On Tuesday, June 19, I joined 14 other women, two instructors, and one courageous young man at the Artisan Kitchens and Baths upstairs showroom to learn how to make strawberry jam. Upon entering the space where the class was being held (the location where the Nickel City Chef competitions are hosted), the first words out of nearly everyone’s mouths were, “can I live here?” If you haven’t been inside this space yet, your inner chef is missing out. Whether you’re a culinary genius or you just like experimenting a little in the kitchen (or you simply like looking at shiny things), this space could very well be the Mecca for Buffalo foodies.
However, we weren’t really there to admire the gleaming countertops and stainless steel appliances galore; the evening did have an educational purpose. This was one of the first of Lexington Co-Operative Market’s series of “Prepare to Preserve” canning classes, where members and non-members alike can sign up to spend two hours learning to make their own preserves under the watchful eye of instructor Kathy Manley. With the help of her partner, Heather Lazickas, promotions and education coordinator at Lexington Co-op, Manley walks her students through the basics, from necessary equipment and pre-canning prep, to ingredients, and every last detail of the canning process from start to finish. Manley never misses a beat, giving you step-by-step instructions and plenty of anecdotes from her many years of experience to help you recognize and avoid common mistakes.
This year will be the fourth season of canning classes offered by the Lexington Co-op. “The idea came from our owners,” said Lazickas. “People wanted to learn how to can. At that point it was coming back into popularity. We started out slow with a couple of classes and now it’s expanded a lot.”
For $18 ($15 for Co-op owners), you can attend one of the classes and learn how to preserve any of the myriad fruits and vegetables that are in season. The schedule, which is available on the Co-op’s website, goes all the way through the month of October, covering everything from strawberries, to pickles, peaches, beets, salsa and giardiniera. The best part: all of the produce is sourced locally.
“We get the produce through whatever local vendors and farms we are working with at the time,” said Lazickas. For example, the strawberries used in last Tuesday’s class were purchased from Dan Tower Farm in Youngstown.
Unfortunately, the unusual spring weather has made for a tough fruit season for many local farmers. “The spring has pretty much decimated our fruit crop,” said Manley. “Farmers had seven frosts to make it through.” With so many frosts killing off a great deal of the fruit blossoms, supplies are more limited than they have been in past seasons. So it’s in your best interest to take advantage of one of these classes while the getting is good, in case you do decide to put the lesson to good use and stock your pantry with local preserves.
While two hours seems like a decent amount of time, the class flies by. After introducing you to the various equipment involved and explaining the canning process, Manley splits the class into groups and puts you to work measuring ingredients, crushing fruit, and boiling the jam before pouring it into jars, sealing it, and polishing up the finished product to be shelf-ready. Although the process is simple enough, Manley and Lazickas make sure to walk you through it step-by-step, moving at a comfortable pace and answering any questions that pop up along the way. With our class of about 15 people (they cap their classes at 20 people to keep them manageable), there were plenty of hands to make light work and great conversation.
“It starts this whole conversation about local foods, which is neat,” Lazickas said. With our group, everyone had some insight to offer from their own kitchen or those of their families. “It’s just a lot of fun,” Lazickas added. “Some people come and take the class and they’re never going to can again, but some people come and make strawberry jam, then go on to make apricot jam, peach jam, and they really enjoy it. It’s kind of an opportunity to connect with your food, and you can learn to preserve locally.”