Barely Candied Nuts

candied pecans
Barely candied pecans

True wealth, I believe, is a mature Persian walnut tree, to feed you, your family, and your friends through the winter with tasty kernels rich in fat and protein, and to provide green nuts in early summer for liqueurs, preserves, and pickles.

Sadly, I am walnut-poor. I planted a walnut tree on the farm but had to take it out so it wouldn’t shade the solar panels. Here in town, the squirrels keep trying to plant walnuts in my little garden, but I always pull up the seedlings, because if I had a mature walnut tree I wouldn’t be able to grow much else.

Fortunately, walnuts often come free to anyone who doesn’t mind picking them up off the ground. I used to collect from trees along country roads and one in a middle-school playground. Now my husband and I gather walnuts while walking around town, where they fall in the street and on the sidewalk, or in yards when the homeowner doesn’t mind. We dry them on the pool table in the basement, crack them in front of the fire on winter evenings, and eat them every day in our breakfast bread and at holiday time in various kinds of cookies.

Once in a while I crave candied walnuts. Then I remember that most candied nuts are overwhelmingly sweet, because they are more candy than nuts. But one day I thought I’d try candying walnuts so that they would turn out like kettle corn, with just a little sugar and some salt, too. I didn’t want to end up tossing nuts all over the kitchen—making kettle corn without a mess requires a very, very deep kettle—so I developed a method that uses water to make a syrup. Basically, I stir hot nuts into a little hot caramel and then separate the individual nuts. Walnuts candied this way are a fine treat for the holiday table, and they shouldn’t break a tooth or pull out a filling.

I like this treatment even more with pecans, the walnuts of the South. The method should work well for hazelnuts and almonds, too.

Candied Nuts, Kettle-Corn Style

1½ cups walnut or pecan meats
1½ tablespoons water
3 tablespoons sugar
3/8 teaspoon fine salt

Heat the oven to 300 degrees F. Spread the nuts in a baking pan, and place the pan in the heated oven. Roast the nuts for about 30 minutes, until they have darkened a bit and begun to smell toasty.

While the nuts roast, pour the water into a heavy-bottomed stainless-steel skillet. Sprinkle the sugar and salt over. Lay a piece of parchment paper on a counter close by.

When the nuts are ready, turn off the oven, but leave the baking pan inside. Heat the skillet over medium-low heat, stirring constantly until the sugar and salt have dissolved. Raise the heat to medium, and set the hot pan of nuts by the stove. When the syrup begins to color, remove the skillet from the burner. Swirl the skillet a bit as the residual heat caramelizes the syrup. If the syrup isn’t caramelizing completely, set the skillet over low heat briefly. As soon as you have a uniformly colored syrup, add the hot nuts. With a wooden spoon or spatula, turn the nuts in the syrup until they are all coated. Then turn them out on the parchment paper, spreading them with your spoon or spatula.

Let the nuts cool for a minute or two, and then separate the individual nuts with your fingers. As soon as the nuts have cooled to room temperature, store them in an airtight container.

 Makes 1½ cups

 

 

A More Colorful, Flavorful, and Textured Rhubarb Chutney

quick rhubarb chutneyThe best apple chutney I ever ate was made as I watched by a sorority cook who said she never used a recipe. She would make chutney quickly and instinctively for the young women in her care the same day that they would eat it, and they would eat it all. The apple slices in Trish’s chutney were tender but whole. Her chutney tasted as much of apples as of vinegar or spices.

English-style chutneys, to my mind, are too often too sour, too sweet, too dark, too pasty. Sometimes I can’t identify the main ingredient without looking at the label—even if I’ve made the chutney myself. A good rhubarb chutney is particularly difficult to produce, since rhubarb so quickly turns to mush as it cooks and since it’s quite sour even before you add vinegar.

As I pulled my first rhubarb stalks of the season last week, I vowed to make a rhubarb chutney inspired by Trish’s apple chutney. I wouldn’t can my chutney, since I’d make only a small quantity and since I wouldn’t use enough sugar and vinegar to guarantee safety without laboratory testing. The lesser quantities of sugar and vinegar would produce a thick chutney with only brief cooking, and I needed to keep the cooking brief so the rhubarb wouldn’t turn to mush.

