Dilly Beans, and canning tutorial

I’d been saying for several years that I knew one day I’d get into canning, but it wasn’t until last summer than I finally took the plunge. I bought a bunch of new canning jars (although I already owned a great deal of vintage jars that I store food and goods in, and ferment things in, and dispense soap from, and drink out of…you get the picture: I had a lot of jars and I bought a lot more jars) and Marisa McClellan’s wonderful Food in Jars. I’d been reading Marisa’s blog for a long time, so I had a good idea of what I was getting into, and I knew I’d trust her recipes to be both tasty and safe. Marisa’s book is a fantastic resource for the new canner, and especially those who might be daunted by visions of 15-hour canning sessions, pounds of fruits or veggies to peel and cook, and tons of finished jars of store…and eat. Food in Jars is great because most recipes yield about 4 pints, which is perfect for trying out recipes with little investment, squeezing short canning sessions around busy schedules, and not overwhelming small households with hundreds of jars of the same thing. Plus, Marisa is personable and very responsive to commenters on her blog.

The first recipe I made from her book, and the first thing I ever canned, was Dilly Beans…which I think is probably the first thing a lot of people try. And for good reason: they are easy and delicious! Since Marisa generously shared her recipe on Serious Eats (it’s actually slightly different than the one in the book in that it makes 5 pints instead of 4, and which worked out perfectly brine-wise for me), I’m going to go ahead and repeat it here with my photos just to inspire any of you out there who are like me and want to try canning but are worried about the initial investment or the time it might take up, or think it might be difficult to do. However, if like me you end up enjoying canning, I strongly urge you to buy Food in Jars or Marisa’s new book Preserving by the Pint, because the recipes are good and easy to understand and there is a ton of info for new canners.

Spicy Dilly Beans
Recipe by Marisa McClellan, shared on Serious Eats

3 pounds green beans (I had 2.8 lbs, all but about 6 green beans I was able to force into 5 pint jars)
2 1/2 cups white vinegar
2 1/2 cups water
1/4 cup pickling salt
5 cloves garlic
5 tsp dill seed (not dill weed)
5 tsp red chili flakes or cayenne powder, or 5 small chili peppers, slit (last year I used fresh chilis that Mark grew), or you can omit this if you don’t want spicy dilly beans

About the vinegar: although I use it by the gallon around the house, I usually don’t cook with white vinegar, preferring a myriad of flavored and homemade vinegars, however, in an unprecedented move I followed most of the canning recipes I used last summer faithfully instead of getting creative, and not only did these turn out delicious, but everyone I’ve served or given them to has raved, so I’m sticking with the white vinegar for now. In an older version on her blog, Marisa uses apple cider vinegar.

The first thing you need to do when getting started canning is purchase or scrounge up the following:

  • canning jars and rings – You will need 5 pint jars for this recipe and they will come with rings, which hold the lids on in the boiling water bath until they’ve sealed to the jar.
  • lids – Although you can and should reuse the jars and rings for many years, lids can only be sealed once. New jars will come with a new lid for each jar, but if you are reusing jars, you will need to purchase enough new lids for the batch you plan to make.
  • a pot large enough to fit the 5 jars (in a single layer) as well as water to cover by a couple of inches, plus another couple of inches head room for boiling
  • an insert for the pot that the jars can sit on instead of sitting directly on the bottom of the pot
  • small saucepan for warming lids
  • jar lifter or some other device, such as tongs, for moving jars into and out of the boiling water bath – Jar lifters are cheap and are a LOT easier than tongs, so I do recommend you pick one of these up if you can
  • magnetic lid wand – optional but handy device for lifting lids out of simmering water; you could also use tongs
  • dish towel – for setting hot jars on
  • clean towel – for wiping jar rims after filling

As much as I love kitchen gadgets and pots, I have no desire to buy a dedicated canning pot (unless I later decide to get into pressure canning, which doesn’t really interest me at the time). I already had this 12-quart Calphalon stock pot and pasta insert that is perfect for up to 5 pint or 4 quart jars. Unfortunately I can’t really find it for sale anywhere; I bought it as part of a larger set years ago. But if you already have a large stock pot, you can easily rig something up without a pasta insert, just by putting a heat-safe trivet on the bottom for the jars to sit on.

