Saturday, July 28, 2007

Sour Cherries and Currants: Glowing, Glowing, Gone

They are the precious jewels of summer. Sparkling, transparent, rare and ruby-red, they’re the gemstones of July: sour cherries and red currants. They literally glow from the side of the road—there’s no mistaking them for raspberries, even from a distance—and then they’re gone. One week, two weeks, three if it’s a very good year.
They’re scarce as well as short-seasoned, too, making them all the more prized. Only a few varieties of sour cherry are generally grown in the United States today, principally Montmorency, in contrast to scores of cultivars only 50 or 60 years ago. Both sour cherries and red currants are highly perishable, sometimes sticky-oily to the touch, moisture-laden, and medium-soft (in contrast to the firm eating cherry), and while currants sometimes appear in conventional markets here (a fortune for a tiny ¼ cup, mere tablespoons), sour cherries never do. The commercial crop of sour cherries, grown primarily in Michigan, is raised for processing, packed in water or syrup. Pity, because a canned sour cherry is a faint sister to a fresh—and has added food coloring, as well. This leaves us searching, waiting by the side of the road, where a few farmers or local residents, most with old trees, pick them and sometimes share them with us, supplicants for a quart for cherry pie. And search you must, and make your needs known: believing there’s no demand for them, some country people with old trees don’t even bother to tend or pick them anymore. (Haying seems to coincide with the appearance of the cherries, I’ve noticed; if you see mowing and bailing going on, it’s time to look for cherries). Currants too are sometimes left unpicked because, well, they’re a pain to clean —all twiggy and tangly—and bunches and bunches yield only miniscule amounts (hence the price when you do find them in a market). They also have tiny seeds which, somewhere along the way, Someone decided that people don’t like, aiding their disappearance from the market despite their being a hardy and relatively easy crop to grow. I once was so desperate for currants that I told an elderly couple whom I knew had some among their other berries that I would just buy the branches, and clean them myself, which I did.
One consequence of this scarcity is that many people don’t even know what these fresh fruits are anymore, they’ve been absent from standard use for so long (Yet they’re both all over Europe! The first time I went to Paris, in the ‘70s, I was amazed to see the glowing little boxes of currants and cherries lined up like infantry along rue Moffetard). The other day, when picking up sour cherries and currants, which sat neglected alongside the raspberries everyone else was buying (thank goodness), a woman of around 70 said to me as I picked them up, “And what are those?” This is pretty surprising, especially for sour cherries, because they are in fact the fruit that defines our notions of the color and the taste of “cherry.” Think about it: a nearly black bing cherry is not the taste of “cherry” as in cherry cough drops or cherry cola, or the color of cherry lipstick, is it? Sour cherries are where all cherry-flavored and colored things, all things cerise, come from. One look, and taste, tells all. Currants too come in red and black, and likewise have different tastes and textures (pink or white currants, also very pretty and still scarcer, are similar to red). Red currants have a bright, snappy-tart, sweet-acid taste.
Both sour cherries and red currants make quintessential summer pies and preserves, primarily for their unique vibrant tastes that shout “Fruit!” and their made-in-heaven match with a good flaky crust. Red currants have the additional benefit of being high in pectin, making it a classic for jelly (which also deals with “the problem” of the seeds); preserves made with sour cherries will need an acid such as lemon or need to be combined with a higher-pectin fruit.
Here is a straightforward recipe for a cherry pie; a currant meringue pie or summer pudding; and sour cherry-currant preserves, the best of both worlds. As for freezing either sour cherries or currants, even in syrup? The texture and color changes render them inferior for pie or other relatively unadorned uses, such as a topping for ice cream. But frozen cherries in a light syrup are serviceable for cooked sauces, smoothies, and the like—should you be so lucky to find enough to freeze. In any case, you’re better off making jam and freezing that; it actually improves with storage.
To pit sour cherries: Using the nail of your thumb (my preferred tool) or the looped end of a small trussing skewer (don’t even think about buying a “cherry pitter”), pry the pit from the stem end; also pull away any bruised areas. Do this over a bowl to catch the juice.
Sour Cherry Pie
They’re not called “pie cherries” for nothing: here you find their true calling. Most sour cherry pie recipes call for almond extract, which, even when it is pure and natural, I don’t particularly like. I use best-quality 100% vanilla extract, a soul-mate with cherries. Many recipes also call for tapioca, which I reject. Like blueberry pie, you don’t want this too gummy or too gelatinous, but getting the perfect balance between fluid and gel is tricky. With experimentation, I’ve settled on a combination of flour and cornstarch for thickener. The fruit itself is a big factor, so don’t despair if your pie is a little runnier than you like; far better than stiff and rubbery. Serves 6.
2 cups flour
¾ tea salt
6 T cold unsalted butter
4 T lard or shortening
5-6 T ice water
In a food processor, pulse flour and salt. Drop in cold butter, and pulse a few times until pea-sized; drop in lard, and pulse again a few times until mixture is coarse and crumbly, with a few larger pieces of fat still visible. Through the feed tube, add 3 T ice water all at once with the motor running, then add remaining water, a tablespoon at a time, pulsing only until the dough comes together into a ball. Remove, divide and shape gently into two discs, and refrigerate while you make the filling, or overnight.
5-6 cups fresh sour cherries, pitted
scant 1 ¼ c sugar
1 T lemon juice
1 tea vanilla
2 T flour
2 T cornstarch
2 T unsalted butter
Heat oven to 400 F. Gently mix the pitted cherries, sugar, lemon juice, vanilla, and flour and cornstarch in a large bowl. It will make a lot of juicy liquid, even with the starch. Remove pastry and roll out to about 12-13”; fit one loosely into a 9” pie plate, and cut the other into ½” strips with a pastry wheel or sharp knife (you can use a ruler, but don’t bother unless you are entering a contest). Pour the filling into the pie plate and dot with the 2 T butter. Working from the center, weave the strips into a lattice; I lay all the “vertical” strips, starting with the center one, then weave outward in two directions from the center of the pie. Trim the overhang of both pastry layers to within an inch of the plate rim; tuck them under (to sit on top of the rim), and crimp. Chill the unbaked pie about 10 minutes, then bake in the preheated oven for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to 375 and bake another 30-40 minutes, until crust is golden and the juices boil up and begin to gel. Let cool completely before cutting or you will have a river of juice!! Vanilla ice cream is nice.