But what to do about color? Most rhubarb stalks are more green than red, and when you combine them with spices you get brown. My rhubarb stalks were almost entirely green, but I wanted my chutney to be as red as cooks imagine rhubarb to be. So I decided to add hibiscus flowers, jamaica. They would contribute their own tartness to the mix, but just a little hibiscus would produce a lot of color.

Here’s the recipe I created that day. The chutney is a wonderful accompaniment to grilled chicken.

Quick, Chunky, Rosy-Red Rhubarb Chutney

You can buy dried hibiscus flowers in Mexican and Middle Eastern markets. Grind them in an electric coffee grinder.

1 pound rhubarb stalks, diced ½ inch thick
½ pound white or yellow onion, quartered lengthwise and sliced crosswise
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
1 teaspoon fine salt
2 teaspoons hot pepper flakes
2 teaspoons black mustard seeds
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
Zest of 1 orange, in thin strips
1/2 cup white sugar
½ cup cider vinegar
1 teaspoon ground dried hibiscus flowers
½ cup raisins, preferably golden

Combine all the ingredients in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Simmer them about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally and gently. When the liquid is nearly all absorbed, remove the pot from the heat.

Store the cooled chutney in the refrigerator. Before serving, remove the cinnamon stick. You might also warm the chutney briefly, on the stove or in a microwave oven.

Makes 3 cups

Ask Santa for Empty Jars

When someone asks what you want for Christmas and you can’t think of anything, you at least know you don’t want commercial preserves, right? Those store-bought jams and relishes are never as good as the ones you make yourself, even if they came from the cutest little shop in someone’s favorite vacation spot. To avoid collecting jars that will sit unopened in your pantry for months or years, try asking for empty jars instead. I mean fancy preserving jars, ones you might never buy for yourself because they cost more than Ball or Kerr jars.

Among the possibilities are jars produced by the French company Le Parfait. You probably know Le Parfait’s old-fashioned glass-lidded jars—now called, on Le Parfait’s website, Super Jars—with their rubber rings and metal clamps. I have used big jars of this type for decades for storing dry foods, and the French still use them for home canning. After the jars are pasteurized, the jars are stored with their clamps unfastened. So long as the lids stay sealed, you know your preserves are good.

I tested another Le Parfjam jarait product, the jam jars, faceted on the lower half and bearing a screw-on metal top. These jars come in various sizes—324, 385, and 645 milliliters. I used the 324-milliliter jars, which hold about 1 1/3 cups and so, I figured, might be small enough for jelly (for a good set, jelly must cool rapidly). A standard American wide-mouth funnel just fits into the top of one of these jars. The metal top screws on with short threads, as on most commercial food jars, rather than with long threads, as on a Ball jar. I like the lids displayed on the Le Parfait website—they are decorated with little green leaves and red berries—more than the ones that came with my set, which are printed with “HOME MADE” in almost psychedelic blue lettering.

jam jar lid

Instead of boiling-water or steam processing for these jars, Le Parfait recommends “self-pasteurization,” which means turning the jam jars upside-down immediately after screwing on the lids. This practice is the norm in Europe, but the USDA frowns on it. So I processed my filled jars for ten minutes in a steam canner.

After the processed or “self-pasteurized” jam jars have cooled, it’s hard to tell whether they have sealed. But I have found that if I hold both a sealed and an unsealed jar with the edges of the lids at eye level, I am able to see the difference. The sealed lids are just slightly concave. When you remove one you hear a little popping sound.

Familia Wiss lids and capI also tested some of Le Parfait’s Familia Wiss terrines. Also called bocals, these jars have straight sides and wide mouths, to make it easy for you to turn out your terrine (pâté without pastry) from the terrine. Available in sizes to hold 200, 350, 500, 750, 1,000, and 1,500 millimeters, these jars are different from any I’ve seen before in that each comes with both a flat lid (capsole) and a full cap (couvercle).  The flat lid is much like that of a Ball or Kerr jar, but heavier and bearing a big pimple in the center. The cap, which like a Ball or Kerr band serves to keep the flat lid in place during processing, sports an inverted pimple in its center. The cap could be used on its own for refrigerator storage, but because it lacks a protective coating, as well as a sealing ring, it shouldn’t be used on its own with acid foods.

