Preserving feeds your soul as well as your family

  • By Jan Roberts-Dominguez
  • Wednesday, August 10, 2011 12:01am
  • Life

Why do I can? Why DO I can?

For my ancestors the answer was simple: to survive. To ensure that not even a single morsel from the harvest would go to waste.

But these days few folks rely on a full pantry of home-canned goods to see them through the lean months. Although, my husband — only half serious at the time, of course — once observed that if we were canning all that we ate, “then everything would be right with the world.”

The “we” of course, is me. Both sides of me. Practical Me — especially during that lousy hour of cleanup at the end of a preserving session — is constantly telling Enthusiastic Me to knock it off. Sometimes Enthusiastic Me grudgingly complies.

Briefly.

Until the next time she sees her husband eagerly open a fresh jar of Peerless Red Raspberry Preserves and slather a healthy scoop onto his morning toast. Or when it’s August and Enthusiastic Me’s inner clock begins ticking down the few short weeks she has to put up enough of my Damn Good Garlic Dills to see family and friends through the winter.

Then she shows Practical Me the door.

In the wonderful little novella, “Blue Jelly,” by Debby Bull, a former Rolling Stone writer, the main character gets dumped by her boyfriend and finds salvation in canning. Says Bull’s heroine: “Canning may sound like a strange path out of the dark woods of despair … but when you’re really depressed, you have to do something that takes you out of the drama, that makes you detach from the big world and become kind of a tiny, controllable world, like one of berries and Ball jars.

“Just because this last thing didn’t work out and your heart is smashed, it doesn’t mean that all of your dreams will end in a big mess. Canning demonstrates this principle. Canning is a whole world of a thing to do. It requires that you get out of your head. It’s a zen thing.”

Then there’s real-life Rick Rivers. He’s a Texas-transplant living on the Oregon coast who took up canning for the whacky fun of it. I did a story on him many years back and was charmed by his experimental nature and fearless approach to the activity: “You shouldn’t be afraid of preserving. Most of the products you’ll be preserving are cheap enough that you should just keep trying until you get it right. But most of the fun is in just doing it. Don’t be afraid to try something new. There’s too many scared people in America today because there are so many unknowns in our system. But as long as you stand up and do something new and are proud of yourself, you can do anything.”

And then there’s my friend Joan. Her foray into food preserving began the year she had run out of ideas for Father’s Day. Her father had everything. She remembered the time her aunt made brandied peaches for her brother, Joan’s father. “How he loved that gift! He held that jar, just sort of sat there and kind of hummed to himself before he even ate them.”

Well Joan figured that was something she could pull off. So she started reading up on brandied fruit recipes. When she got to the part in the directions where you are supposed to dump the sugar and brandy into the jar with the fruit, she knew she had found her calling: “Dumping is something I’m real good at.”

That year Joan shipped 24 jars of brandied cherries to her lucky father in Michigan and hasn’t looked back.

Pure and simple, preserving is all of that and so much more. A mid-summer rite. A way to connect with your pioneer heritage. A mental release from the daily grind. Perspective. A satisfaction of that most primal instinct, which is to squirrel away bounty in the good times for the days when winter is pounding at the door.

When I worked out the method to make this jam a few years ago, I was aiming for an offering that would be richly flavored, with the barely-soft consistency that lingers between a true preserve containing visible chunks of fruit, and a jam, which is more of a thick-textured puree.

Because there is no commercial pectin added to the jam, the gel is a result of the interaction between the pectin inside the fruit, the fresh lemon juice and the granulated sugar.

So unless you want to end up with apricot syrup, do not reduce any of these components. It may seem like a lot of sugar, but really, by traditional jam-making standards, it is completely appropriate.

Jan’s ultimate apricot jam

4 pounds of ripe apricots (see note)

6 cups (2 pounds, 8 ounces) granulated sugar

1/3 cup strained fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons butter (reduces foaming during cooking)

Equipment:

Candy thermometer

8 half-pint canning jars with 2-piece lids

Halve the apricots and remove their pits. Cut each half into quarters.

Layer the apricots in a large non-aluminum bowl with the sugar. Drizzle on the lemon juice, then gently stir and toss the mixture using large spoons or a rubber spatula, to thoroughly disburse the sugar into the apricots. With the help of the lemon juice, the apricots will begin to release their juice and the sugar will begin to dissolve.

Cover the bowl with foil or plastic wrap and refrigerate for one to several hours, stirring occasionally to encourage the sugar to dissolve.

When ready to proceed with the recipe, wash 8 half-pint jars. Keep them hot until needed. (I place a clean kitchen towel on a baking sheet in a 170 degree oven and store the jars there until needed.) Prepare 2-piece canning lids as manufacturer directs (If using Ball canning lids, this means that you place the rings and lids in a pot, cover with water, and heat just below the boiling point. Let stand in the hot water until ready to use.).