The first step in canning is to sanitize your jars. You can run them through a dishwasher cycle if you like, or bake them in the oven at 200 degrees for 15-20 minutes, but since you are going to be boiling water anyway for the water bath, the easiest thing to do is just boil them. So put your insert into your large pot and the jars on the insert, then add water to cover by a couple of inches (I also like to add a glug of white vinegar, which keeps the jars sparkling) …

… then bring to a rapid boil for 10 minutes. Now what you should NOT DO is at this juncture realize you need more vital wheat gluten for the seitan you are simultaneously making and just drive off to Wegmans to buy more, leaving the water boiling on your stove because you are an idiot. DO NOT DO THAT. (The good news is Mark was home the whole time I was gone, although until/unless he reads this, he had no idea!)

Put the lids in a small saucepan, cover with water, and bring to a very low simmer. All you want to do is warm the seals on them so they adhere to the jars later.

Use your jar lifter or tongs to remove the jars from the water (very carefully pouring the water out of them without spilling it on yourself) and place them on a folded dish towel. You can keep the water simmering while you continue prepping.

Prepare the brine by combining the vinegar, water, and salt in a medium pot and bringing it to a boil. Let it simmer until you are ready to use it. I saw this fourth burner pot on Marisa’s blog and yes, I DID have to buy it, but I don’t use it just for canning. You can absolutely use any pot you have that the brine will fit in; I just like this one because it has a spout that makes it easy to pour into the jars later, and also when canning, the stove tends to gets crowded and this pot takes up little stove real estate.

Next, prepare the green beans (or you could do this ahead of time if you are more efficient than I am). I don’t do that whole bean snapping thing. I just do not have the time for that nonsense. I line a bundle of beans up, chop off the ends with a sharp knife, turn the bundle around, line them up again, and chop the other end off. The important thing here is that you make sure the beans will fit in the jars, so what I do is trim one to the perfect size for my jars then lie it on my chopping block as a template. I’m not super fastidious about this, but if you don’t make them short enough to fit, it’s annoying later to go back and trim them down.

It’s easiest to fill the jars if you keep the trimmed green beans orderly:

By the time you’ve trimmed the green beans, the jars should have cooled enough to handle, so stuff each one with as many beans as you can fit, without smashing the beans up. I find it easiest to put a bundle in, hold the jar on its side …

… then shove another bundle on top, then sit the jar upright and fill in any gaps with more beans.

Put one clove of garlic, 1 tsp of dill seeds, and 1 tsp of chili flakes or cayenne pepper or one whole chili pepper into each jar.

Turn the burner under the brine off and pour the brine into each jar, leaving 1/2″ headspace. Carefully (they’ll be hot!) tap each jar on the counter and/or poke a chopstick around the edges to remove trapped air bubbles. If necessary, add additional brine to bring the headspace back to 1/2″. (By the way, you want to add HOT brine to the jars so they don’t go into shock when you later put them in the hot water bath…so don’t pre-make that brine and add it cold to the jars.)

Use a clean towel to wipe the rims of the jars (spilled brine could keep the lids from sealing properly). Next, turn the burner under the lids off and carefully remove the lids from the pot, placing one (seal-side down) atop each jar. Screw a ring onto each jar just until hand-tight.

Jars ready for canning:

If necessary, bring the large pot of water back up to a rolling boil, then use the jar lifter to carefully place each jar onto the insert on the bottom. You will probably have to remove some of the boiling water from the pot now that the jars are full; I use a 2-cup Pyrex measuring cup to do this or you could use your small saucepan. Once all jars are in the pot, you want the water to cover them by about 2″ (so they are entirely submerged even when the water is bubbling). This picture is hazy because my camera was looking straight down into the steaming water.