Currant Pie
As in the photos, you can also bake this in small blind-baked tartlet shells or in ramekins, and serve it as an old-fashioned summer pudding. This makes an 8” pie; you can use the above crust, dividing it accordingly and freezing the rest for a larger pie. Making this with all currants is equally fabulous, but because 3 cups of currants are not always that easy to find, I often combine them with raspberries, and that is how I’ve written this down. It is adapted from a very sketchy, somewhat different one handwritten in pencil in the “Notes” section in the back of one of the old cookbooks I collect, dated 1939. I’ve made a number of changes to proportions, and added my favorite spice, cardamom. Serves 4.

1 ½ cups red currants
1 cup raspberries
¾ cup sugar
2 T flour
1 T cornstarch
1/4 tea cardamom
pinch of salt
2 egg yolks
2 T water
2 egg whites
1 T sugar
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Gently mix the currants and raspberries with the sugar, flour, cornstarch, and cardamom. Lightly beat the egg yolks with the water and stir it into the berries, blending well. Pour it into buttered ramekins or a partially blind-baked crust (8-12 min at 425 F, cooled). Bake the filling 15 minutes; remove to a rack, and reduce the oven to 325 F. Beat the egg whites with a tablespoon of sugar until it forms stiff peaks but is still moist and shiny; spoon it over the top of the still-warm filling, spreading it to touch the crust or the sides of the ramekins. Bake another 15 minutes at the lower heat. Cool.
Sour Cherry-Currant Preserves
Currants, which are high in pectin, add both flavor and body to this jam. I first made this years ago, when I had cherries and not enough currants to do anything else with. A nice outcome. With or without currants (add lemon, if not), sour cherry jam is special. In addition to spreading it on toast, it is excellent stirred into European-style plain yogurt or vanilla ice cream, and served with cheese and meats, particularly on sandwiches. Makes 2 8-oz jars plus a little extra.
1 cup fresh currants, stemmed
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup water
2 ½ cups pitted sour cherries (about 3 cups before pitting)
2 cups sugar
pinch salt
5” piece fresh stick cinnamon, broken in half
8-10 cherry pits, cracked, and kernels removed
In a small saucepan bring currants and the ¼ cup each of sugar and water to a boil; cook a few minutes, until the fruit breaks down into a mush. Line a measuring cup with a double layer of cheesecloth, and pour the currant mixture in; twist the ends (do not squeeze the contents or the juice may become cloudy) and latch them over the handle, allowing the juice to drain into the cup and keeping it above the liquid. This should yield about ½ cup.
Pit the sour cherries, reserving some pits to dry. Put the cherries in a 3-qt slope-sided pan with the remaining sugar and the salt and cinnamon. Bring to a rolling boil, then reduce heat just a bit and boil, skimming only the true foam from around the edges, for about 12 minutes or until it sheets off the spoon. Remove from the heat, pour into clean jars, and add a few kernels to each. Seal. (To crack cherry pits, wipe off any remaining pulp, and put them in a small baggie. Crack gently, so as not to smash the kernel itself, and separate the kernels from their shells; discard the shells.)

