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Strawberry jam with balsamic and black pepper

Strawberry jam

Can I make a shocking confession? I don’t love strawberries. I mean, I don’t hate them (it’s not like they’re oranges or anything); I like them fine. I just don’t swoon for them in the way that so many others do, particularly at this time of year.

But I have gained a newfound respect for them after a recent visit to a strawberry farm down in Watsonville. The good folks over at Foodista let me write it up for them, so go check it out. 

Ever since that visit, I’ve had berries on the brain. I can’t ignore them as I walk through the markets. For someone who doesn’t love them, I sure seem to have some kind of crush on them. If I were a schoolgirl, I’d be writing “Strawberries” over and over again in my Trapper Keeper. (Do kids still have Trapper Keepers? Am I dating myself? Though you have to admit, iPads do sort of look like a Star Trek — TNG, not original — interpretation of Trapper Keepers.)

Consequently, we’ve had a lot of strawberries in the house of late. Mostly, they find their way into our morning yogurt, perhaps alongside some banana and certainly with homemade granola, staving off scurvy for yet another day. But there isn’t enough yogurt in the world to complement the bounty of strawberriness upon us. And so, as is my wont, I’ve been jamming.

But you know me, right? I’m just not content to let well enough be. There’s no shortage of people in the world, or even in this condo, who are happy to eat just plain strawberry jam, but I’m not one of them. No, I just have to screw with it, just a little.

I already planned to add a little black pepper, as I adore the combination of berries and pepper, but then a Twitter friend recommended balsamic, and that appealed to my sensibilities very much indeed. And so a plan was hatched.

With one batch, I kept it just plain for the first half, then added some balsamic and pepper for the latter half, so I could compare apples to apples … er, strawberries to strawberries. The regular strawberry jam was good: Bright, undeniably strawberry. But the adulterated batch was strawberry plus. Still strawberry, no mistaking, but with lingering and haunting notes that gave it a layer of sophistication.

Perhaps I can grow to love strawberries after all.

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The even greater tomato canning of 2009

Canned tomatoes ©DPaul Brown

Gluttons for punishment, we are. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, we undertook our greatest processing and canning feat to date, dispatching with 200 pounds of tomatoes across two weeks. Thanks to our experiences over the past couple years, we’ve learned a few things that help speed the process and move things along.

For our purposes, as we were looking to get as much sauce out of the fruit as possible, two extremely large stock pots were of the essence. In addition, 23-quart pressure canners*
were required so we could process multiple batches in parallel. A 36″ range helped, but was not strictly necessary. Snacks and wine, however, were.

Whereas last year we merely scored the bottoms of the tomatoes and then blanched and cored them, this year we had an epiphany: If we cored the tomatoes first, then blanched them, the skins came away more easily, and we didn’t need to handle the slippery devils with a paring knife in one hand. Good-quality rubber gloves prevented our skin from cracking from the constant exposure to acid. Our ducks were in a row.

Our first day of canning by the numbers:

  • 100 lbs of tomatoes
  • 2 large stockpots and 2 23-quart pressure canners
  • 42 quart jars, lids and rings
  • 12 hours
  • 4 grown men
  • 3 underfoot dogs
  • 2 flaming kitchen towels

On the second Saturday, at our friends Nick & Russ‘s place in the East Bay, Nick mused on how we all enjoy this activity, and wondered how we as a society moved away from such labors. The answer, of course, is World War II.

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Take that, Heinz

Mustard, relish, ketchup

Nearly every year, we give away some sort of hand-made food product for the holidays. In the past, we've given jams, chutneys and pasta sauce. This year, we decided to take on the holy trinity of American condiments: Ketchup, mustard and relish. After all, why pay less than two dollars in the grocery store for what you can make at nearly equivalent cost plus hours of back-breaking labor? 

Why? Because we can. Because there is more to this delicious life than the flavors served to us by the major food manufacturers. And because when you take the most basic things back into your own hands, you can apply your own stamp to them.

 

 

The genesis for this project was when I saw Sarah waxing rhapsodic on Twitter about a maple black pepper ketchup she made, the recipe for which she then shared at my behest (and which I of course had to tinker with). Meanwhile, we've been meaning to make mustard for some time now. What's left? Why, relish of course, and we had just made up a big batch of delicious sweet yellow squash pickles from a cookbook given to us by the lovely Amy. It's a small step to go from sweet pickles to sweet pickle relish. We availed ourselves of the final harvest of summer squash and set to work. (Sidenote: I tried, oh how I tried, to find locally harvested mustard seed, but evidently the much-vaunted mustard of Napa county is mainly for show. The seeds I got came from San Francisco Herb Co. So, that makes them locally sourced, right?)

And so the plan was hatched: Classic American flavors, each with a twist — Maple bourbon ketchup, tarragon Dijon mustard and sweet yellow squash relish. Sorry, hot dogs not included.

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The great tomato canning of 2008

Yes, kittens, it’s that time again. Time when the bounty of summer comes tumbling down all around us, when we must work like hell to preserve produce at its peak of perfection lest it slip through our fingers for yet another year.