Once the water is at a rolling boil after the jars are in, set the timer for 10 minutes. Let the jars boil (this is what is meant by “process in a hot water bath” that you may have read in recipes) for 10 minutes, then use the jar lifter to carefully remove the jars and set them back on the dish towel (the dish towel helps prevent shock from a cool counter or table top). [Note: Always process canning recipes for exactly the amount of time specified. If you don't process for long enough, the internal temperature of the jar may not go high enough to create a seal and safely preserve your food, and if you process for too long, you may end up with overcooked food. Use only canning recipes from sources you trust. When in doubt refer to the USDA Canning Guidelines or the Ball website. Do not use older publications as the USDA guidelines have changed over the years and older canning books may be outdated.]

As the lids seal, you may hear a little “ping” from each one. This is a joyous noise because you know the lid has sealed when you hear it, however, not all seals will ping, so don’t worry if you don’t hear it. I usually hear a ping, but none of these five pinged for me and they all sealed. Let the jars sit overnight (or 8 hours) to completely cool, then you can remove the rings and test the seals. There are two tests you can do: 1) push the middle of the lid slightly. If it gives or pops, the lid is not sealed. 2) gently try to pry the lid off with your thumb. If it comes off, it’s not sealed. If you buy quality lids, they should almost always seal, but everyone will occasionally have one that does not. If you have one that didn’t seal, no problem: just put the jar in the refrigerator and use it up first.

Pro tip: always write the name of the contents and the date packed on the lids. These dilly beans will be good for at least a year. Also, store the jars without the rings. Apparently there is some debate amongst canners about storing with or without rings, but I’m firmly on the “without” side because a) rings could get stuck on over time and b) if the seal breaks during storage (a rare but possible occurrence), it’s harder to notice it if the ring is on. (Note: if after storage, you go to open a jar and find that the lid comes right off without being pried, throw the contents of the jar away. They might be okay, but it’s better safe than sorry in this case.)

The Serious Eats recipe says wait at least a week to eat these pickles; the book says two weeks. I’ve always waited two weeks, which may seem interminable, but believe me, it’s worth it!

Some people don’t know how to open a sealed jar. I use the bottle opener hook of my can opener (it looks like this one), but you can also use a church key or dull butter knife or spoon.

These dilly beans are really popular and I bring a jar or two to every party I attend in the summer and throughout the year. There is an ever-growing number of people who love to receive a jar of these or other of my canned items as a gift as well. When I give canned foods as gifts, I tend to stick a ring back on it, so if the recipient doesn’t use the contents in one sitting, they have an easy way to secure the lid and refrigerate the jar. Personally, I save up the standard-sized metal and plastic screw-on lids that come on commercial products like peanut butter, Vegenaise, cocounut oil, etc. and use them for storing jars in the fridge as they are less hassle than a lid + ring, and I toss used lids in the recycle bin as I open jars. If you give jars away, tell your friends to recycle the lid, but to save the jar and ring. I always tell recipients that they are welcome to keep the jar (and ring) if they want it, but if they have no use for it, to return it to me so I can fill it up for them again. :)

Dilly beans make any barbecue fare – nay, any meal – many times better, are awesome in bloody marys, and are just great snacks! These are from the open jar I currently have in the fridge, canned last year. The pepper is one of Mark’s, and yes, I will eat that (and the garlic!) too. Pickled peppers, yum! (Pickled ANYTHING, yum!)

If I can be like Bryant Terry and provide a soundtrack for this recipe, or any canning recipe, it would be any (non-annoying) song by Led Zeppelin. Mark and I both consider Zeppelin to be quintessential summer music and I listened to my all-Zep playlist over and over last summer while canning. In fact, whenever a Zeppelin song comes on now, I’m instantly transported to sitting on a barstool in my kitchen peeling, coring, and canning 100 lbs of tomatoes last summer. Which was a really zen thing for me for some reason. (Does anyone want a tutorial on canning tomatoes once tomato season hits? Because as awesome and delicious as dilly beans are, tomatoes are by far the most useful thing I canned: I haven’t bought a single can of tomatoes in a year, and I used to go through a LOT of cans of tomatoes!)

