Nothing captures our local harvest like the simple, humble word "can." It conjures up jars of velvety tomato sauce; gem-like blueberries; pickles standing straight as sentries in a salute to summer. Once the art of survival, canning is now an artful access to this season's flavors through the year.

"The best way to eat well and eat locally is to preserve the foods that grow here," says chef Lucia Watson, whose restaurant Lucia's, in Uptown Minneapolis, is known for its locally sourced fare. "You just don't get the same flavors from commercially processed foods," she noted in a recent class on small-batch canning.

New resources are making it easy for cooks interested in preserving foods but didn't grow up with a grandmother to show them what terms like "water bath" mean. "The Fresh Girl's Guide to Canning and Preserving," by Ana Micka, a vivacious gardener and local foods advocate, is just out from Voyageur Press. Micka taught herself to preserve food more than 10 years ago. These days her backyard garden in St. Louis Park supplies her family with most of their produce needs throughout the year. She relied on childhood memories of her grandmother pickling, canning and making jelly on her southern Minnesota farm.

"My dad used to say, 'If you can read you can cook,' and so I read everything I could about canning," said Micka. Then she wrote her book on it, which includes info on pressure canning as well as hot-water-bath canning. The book, which is as lovely as it is useful, also contains a helpful DVD.

The benefits of canning

At a recent canning demonstration at Lucia's Restaurant, Watson held up a basket of corn, tomatoes, peppers, onions and chiles. "Canning and preserving ensures you've got the freshest ingredients for the most flavor. You can control the amounts of sugar, salt and other ingredients; no worries about chemicals you can't pronounce in your food," she said.

"Open a jar of corn relish or blueberry jam on a subzero day in January, and you're right back to sunny August. What better way to mark the seasons? Come June, grilling a burger, you realize you're down to your last jar of corn relish, but you know that in a month, the new corn crop will come in. Eating this way keeps us connected to these cycles," Watson said.

Watson demonstrated Ball's Home Canning Discovery Kit, available in area stores. Its contents -- three pint-sized jars with lids, a canning rack with a handle, and a booklet of simple no-fail recipes -- may be all the inspiration (and equipment) anyone needs.

"Some cooks are afraid that they have to face buckets of tomatoes and make gallons of sauce all day in 95-degree heat, but that's just not true," Watson said. "Smaller batches are quicker, less daunting and give better control over taste. It's easier to season a small batch than a huge one, adjusting for kick in the chilies when making salsa, for example."

Watson reviewed the basic three steps to successful canning, all covered in Ball's recipe booklet, "Beginners Guide to Canning." The company that makes Ball jars -- Jarden Home Brands, based in Daleville, Ind. -- has been a resource for U.S. cooks for more than 125 years. The kit's primary feature is a rack that fits easily into any large stockpot (71/2 inches tall by 91/2 inches across). It's a nifty way to lift jars from the bubbling water after they've been processed, far easier than trying to grip them with slippery, awkward tongs.

Plan ahead and be ready

"Be sure to have all the ingredients prepped in advance," advised Watson. "That way, things will go really smoothly. Wash the jars so they're warm, and you're ready to go." The booklet provides clear guidelines with illustrations and photos to show how to fill the jars leaving the right amount of space between the food and rim (or "headspace"); how to remove air bubbles; clean, seal and then process the jars in boiling water for the appropriate times.

It's all in accord with U.S. Department of Agriculture canning guidelines. The booklet's recipes range from classic dill pickle sandwich slices to apple cider butter. All are time-tested and very specific.

Sure, the prepared jellies and relishes on grocery store shelves make the labor of canning obsolete. But the quality in most is lacking and they are not cheap. For a little time and effort, the rewards of canning are big -- a cupboard stocked with the real tastes of summer.

Beth Dooley is a Minneapolis author and cooking teacher.