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.


anne said...

Jane, I couldn't agree with you more about 'radical preserving.' Small batches are the only way to go. I can't wait to try your fig jam. I just made two batches of local strawberry jam; the first with very ripe strawberries and the second with not as ripe strawberries (some were white inside.) The second batch was thicker due to the increased amount of pectin in the slightly under ripe berries. The taste test winner was definately the first batch the ripe berries! I can't wait for the peaches.

Anonymous said...

Jane, I read this several months ago and was inspired to begin my own small batch preserving. Have returned to this fig jam recipe now, but don't understand "tea cardamom.". Can you explain? I have both green and white cardamom pods, and powdered cardamom (yes, I'm a cardamom fan). Are you referring to the pods used for chai?

Jane said...

Constance, glad you are thinking of trying this favorite of mine. "tea" is the abbreviation I use for "teaspoon" (I use T for tablespoon). The type of cardamom called for is ground cardamom, which comes from the white. So, use (at least) 1/4 teaspoon of ground cardamom. Sorry for any confusion!

Anonymous said...

Oh for the love of Pete! (one of my Mom's favorite sayings...) What a moron I am. Yes, of course. Had I only read the fried green tomato recipe more closely, which I also printed yesterday (because I've got these last, lonely green tomatoes on my window sill), I would have realized that. Or maybe not. Maybe I would have added "And what is this "tea salt" of which you speak???" *heh*

Jane said...

It's called spacing out, Constance. Not to worry. We all do it!

Miss M said...

Thank you for this post! I bought a basket of muscadines today, because we were curious and wanted to try them. (I can't believe I grew up here and never had muscadine anything.)

Anyhow, my daughter, who had pressed me to buy them, tried them as soon as we got home. She did not like much about the way they tasted. So now I need to try to make something useful with them.

I wasn't sure what to do, because all the recipes I found called for 5 quarts, 12 quarts, etc., of muscadines. I just wanted to make one jar. I remember my great-grandmother making single half-pint jars of quince jelly, so I knew it could be done.

Thank you again! We'll see if we can like these muscadines yet! :)

Jane said...

Muscadines...if you search my blog you'll find a post about them--and my (totally wrong) experiment to leave the seeds in. Strain! If your daughter doesn't like grape jelly, she might not like muscadine.I would suggest keeping the sugar proportionally low so it is not too sweet. Good luck!

Miss M said...

My daughter isn't crazy about grape jelly, but my mom sure is! My daughter will try the jelly, though, in hopes that she will like the muscadines that way. She's pretty game for things.

I will definitely follow your advice about the seeds!

A question for you -- what's the flavor difference between the jellies you get with and without the hulls?

I actually have green ones, but they are quite musky, not super-sweet like the ones you had. This is why I'm asking about flavor. If the jelly tastes like the muscadines, that would be a bit strange. I'd like to pull a different flavor out -- whether it tastes like grape jelly or not, just something yummy will do. :)

Anonymous said...

Can you tell me what a pint would be equivalent to in a metric conversion, i.e. approximation of how many grams or even pounds for this fig jam recipe? Much appreciated. Carrie

Jane said...

Sorry, somehow I overlooked this. A liquid pint (16 oz) is 4 75 ml. Grams are for weight; we have a saying "a pint's a pound the world round"--it translates to 450 grams.