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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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Jam session


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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Pear butter


Nick had worked out an arrangement with one of the vendors at the Galleria farmers’ market to buy off all her bruised fruit for a song. "Don’t be alarmed by 50 lbs. of pears," said Nick. "We don’t have to peel them." Grand. Still, we did have to core, chop and cook them down. The pumpkin butter was sealed and done, and the fig jam was well underway by the time we even began dealing with the pears. Russ and I set to work, converting ourselves into pear coring machines, filling container after container with 1" cubes of slippery pear flesh. In the end, we barely got through half the pears before deciding we wouldn’t have the time — or energy — to finish the job all in one shot.

Some of the pears got a little scorched, but as we lovingly ladled the puree into our jars, being careful not to dislodge any actual burnt bits from the bottom of the pot, it had a dedidedly not unpleasant burnt-sugar aroma, so we joked that they became caramelized pear butter. Truth be known, we’re into one of the jars of scorched stuff now, and in fact it has a delicious caramel flavor. I wouldn’t recommend attempting this deliberately, but if it happens know that all is not lost.

This recipe comes to us from our friend George, or more accurately from his mother, Peg. As far as I’m concerned, any canning recipe that comes from a little old lady in Nebraska simply has to be good. Like the fig jam, this recipe uses only citrus rind for pectin. The resulting pear butter has a pleasantly creamy texture. It bursts with citrus and spice flavors, but still screams "pear" throughout. We’re already well into consuming our second jar of the stuff. Glad we canned so much of it.

(Photo: DPaul Brown)

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Fig jam

Is there anything more beautiful and mouth-watering than a juicy, perfectly ripe fig? It seems to me the fig would be a far more appropriate symbol of temptation than the apple, but I wasn’t consulted on the matter.

Fig preserves are not only delicious but versatile. My favorite application is a classic Bolognese dessert, paired with squaquerone, or a good fresh (read: homemade) ricotta.

This recipe calls for no commercial pectin, instead relying on the natural pectin in lemon rind for thickening. We adapted from a recipe on, replacing some sugar with honey to accentuate figs’ natural honey notes.

You soften the figs first by steeping them in boiling water, then mashing them and cooking them down. The water turns a gorgeous, brilliant magenta color. I so wanted to figure out something to do with it, but in the end it was just fig water, and down the drain it went.

The resulting jam is glossy and purple-black, with constellations of tiny seeds throughout. I can hardly wait to crack into one of the jars.

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Pumpkin butter


I don’t know what made me think of pumpkin butter, nor can I think of when I first (or last) had it. Although like most fruit butters its roots are almost certainly Southern, I’m pretty sure I had it growing up in the Northeast. All I know is that I love all things pumpkin-y and squash-y, and the idea of having a jar or two of pumpkin butter around just sounded like a very nice thing indeed.

I cruised the intertent, and ultimately settled on a pumpkin buttter recipe on Many recipes out there called for canned pumpkin, which struck me as being really beside the point. I prefer to start with whole, unprocessed foods, and wanted to make this from actual pumpkin. This recipe also was relatively simple, and had few ingredients. It did call for pumpkin pie spice, which I don’t stock, so I used a modified version of another recipe for pumpkin pie spice, which used spices I had on hand. We doubled the recipes to make 12 half-pint jars.

We used sugar pumpkins, which in my mind are the only true cooking pumpkins. They have a pronounced pumpkin flavor and are not too fibrous. Carving pumpkins are best left for that purpose only. I suppose this recipe would translate well with butternut, Hokkaido or kabocha squash, as they too have an innate sweetness.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this process was watching the transformation of the pumpkin from chunks of soft, yellow flesh, to a thick paste, to a smooth purée and finally a glossy, rich, orange butter. And hooboy, does it smell good.

I will not go into detail on how to can. It’s more information than I can post here. I recommend two books: The Complete Guide to Home Canning and Preserving, by the USDA, and Canning & Preserving for Dummies by Karen Ward. They break it down for you, and provide a wealth of recipes as well. All I will say is that the dishwasher is your best friend. We used it to sanitize the jars, and when you’re dealing with several dozen, it makes short work of it.

(Photo: DPaul Brown)

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Apricot refrigerator preserves

Apricotjam1I’ve been meaning to do a bunch of preserving and canning this summer, but just haven’t gotten up the gumption to do it. But I can’t bear to see all that lovely fruit pass by without doing something with it, so I’m being half-lazy and just making preserves and not canning them.

I love apricot preserves best of all, and use quite a lot of it, so that was the first and most obvious choice. I do also have a handful of very ripe prunes that are just screaming to be preserved, so that might be today’s endeavor.

As usual, almost all my food inspiration comes from the blogosphere, so I took my cue from maki at i was just really hungry. I didn’t have quite as many apricots as she, so I had to scale the recipe somewhat. I also, um, forgot to add the lemon juice toward the end.

The end result, though, worked out fine. I’m glad I forgot the lemon juice, as the preserves are still fairly tart. But they have a bright apricot flavor and a wonderful aroma. My permutation of maki’s recipe after the jump.

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