Finally, Stainless-Steel Mason Jar Bands

“See this rust?” asked a county-fair judge of a young 4-Her, pointing at a little spot inside the band the judge had just removed from the child’s jam jar. “This can keep your lid from sealing.”

I’d never known even the rustiest band to keep a mason jar lid from sealing, and I was startled to learn that a fair judge might withhold a blue ribbon because of a tiny spot of rust on the inside of a band. But I do think that rusty bands are ugly. If you want to make a good impression when you display or sell or give away your preserves, you’ve got to use brand-new bands.

But why must the bands go rusty by the second or third use? After one of my readers and I recently shared our annoyance at this, he started googling. To our mutual delight, he discovered a source for stainless-steel mason jar bands.

Maggie and Ryan Helseth, owners of Mason Jar Lifestyle, say that their rings are stain-resistant, not stain-proof; they may start to rust if they’re left soaking in water for days. But they won’t rust with normal use, including passes through at dishwasher. I’ve tested some of the stainless bands by using them in a boiling-water bath and by immersing them in water for a full day. So far they show no sign of rust.

As you might expect, the stainless-steel bands cost more than regular ones: You get five narrow-mouth stainless bands for $11.99 or five wide-mouth bands for $13.99. Because of their higher cost, and because the stainless-steel bands are identical in appearance and weight to regular bands, you’ll want to take care to keep the two types separate, so you don’t give away the good bands accidentally. If you do mix up your bands, though, you can tell the stainless from the soon-to-be-stained with the help of a magnet. The stainless bands, unlike the others, are not magnetic.

stainless band & silicone lid linerMaggie and Ryan sent me some of their other products to try. I am much taken with their silicone lid liners and sealing rings. Made of material that is stable and nonreactive—that won’t leach chemicals and won’t be damaged in a dishwasher—the liners can be used under plastic mason-jar caps or two-piece lids to keep food from touching metal or plastic and to keep plastic caps from leaking, a problem especially during transport to potlucks and picnics. Though flexible, the liners are sturdy enough, at 2.2 millimeters thick, that you can use them with rings alone. The sealing rings, like the lid liners, can be used with plastic Ball caps to prevent leakage and to provide an airtight seal—not for canning, of course, but for storage of unpasteurized foods in the refrigerator, freezer, or pantry. Ten silicone lid liners cost $13.99 in narrow-mouth size and $14.99 in wide-mouth. Ten silicone sealing rings cost $6.99 in narrow-mouth size and $8.99 in wide-mouth.

silcone sealing ringMaggie and Ryan also sell stainless-steel mason-jar caps, which come with their own removable silicone sealing rings (since the rings are removable they are also replaceable, although I don’t imagine they wear out fast). Without logos or other decoration, these lids are plainly attractive, especially if you dislike plastic. Like plastic mason-jar caps, the metal ones are not intended for canning. Five stainless caps with silicone sealing rings cost $16.99 for in narrow-mouth size, $18.99 in wide-mouth.

Self-described “mason jar geeks,” Maggie and Ryan have other products, too, such as a stainless lid with a hole for inserting a drinking straw. See all their stuff at masonjarlifestyle.com.

Update: August 24, 2016
A few of Maggie and Ryan’s customers have complained that the stainless-steel bands have come off in during processing, usually in a pressure canner, Ryan tells me. Because stainless steel is harder than tin, the threads on the Mason Jar Lifestyle bands are less well defined than those on ordinary mason-jar bands. Ryan is working with the factory to fix this problem. If you plan to use the stainless-steel bands for canning, I suggest waiting at least a few weeks before ordering them.

Posted in Fermented foods, Pickles, Preserving science, Sweet preserves | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

From the New Joy of Pickling: Pickled Sliced Peaches

IMG_9609The Washington State Fruit Commission made my day again early this month, when a big box of fragrant, juicy peaches and nectarines was delivered to my front porch. The fruit was so tasty that I made small batches of plain peach jam and raspberry-peach jam and then, with my husband’s help, simply devoured the rest.

But I had promised the Fruit Commission a blog post, so I bought some locally grown, almost equally delicious peaches to make Spicy Pickled Peach Slices, one of the fifty-some new pickles in the third edition of The Joy of Pickling.

Whole pickled peaches are a treat at holiday meals, but most commercially grown peaches are too big to fit into mason jars. Even if I could buy extra-wide-mouthed jars, I wouldn’t want to serve whole fruits as big as a newborn’s head. Sliced peaches are not only easier to pack into jars; they are also easier to eat with a fork than are whole peaches.

