posts tagged with 'preserves'

the best jam is quick jam

Sometimes I feel that I like having made jam more than I actually like making it. There are lots of things you need to have in place: all the fruit, the jars and lids, pectin and sugar, boiling water... Actually, as I type them it doesn't seem like that much. But it can feel overwhelming! Especially when I've gone picking and have a big pile of berries in the fridge, slowly—or quickly!—going bad while they wait for me to get my act together. So last week I tried a new plan when I picked a pint or two of raspberries that nobody wanted to eat (because there were also blueberries), and made them into jam right away within half an hour of picking them. Revolutionary!

Sure, it was only 3/4 of a pint, but that meant that I didn't have to worry about boiling water in the kettle to preserve it—just a couple little jars to put right into the fridge. And without the extra cooking that processing involves the jam tastes even better. The boys may have rejected the raspberries, but they're big fans of the finished product! Now I'm just wondering if I'll get a chance to practice the same kind of efficiency with the blueberries...

pickles!

We like pickles at our house. When they're part of a meal we're limited to one each, because our production levels don't support the kind of consumption that we'd have absent that rule (I know the damage the boys can do from those times when they have free access to a jar of store pickles at my parents' house!). Still, we try and make a lot each summer to last us through the rest of the year. Yesterday morning our entire stock was limited to three dill spears in one jar in the fridge, so it's a good thing that we have cucumbers growing. Yesterday we picked enough to make the first few jars of 2020 pickles.

four quart jars of pickles on the picnic table, cucumber vines in the background

the finished product

Sadly, the cucumber plants are also suffering from what probably is bacterial wilt. Besides the 13 or 14 pickling cukes we processed yesterday we've had four or five delicious slicing cucumbers to eat, so the planting wasn't all in vain. And we'll probably get more before the plants succumb entirely. But it's so sad to see such a promising row of big healthy plants—plants just covered with flowers and baby cucumbers—melt away into nothing we can eat. Farming is a hard business, especially when you're bad at it like I am! Oh well, at least I can console myself with a single pickle at suppertime.

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failure mode

Last week we picked lots of crab apples. Then on Monday Harvey and picked them over to get rid of the yucky ones, and then I washed them and pulled the stems out, and after the boys were in bed I put them in a big pot with some water to start cooking them into crab apple jelly. It was exciting, since we didn't have any crab apples last year, and the boys really like the jelly. But I shouldn't have started the cooking late at night, because I didn't give the pot my full attention, the water boiled away, and the apples burned. All ruined. I've had plenty of thoughts about why it happened—things I did wrong, and unexpected characteristics of the apples—but that's not important. What's important was how much it felt like a crushing failure. As tired as I was—if I hadn't been tired I would have done a better job!—I couldn't go to sleep: my mind kept running over this failure, other failures... the notion that everything I ever try and do is a failure. You know, things like that.

But then not all failures are as crushing. My Monday morning baking of sourdough was much too slack to rise properly—instead it just spread out all over the sheet pan. Since I wasn't baking for any particular purpose I just glanced at it from time to time and passively wondered what I'd do with the disaster. Throw it away? Try and reshape the dough into a couple of pizzas? Just bake it anyway? Then the correct answer occurred to me: focaccia. All it took was a little oil and some rosemary, red onion, parmesan, and salt, and I turned a failure into a gourmet treat!

some bread with stuff on it

it looks fancy too

Sadly, the crab apples—the second failure of the evening—weren't so easily twisted into something positive. The best I could do with them was the compost bin. It's not nothing, but it's pretty far from a year of delicious jelly, and enough to give away too. It was seriously a blow, one that I'm still feeling pretty down about. I think I need more sleep.

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tomato soup

I made tomato soup this afternoon. I never did before. I was intimidated by the concept—like I had no idea how to even begin to turn tomatoes into soup. As it happens, it's not that hard: it's basically just regular soup without carrots or celery and with tomatoes. If it weren't for the existence of Campbells I would have figured it out years ago.

