orchard.

This is presumably some sort of Concord grape; very vigorous — if we didn’t hack it back to nubbins each year it would soon take over the whole orchard.


This is also the time of planting or transplanting many fall/winter-over crops, like broccoli, kale, snow and snap peas, Tyfon, spinach, lettuce, chard and beets. We’re still irrigating, and probably will be for at least another six weeks. It’s hunting season, so hubby and The Big One are off trying to bag at least one deer. If they’re successful, we’ll be skinning and cleaning. We don’t usually butcher our own any more — too hard on hubby’s back, and it’s so warm we can’t hang the meat without it spoiling. I can’t really say I mind, as doing your own butchering can be a pretty onerous task, especially when you’re making do as regards tools. We once butchered an elk on the kitchen table when we lived in Idaho, and hubby got the bright idea to use a skillsaw to cut the bones. I nixed that in hurry when he wound up putting a gash in the table…
There’s a reason why most cultures have a harvest celebration: it’s the first chance most of us will have had to sit down for any length of time in about six months!

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Multi-Purpose Vegetables

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Amish Paste tomatoes.

Amish Paste tomatoes.

Getting two (or sometimes even more) for one is always nice. Unlike much-hyped tools and other goodies you often see advertised as good for multiple uses, multipurpose veggies actually deliver on their promises. Multipurpose vegetables are particularly nice for the gardener with limited space, but they’re also nice for the gardener with limited time. Can’t get to the snap beans? Let ’em go a few days more and use them as shell beans. In addition to plants that were actually developed for more than one purpose, sometimes you have serendipitous occurrences that allow double duty.
Tomatoes are often bred for specific purposes — paste tomatoes for sauce and ketchup, for example. In reality, you can use just about any tomato for any purpose. Paste tomatoes make fine slices for sandwiches if sliced thin (especially the Amish Paste variety, which in my experience will often yield some that have a diameter of at least two-and-a-half inches). But you can make sauce and ketchup from any tomato (including cherry tomatoes) if you roast or slow cook to get most of the water out. Some tomatoes, however, really are multipurpose. I think the best of these are St. Pierre and Rutgers. Both are very good slicers, can well, make good juice and can be cooked down for sauce. They’re indeterminate, which means they should be staked for best production, and bear over a long period.

Rattlesnake pole beans.

Rattlesnake pole beans.

Beans are another veggie that is often sorted into unnecessary categories, like snap, shell or dry. There are exceptions — lima beans, for example, really aren’t any good as snap beans, just as shell and dry beans. But most snap beans can be eaten young as snap beans (or even earlier than that as haricot verts, the ultra thin, tender French version of the snap bean), as shell beans and dried for soups, stews, barbequed beans or chili. I’m a fan of pole beans because they bear more heavily, have a longer harvest period and are easier to harvest. Rattlesnake, Kentucky Wonder (Old Homestead), Blue Lake and Lazy Wife are all snap beans that can be shelled, and of course, any form of lima is a classic shelling bean. I’m partial to King of the Garden limas. All of these beans can can also be dried.

Fried squash blossoms in my future.

Fried squash blossoms in my future.

Other dual-purpose veggies include beets, which can be eaten for their tops or roots; broccoli, cauliflower, celeriac and kohlrabi, ditto; any form of squash or pumpkins (fried blossoms and mature fruit) and some forms of squash like cucuzzi that can be eaten as immature fruits like summer squash or hard-shelled adults like a winter squash.
Now, about those serendipitous occurrences. I once planted what I thought were bush beans next to some tomatoes. Turned out they were actually pole beans. They scrambled over a few inches of ground and proceeded to climb up the tomato stakes, twining around both stake and stem so that I didn’t have to tie up the tomatoes. If I had really limited space, I would try planting an indeterminate tomato next to a fairly tall stake (at least five feet above ground) and plant four to six pole beans in a circle around the tomato. Then as the beans grew, I’d guide them around the central tomato stem and let them take care of any tying up duties. That sounds like a pretty good multipurpose effect to me.

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