With the sweetness, spice, and tang of a good barbecue sauce or chutney, and striking good looks to boot, this pickle is an excellent accompaniment to smoked and grilled meats. Try it over ice cream, too.

Spicy Pickled Peach Slices

2 3-inch cinnamon sticks, broken
2 teaspoons mace or chopped nutmeg
1 ½ teaspoons whole cloves
1 ½ inch gingerroot, sliced into quarter-size rounds and slivered
2 cups distilled white vinegar (5 percent)
2 ¼ cups sugar
24 coriander seeds
8 allspice berries
2 teaspoons hot pepper flakes
4 quarter-size slices of gingerroot
1 teaspoon pickling salt
About 4 pounds freestone peaches

Put the cinnamon, mace or nutmeg, cloves, slivered gingerroot, vinegar, and sugar into a saucepan. Bring the liquid to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar, and then immediately reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer the syrup for 10 minutes.

Divide the coriander, allspice, pepper flakes ginger slices, and salt among four pint mason jars.

In a pot of boiling water, blanch the peaches a few at a time until the skins loosen, about 30 to 60 seconds. Plunge the peaches into a bowl of cold water.

When all the peaches are blanched, slide off their skins. Slice each peach into wedges about 1 inch wide at the widest point.

IMG_9602Strain the syrup into a wide pan. Bring the syrup back to a simmer, and add the peach slices. Bring the mixture to a boil, and remove the pan from the heat.

Ladle the peaches and syrup into the mason jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Add two-piece lids, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 20 minutes.    

Makes 4 pints

Posted in Fruits, Pickles | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Fennel Pollen—Really?

fennel head 2Examining a Florence fennel plant I’d let go to seed, my daughter came to the same conclusion I had—that the fad food fennel “pollen” was actually fennel flowers.

You’re supposed to rub fennel pollen over chicken or pork before roasting the meat, dust the pollen over salad or cooked pasta, or use it as a flavoring in bread, cake, or cookies. The chef my daughter works with has brewed fennel-pollen tea. To me the flowers seem best sprinkled over simply cooked seafood—white fish, shrimp, or squid—or even over eggs or buttered toast. You can most appreciate the bright yellow color and honey-sweet, anise-like flavor when the stuff is atop rather than mixed into other food.

I harvest fennel flowers by placing a plastic vegetable bag over a blooming fennel head, closing the bag around the stalk, turning the head downward, and shaking. After bagging and shaking each flowering head on a plant, I might have a teaspoonful of yellow bits. I spill them into a dish and let any spiders or other critters crawl away. Looking closely at what remains, I see little stamens and curled petals. The bees and other flying insects around my fennel plant are surely gathering pollen, but any pollen on my dish is invisible to my eye.

fennel flowersAnother way to gather fennel flowers is to cut blooming flower heads and hang them upside-down in a paper bag. The stamens and petals—and, I suppose, pollen—will fall off in time. The color and flavor of the dry mix will be just a bit less bright than the color and flavor of the fresh flowers.

Some of the fennel pollen pictured on the Internet looks more green than yellow. I suspect these products are actually crushed fennel buds. The buds are easier to harvest in quantity than open flowers; you just pull the buds off their little stems, and crush them between your fingers. The bits will look yellow-green, not bright yellow, but they will still have a delightful flavor. Judging from the pictures on the Internet, dried buds are less pretty than fresh ones.

Florence fennel is a somewhat difficult plant to grow as a vegetable; getting good bulbous stems depends on mild weather and plentiful water. But harvesting the flowers reminds me of all the good things fennel brings us. Bronze fennel is a lovely, if often invasive, garden ornamental. The caracois served on heaping platters in Lisbon bars are Theba pisana snails, harvested from the fennel stalks where the snails congregate and estivate (I once walked through Roman ruins in a field filled with snail-laden fennel, each plant barren of leaves but decorated with a dozen or more colorful shells). Mukhwas, the Indian after-dinner digestive aid and breath freshener, is usually made up mostly of fennel seeds, some of them candied. And how many Californians have childhood memories of scraping the “Indian bubblegum” out of dried fennel stalks and inhaling the heavenly scent of roasted fennel after a field fire?

Enjoy your fennel flowers, like the seeds, from your garden or the wild; you probably don’t need to buy them through the Internet. If you do, don’t fool yourself into believing that you’ve invested in a tinful of pollen.

