The 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.
Strain 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.
Before 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 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.
When home preservers have asked me what sort of thermometer they should use, I’ve never had good advice for them. I teach people to assess the readiness of their jams, jellies, and preserves by various tests: Does the liquid “sheet” off the spoon? Does the jam mound in a chilled dish or show wrinkles when you disturb its cooling surface? Does the syrup “spin a thread” in a glass of cold water?
Yet I often specify temperature goals for verifying these visual tests. Knowing the temperature really helps, for example, in the case of fruits whose juices gel slowly and so fail to “sheet” when they have reached gelling temperature. But how can you know that your boiling liquid has reached gelling temperature when your thermometer simply does not work?
Thermometers fail us in many ways. The glass capillary tube of an old-fashioned candy thermometer slips up or down in relation to the scale. The paint wears off the scale. Thermometers that must be left in the pot get in the way of the spoon and fall in the jam. Dial thermometers must be calibrated when you buy them and frequently thereafter. For an “instant-read” thermometer, the “instant” may last ten seconds or more—long enough to burn your fingers. Digital thermometers often flip out a few degrees beyond boiling. My husband bought an expensive, long-probed thermometer that measured some 30 degrees off and could not be calibrated. He bought another that showed wildly fluctuating temperatures over about 215 degrees F. Even my little digital CDN, the most reliable thermometer I ever had until now, goes blank when the temperature nears 220 degrees; when I remove the thermometer from the heat, the display reappears in Celsius instead of Fahrenheit. And thermometers of all kinds fog up and become unreadable.
So I am extremely happy with my Christmas present: a little digital thermometer called the Javelin Pro. It’s made in the style of the expensive Thermapen: With the probe folded against the handle, these thermometers are small enough to fit in a breast pocket, but when the probe is fully extended the thermometer is long enough—10.5 inches, in the case of the Javelin Pro—to keep your hand well away from the heat. I like to extend the probe just 90 to 120 degrees, so my hand is outside the rim of the pot while I take the temperature of my jam.
Many manufacturers are now making Thermapen-type thermometers, which start at about twenty dollars. All have large, easy-to-read screens, and some of the screens, including mine, have backlighting, which enhances readability even when you’re not working in the dark. And these thermometers tend to be fast and accurate. My Javelin Pro responds in only 3 to 4 seconds, and it’s accurate to 0.9 degrees F. You can’t calibrate these thermometers, but you shouldn’t need to; the Javelin Pro is supposed to retain its accuracy through the three-year warranty period. High temperatures don’t upset my thermometer; I’ve used it successfully for jams and jellies already, and the manufacturer claims that it is accurate all the way to 482 degrees F. The big display does not fog up.
I see only two general disadvantages to Thermapen-type thermometers. First, you can’t switch the readout between Fahrenheit and Celsius. Instead you must buy either a Fahrenheit or a Celsius thermometer, although you may be able to change the setting by fiddling with the thermometer’s insides. Second, you must replace the battery when it wears out—but fortunately that battery is likely to be long-lived. My Javelin Pro takes a CR2032 battery that is expected to last 3,500 hours.
The Javelin Pro has a couple of special features that made me choose it over similar models for my Christmas list. A hidden magnet lets it magically stick to the refrigerator. If you have a non-magnetic refrigerator, no problem: The Javelin Pro also has a hole at the handle end through which you can loop a cord, to hang on a hook or around your neck. No more fishing through a drawer every time you need a thermometer.
If you’re feeling wealthy, however, you might want to bypass the Javelin Pro for a genuine Thermapen. All the competition from imitators has pushed its maker, Thermoworks, to continually improve its thermometer. The latest model, the Super-Fast Thermapen, responds in only 2 to 3 seconds and is accurate to 0.7 degrees F. You can set the thermometer to show you tenths of a degree, if you prefer, instead of whole degrees, and the display will turn among four directions depending on how you hold the instrument. The battery is an AAA, so it’s easy to find a replacement. Best of all, this newest Thermapen is not just water-resistant; it is waterproof.
The Thermapen is on sale now for $87 at www.thermoworks.com. The Javelin Pro costs $58 at lavatools.co.
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.
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.
In case you’ve been wondering why I haven’t written in so long, I’ll explain: We’ve been moving. This has involved renovating a little old bungalow, cleaning out a big house, a two-story garage, and a large barn, selling or giving away half of what was left after burglars took a good share, and fitting everything we couldn’t part with into our new, cozy digs. The 2015 vintage alone, in carboys, filled the trailer. The canned goods from the garage barely fit into the bed of a large pickup; we moved the hundreds of jars from the pantry in separate trips. Happily, the basement of the bungalow came with an old preserving cupboard. It’s taken me months, but I finally have all the shelves filled, organized, and labeled.