I'm not saying my tomato soup was the best ever—the kids didn't like it (in my defense, they pretty much categorically don't like soup, especially when there's also grilled cheese sandwiches available). I used some of the barbecued turkey stock Leah made from the Bernstein Thanksgiving bird, so there was a distinct smoky flavor to the end product which may be a good thing or bad depending on your tastes. And it ended up kind of thin; Katie tells me I could have thickened it with bread crumbs, which would be fine because we have lots of bread crumbs around here.

Anyway, all that is to say if you've never made tomato soup before and feel like having some, go for it. It's a great way to eat up some of those canned tomatoes you put up in the summer that you don't have any other way to eat. Wait, I'm the only person in the US who cans tomatoes and doesn't know how to make tomato soup? (or tomato sauce, for that matter)? Oh well, never mind. For reference, I based my soup loosely off this recipe, the first non-spammy result for a search for "tomato soup recipe". I might even try it again some day. But not soon; there's still plenty of this batch left.

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a lot of work for three pints

Sometimes I feel like I have a love-hate relationship with canning. I love having done it, but the actual doing is sometimes challenging—and specifically, the initial effort to get started. Luckily I have Leah in my life, because if she knows something needs to get done she will make it happen. Even if it's something dumb like putting up the first big harvest of paste tomatoes.

I have four Roma plants in this year, and they're doing great; it's a good year for tomatoes. And I like to pretend I need to preserve food to get us through the winter. With the tomatoes the pretense is especially thin, because taste-wise they're certainly no better than what you get in a can (though I suppose the fact that they're organic and BPA-free and all is worth something...). But as I say, I like the idea so after we finished a batch of bread-and-butter pickles Leah and I peeled, cored, and diced our three-four quarts of tomatoes, which all packed down to three little pints to go into the water bath canner. Oh well, they're pretty pints!

I often imagine what it would be like if we had the time and space to really grow all we needed to eat, at least in the area of tomato products. Maybe when the kids are a little older I'll do enough to get into a rhythm, like back in the day when there was three days of just canning tomatoes and then it was done (though I don't know how they managed to get them all to ripen at the same time). As it is now we're a little more low-key about the whole thing. After slicing and salting the cucumbers, we took a couple hours off from the process to visit the pond. Because it's still summer, and while late summer is all about tomatoes, it's also all about getting in as many beach trips as you can while it lasts!

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jamming

pint jars of strawberry jam on the porch railing

the first of 2016

I made the first couple batches of this year's jam yesterday evening: strawberry and strawberry rhubarb. Leah hulled and mashed all the strawberries just after we picked them and the weather had turned delightfully cooler in the afternoon, so it was about the most pleasant jam-making possible. But I didn't even make it through half of the strawberries we picked, so it'll be back to work again later today!

elderflowers

As I mentioned the other day, two years ago we planted two little elderberry bushes. They were just little things their first year, in real danger of being destroyed by kids playing ball, but the next year they shot up wonderfully, and produced lots of flowers and then berries; only I didn't know what to do with them. This year the yield looks to be double what it was a year ago, and even though I still don't know what I'm doing I went ahead and cut the latecomers among the blossoms for elderflower syrup.

an almost-full quart of elderflower syrup

finished product

We followed (roughly) the recipe on this page. The first step was pulling all the flowers off their stems, and Harvey and Lijah set to the task with a will.

Harvey and Elijah stripping elderflower clusters

one more helpful than the other

(OK, so Lijah was more interested in eating the flowers, but he was still totally part of the process.)

I'm not clear what I'm going to do with the syrup, besides give it away (two half-pints already gone!), but I tried some in some soda water and it was pleasantly refreshing. We'll make more next year.

Naturally, the flowers we picked means that many fewer berries from the plants. But there's no shortage, so in a month or so there will also be elderberry syrup and jelly available for interested parties.

