Preparing the produce with which she will fill 1,000 jars is tedious, but for canner Gerry Kovatch it’s worth it to be able enjoy home grown vegetables the year round
This time of year, people know where to find Gerry Kovatch.
The 67-year-old Town of Cedarburg resident will be working hard in her kitchen, canning vegetables, jelly and mustard of all kinds that could last years and benefit those in need.
But Kovatch doesn’t always play by the canning rules.
After 30 years of practice and experimentation, she has learned some tweaks and tricks to add flavor and pack in the produce.
Pickles and zucchini, for instance, are supposed to be sliced long-wise. But Kovatch cuts them up if she can’t fit them into the jars, like two zucchini in her garden which she said are the size of baseball bats.
“You have to get them the right size. That’s the pain,” she said.
They taste just as good, she said, and she plays with some flavors and ingredients. Purple basil or pineapple sage sometimes replace basil and mint, and cauliflower gets added to bread-and-butter pickles.
“You learn. You study things,” Kovatch said.
Kovatch learned to can by watching her mother-in-law and by reading canning books. When mixing flavors, she uses expertise from the Wisconsin Herb Society.
“It seems to work. I never poisoned anybody,” she said with a laugh.
The Kovatches started canning in 1975 when they lived in Wauwatosa. They moved to their present home in 1994.
Kovatch’s work is cut out for her each year as her husband John has a quarter-acre garden filled with homemade trellises and raised beds.
Before canning, the garden is the first monster to tackle. After an inconsistent crop of sweet potatoes one year — some were big and others tiny — the Kovatches installed a drip irrigation system which Gerry said “is worth its weight in gold.”
Animals provide another challenge. Deer like to devour a portion of sweet peas, and the Kovatches’ 11-year-old cocker spaniel, Little Annie, takes out the other. Sometimes, Annie will pick her own tomato, take it into the house, drop it and howl with pride. Then, she gobbles it up.
“She eats her share,” Gerry said.
Last year, rabbits took to the smorgasbord of produce, but Gerry said this year hawks in the area have limited their population.
A former Master Gardener, John uses row covers in the garden which allows for sunlight and water but protects plants from bugs and rabbits.
Tending to the garden and its annual 2,500 seedlings takes work, but he enjoys it.
“Sometimes it’s nice to come home after a day at the office and do something mundane like pulling weeds,” John said. “It’s actually relaxing.”
The Kovatches’ menu of canning items reads like that of an entire produce department, including potatoes, winter squash, brussel sprouts, beans, tomatoes, eggplant, zucchini, cucumbers, onions, peppers, garlic, dill, mustard, lettuce, chard and rhubarb.
After picking the vegetables, Gerry washes them and cuts them to size. She puts them into jars, puts on the lids and seals them in a water bath. Her canner can fit eight cans at a time. Different recipes take different lengths of time to seal, but most are 10 to 15 minutes, she said.
Canning itself isn’t so bad.
“The worst part is the preparation. Chopping, chopping, chopping,” she said.
Gerry used to use a pressure cooker, but like many others, she didn’t like the risk it posed in exploding.
“I think most people are afraid of the pressure cooker,” she said.
Lids are another issue. She used to have to boil lids first to make them seal, but hers weren’t working to the point where she called the company that made them.
She was told lids today just need to be warmed up, not boiled.
“I had to go buy more lids. That’s what was so frustrating,” she said.
In crunching the numbers, Gerry said she fills about 1,000 cans per year, including mustard and jelly.
“That’s amazing. I didn’t realize that,” she said.
“We’re prepared for the end of the world,” she said with a laugh.
Many of her products go to the Food Pantry in Port Washington, and others go to family and friends. Gerry puts together a basket of items for a fundraiser at the American Legion in Grafton, which she said always goes for a lot of money.
Gerry said her favorite item is the bread-and-butter pickles with cauliflower, and she said she can eat pickled garlic like candy.
“There’s nothing like fresh stuff,” she said, “and you know what’s in it.”
Even before she tastes it or gives it away, sitting back and looking at her work is satisfying, not to mention the box full of ribbons she has won over the years from the county and state fair.
“I think it’s the accomplishment,” she said. “You see stuff in a jar. I did that. It looks as good as stuff in the store.”
The Kovatches’ “store” is the annual seed catalogs John checks out each year. He likes to try different vegetables like purple potatoes and purple beans.
“It’s a way of life for us,” John said.
Gardening and canning are not significant money savers. John said seeds can be expensive.
“You don’t garden to save money. You garden because it gives you fresh food,” he said.
But when John comes home from work, he enjoys a martini and a plate of fresh vegetables. He said it’s the highlight of his day.
There’s a bonus beyond the satisfaction of growing his own food.
“And it tastes so much better, too,” he said.
For those looking to start canning, Gerry said it takes commitment.
“It’s not for everybody. You have to enjoy it,’ she said. “That’s why a lot of women my age don’t do it. It’s a lot of work.”
Gerry recommends looking online for instructions on how to can and for recipes. And, she said, break the rules.
“Don’t be afraid to experiment,” she said. “Cut up the zucchini.”
Image Information: When they grow too large, Gerry Kovatch cuts up vegetables to make them fit in canning jars. Kovatch fills about 1,000 cans per year at her Town of Cedarburg home. Photo by Sam Arendt