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Liddie’s Traditional New Mexican Dishes: Canned Cherries

Canned cherries. Photo by Liddie Martinez

Video showing how to prepare canned cherries. Video by Liddie Martinez

Espanola Valley

My husband, Rick, sent me a text asking if I wanted some cherries a couple of weeks ago. “And it is!” I responded. I don’t think that I know anyone who would have said no. One of the things I love about Rick is that he is always thinking of others. On the drive down from the Pajarito Plateau through the canyon and along the pale green river bank, I thought about how lovely it would be to eat a few cherries while watering my plants in the evening. When I got home, there were three lugs of cherries waiting on the counter – over 50 pounds! Gotta love Rick!

This, of course, meant I had a few days of additional work – not that I am complaining. We were fortunate enough to find some cases of quart-sized mason jars at Big Rs in Alamosa a few months ago when we went to pick up a generator Rick had ordered. With all the supply chain issues still in full swing we had been unable to find jars in our region so, when Rick spied them, we stocked up.

One of the beauties of food preservation is sharing or bartering with friends and neighbors. Back in the day when my grandma was a girl, it was the way of the region to trade goods and services as their isolation and lack of public transportation made shopping a thing of dreams. Grandma showed us how to preserve food at a young age, both canning and dehydrating required skills. As personal refrigeration was still a rare privilege and the crops we had grown all summer could last until the next harvest, it was necessary to know what to do to preserve our food. During the early days of COVID, when the shelves at the supermarket were bare, we opened our doors to friends and family and invited them to shop in our pantry – nobody went hungry in our larger circle. Our hearts swelled.

For me, the biggest chore in canning cherries is pitting them. The year before last I pitted using a paring knife – despite using gloves, my hands were dark burgundy for days and it was very tedious work. I could have ordered a pitter, easy enough, but out of sight – out of mind and here I was again with the same tedious task at hand. I decided to try a different method. I used an empty wine bottle and some straws. The technique worked but the straws were not up for the volume of work. I needed a stronger plastic or better, a metal straw. I searched the house and found that a gutted ball point pen might do the trick. In the end, that was the right tool. Just remember to sterilize it in boiling water for 15 minutes before use.

There are also a few special items you will need to can besides jars, lids and rings (or bands). Always use new lids. They are only good for one use and should be thrown out when the jar is empty so that they do not get reintroduced to the new lids on reserve and mistakenly used again. They will not seal and your food will spoil. Jars and rings can be reused while in good shape. If rings get dented, replace them and do not use any jars that have nicks or breaks – you will have a huge mess to clean up or worse, spoiled food. You will also need a jar lifter, a canning funnel and a magnetic lid lifter. You can use regular tongs but I highly recommend that you don’t. Boiling water can be a hazard and using the wrong tools increases your chance of a mishap. A large, covered canner is also the right pot for this job and is sized correctly to maximize time and space. Example: each canner can accommodate 7 quarts to process at one time; one lug of cherries is 17.5 pounds of cherries which equates to 7 quarts.

I use the hot pack method because when you raw pack (add uncooked cherries to the jars and fill with hot syrup before processing), the cherries shrink leaving too much space and liquid in the jar.

  1. Place jars standing in canner and fill with water to one full inch above the jars. Bring to a boil, then cover and reduce to simmer while you pit.
  2. Place lids in a small pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes.
  3. Prepare a large bowl with a ½ gallon of cold water and a ½ teaspoon of ascorbic acid. You can also use the juice of one lemon. You will drop the pitted cherries into this solution as you pit to keep them from discoloring.
  4. Pit 17.5 pounds of cherries removing both stems and pits in the process.
  5. In a large pot combine 5 ½ cups of sugar with 8 cups of water. Keep in mind that you can adjust the sugar based on the sweetness of the cherries. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer and time for 5 full minutes.
  6. Drain cherries and add to hot syrup. Bring to a boil again then turn off heat and skim foam.
  7. Fill jars with fruit and juice leaving ½ inch of head space.
  8. Clean around the opening of the jar with a hot, wet towel and seal lid with ring.
  9. When jars are filled and sealed, place in canner and cover with lid. Bring pot back to boiling then set timer. For elevations up to 6,000 feet process in boiling water for 30 minutes. For elevations above 6,000 feet, add an additional 5 minutes. If needed, add additional boiling water to keep at least 1 inch above jars.
  10. Remove from pot with jar lifter and set on tea towel to cool on counter. Make sure there is at least one inch of space between jars. Do not disturb for 24 hours.

You may have some syrup left when the jars have all been filled- don’t throw it away! Can it and keep it to flavor summertime cocktails or make a homemade Shirley Temples for your nieces and nephews or grandchildren when they come to visit. They will love it! Just use a couple of tablespoons in a glass over ice, fill with Sprite and add a few cherries.

Makes 7 quarts.

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