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Blueberries: Native Treat

Blueberries are one of the few fruits native to North America. Classified as a heath like the cranberry, the highbush blueberry, the most common of the commercial cultivars, thrives in wetland regions and tolerates harsh winters. The wild lowbush blueberry—that small, intensely flavored, and increasingly elusive and expensive berry—grows only in the brushy forest understory of Eastern coastal states, and only a trickle comes to market fresh: less than 1% of Maine’s production, for example. They are a true New England treat. Blueberries are, of course, beautiful: purple-y blue-grey, a touch of iridescence and attractive powdery white bloom, and a
charming little ruffle at the blossom end. But we all know that, in this world, looks increasingly are not enough. Nutritionally, blueberries— particularly the little wild ones—also have greater antioxidant capacity per serving than any other fruit. They are, so I am told, a rewarding plant for the home gardener, particularly the larger, highbush variety. And they are a versatile talent in the kitchen.
While peak harvest is generally July—which is National Blueberry Month—blueberries have been a little late this year in our area. One reason is the weather, a late spring frost. But one can only wonder to what extent the disappearance of the bees has had or may have an impact, particularly to the prized wild berries. The blueberry crop is pollinated by zillions of honey-bees, many of them imported by growers of cultivated berries specifically for the purpose. If the bees go, will the blueberries be far behind? Try to contemplate a world without fresh wild blueberry pie, spilling out on a white plate on a hazy summer’s day.
Blueberries are high in pectin; with added acid such as lemon, they are excellent for jam and preserves. Because of their gelling qualities, be careful when making blueberry pie not to use too much starch to thicken the juices, or you will end up with a gummy mass that, moreover, eliminates two of the most special qualities of blueberry pie: its syrupy juiciness and the loose, combined-but-separate, slightly popping texture of the berries. Pies are certainly a favorite way to eat them, but blueberries are extremely versatile fruit. Color, size, and a blooming appearance, plus a taste that, at their best, is a combination of sweet, spicy, and tart, put them at home in a wide range of sweet and savory dishes. They combine well with other berries and with both stone and tropical fruits; are good raw or dried in cereals and salads; are yummy with cream and sugar or over ice cream with a little liqueur or aged, herbed balsamic; make delicious cornbread, pancakes, muffins, jams, smoothies, and syrups; are good stirred into yogurt or cottage cheese or baked in bread puddings and custards; and make nice sauces and condiments for meat and poultry. I use them a lot.
I’m particular when I buy them, though. Like all mass-cultivated fruits that are available year-round and may look pretty good, blueberries vary almost as much in quality as they do in uses. Taste before buying; if you shop at a market, I give you permission to open those little plastic containers and try—or, if that doesn’t seem right, ask the produce man if you can taste one. The worst sin, commercial or local, is a mushy texture; this can be present even in a berry that looks plumply presentable, and is irredeemable. Sour (not tart) taste is next; it suggests the berries have been picked green. Don’t buy either. Insipid taste, perhaps the most common flaw, is a little more forgivable, because you can compensate for blah quite a bit within your recipes by adjusting, for example, the sugar, or by adding spices or citrus.
When you do find, usually locally, a good spicy blueberry, buy as many as you can get your hands on, and freeze any that you do not use right away (but be sure to make at least one pie or crisp or small batch of jam first). Frozen blueberries can be used interchangeably with fresh, without thawing, when making muffins, pancakes, steamed puddings, beverages, sauces, smoothies, and syrups. To freeze: Place berries on a sheet pan, without washing; keep them separated. Freeze until hard, then place into zip-lock bags, removing as much air as possible, and then into another zip-lock bag. I recommend bagging in 1-cup portions. They will keep for up to a year—indeed, I hoard at least one bag until May, so as not to be without blueberry pancakes.