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fall tropical

We've had a couple frosts here, so the big plants in the garden are pretty much done. The funny thing is that the very late stages of our growing season are the best time for harvesting warm climate crops like hot peppers and tomatillos. Not that they like the cold weather—they just need a long growing season to really get going, and now after three or four months they're finally hitting their stride, just in time to be killed by the cold weather. Oh well. It means that garden cleanup in October brings in a big pile of tropical Mexican produce!

why didn't I do this before?

two pint jars of strawberry jam posed on the porch railing

good-looking jam

I first made jam in 2007, I think, and since then I've branched out some in the recipes I made... but not too much. I don't get that many chances to put up each kind of fruit, and I don't want to mess up and not have any strawberry jam for a year. So I've stuck to tradition, and also to Sure-Jell pectin (and its Certa liquid pectin partner). A few years ago I heard about Pomona's Universal Pectin, but I discounted it: a box was more expensive than a box of Sure-Jell and I figured that it was hippy stuff that couldn't work as well as a more scientifically formulated product from a real American company like Kraft Foods.

I know, right: what was I thinking?!

After my mom made freezer jam with some last year—and even more, gave me the rest of the package that she didn't use—I figured it was finally time to give the hippy alternative a try. After all, I had a ton of strawberries to work with! Plus as I get old I start to be able to learn a little bit, and I figure after seven years I should be able to tell when jam is cooked enough to set.

So the first superior thing I noticed about the Pomona's is the flexibility of the recipe. With Sure-Jell you need to measure the exact amount of fruit and the exact amount of sugar, and boil for exactly 1 minute—all of which (except maybe the sugar) is impossible in actual real life. So they're setting you up for stress right from the beginning. With the Pomona's pectin the instruction booklet starts out by encouraging the user to experiment and come up with new recipes; for the printed ones they tell you to use somewhere between 3/4 and 2 cups of sugar per 4 cups of mashed fruit. Or substitute another sweetener, something else that won't fly with Sure-Jell. Or use no sugar at all and cook it longer. And hey, why not double or triple the recipe? (another Sure-Jell no-no). The fact that Marissa (of Food in Jars) uses Sure-Jell means that it really must be more flexible than the included recipes suggest, but the fact that the printed material sets out to hold you to the One True Way doesn't make for a relaxed jamming experience; how different the easy-going ways of Pomona's.

And then there's that sugar itself. The Sure-Jell recipe for strawberry jam calls for 5 cups of mashed strawberries and a startling 7 cups of white sugar. It makes a tasty jam, and one that sets up well and is a beautiful strawberry red in the jar, and I made it happily for years; but 7 cups of sugar is a lot. It fills a large mixing bowl when you measure it out. It's hard to maintain my alternative credibility when I'm feeding that much sugar to my family. To step down gradually from my previous sugary excesses (and to stretch the strawberries into as much jam as I could get) I used the maximum amount of sugar called for in the Pomona's recipe, but that still amounted to only 4 cups of sugar to 8 cups of strawberries. Much better.

And then, also, it works. Not having an exact recipe made me pay more attention to the jam in the pot, and I was pretty conservative in cooking down the fruit before adding the sugar and pectin. But the overall cooking time wasn't much longer than what I'm used to, and the jam set up very nicely: a little bit of a softer (more "jammy", as they say) set than I'm used to, but certainly a product that will stay in an open jar held upside down. That it's tasty goes without saying.

So my only disappointment is that I waited so long to make the switch, and I'm sure looking forward to more jamming this summer!

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update

The beginning of my vacation was marred slightly by illness and oh-too-hot temperatures. Still, we did a good deal of swimming and some heavy duty relaxing, not to mention picking a whole lot of strawberries, so it couldn't have been all bad. But today both of those problems were better and I celebrated by baking two kinds of bread and putting up three batches of jam. Leah worked hard too, getting us all packed up for our first out-of-state outing since last summer... and the first trip ever beyond the northern New England states for either of our sons. Upstate New York, here we come! More about that anon.