The Familia Wiss terrines identified as 500 millimeters in size on Le Parfait’s website actually come embossed as “500-539 ml,”and a fill line is marked at 1 1/8 inches from the top, as if the jars were intended for pressure canning. To my delight, I found that each of these jars hold a pint with ½ inch headspace. They are shorter and wider than Ball or Kerr pint jars; in fact, they are perfect for accommodating quartered large pears in horizontal layers.

I processed three Familia Wiss jars in a steam canner. On one lid the pimple flattened completely; on the others the pimples flattened only a bit. But all three jars sealed firmly.

Le Parfait makes a tool called a tire-rondelle for opening both Super Jars and Familia Wiss terrines. You can use the tool sideways to tug on the tongue of a Super Jar’s rubber ring, or you can poke the pointed end into the pimple on the flat lid of a Familia Wiss jar to release the vacuum. An ice pick should work as well on a Familia Wiss lid, or you can pry up the lid with an ordinary bottle opener or a table knife.

For the French, apparently, Familia Wiss jars are used primarily for terrines, and Le Parfait’s website includes terrine recipes that make my mouth water. Unfortunately, the recipes omit instructions for pressure canning; instead, you are told to process the jars in a boiling-water bath for three hours. The USDA lacks any comparable recipes from which you might derive pressure-canning times, so if you decide to try one of these recipes you’ll probably want to store your terrines in the fridge.

Here is how I canned my pears in 500-milliliter Familia Wiss jars. You might substitute any pint mason jars in this recipe.

Familia Wiss jarsPears in Light Syrup with Vanilla

I used Bosc bears, but any variety should do.

If heating the pear slices in syrup seems like too much bother, you might put them cold into the jars. Heating them should soften them just enough to help them pack well in the jars, but if you’re not careful with this method you can end up with burnt fingers, mushy pears, or both.

3 inches of a vanilla bean
2 2/3 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 large or 2 small lemons
About 4 pounds (7 to 8) just-ripe pears

Wash three 500-milliliter Familia Wiss terrines (or wide-mouth pint mason jars) and the flat lids in hot, soapy water, and rinse.

Score the vanilla bean segment lengthwise, so that the seeds will escape into the syrup, and cut the segment crosswise into thirds. Put these pieces into a saucepan with the water and the sugar. Slowly heat the mixture, stirring to dissolve the sugar, while you prepare the pears.

Squeeze the lemon juice into a bowl. Peel, core, and quarter one-third of the pears. As you do so, drop the slices into the bowl and turn them gently in the lemon juice; this will keep them from browning.

When the syrup has begun to simmer, use a slotted spoon to transfer the pear slices to the syrup. Bring the syrup back to a simmer, turning the pear slices gently.

Immediately remove the pan from the heat. Pack the pear slices neatly into one of the jars along with a piece of vanilla bean, and pour syrup through a strainer to cover the pears.

Reheat the syrup as you prepare another third of the pears. Heat and pack them and cover them with syrup as before. Do the same with the last of the pears.

Cover the jars with flat lids and full caps (or mason jar bands). Process the jars in a boiling-water bath or steam canner for 20 minutes.

Makes 3 pints

Le Parfait jars are available at stores listed here, on the Amazon website, and, as I happen to know, at Down to Earth in Eugene, Oregon.

 

Canning Nectarines: Things the USDA Doesn’t Tell You

nectarines in jarsWhen a box of big, flawless, fragrant, just-ripe nectarines from the Washington State Fruit Commission landed on my porch, I had to decide quickly how to preserve them. Most years I’ve made my nectarines and peaches into pickles, chutneys, and fancified jams. Now nothing appealed to me more than the thought of simple canned nectarines in light syrup.