[PS If you feel like Led Zeppelin is overplayed, enjoy one of my other favorite summer songs. YOU'RE WELCOME.]

I’m extra excited about canning season this year because all I’ll have to buy is new lids, so it’ll be much cheaper this year than it was last year when I had to make the initial investment in the jars (which aren’t really expensive, but I bought a lot). And canning just does it for me. I’m as guilty as most other Americans of generating more waste than I have any right to burden this planet with, but I HATE it. I get really, really sick thinking of all that trash sitting in landfills, most of it not biodegrading, and all the plastic floating in our wonderful oceans. It’s true I keep on consuming, but I really try to think about packaging, and purchase as little of it as possible. To me, canning is just so great because I support my local farmers by purchasing everything I can from the farmers market (I’d grow it myself if I didn’t have a black thumb!), and I carry it all home in my market basket and reusable shopping bags, and I can it in reusable jars, and not only do I have a bounty of delicious, local ingredients to enjoy year-round, but I’ve wasted NO PACKAGING. It just makes me deeply happy. And I have LOVED opening my jars all year and enjoying the contents. I’m still amazed every time I open a jar of my home-canned tomatoes and they smell just as fresh as the day I canned them. It’s a scent and sensation I’ve never gotten from commercial canned tomatoes, even the really expensive ones I’d buy because I’m a pizza snob. So if you’ve been on the fence about trying canning, hopefully I’ve given you the push you needed to try it out this year – it’s very rewarding. And it doesn’t have to take a lot of time.

You didn’t think I’d leave without a picture totally unrelated to food, did you? Here is a groundhog climbing a tree:

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Raccoons, and guess what

Guess what I did tonight? I took photos for a FOOD POST and I’m really, truly going to post it this week! Unfortunately, it’s not an original recipe, but to me it’s kind of important so I thought I would document my process and share. In the meantime, how about a raccoon update?

See this horde eating? They just moved to an outdoor cage and my lord, they are a really cute and fun bunch, but they are HYPERACTIVE. Feeding them is the last thing I do before leaving their cage, so here they are focused on the food I just put down, but prior to the food, that swarming they are doing? I was like the food in this picture. THEY WERE ALL OVER ME. They are SUPER interested in EVERYTHING I do, so they “help”. I try to sweep, there are two raccoons pulling the broom away from me, three climbing up my leg, one on my head, and one dumping the contents of the dustbin back onto the floor. I try to clean their litter boxes, there is one who won’t get out of the dirty litter box, one dragging the Clorox bottle off somewhere, one tearing up the roll of paper towels, one actually snatching the paper towel I’m currently using to wipe the box away from me (ripping it up in the process), one dumping the contents of my trash bag onto the floor, one climbing my leg, and one on my head. I try to hose the floor down, there’s two climbing me, two attacking the hose, one playing in the stream of water, one dangling from the ceiling and undoing my ponytail, and one on my shoulders. CHAOS. Sometimes you get a crew that doesn’t even bother waking up when you come in to clean, or they slowly straggle out with mild interest, and with those types I always think, “oh, you guys are boring”, but let me tell you, it takes about a 1,000 times longer to clean when they scramble out of their nest box to “help” like these guys.

Because these guys are still kind of young, we’ve been giving them Cheerios and formula for breakfast, even though we usually don’t give any formula once they’ve moved outside. That will only last a few days, then they’ll be eating all solid food, which includes specially prepared trays of various fruits, veggies, berries, nuts, and meat, as well as dog food.

Did you know raccoons are musically gifted? Well, they’re not, but they sure love playing with wind chimes. That’s one of their hammocks from which they like to lean down and pull my ponytail holder out from my hair. I always look REAL classy after being in there.

