Thursday, June 16, 2011

"Love" in Jars

Most of my oldest friends as well as all of my family know that one of my oldest passions is preserving fruits and vegetables via jamming, pickling, chutney-ing, buttering or soaking in booze. I have an on going journal of my efforts that started too many years ago to bring up now.  A simple bread and butter pickle from my friend Sue Wasson's mother or grandmother got the Ball jars rolling. I cooked from Sunset Magazine's "Home Canning" book as well as the Ball Jar "Blue Book". I also cut numerous recipes out of the Chicago Tribune and later the San Francisco Chronicle newspapers.  Chevron gas stations gave out a really neat book called "A Guide to preserving food for a 12 Months Harvest".  Once you start to "put up" you are totally hooked. I don't remember when I bought pickles or jam last. My precious jars were given away at Christmas to numerous thankful people. A few close friends always had my jams and pickles in their cupboards no matter what time of the year it was. I really think it is in my genes.  Growing up, my Aunt Mernie canned everything. She had a stove in her basement where she processed the jars. I wasn't invited to partake and I totally understand as I have to do it solo myself. You get into a rhythm that works and you don't want any distractions. My Mother had a shelf halfway down the basement stairs that Dad built that held some really scary looking jars of, like, whole peaches, plums and unidentfiable fruits that were soft and mushy.  I dreaded the opening of those jars but somehow they tasted pretty good with ice cream over them but not in a bowl for breakfast..yuk!  My Aunt Mernie did not make those. She used to make pickled watermelon rind, strawberry jam and later when she moved to Florida a dynamite mango chutney among other goodies. These days I don't have the large circle of friends or family nearby so I pretty much have a few basics that I keep in my pantry.  Never without Chili Sauce, B&B pickles, Ancho Chile Ketchup and assorted jams. If I get some really good blue lake green beans (like the ones I used to grow in my garden) I pickle them with dill, garlic and chiles.
When I ran a large catering kitchen in San Francisco, I introduced a pantry full of condiments that I believe are still made to this day.  We used up leftover fruits and vegetables in chutneys and pickles but also made from scratch many tasty sauces, preserves and fruit vinegars.  Now I roast and freeze tomatoes instead of canning quarts of them. I don't get into "brandied" fruits anymore or conserves and relishes. Trust me when I say I have stuff that is way past the recommended storage time. For the most part they are just fine as the seals are as tight as a drum. What they loose is the bright fruit taste. It is sort of like really old wine that has mellowed into "pruney-ness" or sugary tartness.  Marmalade is way better when it is aged and dark. Sometimes I just open a bunch of jars and make a generic BBQ sauce!  Works for me and no one needs to know.
I follow a few really good blogs dedicated to preserving in jars, Tigress in a Jam, Tigress in a Pickle, Hitchhiking to Heaven, What Julia Ate and Food in Jars.   I almost started a canning blog but realized that two blogs are more than I can handle as it is and these gals are doing a fantastic job of keeping the art current and keeping me in the loop with other canners. One woman, Shae from "Hitchhiking to Heaven" enters her jars in the Marin County Fair.  She just wrote a blog about the process for successfully presenting your preserves to Judges and it is brilliant. Many years ago I entered a number of my relishes, pickles and jams in the San Francisco City Fair.  It was a rather loose affair with not too many rules. Bring jars by a certain date, labeled. Come back for the awards ceremony and hopefully pick up ribbons and cases of Ball Jars ( the prizes back then).  This was a total 1980's "Foodie" event with Chef demonstrations, wine tasting and many of the latest kitchen gadgets as well. I can't remember exactly what I was doing but I think I was helping Tante Marie's cooking school with a booth. Anyway it came time for the preserves to be judged. I got a little closer to the stage as I saw a number of my jars with ribbons on them.  Just then out came a guy dressed up as a huge pickle with a bunch of other "little pickles" dancing around.  He was to give out the awards.  I turned around and ran out of there. No way was I going up on that stage with a "Dancing Pickle" in front of my peers and fellow serious "foodies". Later the person in charge wondered where I was. Hmmm, hiding? I picked up my jars and ribbons and went home. I kept the ribbons hanging in a closet until we sold our house and moved to where we live today.  I was pretty proud of winning but at the same time it wasn't as serious as I thought it would be.  I think I should have been less "serious".  The entered preserves were Blackberry Relish, Peach Marmalade, Spicy Bread and Butter Pickles, Brandied Apricots and a few others that I don't remember.

Here are two really good tried and true recipes to think about when you are wandering around the Farmer's Market or happen to have someone's backyard tree to procure fruit from.

Perfect Strawberry Preserves or Jam

1/2 flat of small sweet strawberries (Chandlers if you can find them), washed and stemmed
 This should yield 6 cups
3 C. Pure Cane sugar

If the strawberries are a bit on the large size, cut in half. Combine berries and sugar in a stainless or ceramic bowl. Let this stand all day or overnight. In the evening or early morning transfer mixture to a large enameled or stainless pot ( I use my Dutch oven). Bring to a boil and let sit again all day or overnight, covered. This plumps the berries.  To finish, boil hard until 218 degrees on a candy thermometer or until it is set when dribbled onto a cold little plate.
Note: to make a smoother jam, crush the berries before boiling them up. 
Fill 4 half pint jars, stir with a chop stick or small knife to release any air bubbles, carefully clean the rims of the jars and seal with lids. Water bath for 10 min.

One day a case of "distressed" Royal Blenheim Apricots showed up at the kitchen door and the purveyor asked if I could use them. I tasted one and said "sure"! They were small and pitted but sooo sweet.  We made quarts of this Apricot butter that we turned into sauces for pork or chicken, a filling for cookies and cakes or just put into little bowls on a brunch buffet with scones and bisquits.

Spiced Apricot Butter
4 lbs. apricots
6 cups pure cane sugar (more or less)
2 Tbsp. whole coriander seed
1/2 nutmeg
1 Tbsp. whole cloves
2 3" cinnamon sticks
1 lemon
Cut apricots in half and remove pits. Place in a large stainless or enamel pot and crush slightly. Cook over low heat until soft, stirring occasionally so they do not scorch. 

Press through a sieve. For each cup of pulp add 1/2-2/3 cup of sugar, depending how tart the apricots are.  Make a bouquet garni with the whole spices ( tie them up in a piece of cheesecloth).  Add to pot along with the cinnamon sticks.
Cook briskly until the puree thickens into a butter.

Finish off with the juice of the lemon and, if you want, finely grated zest.  Fill either 4 quart jars or 8 pint jars and water bath as directed by the jar manufacturer. I boil the quarts 15 min. and the pints 10 min.

This year was a bumper crop of Apricots so I froze some for future apricot-cherry crisps. Sooo good for a brunch dish. I don't know why but I LOVE to take pictures of apricots! Maybe it is because they have such a short season or the colors are so appetizing. If I were an artist I would paint a picture of them strewn out on a wooden table.