Thinking of the young 4H food preservers whose work I’d recently judged at the Benton County fair, I decided to walk in their shoes by following USDA instructions. I referred to a recipe that’s in Oregon State Extension literature, in the Complete Guide to Home Canning, and, with only slightly different wording, on the National Center for Home Food Preservation website.

Right away, I began to see how novice preservers can get confused. First I wondered if I should peel the fruit. The recipe says that “nectarines are not dipped in hot water or peeled like peaches” but gives no reason. Nectarine skins aren’t fuzzy, though they are sometimes a little bitter. But once the fruits are cut into pieces and heated in hot syrup, their skins begin to peel off. Floating skins are not pretty. Try to remove the skins completely at this point, and you burn your fingers. Wouldn’t it be easier to slip off the skins before cutting the fruits? (To defy the recipe in this way, you must turn to the canned-peach recipe for peeling instructions: “Dip fruit in boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds until skins loosen. Dip quickly in cold water and slip off skins.”) So I didn’t peel my nectarines at the start. Instead, I pulled off the hanging skins while the pieces sat in hot syrup—ouch, ouch, ouch!—and left the skins that were still more or less in place semi-attached.

Before that, though, I had to decide whether to cut the fruits into halves or smaller pieces. Like peaches, nectarines come as freestone or clingstone. The recipe doesn’t mention that clingstone nectarines, like clingstone peaches, are very difficult to halve. My nectarines turned out to be clingstone, but they were so big that halves wouldn’t have fit in the jars, anyway. Still, it was difficult even to quarter the nectarines without squishing the fruit. I ended up leaving a lot of flesh on the pits.

Before putting nectarine pieces in syrup, the recipe advises, you should prevent them from browning by dropping them into an ascorbic-water bath. Citric acid is sold in many ethnic groceries, but ascorbic acid is harder to find. No matter—you can use 500-milligram vitamin C tablets, according to the recipe: “Crush and dissolve six tablets per gallon of water as a treatment solution.” I had only 1000-milligram tablets. Any 4-Her can figure out that three 1000-milligram tablets should work as well as six 500-milligram ones, but how to crush and dissolve hard tablets is less obvious. I used my electric spice grinder (a small coffee grinder that I dedicate to spices) and whisked the powder into the water.

The fruit seemed to swell a bit in the water. Was it absorbing water while giving up sugar and flavor? I hurried to finish cutting the nectarines and move them into the syrup. As I did so I considered: If I’d cut the fruit directly into the syrup, the fruit wouldn’t have absorbed water, and the syrup would have protected the fruit from browning.

The recipe gives options for both hot-packing (cooking the fruit before putting it in jars) and raw-packing (putting the fruit raw into jars) but also asserts, without explanation, that “raw packs make poor quality nectarines.” In other words, choose the hot-pack option or waste your time and ruin your fruit. The question nagged: Why is there a raw-pack option at all? But I chose hot-pack—and, innocently—burnt fingers.

The recipe provides options for canning the fruits in heavy, medium, light, or very light syrup—or in water, apple juice, or white grape juice. The instructions don’t say, however, that canning in water makes for mushy, “poor quality nectarines.” That I already knew. But how does apple juice or grape juice affect the taste of the nectarines? You will have to find out for yourself; the recipe does not tell you, and I haven’t tried this option.

I chose to make the light syrup, using the specified 5¾ cups water and 1½ cups sugar for 9 pints. But this didn’t seem enough to cover 11 pounds of nectarines, the weight of whole fruits called for in the recipe, and 11 pounds of nectarines wouldn’t fit in the 5-liter pan I’d chosen. So I poured the syrup into my biggest pan and added half again as much water and sugar. I had forgotten something missing from the recipe that I know well from past experience: The nectarines should be heated in batches. I would end up with a lot of leftover syrup. And if I’d planned to heat the fruit in batches I wouldn’t have cut all the nectarines at once and so wouldn’t have worried about the long exposure to air that causes browning.

The recipe also fails to say that hot-packed fruit needs less syrup than raw-packed fruit. After brief cooking, fruit softens, so that it packs tighter in the jar. Less room is left for syrup. Although the recipe writer frowns on raw-packing, the quantities of water and sugar called for seem intended for raw-packed, not hot-packed, fruit. Even if I hadn’t increased the quantity of syrup, I would have had too much.

