Monday, August 11, 2008

They're Called Preserves for a Reason

I can't quite believe that so many months have passed since I last posted. The time has flown by--deliciously--filled with hard work, goofy friends and LOTS of good food.

I was inspired to post tonight because I just finished making jam. This might not seem like an accomplishment to some (I know that you're out there watching, Martha Stewart), and to others it may seem unnecessary (why make jam when you can buy it?).
I think it's an accomplishment for a different reason. Every weekend, and yes I do mean EVERY weekend, I buy at least two 1/2 flats of fruit. Ostensibly, I buy this much fruit in order to can it but every weekend I somehow manage to eat both 1/2 flats of berries before I can make jam. Sometimes they make it into a dessert for a party, but usually I just pop handfuls into my mouth every time I'm in the kitchen. *snarf*

I decided Sunday was the day to make jam. I received several pounds of ripe apricots from a friend (someone who clearly knows that's a gift I'd love!) She was hoping to make jam herself, but was heading out on a trip and didn't have time. It's harder for me to O.D. on apricots than berries for some reason, so I pitted them, tossed them in a pot, then actually read the recipe thoroughly and realized that they needed to macerate for 24 hours. *
No problem! I remained undaunted and ran to the market for blueberries. Before I could consume them all, I dumped them into a pot and added sugar. I was going to make jam, by golly. And then I realized that I didn't have any pectin. Pectin, for those of you who buy your jam, is what makes jam thick. Some fruits have a lot of it, but most of your berries and stone fruits need a little help. I wasn't making jam without pectin. I went ahead and macerated my apricots, tossed the blueberry/sugar mixture into the fridge and bided my time.
Tonight, the time was right. After dinner I proceeded to sterilize my jars, chill my plates and simmer my fruit. In years past I overcooked my jam in a misguided effort to thicken it without pectin or too much sugar. Needless to say, this resulted in something that resembled really sweet, really crystallized fruit leather. In a jar. Yum. I was determined to simmer the jam just enough, or even a little less than necessary. (Because really, isn't syrupy fruit better than fruit leather in a jar?)

Simmering apricots *** Blueberry goop

After placing a bit of jam on a chilled plate, rechilling it and testing to see if it was set, I ladled it into my hot jars, lidded and banded them and processed them in the canner. What a satisfying feeling. And what an unholy mess I had made!

Processing the jam ** Unholy dishes** Sticky pan

As I was simmering and sterilizing and processing, a question occurred to me. Most jam recipes direct the cook to "skim the foam off" of the simmering mixture. As I cooked the blueberry jam, I began to wonder why. I couldn't really see the foam on the blueberry goop, and was having trouble skimming it without picking up berries. As I skimmed the apricot goop, I began to wonder if we skim in order to keep clarity in the jam. The foam was more easily discernible on the apricots, and I could see how it might cloud the finished product. Does anyone out there know why we skim? I'm interested in your theories.

As I've been typing, the jam has cooled and I've heard the lids begin to "ping." This is a sign of jars that have sealed successfully. I feel a sense of contentment that I don't always feel in the hurly-burly of my everyday cookery. I think that jam is called "preserves" for a reason. I have put something by for the future. This is the most basic element, and my most basic joy in cooking and eating locally. Tonight, I captured this moment in time in a half-pint jar. The freshest fruit, in season, with a minimum of fuss. In October, when flats of berries are just a dream, I'll be able to open a bottle of jam and taste this summer--its hot days and heavy rains. Although, I might not be able to wait that long.


* A footnote here. Any cook worth their salt (ha!) will tell you that the first key to following a recipe is to read it through, from beginning to end, first. Clearly, in my jam-a-ganza, I wasn't following my own rule!

the perfect balance