It’s July, though, and while local berries are available, I’ll be baking with as many as I freeze, particularly for breakfast. All good breakfast items share certain characteristics: they are quick to assemble; are made from a few, usually handy, ingredients; and strike the right balance between rich flavor and light texture: a good real muffin (subject of a future post) or sour-milk pancake (see May 6, 2007 post) fits this bill. So does a good breakfast cake, cobbler, buckle, or crisp. Here is one of several blueberry breakfast cakes I alternately bake, like a fond parent unable to choose among her offspring, all summer. And, because you can’t have too much of a good thing in summer, a simple blueberry crisp, yours from start to spoon in a bare half-hour.

Jane’s Rhode Island Blueberry Breakfast Cake I
(Serves 6)
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups blueberries (mine are from Boughs & Berry Farm in Little Compton)
1 cup sugar
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¾ cup whole milk
2 large eggs
¼ tea salt
¼ tea each cinnamon and cloves
1/8 tea freshly grated nutmeg
½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
heavy cream, preferably unhomogenized
Heat oven to 375 F. Butter and lightly flour an 8” square pan. Sift flour into a medium-size bowl; remove a few tablespoons and toss in a small bowl with the dry blueberries and spices. Sift the sugar, baking powder, and salt into the flour and combine. Measure the milk into a glass measuring cup, add the eggs, and beat until blended. Pour the milk/egg into the flour/sugar mixture and blend until flour just disappears; add the spiced and floured blueberries and fold in carefully with a wooden spoon until the additional flour disappears. Pour over the batter the ½ cup of melted butter (it should be completely liquid and still slightly warm—I use the microwave to melt it), and fold and stir it in gently with the spoon until it is completely incorporated, but don’t overdo. Pour the batter into the pan and bake in the middle of the oven for 35-40 minutes, until a toothpick comes out clean but the cake is only lightly browned and does not pull away from the sides. Cool on a rack for about 10 minutes, cut into rectangles, and serve in shallow bowls with heavy cream poured over. If there is any left, keep covered with foil on the counter; reheat for just a few seconds in a microwave.

My Favorite Blueberry Crisp (Serves 4)
2 generous cups blueberries
juice of half a lemon
½ cup a-p flour
¾ cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
¼ tea mixed ground cinnamon, cloves, and fresh-grated nutmeg (i.e., a few shakes of each, a few twists of the nutmeg mill)
¼ tea salt
4 oz (half a stick) unsalted butter, softened
heavy cream, preferably unhomogenized
Preheat oven to 400 F. Butter a small gratin or other baking dish (a 1-2 qt capacity). Put the dry blueberries into the dish, squeeze over the lemon, and toss. In a small bowl, put the flour, salt, spices, and packed brown sugar—do not break it up. Add the soft butter and, with a fork, quickly incorporate the butter to blend and form loose crumbs. Sprinkle over the berries. Bake about 15-18 minutes, until brown and juicy. Let cool on a rack for 10 minutes. Serve in small bowls with, you guessed it, heavy cream poured over.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Green Tomatoes

Local tomatoes from the hothouse are available, and they are not bad. But they’re not the same as field tomatoes, are they? While we wait—or while you wait for your own garden tomatoes to ripen—green tomatoes have their own charms and uses.

Raw, green tomatoes are tart, even a little sour, and crunchy hard, almost like apples. These characteristics are, perhaps, what led frugal housewives to try them in a pie. Or perhaps their flavor, which reminds me of nothing so much as pumpkin. In any case, green tomatoes make very nice pie, either just sliced thin with sugar and traditional pie spices, double-crust or crumb top, or in the form of green-tomato mincemeat. Mincemeat, which contains lots of sugar and vinegar, is a preserved product—and green tomatoes do make fine pickles and relishes too. Pickling is a good option for the fall “crop” of green tomatoes, picked before the first frost.

I like green tomato pie. But I love fried green tomatoes. While both of these are often associated with Southern cooking—reinforced, perhaps, by the very enjoyable “women’s” movie Fried Green Tomatoes and the book on which it was based--they are old New England foods. I fry up a few green tomatoes early every summer here in Rhode Island, using our justifiably famous Rhode Island jonnycake cornmeal (see May 12, 2007 post and sources to left). Fried green tomatoes have a wonderful soft-firm texture and unusual, pure country flavor. They make an eccentric BLT or, with or without milk gravy, a nice side dish for homey meat and poultry dishes. Actually, I sometimes eat them on their own for lunch. I use the same basic recipe whether for a sandwich or side dish.