Once the nectarine pieces were heated, according to the recipe, I should layer them cut-side down. This is sensible; the pieces pack tighter if they are all curved in the same direction. But imagine how much harder it is to place them this way after they have been heated in syrup. Ouch, ouch, ouch! The recipe should call for gloves.

The recipe didn’t tell me to check the filled jars for trapped bubbles. Instead of poking a knife or chopstick or plastic “bubbler” into the jars and disturbing the arrangement of fruit slices, I simply turned the jars back and forth gently before adding any more needed syrup.

Before finishing up I raw-packed two jars and marked the lids with an R. After processing (I used a steam canner, for 20 minutes), the fruit in these jars was a little yellower, less orange, in color. The fruit also floated a bit more in these jars; that is, the jars held a little more syrup in relation to fruit. I think this is what the recipe meant by “poor quality,” but I’ll wait until winter to open the jars and find out what else may be poor about my raw-packed nectarines. I suspect I’ll find them more than palatable.

Hopeless rule-breaker that I am, I deviated from recipe just a bit in the end: Before putting the nectarine pieces in jars I dashed out to the garden and gathered some herb sprigs—mint, basil, shiso, lavender, and anise hyssop. Slipping one into each jar, I hoped the flavorings would be subtle; I didn’t intend to make anything fancy. But the herbs had been waiting to be used, and they now look so pretty in the jars. The USDA writer, of course, fails to mention the possibility of adding flavorings of any sort.

And what to do with leftover syrup? I dropped in the nectarine pits, still bearing a lot of flesh, cooked them a bit, and then strained the syrup. It sits in a jar in the fridge now, waiting to be mixed into soda water or cocktails.

As a reward for all this work, I sucked the flesh off the cooling pits.

The lesson I take from this project is this: USDA recipes are handy for reference, especially for processing times, but in their aloof brevity these recipes can trip up even an experienced home preserver. They certainly can’t take the place of good writers and teachers in guiding us through the tricky business of home food preservation. The lovely preserves that dozens of children presented to the Benton County Fair are a tribute to their 4H leaders’ skill.

Preserves with a Nordic Touch

Savory SweetFrom the University of Minnesota Press comes a preserving cookbook especially for cold-climate cooks, whether they grow their own produce or shop at farmers’ markets and farm stands. Savory Sweet: Simple Preserves from a Northern Kitchen is a collection of condiment recipes by Mette Nielsen, a Danish-born gardener and photographer, and Beth Dooley, a cookbook author and journalist.

Omitted from the book are warm-climate fruits such as guavas, mangoes, fig, and quince, but Californians and even Southern cooks will find plenty to work with here. Beth and Mette use dried apricots in place of fresh, and they liberally employ fresh citrus—especially grapefruit juice and rind, which they combine with various fruits and even with pickled beets.

I don’t know whether the preference for grapefruit is typically Danish, but the Nordic touch is obvious in the authors’ frequent use of juniper, caraway, and dill. Still, I wouldn’t call this cookbook Scandinavian or even Midwestern. Beth and Mette play freely with ideas and ingredients from India, Mexico, Britain, Spain, Italy, the Middle East, and North Africa.

The book includes condiments of all kinds—pickles, relishes, chutneys, dips, sauces, jams, jellies, syrups, butters, mustards, and flavored salt and sugar—and some other preserved foods such as dried fruits and shrubs. Looking through the recipes along with Mette’s lovely photos made my mouth water. Particularly interesting entries include a fennel and onion confit, a pesto of garlic scapes and hazelnuts, a brined radish pickle flavored with juniper and coriander, and a tomato ketchup made with tamarind concentrate. Parsnips surprised me in two recipes—a relish, with grapefruit, and a marmalade, with lime. A chutney of butternut squash and dried apricots “was popular years ago,” but I’d never heard of it (I suspect that the original recipe is from the U.K.). An apple “compote” is sweetened chunky applesauce with horseradish and pepper flakes. The pear shrub with ginger and lime, according to the authors, is a pioneer recipe, though in a quick search I could find no old recipes for shrubs made with pears (prickly pear shrubs do go way back). In any case, almost any preserver will find intriguing ideas in this handsome hardcover volume.