 

Posted in Herbs, Wild foods | Tagged , , , , | 14 Comments

Canned Cherries for a Flamboyant Dessert

cherries in cointreau for blogBefore cherry season comes to a close, I want to share with you a recipe I recently developed for the Washington State Fruit Commission, thanks to whom a big box of fresh cherries landed on my porch a few weeks ago.

The cherries, dark and of an unnamed variety, were so large—a full inch tall—that I had to buy a new cherry pitter to fit them. Their firm texture and mild sweetness made them excellent for fresh eating, but their flavor was too muted for the jam, chutney, and other sorts of preserves I tried them in. A thirty-five-dollar bottle of Cointreau, however, dolled them up beautifully.

Serve the preserved cherries straight from the jar over ice cream, or use them to make the famous Victorian dessert called Cherries Jubilee. For that, you reheat the cherries and their syrup—at the table in a chafing dish, if you have one—while you spoon vanilla ice cream into small dishes. Then you pour warmed brandy or Kirschwasser over the cherries (1/4 cup to a pint of cherries) and, using a long match, set the liquor alight. Spoon the flaming sauce over the ice cream, and serve.

cherries jubilee 3Cherries in Cointreau

2 pounds dark sweet cherries, pitted
1 cup sugar
2 long strips of orange peel, removed with a vegetable peeler
¼ cup orange juice
About 1 cup Cointreau (or other orange-flavored liqueur)

Put the cherries, sugar, and orange peel into a large skillet, and pour the orange juice over. Heat the mixture over medium-low heat, shaking the pan or stirring until the sugar has dissolved. Continue to heat the mixture for several minutes, stirring occasionally, until the syrup has begun to simmer and the cherries are heated through and just beginning to soften. Remove the pan from the heat.

With a slotted spoon, transfer the cherries to two pint mason jars, leaving ½ inch headspace. Either discard the orange peel or, if you prefer, add it to the jars. Pour the syrup over the cherries, dividing it equally between the two jars. Top the jars with Cointreau, maintaining the ½ inch headspace.

Add two-piece caps, and process the jars in a boiling-water or steam canner for 15 minutes. Let the jars cool in the canner for 5 minutes before removing them. Store the cooled jars in a cool, dark, dry place.

Makes 2 pints

 

Posted in Fruits, Sweet preserves | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

USDA Approves Steam Canners

Many home preservers love steam canners (such as the Victorio), because they use less water and less energy and take less time to preheat than boiling-water canners. For at least two decades, however, the USDA and its Extension employees have warned that steam canners may be dangerous. This has kept a lot of people from buying steam canners and has made the people who swear by the devices at least a tad nervous.

A 2003 position paper published by Oregon State University detailed the concerns: Cold spots might occur between the jars or under the dome; steam might lift the lid of the canner, which would allow cold air to enter; jars might break or heat unevenly; the user might mistake cool vapor for steam and so might underprocess the jars; the user might be burned by steam.

The fears of breaking jars and uneven heating always seemed bogus to me. The supposed problem was that the jars weren’t separated by a rack. Racks that come in boiling-water canners are usually divided into sections, one per jar, but many people do their boiling-water processing with unsectioned cake racks or pressure-canner racks or even with towels instead of racks. Most home preservers know better than to jam their jars tightly together in a canner.

I’ve never used a steam canner myself, but I’m pretty sure that the vent holes in the side must keep the lid from lifting off like an umbrella in the wind.

Steam burns seem like a true risk with steam canners, but you get a faceful of steam if you’re careless in opening a boiling-water canner, too.

Now Dr. Barbara Ingham, of the University Wisconsin-Madison, has actually done some research on steam canners, and she has found they work pretty well. She has convinced the National Center for Home Food Preservation, the USDA division that oversees home canning, to approve the use of steam canners.

Dr. Ingham, however, identified one important limitation of steam canners: They hold too little water to allow for processing times of more than 45 minutes. This presents no problem for pickles and jams, but the USDA recommends processing tomatoes for long periods, from 35 to 85 minutes (or even longer at high altitudes), depending on how the tomatoes are prepared. You could use a steam canner for tomato sauce or juice, but a boiling-water canner or even a pressure canner is probably a better choice. If the boiling is too vigorous in a steam canner, Dr. Ingham found, the pan can boil dry in twenty minutes.