What you don’t see in the picture are the dozens of older jars of jams, jellies, and syrups that wouldn’t fit in the cupboard. I’ll probably make them into wine–but we have plenty of that. Maybe I’ll just feed them to the ever-ravenous soldier fly larvae in my compost.
The various historical meanings of shrub have always fallen into two groups, the syrup, or pre-mix, and the finished drink. I’ve often made shrub as a finished drink but seldom as a pre-mix, because it makes more sense, to me, to preserve fruit either as a flavored vinegar or as a syrup without vinegar. Flavored vinegar can also go on salads; syrups can go into cocktails or lemonade or over ice cream or pancakes. To make shrub from flavored vinegar, you add sugar and water. To make it from syrup, you add vinegar and water. Either method is barely more complicated than making shrub from fruit syrup with vinegar already added.
I have wondered, though: Which is better—shrub made from fruit syrup or shrub made from flavored vinegar? I decided to do a comparison using my homemade quince syrup and quince vinegar.
Making quince syrup and vinegar is easy enough for anyone with a quince tree. To make the vinegar, put diced quinces (there is no need to peel them) into a jar, and cover them with cider vinegar, distilled vinegar, or white wine vinegar (I recommend cider vinegar, for reasons I’ll explain shortly). For 2 pounds quinces you’ll need a 2-quart jar and about a quart of vinegar. Close up the jar, wait about three weeks, and then strain and bottle the vinegar.
There are many ways to make fruit syrups, but I prefer a raw method: Layer equal weights of diced unpeeled quinces and sugar in a jar (don’t skimp on the syrup or you’ll end up with a sort of quince wine). Close up the jar, and shake it occasionally over the next few days, until all the sugar has dissolved. After two weeks or longer, strain the syrup. It’s a good idea to store the syrup in the refrigerator.
I made my first quince shrub from the syrup, as follows:
Quince Shrub 1
2 tablespoons quince syrup 2 tablespoons cider vinegar ¼ cup cold water 3 ice cubes
Stir the syrup and vinegar together in a glass (I used a small wine glass). Add the water and ice, and stir again.
I filled another glass with quince shrub made this way:
Stir the ingredients together just as for Quince Shrub 1.
The two shrubs tasted equally strongly of quince. The syrup-based one had a slightly earthier flavor, perhaps because it was made with cider vinegar, whereas I’d used distilled vinegar to make my quince-flavored vinegar. The big difference between the two drinks, though, was in appearance: The vinegar-based shrub was colorless, like my quince-flavored vinegar; the syrup-based shrub was golden. Using cider vinegar would have eliminated this difference. Then I decided to try using both of my quince products, the syrup and the vinegar, in a third glass of shrub:
Quince Shrub 3
2 tablespoons quince syrup 2½ tablespoons quince-flavored vinegar ¼ cup cold water 3 ice cubes
Stir the ingredients together as for Quince Shrub 1.
The third shrub was golden in color and undoubtedly the quinciest in flavor. But don’t worry if you have only enough quinces for vinegar or syrup; all of these shrubs were deliciously refreshing. With carbonated water in place of still water, any of them would make a lovely soda. And with a splash of brandy or rum, any would make a tasty sort of cocktail—one that would I think would please Sir Walter Besant, whether he recognized it as shrub or not.
You may still see it on the shelf of an old-fashioned inn; you may even see the announcement that it is for sale painted on door-posts, but no man regardeth it. I believe that it was supposed to possess valuable medicinal properties, the nature of which I forget.
So wrote Sir Walter Besant in 1892, in his book Fifty Years Ago, about a drink a half-century out of style in England. But Besant wasn’t reminiscing about today’s typical shrub, sweetened flavored vinegar served well diluted. More likely he was remembering an alcoholic lemonade, like the one fortified with brandy and wine in Eliza Smith’s The Compleat Housewife (1766). Or he might have remembered an orange shrub; Benjamin Franklin left a recipe for one, made with rum, among his papers.
Besant associated shrub with “medicinal properties” because shrub was, after all, a sort of syrup (the words shrub and syrup are closely related, with Arabic roots), and both syrup and alcohol had long histories as vehicles for drugs. In 1892, though, medicine was modernizing fast, and disease was no longer a valid excuse for alcoholic imbibing. So shrub had gone the way of outmoded English drinks like purl, copus, bishop, and dog’s-nose.