Take note of one odd thing about this book: Although most of the recipes call for mason jars with flat lids and bands, the jars are to be stored in the fridge or freezer instead of the pantry. The authors’ claim that a boiling-water bath would overcook the contents isn’t entirely credible, since most of the condiments are well cooked before they are jarred. No matter, though—most of the recipes have USDA counterparts. If you don’t want to fill your refrigerator and freezer with mason jars, simply use standard processing times as appropriate (see the National Center for Home Food Preservation website). And if you don’t like canning, feel free to use your Tupperware instead of Ball jars.

Lime Ginger Pear Shrub

For this recipe Beth and Mette recommend the Luscious pear, a sweet, juicy variety developed by South Dakota State University for the cold Northern Great Plains. If you live in a warmer climate, you might substitute Bartlett pears. This is a good way to use up soft, overripe fruit.

Because the pears aren’t cooked in this recipe, I recommend you follow the authors’ advice to freeze the jars instead of processing them.

To serve, mix ¼ cup of the shrub into 1 cup sparkling or still water, and pour the mixture over ice. If you like, add a jigger of rum or vodka.

2/3 cup loosely packed coarsely grated ginger
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 cup sugar
3 pounds very ripe pears, coarsely chopped (about 7 to 8 cups)
1 cup cider vinegar

Combine the ginger, lime juice, and sugar in a medium bowl. Add the pears as you cut them. Crush the pears with a potato masher or a fork to release their juice.

Tightly cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and set the bowl on the countertop out of direct sunlight. Macerate the fruit for at least 8 hours or overnight.

Place a medium-mesh sieve over a large bowl. Working in batches, press the pear mixture through the sieve, scraping the underside of the sieve with a clean spoon. Discard the solids left in the sieve. Stir in the vinegar.

Wash the jars, lids, and bands in very hot soapy water, rinse them well, and place them upside down on a clean towel to drain.

Pour the shrub into the jars, leaving a half-inch of headroom to allow for expansion during freezing. Wipe the rims with a clean wet cloth or paper towel, add the lids and bands, and tighten the bands.

Label the jars, and store them in the refrigerator or freezer.

Makes about 7 half-pints

This recipe is from Savory Sweet: Simple Preserves from a Northern Kitchen, by Beth Dooley and Mette Nielsen (University of Minnesota Press, 2017). Copyright 2017 by Beth Dooley and Mette Nielsen. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the University of Minnesota Press.

 

 

A Better Way to Make Cherry Chutney

cherry-rhubarb chutney
Cherry-Rhubarb Chutney with grilled chicken

With some of the big, dark cherries the Washington State Fruit Commission sent me last year, I made a tasty chutney. It disappointed me, though. The cherries were so mild in flavor that the spices and vinegar overwhelmed them, and when cooked down the cherries lost their appealing meatiness. The chutney might have been made from almost any dark fruit.

I knew that the flavor of these cherries was too muted to shine in any sort of canned product, but this year I challenged myself to cook them into a chutney in which they would stand out anyway, for their shape and fleshy texture. I made the challenge even harder by also deciding to use rhubarb, which usually turns to mush with a few minutes’ cooking. The way to get what I wanted, I figured, was to combine the ingredients of an English-style chutney with a method of making fruit preserves—that is, I cooked the mixture slow, in the oven.

The chutney turned out beautiful. The tartness of the rhubarb complements the sweetness of the cherries, and the cherries lend the rhubarb better color. And you can tell at a glance that you’re eating cherries and rhubarb, not some mystery fruit.

Cherry-Rhubarb Chutney

2 pounds dark sweet cherries, pitted
2 pounds rhubarb stalks, cut into 1-inch chunks
¼ pound onion, cut into wedges
2½ cups light brown sugar
3 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
3 tablespoons yellow mustard seeds, toasted in a dry pan until they pop
2 tablespoons chile flakes
2 3-inch cinnamon sticks
2 teaspoons canning and pickling salt
2 cups cider vinegar

Set the oven to 250 degrees F. Combine all the ingredients in a large nonreactive, oven-safe pot. Put the pot, uncovered, into the hot oven.