Dr. Ingham suggests some guidelines to follow with steam canners:

  • Use USDA recipes; don’t rely on the instructions that come with the canner.
  • Fill the jars with hot liquid, and put them into the canner while they are still hot.
  • Make sure that a 6- to 8-inch jet of steam streams from the vent holes throughout the processing period.
  • If possible, check the temperature of the steam—it should measure 212 degrees F—by inserting a thermometer through a vent hole. (Actually, if you live above sea level the temperature will be somewhat lower.)
  • If you’re canning at an altitude of 1,000 feet or higher, you should process your jars longer, just as you would in a boiling-water bath.
  • Let the jars cool at room temperature, as usual.

According to Jeanne Brandt, Family and Community Health director for Oregon State University Extension, OSU still doesn’t like steam canners. But I think I might give one a try.

 

Posted in Preserving science | Tagged , , , , , , | 19 Comments

News Bites

JoP 3rd ed cover

In recent weeks I’ve been busy with the very tedious but so-important work of producing the index for the third edition of The Joy of Pickling. Yes, the third edition will be out soon, on July 1! Online retailers in both the USA and UK are taking orders now.

In this edition I’ve included fifty-some new recipes, such as for cured olives and brined whole watermelons and cabbages, and new technical information, including sources for fermenting containers, weights, and airlocks. Have a look at the blurb on the publisher’s website here.

______________________________________

 If you followed the link in the foregoing paragraph, you already know that I have a new publisher: Quarto Publishing Group has acquired the Harvard Common Press. Quarto will also be the publisher of my next book, Savory Jams, to be released sometime next year.

______________________________________

Recently, the folks at Fillmore Container asked me, along with several other writers on home food preservation, three questions: What does preserving mean to you? How has your own approach to preserving changed? And how has home food preservation in general changed? Our responses have just been posted here.

________________________________________

 Happy spring!

 

Posted in Books and blogs, Pickles | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Adventures with Almonds, Part II: No-Flavor-Added Homemade Marzipan

Before I used my Hall’s Hardy almonds, I thought, even though they didn’t taste bitter I should perhaps try to purge them of any amygdalin, the bitter compound that converts to hydrogen cyanide. I could find no authoritative instructions in how to do this, but plenty of informal advice was at hand. In one Internet forum, a man from Lebanon said his family would soak bitter almonds in many changes of water before eating them. A Spaniard advised soaking bitter almonds in vinegar for a day. Heat is also said to destroy amygdalin, although I doubted the efficacy of dry-heating, since the bitter nuts from Trader Joe’s and Costco had been roasted. For other foods containing cyanogenic compounds, such as cassava and bamboo shoots, scientific studies have found grating, soaking, fermentation, steaming, and exposure to air all to be effective in reducing the toxin, by as much as 99 percent.

I would have subjected my almonds to a hot-water bath regardless of any concern about amygdalin. Marzipan is supposed to be pure white, not freckled with brown bits of skin. Usually I blanch almonds by dropping them into boiling water and leaving them for a minute before draining them. When they are cool, I pop each nut out of its skin by pressing with thumb and forefinger at the broad end. This time I poured boiling water over the nuts and left them to soak for 30 minutes. The water turned milky but didn’t taste bitter. The nuts, still highly perfumed, released their skins easily, although because the skins, like the nuts, were mostly in small pieces, I didn’t try to remove every last brown bit. The naked kernels were white—a barely creamy white, much whiter than skinned California almonds.

I could have made a tiny mound of marzipan with only these nuts, by grinding them in my little hand-cranked nut grinder. But my Hall’s nuts were powerfully flavorful, perhaps too flavorful to use on their own. Traditionally, only a few bitter almonds are included in each batch of marzipan. Because I like round numbers, I decided to combine my 2.5 ounces of Hall’s Hardy almonds (weighed before soaking) with 13.5 ounces of commercially grown California almonds, for a total of 1 pound almonds.

I skinned the California almonds in the usual way, by putting them into a pot of boiling water for a minute, draining them, and then squeezing each one from its skin. I then ground all the nuts, a few handfuls at a time, in a miniature food processor, the kind run on the motor of a stick blender. The meal looked like very fine, fresh-cooked couscous. Some people report trouble with this process; they add water, rosewater, or orange flower water to keep the almonds from turning to an oily paste. But my Hall’s Hardy almonds had absorbed quite a lot of water, and I had ground the California almonds while damp instead of taking the trouble to dry them. I encountered no sign of pastiness.

Next I had to decide how much sugar to add. Various writers say that marzipan contains less sugar than almond paste does; the latter is firmer, for forming into the shapes of animals and fruits and so on, whereas the latter is softer, for using in baked goods. Others say the opposite—that marzipan has more sugar than almond paste. I make no distinction between the two, because recipes for marzipan itself are so variable. One recipe in Larousse Gastronomique, for example, calls for twice the weight of sugar as almonds; a second recipe calls for half the weight of sugar as almonds. I decided to use what seems to be the most common ratio: one part sugar, by weight, to one part almonds.