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Roosevelt Island, DC

Man, I’d really hoped to have an actual recipe by now, but {excuse}, {excuse}, {excuse}. I have even photographed a few dishes, but ultimately did not deem any of them blogworthy and I don’t want to post something lame just to finally get a food post up on what is supposed to be a food blog. So pardon me for a little while longer while I indulge myself in more random photographs of wildlife and Parks Near Renae.

When I used to think of national parks, I’d think of the Grand Canyon and Yosemite, and after moving to Virginia even Shenandoah, but the National Park Service comprises more than just those huge, beautiful expanses whose names are so familiar. As I mentioned in my previous post, the C & O Canal is a very long and skinny national park, and in fact, there are a lot of (free!) national parks in this area (mostly due to it being the metro area of the nation’s capital). Theodore Roosevelt Island is a tiny national park I never even knew of until somewhat recently. As I’ve mentioned, a lot of my spring park hopping this year has concentrated on the Potomac River and Roosevelt Island is right smack in the middle of the Potomac River, between DC and Virginia.

I wasn’t in a rush to get to Roosevelt Island for a couple of reasons: 1) as it’s technically part of DC, I feared that getting there after work (when I do a lot of my Potomac admiring) would be a traffic-related nightmare, and 2) the maps state it has barely 2.5 miles of trails, and since my photo rambles double as my exercise on the days I do them, 2 miles of hiking seems barely worth my while. However, the Potomac Heritage Trail (many portions of which I’ve been hiking this spring) and the Mount Vernon Trail converge there so I figured if I needed to I could tack on a mile or two on one of those, so with beautiful weather yesterday afternoon, I made my way there…shocked to hit almost no traffic on the way! And as it turns out, Roosevelt Island was nicer than I’d expected and definitely worthwhile. Plus there are a lot of unmarked trails that aren’t on the map and which probably double the actual trail miles. I was in an infrared mood, so most of the pictures were taken with my infrared-converted camera.

This picture is taken from underneath the Roosevelt Memorial Bridge which takes I-66 into DC, turning into Constitution Avenue. (I seem to find myself UNDER a lot of bridges I used to only go OVER a lot recently…) The buildings are the cute neighborhood of Rosslyn in Virginia.

The same bridge:

The same bridge, right next to a boardwalk over a tidal marsh on Roosevelt Island THAT I NEVER KNEW WAS RIGHT THERE all the times I’ve driven over that bridge.

A bench overlooking the swamp:

It must have been low tide, because I was surprised to hear this deer rustling around in the tidal marsh. Can you see her?

This is Washington Harbor in Georgetown from across the Potomac:

In the distance is the Key Bridge taking Route 29 into Georgetown:

Now I’ve circled around the perimeter of the island (on the unmarked trail that goes along the beach and is thus longer – and far more interesting – than the marked trail), so this is Rosslyn again:

And I made a friend!

The actual memorial to Teddy Roosevelt is in the center of the island, and when I turned onto one of the paths leading it, a gorgeous buck standing smack in the middle of the trail 30 feet from me and I surprised each other. He let me take his picture then ran off. If you live near deer, you know that if you see one, there’s more nearby, and sure enough, I walked right up to this beauty who’d been scoping out the scene before following his friend:

With a whole island devoted to it, President Roosevelt has a lot more features to his memorial than Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. There is a statue in the middle surrounded by several monoliths bearing quotes from the man. This is the “nature” monolith:

A bridge. While here I encountered TOURISTS! From Nashville! I don’t encounter them as often after moving out of DC and I have to say, they are a lot more pleasant to be around when they are milling around a mostly deserted island and not FAILING TO STAND TO THE RIGHT on the metro. :)

There was water in the moat that goes around the memorial …

… but none in the two bowl-shaped fountains:

Here’s the statue, although what I was really taking a picture of was the glowing leaves in the tree.

The compressed version of the following photo makes the wording hard to read, but the text of the sign is as follows:
TRASH FREE PARK
Trash cans are not provided in this park.
Please take your trash with you when you leave.
Carry in, Carry Out

Random capitalization of the last line aside, THAT SIGN IS CLEARLY LYING.

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