Across the Atlantic, however, shrubs were still popular. During the nineteenth century they had actually expanded in variety, as Americans substituted local fruits for citrus. Cookbooks contained recipes for red and white currant shrub, cherry shrub, raspberry shrub, and occasionally even fox-grape shrub.
With the exception of grape, all of these shrub varieties are included, along with orange and lemon, in Jerry Thomas’s Bartenders Guide of 1862. Thomas added vinegar only to his raspberry shrub, probably because the other fruits were sufficiently acidic without it. (He specified that the cherries should be “acid”; that is, they should be sour cherries, not sweet ones.)
Judging by the frequency of its appearance in nineteenth-century cookbooks, raspberry shrub became the standard type. Perhaps because raspberry shrub always included vinegar, vinegar became a standard shrub ingredient. The method of making shrub changed, too: Instead of cooking the fruit, as was always done in older shrub recipes, the fruit was now soaked in vinegar, and then the vinegar was strained and combined with sugar to make a sour syrup. Here’s a typical recipe, from Estelle Woods Wilcox’s Buckeye Cookery (1877):
Place red raspberries in a stone jar, cover them with vinegar, let stand over night; next morning strain, and to one pint of juice add one pint of sugar, boil ten minutes, and bottle while hot.—Mrs. Judge West.
For serving, the syrup was well diluted with water and ice. The shrub might or might not be spiked with brandy or other liquor at serving time.
(I let my fruit steep much longer than Mrs. Judge West advises, three weeks or more. And I often use the berries, too, after straining them out: I toss them into a fruit or green salad, and then I dress the salad with oil but no vinegar or other acid. The vinegar-soaked berries keep for many weeks in the refrigerator.)
By the late nineteenth century, the American use of the term shrub had narrowed. In 1892, the same year in which Besant wrote, the Missouri Horticultural Society published a recipe for raspberry shrub along with nearly identical recipes, except for the choice of fruit, for “blackberry vinegar” and “strawberry acid.” Shrub was coming to mean one thing only: Sweetened raspberry-flavored vinegar, diluted with water and ice.
By the mid-twentieth century shrub was waning in popularity even in America. Apparently only country people—those with scant access to fresh lemons but with plenty of homemade cider vinegar—bothered to make the drink. For farm families such as one I know here in the Willamette Valley, raspberry shrub has been a special, non-alcoholic refreshment for the hot summer days of haymaking.
Several years ago, though, shrub became a hot topic of discussion among the hip. It seemed that scads of city folk were throwing out their kombucha cultures and mixing up their first batches of shrub. Partially responsible for the trend was Andy Ricker, of the Portland restaurant Pok Pok, who discovered “drinking vinegars” in local Asian markets and started making his own in 2005 (he now sells them under the label Som). Some people recognized Andy’s drinking vinegars as shrubs. And suddenly shrubs were back in style.
But the meaning of the term shrub has shifted once more: Now shrub is any sort of drink acidified with vinegar. It might be made with cooked or raw fruit. It might be drunk with soda water. It might be a sort of cocktail. It might be made from beets! (You can imagine how simple that recipe can be: Pour some liquid from a jar of sweet pickled beets into a glass. Add water and ice to taste.)
A commercial quince shrub even won a 2015 Good Food Award. Its maker, a California company called INNA Jam, has returned to the eighteenth-century tradition of cooking fruit to make shrub.
I make quince shrub, too, but in the more modern, American way: I use raw fruit, thus preserving its vitamin C and fresh flavor. You’ll find my recipes in “Shrub, Part II: Quince Vinegar, Syrup, and Shrub.”
Do you recognize this melon? I found one like it at a Vietnamese market in Portland in 2013, saved the seeds, and planted them in 2014. The vines were vigorous and healthy, and the fruits oblong and fairly large, with netted yellow skins and pale orange flesh. These melons aren’t aromatic, but they are extremely sweet and wonderfully crisp. The texture is more like that of watermelon than that of cantaloupe.
Although I’m planning only a small summer garden this year, I’m once again including this melon. If you know what it is, please let me know!
I feel ridiculous giving so much attention this time of year to a fruit of hot summer days, Citrullus lanatus—that is, the species that includes both watermelons and citron melons. After all, for nearly half a year I ignored the citron melons I’d harvested late last summer, though they lay in plain view on the tiled floor of our entry hall. But yesterday I noticed a brown area on one, like a bruise, and when I lifted the melon it spilled its guts and fell to pieces. Looking at the mushy melon chunks lying in a spreading puddle of clear liquid spotted with red seeds, I figured it was time to get cooking the remaining melons.