Now, how best to add the sugar? I once watched an embarrassed chef attempt to make marzipan by simply grinding granulated sugar and blanched almonds together in a big food processor. The sugar would not dissolve. Some cooks use confectioner’s sugar instead of granulated sugar, but I didn’t want my marzipan to taste of cornstarch. Added liquid, such as rosewater, probably helps to dissolve the sugar as well as to prevent oiliness. I love the flavor of roses, but to me it has no place in marzipan. I figured I could use superfine sugar and hope that the moisture remaining in my ground almonds would dissolve it, but I didn’t want to take that chance.

ground almonds with syrup

The ground almonds with syrup added

So I made a heavy syrup instead. I slowly heated two parts sugar and one part water until the sugar dissolved, and then I boiled the syrup to thread stage before adding it to the almond meal. I stirred the hot syrup into the meal; there seemed no need for the usual kneading.

At this point most people would add some almond extract, some other flavoring, or both. But on tasting my marzipan I found that the level of bitter-almond flavor was perfect. I didn’t need any almond extract, and I certainly didn’t want to cover up the natural bitter-almond flavor of my marzipan with rosewater, orange flower water, or vanilla extract.

drying the marzipan, best

Drying the marzipan

The marzipan was quite soft. I knew it would firm up as it cooled, and then I could cut it or mold it into shapes and let the pieces dry in a cool oven. Because I didn’t plan to use the marzipan right away, however, I decided to try another method of drying it out: I heated it, turning it often, in an iron skillet over a burner set on low heat. Then I let the marzipan cool for an hour and I divided the still-warm mass into two 1-pound loaves. When they had cooled further, I stored one in the freezer and the other in the fridge.

Here is my complete recipe:

marzipanMarzipan with (or without) Hall’s Hardy Almonds

For a stronger bitter-almond flavor, use a higher proportion of Hall’s Hardy to California almonds—say, 4 ounces Hall’s to 12 ounces California almonds.

 If you’d like to flavor your marzipan with rosewater or orange flower water, spread your blanched almonds on a towel and let them dry thoroughly before grinding them. Add the liquid during the grinding or incorporate it afterward.

You can use this recipe with ordinary almonds alone, if you like, by starting with a pound of almonds and, at the end, adding almond extract to taste.

 2.5 ounces Hall’s Hardy almonds
13.5 ounces California almonds
2 cups sugar
1 cup water

Blanch the almonds for 1 minute in a pot of boiling water. Drain the almonds, and squeeze off their skins. (If you’re concerned about amygdalin in the Hall’s Hardy almonds, do as I did: Cover them with boiling water, and drain them only after 30 minutes of soaking.)

In a food processor, grind the blanched almonds in batches to a fine meal. Collect the meal in a bowl.

In a saucepan, heat the sugar and water slowly, stirring, until the sugar has completely dissolved. Raise the heat to medium-high, and boil the syrup until it spins a thread in a glass of cold water, or to about 232 degrees F.

 Pour the syrup into the almond meal, stirring thoroughly.

Heat a large iron skillet over the lowest heat setting. Add the marzipan. Stirring, gradually raise the heat as needed until you can see tiny bubbles evaporate on the bottom of the pan; from a distance this looks like a vanishing white haze. Don’t let the pan get any hotter; you don’t want to caramelize the marzipan. Continue turning it in the pan for about 10 minutes, until the mass is noticeably firmer.

Remove the pan from the heat, and let the marzipan cool.

Form the marzipan into two loaves. Wrap them in plastic wrap or first in parchment paper and then in foil. Store the loaves in the refrigerator or freezer until you’re ready to use them.

Posted in Nuts | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Adventures with Almonds, Part I: The Marvelously Fragrant Hall’s Hardy Almond

This is the first part of a two-part series. I’ll publish the second, on making marzipan, shortly.

In the meantime, you might check out two articles I recently published with Mother Earth News, “Finally, a Good Thermometer for Home Preserving” and “Fun to Watch, Fun to Eat: Pickled Mixed Vegetables Brined in Glass.”

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Hall’s Hardy almond tree

I finally got around to cracking last fall’s crop of Hall’s Hardy almonds, my biggest in the five years since I planted the tree. I had more than half a cup of nutmeats!