We’ve not done as much canning this year as we have in years past. In 2006 in particular we frenetically canned everything that wasn’t nailed down. But based on last year’s successful tomato canning venture, we knew we had to do it again.

Last year, working with our friends Nick and Russ, we processed and canned 80 pounds of luscious heirloom tomatoes, netting six gallons of bright marinara sauce. This year, we upped the ante and went for 100 pounds. Gluttons for punishment, we are.

While we once again worked with ripe, organic heirlooms (luckily more ripe than our friends’ quarry), Nick this year opted for a variety that was largely based on beefsteak. This not only resulted in a richer color, but a sauce with more body as well.

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Jam session

Preserves2

Work has been kicking my butt the last couple of months, likewise DPaul, and so we’ve not had quite as much time nor inspiration in the kitchen as normal. But it is summer, and with such gorgeous fruit exploding in a riot of color and fragrance all over the farmers market each week, I find myself repeatedly returning with armloads of the stuff. I cannot help myself. The season for perfectly ripe summer fruits is so fleeting and ephemeral, I am always compelled to capture that moment in time and preserve it.

Preserve. Preserves. The act of taking that impeccable piece of fruit and locking it in stasis, like an ant encased in amber. I’m obsessed.

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Jane’s (sorta) Homemade Sweet Pickles

Jane’s (sorta) homemade sweet pickles

Sweet pickles are a staple at the Southern table, particularly the lightly sweet bread-and-butter variety. The recipe for these pickles came from my mother-in-law, Jane. During our last trip, she had a jar of these out on the table during one of our lunches. Ascertaining they were homemade, I asked how she made them. As it turns out, these homemade sweet pickles started out as a whole other creature: Store-bought dill pickles.

Jane explained how to take whole dill pickles, slice them down and immerse them in a vinegar syrup to create an instant version of bread-and-butter pickles. Of course the first question that flashed through my mind was, "why not just buy sweet pickles?" Then I tasted them.

I happen to like sweet pickles, but I know many people who do not. For some, the sweetness itself is the problem; they are too cloying and sugary. For others, it’s a texture violation, as sweet pickles tend to be mushier and sometimes even mealy. By starting out with crisp, sour dills, this quick recipe turns out refreshingly balanced sweet-sour and crunchy pickles. My friend Matthew, who is among the clan of sweet-pickle haters, asked, "why would you ruin a perfectly good dill pickle?" Ultimately, he capitulated and said that these were the best sweet pickles ever.

Jane quick-cans these by simply putting heated lids on the jars. I’m a little paranoid about such things, so I did the full-on canning thing, ten minutes in a boiling water bath and all, just to be safe. But she’s been doing it her way for decades, and no one has reported any problems so far, so I may cave in just yet. I imagine the high acidity of the vinegar as well as the high sugar content will keep most pathogens at bay.

Simple though this recipe is, and using store-bought foods besides, it has actually been handed down a couple of generations so far, and anything that has stood the test of time that long is good enough for me. And anyway, they’re your pickles in your jars, so that fully qualifies as homemade. Sorta.

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Sauce

Cimg2401Typical Monday water-cooler conversation:

Coworker: "What did you do this weekend?"

Me: "Oh, you know, typical. Dinner with friends on Saturday, and a day in the kitchen on Sunday. Made some chicken stock and a big pot of sauce."

Coworker: "Oh yeah? What kind of sauce?"

Me: "Um, sauce."

Sauce. If I use the word preceded by "a big pot of" then it means one thing and one thing only: A bubbling cauldron of slow-cooked pasta sauce. I’m told some Eye-talian families call it gravy, but that’s just crazy talk. It’s sauce.

This is mother’s milk, the most basic staple of my family’s culinary heritage. The idea of buying pasta sauce in a jar is inconceivable, unimaginable, even offensive. Once in a great while I may cave in and purchase some housemade sauce from someplace like PastaGina, which is serviceable, but in the end I’m always left craving the real deal.

I always make the same sauce, and I never make the same sauce twice. The basics are always the same, yet the specifics change each time. I am not alone in this regard. My grandmother used to make her sauce with meatballs, Italian sausage and sometimes bresaola (that’s bruh-ZHAWL), but if there was leftover chicken or pork, in it went. For a number of years I modified the sauce to accommodate my vegetarianism. Nowadays I throw in whatever captures my fancy, starting with whatever’s in the fridge.

Too often, I cheat, I skimp on one step or another in the interest of saving time or avoiding the inevitable burden of prepping ingredients. While the sauce will not suffer unduly by the occasional indiscretion, it invariably benefits from its fully deserved attention. Sauce takes time. And love. And a lot of chopping.

The anchor of our Christmas baskets was a home-canned jar of porcini mushroom pasta sauce. This was no time to cut corners. Each step, each detail must be followed through completely, lest we be gifting a subpar product. And that would never do.

And so we made a quadruple batch, painstakingly chopping, saut√©eing, stewing until we reached a final product, shuttled quickly into jars and sealed away for posterity. Though we of course tasted the sauce in the moment, it wasn’t until Christmas Day proper that we opened a jar for ourselves and made a quick lasagna from it. I couldn’t have been happier with the result — intensely perfumed with porcini, rich and unctuous.

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