So I cut one in half, sliced it into slabs, cut off the rind, poked out the many seeds, and diced the flesh. This was a time-consuming job, believe me, but when I was done it was easy to pickle the melon. Here’s how I did it.
Sweet Pickled Citron Melon
I’ve based this recipe on one published in the New York Tribune in 1918, but I’ve omitted a treatment with pickling lime. Citron melon keeps its shape without liming, and, besides, I like the natural soft, chewy texture of the unlimed melon.
This pickle has a clear, lovely look and a pleasant bit of bitterness from the lime—and here, of course, I mean not the white powder but the round, green citrus fruit. Lemon, as called for by the Tribune recipe, is a perfectly good alternative to lime.
6 cups water 6 tablespoons salt 3 pounds peeled and seeded citron melon, cut into ½-inch cubes 1 cup cider vinegar ½ cup water 1 cup sugar ¼ cup honey 1 small lime, sliced very thin 2 quarter-size pieces fresh ginger 1 2½-inch cinnamon stick, broken ½ teaspoon cloves
Combine the water and salt in a pot, and bring the brine to a boil, stirring to dissolve the salt. Add the citron melon, and simmer it for 15 minutes. Drain the citron melon, and drop it into a large bowl of ice water. When the melon has cooled, drain it again.
In a nonreactive pot, combine the vinegar, water, sugar, honey, and lime slices. Put the ginger, cinnamon, and cloves into a spice bag, and put the spice bag into the pot. Heat the ingredients until the sugar has dissolved, and then add the drained citron melon. Simmer the mixture for about an hour, until the melon is completely translucent and the syrup has thickened somewhat.
Ladle the melon and its liquid into pint or half-pint mason jars, including a lime slice in each jar. Add lids and rings, and process the jars for 10 minutes in a boiling-water bath.
I was pleased to find outside the front door yesterday a package from Gwen Schock Cowherd, my cherished advisor on all foods German-from-Russia. Gwen had sent a jar of her prize-winning unfermented watermelon pickles, made in the tradition of Midwestern prairie dwellers whose German ancestors once lived beside the Black Sea in Russia.
Gwen’s fresh-pickled watermelon tastes much like mine, but with a strong, fresh dilliness and a striking, appealing saltiness. I especially like the bit of crunch provided by the sliver of white rind showing on one edge of each watermelon piece. And notice how pretty Gwen’s pickle jar looks, with the dill heads and the sliced green pepper.
Gwen kindly sent me her recipe to share with you:
Gwen’s Watermelon Pickles
BRINE: 12 cups water 2½ cups sugar 2½ cups white vinegar ¾ cup salt 1 ounce Schilling pickling spice mix
Bring all ingredients to a boil. Simmer for a couple of hours, covered. Stir occasionally to distribute the flavor of the spices.
1 large seedless watermelon, any variety (better underripe than overripe) 2 small heads fresh dill per jar 1 slivered garlic cove per jar 1 small dried red pepper per jar (optional) 1 or 2 thin green pepper slices per jar
Peel the watermelon, leaving a thin amount of white rind. Cut the watermelon into 1-by-1/2-inch chunks. Try to leave some white rind on each chunk; this will help to keep it from disintegrating. Drain the chunks in colanders for several hours—overnight is best.
Pour off the watermelon juice. If you want to use the juice in your brine, that is OK.
Into each sterilized quart jar, put a dill head, and add watermelon to fill half the jar. Shake the jar so the pieces settle. Then add one small dried red pepper (if you like your pickles hot) and half the garlic slivers. Distribute the garlic among the watermelon chunks. Add more watermelon chunks, again shaking the jar so they settle. Add the strip(s) of green pepper and the rest of the garlic slivers, distributing them in the jar. Put another dill head at the top of the jar.
Pour the brine, boiling and strained, into the jars. (Save the extra brine for another batch. It will keep in the refrigerator indefinitely.) Add lids and rings, and put the jars in a hot water bath. Bring the water to a boil, and boil it for 5 minutes, no longer.
Remove the jars from the bath and let them cool undisturbed for several hours. Check to see that they are sealed. Store them in a cool place.
Makes 7 quarts
Gwen says her pickles improve with age. As you can see in the picture, the ones she sent me were made in 2012. Keep in mind, though, that she stores her sealed jars in an especially cool place: a refrigerator reserved just for pickles.
As the fermentation fad spreads, some people are saying that pickles aren’t true pickles unless the solids as well as the liquid components have been fermented. Gwen’s unfermented watermelon pickles, and my slightly sweeter ones, are very different from brine-pickled watermelon, and if you try all three recipes you may well prefer one over another. But I can’t predict which you’ll like best. All of them are real pickles, and all of them are really good.