Hall’s Hardy is actually a peach-almond cross. But because it blooms late, resists fungal disease, and self-pollinates, it is considered the only almond variety suitable for growing in the Pacific Northwest. Or so it was considered until recently, when Jim Gilbert of One Green World introduced several Ukrainian almond varieties, all of which are said to have the same virtues as Hall’s Hardy, plus more: They are true almonds, with soft or semisoft shells. But the Ukrainian varieties are yet unproven in Oregon. For now, I’m grateful for my tiny almond harvest, especially because these almonds have something the soft-shelled true almonds almost certainly lack: the lovely flavor of almond extract—that is, the flavor of bitter almond.

Hall's Hardy in shellCracking a Hall’s Hardy almond is problematic. Once freed of its husk, the nut looks like a peach pit, and it’s just as thick and hard. I tried using a kind of nutcracker, meant for walnuts and pecans, that surrounds the whole nut; as you press the two arms together, the hinged central cup hugs and squeezes the nut inside until the nut breaks at the seam. I cracked two or three nuts with this cracker, and the small kernels, to my delight, turned out whole. And then the hinge sprang.

hammering almonds, bestSo I got out a hammer, an old bread board, and a dishtowel I’d consigned to the rag bin. With the hammer method it’s important not to use a board or a towel that you care about, because you’re bound to damage both. You place a few nuts at a time on the board, lay the towel over, and then bang, bang away. You remove the towel and collect all the nut pieces, most of them itsy-bitsy. And then you toss out a mountain of thick shell pieces and sweep the stray ones from underfoot before they damage your floor or your flesh.

By this point some of you dear readers no doubt feel alarm, and not about the dangers of stepping on nut shells. It’s my mention of the flavor of bitter almond, right? The essential oil of bitter almond is nearly pure benzaldehyde, a chemical that signifies the presence of amygdalin, which enzymes in the intestines convert to prussic acid, also known as hydrogen cyanide. And cyanide kills. Some scientists say that eating 50 bitter almonds will kill an adult; a child may die after eating only 5 to 10. Other stone-fruit kernels—apricots, peaches, and plums—contain the same flavor, the same chemicals, and the same deadly power.

Despite its toxicity, amygdalin has a long history as a medicine. In China, for example, apricot pits have been traditionally used for coughs and constipation. But amounts taken were probably miniscule before the 1950s, when amygdalin in the form of laetrile, or so-called vitamin B17, became a folk treatment for cancer. In the United States, the popularity of laetrile surged after 1972, when a researcher at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center reported that the drug inhibited secondary tumors in mice. Although other researchers were unable to confirm these results, desperate cancer patients traveled to Mexico to buy laetrile or got their amygdalin directly from stone-fruit pits—especially from apricots, whose kernels, even richer than bitter almonds in amygdalin, are used as a food flavoring in Turkey, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Mediterranean region. At least a few children who might have survived cancer succumbed to laetrile poisoning instead.

Because some people will apparently force down the bitterest pill or nut if they think it’s good for them, bitter almonds cannot legally be sold in the United States. You can buy “pure” almond extract, which may be made from apricot or peach pits, or almond paste, probably flavored with apricot pits if not a synthetic imitation, but you can’t sell the almonds.

Some businesses do sell them, however, and those businesses include Trader Joe’s and Costco. Or so say consumers of Marcona almonds from Spain. Apparently, a bitter almond or two appear now and then in a bag of roasted Marconas, a variety with rounded kernels that are especially rich in oil. One bite of a bitter Marcona leads to spitting and gagging and a foul taste in the mouth that lasts the whole day through. Or so say these startled consumers.

This never happens with California almonds. You might occasionally taste a rancid California almond, if your nuts have been stored for too long. A rancid nut may make you spit and gag, but rancidity is not the same as bitterness.

The problem with Spanish almonds is something biologists call xenia, after a Greek word for hospitality. Xenia happens when the pollen of a plant of one genetic strain affects the seeds and fruit of the fertilized plant. This effect is distinct from the effect the pollen has on the next generation. Xenia is the reason gardeners plant their sweet corn far away from any field corn, popcorn, or ornamental corn, even if they don’t plan to save seed for planting in a subsequent year. The pollen of any of these other types of corn could turn the sweet corn starchy. In the same way, ears of white corn pollinated by yellow corn will turn out yellow, and the kernels of popcorn pollinated by sweet corn will turn out sweet and, probably, shriveled.

