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Little Rock Cannery preserves community's harvest of delights

This, my friends, is your lucky day, because I'm about to reveal my treasured secrets for canning outstanding tomato sauce.

First step: Find a community cannery with a hard-working expert at the helm.

You'll need spacious stainless-steel sinks and counters, sanitizing machines and a wide range of kitchen equipment that very few of us have at home.

It helps in some intangible way if the cannery is in a scenic little building in a scenic, out-of-the-way part of the county. It helps even more if canners pack the place like green beans in a Mason jar, if it's full of people who have a shared interest in tasty, wholesome food, who can talk recipes and give advice, who might even offer to help you tackle that mountain of unpeeled garlic cloves.

I'm glad to announce that we have all these ingredients in Hernando County.

Still.

The county, which had run the Little Rock Cannery north of Brooksville as one of the state's few public canneries for more than 30 years, brought an end to this tradition last year.

Budget cuts, of course. And an anonymous benefactor who had given money to fund it the previous two years decided he or she could give no more.

So it was taken over by the Auroveda Foundation, a nonprofit organization backed by Access Healthcare, which hired a new cannery manager, David Bahr.

Bahr, like his predecessor, Flossie Raines, has the know-how and the willingness to work hard. The cannery has all the needed equipment.

But until recently, it didn't have many canners.

Which, now that we're in one of the peak periods for harvesting fruits and vegetables in Florida, is starting to change, Bahr said.

So far this month, the cannery has enlisted 19 new members, about equally divided between those who paid the $5 day rate and the $50 annual fee.

The total of 79 groups or individuals who visited the cannery this month have put up about 1,500 jars of food.

When I arrived just over a week ago with my oldest son and 50 pounds of tomatoes, an early-bird canner was almost ready to walk out with jars of freshly preserved, seasonal corn.

Sara White of Inverness was in the process of reducing 100 pounds of tomatoes to sauce. Mark Howell and Anesta Boice, bankers who are part of the local chamber of commerce's Leadership Hernando program, were skinning and chopping tomatoes for salsa. They planned to make 25 pints as souvenirs for their group's upcoming tour of the cannery.

A little later, Dave and Denise Jollisse of Brooksville showed up and sat down at the big prep table near the front door to start snapping green beans. They would leave with 36 pints.

All of which conformed to the general idea of canning: Buy or pick produce when it's at its cheapest and most plentiful, and store it in the most delicious form possible so it can be consumed when it is neither cheap nor plentiful.

Right now, for example, canners can order tomatoes through Bahr for $6.50 per 25-pound box. These are sauce tomatoes, with the occasional blemish. But the ones that Howell had peeled and cubed shone as red as juicy rubies.

My son and I got our tomatoes for even less money, if you don't count the labor, and the seeds, and the plants, and the truckload of manure and the dozens of other ancillary costs that go into putting in a vegetable garden.

So maybe they weren't cheap. And, to amass a quantity worth canning, we supplemented our tomatoes with a few pounds bought from a local grower.

But our harvest was good enough that the entire family had grown tired of gazpacho soup and Caprese salad. And the thrill of picking perfectly ripe tomatoes from the vine and biting into them like they're apples was long gone.

It was time to can.

I wish I could tell you that I do indeed have a special recipe. Really, with Bahr helping, it was pretty simple.

We heated the tomatoes in a 10-gallon steam-jacketed kettle until they turned to mush. We drained off and canned seven quarts of tomato juice, then fed the solids through a massive stainless-steel machine with an unlikely feminine nickname, Petunia, to remove the skins and seeds.

The pulp went back into the kettle to reduce. We added salt, pepper, brown sugar, dried oregano, bay leaves, cooked onions, garlic and our own homegrown peppers. And, right before canning, we dumped in a big pile of fresh basil, also from our garden.

When we returned home, we noticed that one of the quart jars hadn't sealed properly, which gave us an excuse to sample our sauce on spaghetti with a dusting of freshly grated Parmesan cheese and a drizzle of olive oil.

Let me tell you, friends, the thrill is back.

.Fast facts

Come on by

The Little Rock Cannery, at 15487 Citrus Way, north of Brooksville, is open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Appointments may be made by calling (352) 799-4226.

Little Rock Cannery preserves community's harvest of delights 05/26/12 [Last modified: Saturday, May 26, 2012 3:43pm]

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