Put a lid on it: Torito chef Luis Valenzuela teaches Toronto the art of canning

This Saturday, Relish Yo’ Mama is kicking off a series of canning workshops at the St. Lawrence Market Kitchen, including a tutorial conducted by chef Luis Valenzuela of Torito. We caught up with the tapas master — who learned about canning while seeking to preserve Canada’s various seasonal delicacies — to chat about canning, cold weather and Canadiana.


Tell us about the canning event you’re participating in on Saturday. What can visitors expect?
It’s for the Compost Council of Canada and it’s linked to the Soupalicious event. The event is called Relish Yo’ Mama. Basically what I’m going to be doing is teaching people how to properly can peaches, and also I’m going to teach them how to make a peach wine with the juices instead of just throwing that away. Most of the jarred stuff that we use, we end up just using the fruits or vegetables and not the liquid. But that liquid has a lot of flavour and so I want to teach people not only how to preserve the peaches, but then how they can use the liquid itself later on.

What appeals to you about canning?
When you can stuff, not only do you preserve stuff for the winter, but you get to play with flavours.

So what’s an example of creative flavouring you might employ?
Well, for example with the peaches, you might add a little bit of vanilla, cinnamon and a bit of bay leaves. There are tons of applications. You can do them with vodka if you want to, and I like to use the peels of citrus fruits when I’m canning, they add so much flavour. The other benefit of canning is that you can continue to use the summer fruits you love throughout the winter months. It’s a good option and a good technique to continue to pass on to younger people.

Why do you think it’s important for younger people to learn this skill?
I think due to the readiness of food everywhere, younger people don’t care as much for the old traditions like curing, canning, cheese making … but I think it’s really important that we keep passing along those traditions, because it’s a way of passing stories, an art which is becoming extinct. You can’t absorb information just by reading it, you need that human factor. Canning connects me with the past, even though I’m a young guy. Just to imagine how people came up with preserving, that itself is pretty exciting.

Did someone in particular teach you about canning or did you become interested in it on your own?
On my own. I come from a hot country, so preserves and curing are very minimum, there’s no need for it, because we had fruits and vegetables year-round. But I really liked it when I came to Canada, especially with rhubarb vegetables and fruits I’d never seen before. It was really comforting in the winter months to have jams and jellies. I think it could become a Canadian symbol — we could can stuff with maple syrup! The fact that it’s not something that I grew up with allows me to be a bit more creative. There are no rules for what should I be canning and what shouldn’t I be canning — it’s whatever comes to mind.

How important is canning in your role as a chef? Do you use preserves in Torito’s menu?
Yes, we do! We use them the most in the winter. In Ontario we have three to four months when everything becomes available. You go to the market and you don’t know what to choose because there’s so much of everything. More often than not we end up over-buying stuff, and Torito is a very small restaurant, so we often can’t get rid of all that food. So canning is a great tool when we have a couple boxes of plums. One of my cooks today said, “We have so much okra, what should we do?” And I said, “Ok, we’ll can them!” And it’s a great thing to do with leftovers at home too.

So, if you were planning for a long winter, what would be the first things you’d start canning?
Most important: onions. I would also can some baby cucumbers. A lot of fruits. They’re really good, whether sweet or savoury, you can do so much with them. Those would be my staples. Oh, and carrots, because I like them.

Relish Yo’ Mama, St. Lawrence Market Kitchen, July 16. $35

Article exclusive to STREETS OF TORONTO