Scrape the apricot mixture into a large, wide, heavy-bottomed pot. (My pot is 12-inches wide and 5-inches deep, which is just about perfect! You want a pot that is wide enough to encourage rapid evaporation of the water in the fruit, and deep enough to tolerate a vigorous rolling boil.)

Add the butter and bring the mixture to a boil, then adjust the heat to a hearty simmer that can’t be stirred down and cook, uncovered, for 15 minutes, stirring almost constantly with a teflon spatula or flat-ended wooden spoon to keep the jam from scorching on the bottom. Don’t worry about all the foam that’s produced during this phase, most of it will disappear toward the end of the cooking, thanks to the butter. Whatever foam remains when you’re ready to spoon the jam into the jars you can simply scrape from the surface with a spoon.

After the 15 minutes of cooking, you have to use a bit of judgment so you can determine if the jam is reaching the “jelling point,” which is the point where jam turns from fruit in sugar to a substance that will thicken when cooled and stay thickened.

For this particular apricot jam, I’ve found the jelling point to be about 218 degrees at sea level. Higher altitude must be taken into consideration. Use the following guidelines: 218 degrees at sea level to 1,000 feet; 214 degrees at 1,001 to 2,000; 212 degrees at 2,001 to 3,000 feet; 210 degrees at 3,001 to 4,000 feet; 209 degrees at 4,001 to 5,000 feet; 207 degrees above 5,000 feet.

If you want to hone your preserving skills, try to recognize the visual cues: Once the surface begins to look very “glisteny” and the bubbles seem larger, thicker and shiny, the jelling point is getting close.

When the jelling point is reached, remove the pot from the burner and let the preserves sit for about one minute if there is any foam remaining on the surface of the jam. Most of it will be absorbed back into the jam. Skim off any foam that has not settled back into the mixture.

Ladle the hot preserves into one hot jar at a time. Wipe rim with a clean, damp cloth. Attach lid and ring, turning firmly for a good seal (the jar will be very hot, so use a pot holder or towel where your hand comes in contact with it).

At this point, the jam may be stored in the refrigerator (after an over-night cooling session on your counter) for up to 12 months without the quality suffering.

For long-term storage at room temperature, you will need to process the jars in a boiling-water canner for 10 minutes (at 1,000 to 3,000 feet, process for 15 minutes; for 3,000 to 6,000 feet, process for 20 minutes; above 6,000 feet, process for 25 minutes). Using a jar lifter, remove the processed jars from the boiling water and let cool on the counter undisturbed overnight.

Note on apricots: Pectin is a naturally-occurring substance in fruit. There’s more pectin in under-ripe than ripe fruit. So for jam-making purposes, it’s helpful to include some under-ripe apricots.

Makes 7 to 8 half-pints of jam.

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Ore., food writer, artist, and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.

Freezing fruit for jam

If you want to make jam this year, but can’t keep up with the various seasons for our favorite Oregon fruits, consider freezing the fruit mixture when the fruit is in season, then making the jam at your leisure weeks or even months down the road.

Still need to be convinced? Consider this: last year I prepped 3 batches of my favorite apricot jam recipe (the recipe follows). I had washed, quartered and pitted 12 pounds of the apricots, divided them between 3 large bowls, added the 6 cups of sugar and 1/3 cup of lemon juice to each bowl, and set them aside so the juices could develop for an hour or two. Then I had to leave town unexpectedly. Before heading out I spread a layer of plastic wrap down on the surface of each batch, then added extra layers of plastic wrap and foil around each preparation and put them in our chest freezer. I was pretty sure I’d be able to get back to the process in a couple of weeks.

Well, I didn’t thaw the mixtures until this last May. With fingers crossed I proceeded to make the jam and it turned out fabulous! Even the color was vivid and beautiful. My only quandary now is how to label the jars. Is it 2010 or 2011?

Convinced? Here are a few more tips:

For jam recipes like my Jan’s Ultimate Apricot Jam as shown below, where commercial pectin is NOT used, measure and prepare the fruit according to the recipe, then combine with the measured amount of sugar and lemon juice. Store in air-tight freezer containers or plastic pouches, clearly marked with the date frozen, contents (one batch of jam, with sugar and whatever else is called for in the recipe). Make a note of what steps will need to be taken once the mixture is thawed. In most cases, all you will have left to do is scrape the thawed mixture into the preserving pot, bring to a boil and proceed to make your jam.

For jam recipes using commercial pectin, I prefer freezing the fruit alone and adding the pectin later on when you’re ready to make the jam. However, because freezing alters the volume of fruit (it expands when frozen, and collapses when thawed), you need to pre-measure the amounts of fruit to coincide with your jam recipe, then clearly mark the amount on the package. If you don’t pre-measure prior to freezing, and don’t have a scale to weigh the fruit after it’s thawed, it’s better to at least measure the fruit while it’s still frozen and then do a little guess work. For example, if the recipe calls for 3 cups of berries or cut-up fruit, figure on each cup being a “heaping cup.”

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