The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday, but never jam today. – Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, AKA Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
I’ve decided to start calling this month Junuary.
We’re more than half-way through the year, and so far, we haven’t gotten past spring. Which I’m actually OK with. I don’t long for the heat. In fact, I loathe summer weather (which is probably why I’ve never moved away from the Bay Area, where it rarely gets above 75 degrees, and when it does, we cease complaining about the cold, and start complaining about how unbearably hot it is). But I will say that on the rare occasion it does get warm around here, nothing makes my day faster than a drive through Berkeley on Interstate 80, Journey’s The Lights blaring from the car radio (it has to come on by chance – no cheating with the iPod), the sun setting behind the Golden Gate bridge, windows down, hair flying everywhichway, and me still salty from a day on the north coast.
I would totally wear that perfume from Seinfeld.
So I stand in my kitchen, radio on, wearing a wool sweater and flip-flops, contemplating turning on the heat in June (or maybe just put on a scarf, because lighting the pilot light freaks me the hell out), and daydreaming of another halcyon day of softly carpeted hills and seaside cliffs indicating we live on the edge in a more than figurative fashion around here. It feels like it may be forever away.
The one plus to this scenario is that there is a continued abundance of spring fruits and vegetables in the market, which made their welcome appearance in April, right when I had reached the point of not wanting to look another butternut squash/sweet potato/dark leafy green in the face. See, I refuse to pay top dollar for lame-ass strawberries in December, or blackberries that have been carted halfway around the planet just so I can “enjoy” their lackluster flavor in February. And there are only so many times you can eat pumpkin risotto before you think about breaking up with it. Permanently.
And here’s where I admit that I have a secret weapon to a dull winter diet based on starchy vegetables, grains, and (my BFFs) butter & olive oil. One that keeps me in seasonally procured fruits throughout the short, twilit days of autumn, provides me with palate-zapping pickled green beans in November, and the bright spark of lemon in September (citrus is a winter crop, folks).
See, there was a day when there wasn’t a corner store that had peaches (no matter how flavorless and inappropriate) in January. There were no pickles unless you made them in July. No kimchi unless you buried that pot in the field your damn self in June (you do this with it, btw). No grocery store available to pick up that extra bottle of wine, jar of tomato sauce, or can of cherry pie filling. Winter was just a vast expanse of time filled with fruits and vegetables that could survive in cool storage in your cellar until the buds arrived in April, promising the return of something, anything, other than apples.
Unless you planned. Answered when opportunity knocked. Invested (a small amount) of time and money to ensure that when you needed it most, that jar of summer was available to you for just a turn of the wrist and pop of the lid.
There are about a million ways to preserve food. And, while each culture has it’s preferred method (nomadic cultures tend to use smoke because you can build a fire anywhere, coastal people lean toward salt, etc. and so on), Americans tend to lean into “canning” (which isn’t really canning, because, jars). So until you are ready to give up a closet to a pork leg for a few months, for our purposes today we’ll focus on how to keep yourself in the fruits of summer throughout the year in form of jam, one of the easiest and most straightforward methods of preservation.
I love jam. More specifically, I love well-made, soft, and jammy jam. I’m of the opinion that most commercially made “jams” are actually fruit cheeses (it’s a thing), stiff and unyielding, which is a direct result of the (actually pretty damn sensible) commercial guidelines regarding mass food preservation in regard to temperatures, cooking times, sugar content, etc. However, if I have a choice, my spoon is headed for the jar with that distinctive ring/lid combo, indicating that I’m about to hide some homemade goodness in my belly.
And the thing about homemade jam? If you follow a few rules regarding sugar/fruit ratio, are thoughtful about the type of pectin you use, ensure the fruit you start with is of high quality (garbage in, garbage out) and pay (close) attention to sanitation, you almost never make a clunker.
Let’s start with the ratio of fruit to sugar. While there is only one way to make jam (cooking down fruit, sugar, and any additional flavorings you wish to add such as orange zest, fresh herbs, spices, etc. until they are of a proper consistency), one of the ways in which you can control the end product is to decide how sweet you would like the resulting jam to be. The best jams are cooked quickly, with the least amount of sugar possible. Most people use a 1:1 ratio (because it’s easy to remember? Or because the fruit isn’t ripe enough?), weighing out the fruit and then weighing out an equal amount of sugar. I however, prefer a less tooth-achingly sweet preserve, and use a .75:1 (or .5:1 if the fruit is already sweet – make sure you taste it before cooking so you know what you are getting yourself into and can adjust as needed) ratio of sugar to fruit, which provides you with the chemical reaction needed for preservation and texture, but still allows the fruit to shine through.