Rhode Island-style Fried Green Tomatoes

A touch of brown sugar takes the edge off green tomatoes, and adds dimension to a BLT made with a good smokey bacon. (Serves 4-5 as a side dish) 

4 medium-large unblemished green tomatoes
½ cup RI stoneground white flint cornmeal
¼ cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
¾ tea salt
few twists of the pepper mill
6-8 T unsalted butter
2 T fresh basil, snipped or chopped

Heat oven to 250 F. With a serrated knife, cut tomatoes into ½” slices and pat dry. On a sheet of wax paper, combine sugar, cornmeal, and salt and pepper with your fingers. Turn the tomato slices over in the mixture, pressing down to coat. Heat about 2 T of butter in a large skillet over medium heat and place in as many tomatoes as will fit without crowding. Cook slowly, adjusting the heat down if necessary (remember, sugar scorches easily), until a golden crust forms—3-5 minutes. Turn carefully, trying not to disturb the crust (not always possible; push it back into place), and cook another 3-5 minutes, or until the tomato yields to pressure. Add additional butter a bit at a time as necessary to keep pan bottom coated. Remove tomatoes to a plate and keep warm in the oven while you cook the next batch. You can eat them as is, sprinkled with a little fresh basil and additional salt and pepper if you like, or serve with this gravy or make yourself a green tomato BLT:

Milk Gravy for Green Tomatoes
Into the brownings of the pan in which you cooked the tomatoes, place another T of butter and, when it melts over medium heat, sprinkle in about a T of flour; stir with a wooden spoon. Slowly add a cup or more of milk (or half milk, half buttermilk) to make a fluid gravy. Season with salt and pepper and, if desired, a touch of nutmeg. Don’t worry about a little graininess from the cornmeal, or if the buttermilk (if using) seems to separate or even curdle a bit—it will all come together. Keep the heat moderate.

Green Tomato BLT

I like to use that Rhode Island favorite, the top-split hot dog roll, for this sandwich (but it’s not-for-first-date messy to eat, so use sliced bread if you like). Grill the sides of the roll in a little butter. Fill the insides with a little mayo (June 17, 2007 post) or thousand island dressing (as in the photo, a combo of homemade mayo, ketchup, chopped dill pickle, salt, and pepper), the fried tomatoes cut in half, cooked bacon, iceberg lettuce—local and virgenally white and crisp right now—and, if you want, a few large basil leaves. Yum. Use any extra dressing for an old-fashioned iceberg lettuce salad.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Commemorating the Revolution: Radical Preserving (An Introduction)

For today, I was going to talk about the traditional Rhode Island 4th of July dinner. Though nowadays people have burgers and hotdogs and chorizo, or steamers and lobster, there was a time when the 4th in Rhode Island meant poached salmon with hard-boiled egg cream sauce; the first new potatoes, boiled and buttered (late this year); and peas—English, or garden peas, which have just appeared locally this week (they’re wonderful and surprising, with anywhere from 4 to 10 peas in a pod that you can press to pop open with great satisfaction). A sucker for the old ways, I have often made this meal for the holiday, with a few updates to the sauce, and it is very good indeed. But let’s face it: the 4th is supposed to be about revolution, not the status-quo. We’re commemorating our newly declared independence, not our enslavement to tradition. Somehow, talking about poached salmon lacks the proper spirit of the day--the fierce radicalism of the Boston Tea Party, or the wild genius of one-if-by- land, two-if-by-sea followed by Paul Revere’s ride to Concord, where “the shot heard round the world” was fired “by the rude bridge that arched the flood.” By a farmer, appropriately.

So it seemed fitting today to introduce the subject of preserving, about which I have strong, somewhat radical opinions. (I see my friends and relatives snickering in the corner—so what else is new?) Preserving is something I love to do, but in my own--I like to think well-reasoned--way. I have chafed at the sovereign rules of the Department of Agriculture, my King George, and rebelled, and thrown most of them overboard; my kitchen labors will not be taxed without cause. I’m free now, and my preserves are, in my opinion, better for it.