In the United States, all our commercial almonds are grown in California, in Central Valley orchards so extensive that beekeepers from all over the country truck in their hives for winter forage (this annual gathering of the hives is largely responsible for the rapid spread of various bee pests and diseases across the continent). Blooming California almond orchards are a lovely sight to see, as you race up or down the interstate, but they are a picture of modern, industrial farming. No doubt Spain, the world’s second largest almond producer, has orchards much like them, but I haven’t seen them. Traveling through Andalusia one winter, I got a different view of almonds in flower. Masses of pale-pink blooms were scattered here and there over the landscape. The almond trees, some small and some towering, marked old fence lines, roads that might have been buried in sand, and other past and present boundaries where the trees had grown up from seedlings and thrived without care. Almonds have been growing here since Roman times. Although bitterness in their nuts is a recessive trait, controlled by a single gene, bitter almond trees dominate in numbers because critters avoid eating their nuts—that is, their seeds—and also, apparently, because sweet almond trees are less tolerant of very dry, sandy soil.

In Spain, sweet almond orchards are mostly planted in damper, coastal areas. But sweet almonds can also grow on irrigated land or on dry land without irrigation if the scions are grafted to bitter almond trees or to peach-almond hybrids. It is in these dryland orchards, I suspect, that xenia happens. The sweet almond flowers are supposed to be fertilized by the pollen of other sweet almond varieties that bloom at the same time and are interplanted in the same orchard. (Self-pollinated varieties are yet a novelty in both Spain and California.) Every once in a while, however, a bee carries pollen from an almond tree growing wild in the fencerow or anywhere else in the vicinity; honeybees, after all, often fly two miles from the hive in search of pollen or nectar. Xenia happens when a bee brings pollen from a wild, bitter almond tree to a sweet almond tree with a recessive allele, that is, an allele—or gene variant—that when matched with another recessive allele will cause bitterness. Marcona almonds, like most of the other varieties grown in both Spain and California, is heterozygous for sweetness. From the flower where the bee deposits pollen, a bitter nut develops.

The more bitter the nut, the more amygdalin it contains. A study of Spanish almonds found amygdalin ranging from 2.16 to 157.44 milligrams per kilogram in nonbitter almonds, 523.50 to 1,772.75 milligrams per kilogram in semibitter almonds, and 33,006.60 to 5,3998.30 milligrams per kilograms in bitter almonds. The least bitter bitter almonds, then, had 210 times as much amygdalin as the most bitter nonbitter almonds. The most bitter bitter almonds had 25,000 times as much amygdalin as the least bitter nonbitter almonds.

Given that my Hall’s Hardy almonds weren’t almonds at all but an interspecies cross, I didn’t know whether to classify them as nonbitter, semibitter, or bitter. (I will continue to call my almonds almonds, however, because genetists have determined that through millennia of development peaches and almonds have crossed repeatedly.) Because of their strong aroma of benzaldehyde, I figured that the Hall’s Hardies must contain more than a little amygdalin. I found an old gardening publication from Cornell University that recommended against growing either Hall’s Hardy almonds or another hybrid variety, called Ridenhower, because of the nuts’ bitterness and possible toxicity. But I could taste barely any bitterness over the strong benzaldehyde flavor of my nuts, and I tend to be sensitive to bitterness. They tasted so good, in fact—so much more interesting than California almonds!—that I would have tossed all the kernels into my mouth if I hadn’t had other plans for them.

My plan: I would make my own, no-flavor-added marzipan.

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Tomato Report 2015

Now that tomato-starting season is almost upon us, it’s high time I reviewed last year’s varieties.
The tomatoes I’ll describe here were all grown by my friends Greg and Wendy, who kindly let me raid their garden while they were on vacation. (All I can say about the many varieties I planted myself is this: Deer like them. The darn deer ate every last fruit.) All of these varieties are open-pollinated.

speckled Roman 3Speckled Roman. Developed by John Swenson as a cross of Antique Roman with Banana Legs, this 5-inch-long tomato, with an elongated plum-tomato shape, has deep red flesh and a red skin beautifully streaked with gold. The acidity is strong, the seeds large and few, and the fruit production high. I found no hollow interiors and only a little blossom-end rot, less than in the hybrid Roma that Wendy and Greg also planted (we had a bad year for blossom-end rot). If you dry this tomato, do so when the stripes are still greenish; if they are entirely gold the fruit is too ripe. Seeds are available from Johnny’s and from Seed Savers Exchange. I will certainly plant this tomato again.

