Monday, September 5, 2011

Blueberries for Sal

I'd like to take a moment and interrupt this poor abandoned blog for a Day In Canning!  This long-weekend Saturday we hit up the local farm stands out in our extended backyard (one of which I had a Groupon for--who knew?) and brought home big, 25 pound packs of produce into the kitchen to be sliced, spiced, steamed and smooshed into shelf-stable goodies.

Before I begin though, I just want to say that I haven't forgotten Eats of Eden at all.  I've been wanting to get back and blog about some fun recipes and such, but I've had a few excuses I'd like to make:

a.  I got, and started, a new job (so I'm not working at that place I passive-aggressively described as making me want to jump off a cliff).  But starting a job, getting used to a new schedule and trying to learn an entire new company is exhausting.  Not to mention I have:

b.  started my 3rd semester of the Pacific University MFA program, so when I write, I generally need it to be thesis-based, since that is due next spring.  But good news!  I have two pieces that have gotten published recently:  One in the Owl Eye Review, and one in Sliver of Stone.  But if you read this you've probably already been spammed about that, so I'll move on.

So, first off, jam.  I found a recipe in my favorite canning book, the Williams-Sonoma Art of Preserving, for blueberry-plum jam.  Blueberries and plums probably hold the most memories of fruit with me.  In the first house I lived in in West Seattle, there was a giant old plum tree in the backyard.  It's since been chopped down for some reason that can't possibly justify its destruction, but back then around this time of year it would sag with the burden of hundreds of dusky-hued fruits.  I'd go out into the yard and pick all I could eat, which Mom would get pretty concerned about.  I mean, fruit is great and all, but how much do you really want your 4-year-old stuffing in her face?  So she put a cap on two plums a day, which I found unacceptable, and began hoarding plums under my mattress.  Then I'd get distracted by my Strawberry Shortcake dolls or something, and the plum inventory would get forgotten until a couple weeks later, when poor Mom changed the bedsheets. 

Then there was the blueberry farm in Federal Way, the next house I lived in, which was U-Pick and a perfect cheap, fun, memorable summer activity for us kids on break.  I remember going a couple times when my mom babysat my cousins Nicole and Tina, and we'd have picture-perfect afternoons finding the juiciest berries on the branches--and making sour faces and gagging noises when we popped a tart one in our mouths that hadn't yet reached its prime.  And of course there was Blueberries for Sal, one of my favorite children's books that was totally pro-canning.  And pro-bears.

After chilling in the fridge for several hours, the berries start to break down a bit and the plums release their juices.  On the stove they break down into their true color, which is a stark shade of violet.  This is a powdered pectin-free recipe, which relies on the pectin that occurs within the fruit to gel it up.  Luckily plums have a good amount of pectin naturally-occurring in them, so you can feel the jam start to thicken and set pretty quickly once they get cooking.  The tartness of the plums and blueberries made it smell like a jam dreamed up of Pinot Noir.  I didn't have any on hand (a travesty I fixed today, don't worry), but luckily my favorite rose, Rosa Regale, served as a wonderful pairing with my tester english muffin. It's definitely not too sweet at all, partly because there's only 4 cups of sugar in the whole double batch (you'd have to triple or quadruple that if you were using box pectin).  I can't wait to make homemade frozen yogurt out of this!  But probably not this weekend; after a few too many trips to Salt & Straw ice cream in the last few weeks, I'm trying to cut down on my dessert trend.

Another thing I did differently this jam time around was I used half-pint jars instead of full pints.  Mom used to use full pints while I was growing up, but we were kids that ate a TON of jam.  Toast, sandwiches, whatever.  Nowadays, and with a household of two instead of five, I don't use it nearly as often and hate having much go to waste.  The half-pints are a much easier size to use up without keeping on hand pas what most people "recommend" you keeping a condiment in the fridge.

But if you're anything like me, you've moved that jar of fish sauce around from apartment to apartment to house for three years, and you're still alive, right?  Yeah.  That's what I thought.

It also makes a batch stretch farther, meaning more to give away to your favorite people!  Yes, you know I love you.

When jam was done, I still had a gigantic box of little cucumbers staring me down.  This was my second batch of cucumbers in a row, since Matt decided to pimp out my canning skills to a friend.  We've made pickles since I first took Harriet Fastenfest's canning class in 2008, and I don't know how, but they always turn out pretty mind-blowing fantastic.  Maybe it's my reckless extra Chinese pepper and garlic cloves (Harriet warned vehemently against experimenting and messing up a canning recipe's acidity, but when you're drowning a food in vinegar you've got a smidge more leeway without risking that vintage bout of botulism.  Canning isn't nearly as dangerous as people seem to think, especially when you're not doing low-acid foods like corn, green beans, or trying to turn your favorite bean-and-ham soup into a pantry-stable staple.  If you're following a reliable source like the Ball Book of Preserving for methods and staying sterilized with your equipment and food, you should be good to go.  Back in the 50's people used to do all kind of crazy, dangerous crap like re-use mayonnaise jars to can with.  Also, DDT was a-ok and everyone was lighting up smokes with buns in the oven, and Don Draper was there all sexy and brooding like..... okay, I'm back.  Sorry).   

Once all the jars are prepped and made into beautiful spice terrariums, it's time to stuff them with the cukes.  This is where Matt comes in.  Trying to cram as many little cucumbers into each jar is like date night nowadays.  He revolutionized this task this weekend when we were at Fred Meyer (the BEST grocery store for canning supplies) by asking me, "why don't we buy the WIDE mouth jars for canning pickles?  Wouldn't that make stuffing them a million times easier?"

Yes.  And yes.  I'm completely stupid for never thinking of that.  So, learn from my idiocy.  Save the regular ones for tomatoes, peaches, applesauce and all those other things that don't require playing Tetris with veggies.

If you're going to go get a box of pickling cukes, first call ahead--some farm stands don't carry them, or only get them in by special-order.  Especially in quantities to make a big batch (my 25 pound boxes make about 18 quarts of pickles).  If you get some choice in the matter, choose a box that has a good amount of very small 1"-2" cucumbers, which you'll need at the end of the pack where you have a little more room, but a giant fat pickle is never going to fit.  They're your cornichons! 

Hot lids on, 10 minutes in the water bath and at least a month on the shelf:  poof!  Pickles you can be proud of, just in time to use on a relish tray and atop deviled eggs for my 27th birthday Mad Men-themed cocktail party.  And yes, I swear to god, it IS that easy.  Now if you're me, you just go out and spend five times as much money as you saved being all preserve-happy on vintage ribbon, fabric and custom labels to make them all gilded. 

Thanks for coming back to visit, if you have, and I'll try to stop in a little more often as the universe settles a bit more. 

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