The best part of understanding the ratio is that you are now freed from recipes and making jam in massive quantities. Do you have a few baskets of strawberries that are going spare? Just slice them, weigh them out, add 3/4 (or 1/2) of that weight in sugar to the pot, a little water (just enough so that the sugar looks like wet sand) and cook it down with a squeeze of lemon (and maybe, just maybe, a little bourbon). You’ll get a jar or two out of that, and if, like me, you intend to eat it right away (under cover of night, with just a spoon), you don’t even have to process it if you don’t wish it to be shelf-stable.
A second area to consider when making jam is pectin. Pectin is naturally occurring in all fruits to some degree, and is required in jam making to provide the “set”. You can choose to add commercially made pectin to your jam, or you can make a jelly from green apples (a bit more time consuming), but I prefer a third option, and rely almost exclusively on lemon juice to give me the necessary amount of firmness to my jam. My choice is different if making jelly (I go with the green apple jelly option), but for jam, I don’t need a hard set, and lemon juice gives me the soft, supple texture I’m looking for.
Thirdly, you’ll want to be conscious of the quality of the fruit you are using. Jam isn’t for fruit that isn’t ripe, or about to hit the compost pile. Making jam is a lot like cooking with wine. If you wouldn’t eat it raw (drink it from a glass), you don’t want to cook with it. Listen up, because I’m about to lay some cooking wisdom down for you:
You don’t want to start with substandard fruits because all you are going to do is cook them down, or reduce them, to a more concentrated version of themselves, and if the flavors aren’t pleasing at the start, they sure as hell aren’t going to be pleasing in the end. No amount of cooking is going to produce some magical event that makes bad fruit taste good here. Look for fruit that is heavy for it’s size (indicating that it has fully ripened), is intensely flavored, has a good outward appearance (they don’t have to be picture perfect, but they do have to look nice), and smells like it should (if you get a little high from that bowl of mangoes, well, I won’t tell).
Lastly, you need to follow some rules regarding sanitation, particularly if you plan to process (usually in a pot of boiling water) the jam jars to make them shelf stable. Start with a clean kitchen (bleach your counter tops, work surfaces, and sponges, clean your sink well, and sanitize all jars, lids and implements), and read up a bit on how to can here and here before you get going.
Speaking of getting going…
I may be the only person on the planet with a preserving hero. Christine Ferber is an absolute legend, and her jams make me want to use words I really don’t like. Words like “slather” and “luscious” (because, c’mon, those words are gross). But use them I do, because I swoon at the thought of her formula for peach & lavender honey preserves, willingly make jar upon jar of green apple jelly which gets me one step closer to her white cherry and raspberry preserves, and go miles (MILES) out of my way for just a few jars to cram into my suitcase here. (There is also this lady, who is doing some wonderful things as well.)
And this brings me (and you) to my favorite of all time, her rhubarb/rosemary preserves. I can only make this once a year, when rhurbarb’s fleeting season is in full swing. Long before strawberries are done, rhubarb has left us with just a memory of her Mae West, salty/sweet, harsh and unyielding until the right one gets their hands on her at which point she melts into a soft and forgiving creature ways.
So get yourself some rhubarb, honey, sugar, rosemary, and lemons and make yourself some, before she slips away. Maybe pop this or this on for good measure.
Rhubarb with Honey and Rosemary Confiture
Adapted from Christine Ferber’s Mes Confitures
You will need
- 1 large pot (ideally, a copper preserving pot, but it’s not necessary, any large, heavy-bottomed pot will do)
- 1 metal spoon
- 1 sharp knife
- 1 large bowl
- 1 sheet of parchment or wax paper
- 1 strainer
- 1 dozen canning jars
- 1 thermometer
- 2 3/4 lbs rhubarb
- 2 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 7 oz (by volume) honey
- Juice of 2 lemons
- 5-10 sprigs of rosemary (use more/less according to your taste)
Rinse the rhubarb under cold water. Slice in half lengthwise, and then into a small dice. Put into your large bowl along with the sugar, honey, and the juice of one of your two lemons. Mix it up really good (either with your spoon or your clean hands). Wad up the parchment or wax paper, and then uncrumple and use it to cover the rhubarb mixture (put it right against the surface of the fruit). Let it sit (macerate) overnight in the fridge.
The next day, strain the juice from the fruit and pour it into your preserving pan of choice. Bring to a boil, and skim any foam off the top and heat until you reach 221 on your thermometer. Once that temp has been achieved, add the diced rhubarb and bring back to a boil, skimming carefully. Add the juice of your second lemon and the rosemary, and boil for another 5-10 minutes (I cook mine a bit longer, allowing the rhubarb to break down). Remove the rosemary (and any loose nettles that may have come off the sprigs). Pour jam into sterilized jars and seal according to USDA/manufacturers guidelines.
Goes great on well, everything.