Black Vernissage. Greg liked this tomato; Wendy did not. I wavered between lust and disgust, because this golf-ball-size tomato tastes very low in acid and mealy if you eat it when it’s rust-red and green. You have to pick it sooner, when it is still pink and green. Double Helix Farms  introduced this Ukrainian tomato to the United States; Totally Tomatoes and Baker Creek  also sell it.

Purple Russian. Looking like a big egg with a point at the bottom, this sweet, meaty, low-acid tomato from Ukraine is useful for sauce or drying. The skin color is only slightly purplish. The tomato is best, and most acidic, when it is ripe but still quite firm. Seeds are available from Baker Creek and Totally Tomatoes.

chocolate stripesChocolate Stripes. This gorgeous 3-to 4-inch-wide oblate tomato looks much like Pink Berkeley Tie-Dye, but the skin color is a deeper red with deeper green stripes. The flavor is excellent; I loved this tomato in salads and gazpacho. Chocolate Stripes was bred by Al Anderson, of Troy, Ohio, from Tom Wagner’s Schimmeig Creg and an unknown pink Amish tomato. Seeds are available from Baker Creek and many other seed companies.

Brandywine 1Brandywine. Greg’s favorite, this tomato is far superior to the red Brandywine I used to grow, with its hard green shoulders, ugly navel at the blossom end, and inevitable cracks. This Brandywine is truly pink, with tiny scab-like freckles. Some of the oblate fruits on Greg and Wendy’s potato-leafed vines had the ugly navels, and occasionally an associated crack, but most of the tomatoes were well formed. They were also fairly uniform in size, about 3½ inches across, and the taste was good and tart. The skins were tender; you have to handle these tomatoes gently. Greg and Wendy’s seed came from Territorial, which has been selecting Brandywine seed for many years and claims to now have one of the earliest strains.

Craig LeHoullier has attempted to sort out the confusion of the Brandywine name at WebGrower.com.

For reviews of other tomato cultivars, see my Tomato Reports from 2014, 2012, and 2009-2011.

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Persimmon Treats for the Holiday Cookie Platter

persimmon chews

The day the sale of our farm closed, I picked nearly all the remaining fruit in the orchard, but I had to leave the persimmons. They were the biggest crop I’ve ever had, on a tree at least fifteen years old but still barely taller than I. What bothered me most was that, thanks to the unusually long, hot summer, the persimmons were sure to ripen completely for the first time—to turn bright orange and lusciously sweet, as persimmons regularly do in California.

So I was especially grateful when a fellow Master Food Preserver offered me a big box of squat, nonastringent Fuyu persimmons. She had gotten them from a relative who didn’t know what to do with them. They had been left on the tree through weather in the low twenties, and so in places they were as soft as a ripe Hachiya (the acorn-shaped variety that is astringent until fully ripe) while in other places they were quite firm. But still they tasted very, very good. And they had arrived just in time for me to make a few into toothsome holiday treats.

I’ve based the recipe that follows on one apparently created for the little American persimmon—a native Eastern fruit that I’ve never yet had the opportunity of tasting—and for another American native, the black walnut. This nut is worth a try if you have a black walnut tree in the neighborhood and don’t mind the husking and shelling. I substituted fat, sweet English walnut meats from a local friend’s old tree.

The original version of this recipe called for dark brown sugar, and I sometimes prefer it for its richer color and taste. But light brown sugar lets you taste more of the persimmon’s own delicate flavor.

To extract persimmon flesh, scrape or spoon it from the skin, discarding any seeds. If you use Hachiyas or fruits of another astringent variety, be sure they are fully soft. Persimmons such as Fuyu can be used when quite firm. Firm flesh will need chopping.

Persimmon Chews

1 cup plus 3 tablespoons walnut meats
3 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar
1 cup persimmon pulp
1 cup brown sugar (light or dark, as you prefer), packed
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon butter

 Chop 1 cup of the walnuts, and put them into a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Grind the remaining walnuts with the confectioner’s sugar in a spice grinder or blender. Set this mixture aside.

Add to the saucepan the persimmon pulp, sugar, egg yolks, and butter. Cook the mixture over medium heat, stirring often at first and then constantly as the mixture thickens. Continue cooking until the mixture forms a ball that pulls away from the side and bottom of the pan, or to 230 degrees F. This will take about 20 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat, and let the mixture cool for about an hour. Then form it with your hands into 1-inch balls, and roll each ball in the sugar-walnut mixture.

When the balls are completely cool, store them in an airtight container.

 Makes about 2 dozen chews

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