Like all revolutions, my personal journey to radical preserving was gradual—an accumulation of small frustrations, injustices, and recognitions. I started preserving in earnest during the 1970s when I lived on the Monterey peninsula in California, elbow-to-elbow with our nation’s “salad bowl,” the Salinas Valley, and a short ride from Watsonville, the berry capital of the world. My memories of picking strawberries for 25 cents a pint (that’s $2.00 a flat), and raspberries for 45 cents, are vivid. The fields went on forever, and the olaliberries (35 cents), a mostly blackberry and raspberry cross, were as big as your thumb.
At first, I dutifully followed recipes that made giant batches of jams, butters, preserves, pickled and spiced fruits and vegetables, herb and fruit jellies, relishes, you name it. I processed them when called for (the ‘70s, not incidentally, was when the Department of Agriculture became obsessive about processing even sugar-laden foods like jams). I boiled lids and jars, and after filling waited anxiously to hear them “pop,” letting me know they had sealed (it is a satisfying sound, as you lie in bed before sleep). This all after spending entire days picking thorny bushes in the valley heat.

Three problems. I, a single person, ended up with enormous amounts of preserved foods. One year I gave everyone in my family (5 siblings plus parents) and several co-workers entire mixed cases (12 jars) of goodies, and still had way too much left to finish before next season, or to fit in my cabinets. Second, I thought the taste or color or texture of some products was not as good after processing as when just made, and deteriorated further after some months. Third, it took up whole days and required lots of pricey jars and gargantuan equipment.

I didn’t really think much of all this at first, but as I became more knowledgeable and proficient, I had a few small epiphanies. Much of what I was doing was unnecessary, and some of it detrimental: there were better ways. This little treatise on radical preserving is meant to share my learning curve and help you enjoy preserving in a way suited to a busy schedule or intolerance for fussiness combined with a demand for freshness and purity. I call it “radical preserving” because it is definitely not what you will hear from the Department of Agriculture, which is, let’s face it, anal. They are not wrong—they are just very, very conservative, known to be something less than up-to-date, and to err on the side of self-protection. Because I no more want to eat soggy relishes or dark, stiff jams than I do a hamburger cooked medium, another excess of government guidelines, I have fully embraced my alternate approach to food preservation. This method can be used for jams, jellies, fruit preserves, pickles, syrups, conserves, chutneys, relishes—most everything except the plain preservation of low-acid foods such as peas or beans, which I think is pointless anyway; if you wanted a canned vegetable (and why would you?), you would just buy it. My approach retains food safety as a goal, but offers several bonuses: efficiency, spontaneity, and fresher-tasting, more flavorful results.

To paraphrase Elle Woods, the rules of radical preserving are simple and finite. They are:

Use only unblemished fruit or vegetables at peak ripeness. This sounds obvious, but it is both important and not as much of a given as you’d imagine. It means that you should seek out and buy locally grown ingredients whenever possible, and, whether local or not, buy during absolute peak season. In particular, try to buy from those whom you know have old trees, plants, or varieties. These will have more flavor and better texture than many commercially grown varieties, however beautiful they are, and may preserve more reliably; I have noticed a marked, increased variability in preserving qualities as berry cultivation has become commercialized on a grand scale. Ignore recipes that say to use under-ripe fruit (lots of them, on the argument that under-ripe fruit has more pectin, which is true, but it’s assuming a dichotomous choice between under- and over-ripe), and do not use fruit or vegetables past their prime: you want perfection.

Make as small a batch as you like, and no more than you will reasonably use before next season. You can make jam with as little as a pint of fruit (a quart is an ideal small-batch amount); you can make a single jar of pickles. Naturally, if your family eats loads of strawberry jam or pickled green tomatoes, or if you have a special item that you like to make for gifts, go ahead and make gallons of it; despite my general small-batch commitment, I do annually make a few things in prodigious quantities that have become staples in my house. Otherwise, why not make just a jar or two—one for this summer, one for the winter or to give to a friend. Anything not used within a year or arguably less will have lost its luster.

Do not use commercial pectin. Your grandmother didn’t, why should you? Ripe local fruit or combinations of fruit, with the proper amount of sugar and acid, will gel just fine, and allows you to control color and texture—for example, to have a soft, bright jam. Use the amount of sugar and acid recommended in the recipe, both for proper jelling and food safety. When making jam or preserves, test your gel stage early—after 5 minutes max—and if in doubt err on the side of undercooking; depending on the weather during the growing season, ripe, local fruit often does not need the long boiling times frequently called for in recipes. Slightly more fluid preserves are versatile, with multiple uses from toast to ice cream or pancake topping. And jams can be left to dry a little, thickening them further, and can even be cooked a second time, if you are unhappy with their gelling. [One exception to the pectin rule: pure herb jellies. Gel testing to be discussed as needed.]

Do not process; instead, seal and refrigerate or freeze. The freezer replaces the need to process in a water bath for storage of high-sugar, high-acid foods. Most jams, pickles, relishes, butters, etc., will keep just fine in the refrigerator for a month or more—usually, ‘til gone! If you make a single pint for your own use, therefore, just put it in the refrigerator or even leave opened but covered jams and preserves on the counter (I don’t like cold jam) except in brutally hot and steamy weather. Seal and freeze any additional jars, or any that you want to save for the winter. Pickles, too? Yes, some pickles not only freeze beautifully, but actually seem to be crisper than others; these are the ones I make the most, and I’ll give a recipe at some point. For others, you may want to ensure a proper seal and store in the fridge or at cellar temperature (not more than 50 F, for best quality).

An upright, frost-free freezer, preferably one large enough to hold a half-sheet pan and with adjustable shelves, is your single most important investment for preserving the taste of summer. In addition to storing your finished jarred products, you can freeze raw fruits, particularly berries, and blanched vegetables for the winter, in portions in zip-lock bags. More about this later.

Prepare jars for cold storage in the dishwasher. If your water heater or dishwasher heats water to at least 150 F (new models may have a “sanitary rinse” cycle indicating this), the dishwasher is a good alternative to boiling jars that will go into the fridge for immediate consumption or the freezer for longer-term storage. Run your jars through a complete cleaning cycle to finish drying and still be very hot when you are ready to fill the jars. To achieve a seal, always use new lids; rings should be clean, undented, and rust-free. Glass jars with plastic lids, or freezer jars, are fine, too, for anything that will go into cold storage. For long-term, cellar storage, boil jars and lids on a rack for 10 minutes, covered completely with water. Of course, you can do this for all your preserving if you want, but I’ve given it up except for shelf storage.
To summarize: if you see a beautiful little pint or two of something, and you have an hour or so, turn it into a little preserve or relish and eat it now, while it is fresh and seasonal. If there’s enough for an extra jar or two, put them in the freezer and pull out peak-season freshness in the dead of winter. No need to spend all day, to buy special equipment, to run out for 10 lbs of sugar. You have what you need on hand to integrate preserving into your cooking routine.

Here is a recipe to start you off easy; it’s about as radical as you can get, as it’s made with a single pint of fruit (not local, but in season right now), takes all of 15 minutes, is fabulous, and generally just goes into a bowl in the refrigerator because it has so many uses. You cannot mess it up.

Fig Jam

I’ve been making this rosy-brick colored jam for years, whenever nice figs appear, and have never measured anything out until now to give you a recipe, a testament to how fool-proof this is. Fig jam is a great instant-entertaining item. It is an ideal foil for salty tastes such as cheeses (Maytag blue, parmesan, and Manchego are favorites) and cured meats, and goes nicely with tomatoes, sundried tomatoes, and firm fruits such as apples and pears; of course, it makes a nice spread for a cookie, too. This is liberally seasoned with orange and cardamom, my favorite spice.

1 pt black figs
½ cup fresh-squeezed Valencia or other orange juice
½ c. brown sugar
¼-½ tea cardamom, to taste
¼ tea orange zest (optional)

With kitchen scissors, snip the stems off the figs, then snip the figs into quarters or sixths, depending on size, into a small saucepan, preferably with sloped sides, containing ¼ c. of orange juice. Cover and bring juice to a boil; reduce and simmer, lid ajar, for a few minutes to soften the figs. Remove the lid and, with the edge of a wooden spoon, “chop” the figs roughly. Add the sugar and continue to cook at a moderate bubble, chopping all the while and gradually adding the remaining juice, until the mixture comes together in a smooth, jammy, but still nicely textured mass; be careful not to scorch or to over-dry. Near the end of the cooking, add the cardamom and, if desired, the orange zest; additional juice, or even water, can be used to correct the texture if needed. Fill a hot, clean 8-oz jar and seal; put the overflow, about 3 oz, into a little bowl.
The photo shows the jam on toasted pao de milho (May 12, 2007 post) with Parmigiano-Reggiano, olive oil, and chopped mint.