After 40 minutes, gently stir the mixture. The sugar should have dissolved.

After another 40 minutes, stir gently again.

After a final 40 minutes, remove the pot from the oven. With a slotted spoon, transfer the solids to a bowl, leaving the cinnamon sticks in the pot. Boil the liquid on the stove top, with the pot uncovered, for about 15 minutes, until the liquid is reduced approximately in half, to a syrup.

Remove the cinnamon sticks from the syrup, and return the fruit to the pot. Heat the mixture gently, without stirring, just to a boil. Ladle the chutney into pint or half-pint mason jars. Add lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water or steam canner for 10 minutes.

Makes 3 ½ pints

 

 

 

 

A New Fruit for Cooler Climates

haskaps on bushIf you’ve come upon fruiting blue honeysuckle bushes in your local garden center this year, you can thank two fruit-loving Oregonians, Jim Gilbert and Maxine Thompson.

After one of his fruit-gathering trips to Russia in the 1990s, Jim introduced American gardeners to Lonicera caerulea, or the honeyberry, as he called it, through his mail-order nursery, One Green World. Later Maxine, a professor emeritus in horticulture at Oregon State University, began breeding the Japanese subspecies, from the northern island of Hokkaido. Maxine called the berries haskap, their Ainu name. She has sold plants of numbered selections to people who wanted to test them and, subsequently, propagation rights to nurseries all over the world.

haskaps in handIf you get the right variety for your region, these plants may be worth a try in your garden. Dark-skinned, with a bloom, the fruits look like elongated blueberries. They are high in vitamin C and richer in antioxidants than even black currants. The berries are not particularly aromatic, but they are mildly sweet and pleasantly tart. Their many seeds are hardly noticeable on the tongue, and the berries makes a luscious jam with no need for added pectin and none of the graininess of blueberry jam.

I planted two of Jim’s honeyberry varieties on our farm about ten years ago. One never produced berries; the other produced a few, but only once or twice. I admit that I probably didn’t water the plants often enough, but Maxine, when I visited her homestead in wooded hills north of Corvallis, explained to me the bigger problem: The two Russian subspecies, L. caerulea edulis and L. caerulea kamtschatica, are adapted to extremely cold winters. Here in the Willamette Valley, they break dormancy too early and as a result bloom too early. The Japanese subspecies, L. caerulea edulis, blooms about a month later. And yet haskaps are the earliest berries of the year, ripening even before strawberries.

The three plants Maxine sold me, each of a different numbered variety, grew into little vase-shaped shrubs beside our farmhouse. They looked very different from the sprawling honeyberry plants I’d bought from One Green World. One of those was entirely prostrate and the other a little taller, but both seemed unsure whether they were vine or bush.

Upon selling the farm I said goodbye to Jim’s honeyberries, dug up Maxine’s plants, and set the haskaps in our little city garden, where they are thriving. Now four years old, they are three to four feet tall and maintaining their handsome vase-shape. And this year, for the first time, they provided me a substantial crop.

As Maxine must have intended, the three selections together exemplify the diversity of the haskap subspecies. One’s fruits are long and torpedo-shaped, extra-tart and least numerous. The more productive, medium-size plant has thick, blunt-ended, sweeter berries. The smallest plant has the shortest berries, and their tendency to hold on to their blossoms makes for a bit of fuss in the kitchen.

The L. caerulea plants you find in your garden center will have names, not numbers. Yezberries (Yez is an old name for Hokkaido) are Maxine’s selections, released in 2016 and 2017. Yezberries Maxie, Solo, Keiko, Tanna, and Sugar Pie all bloom late and are suitable for warmer climates, like mine and Maxine’s. Also late-blooming are some of the varieties bred by Bob Bors, of the University of Saskatchewan, who has crossed Maxine’s Japanese selections with Russian honeyberries. Bob’s releases include the late-blooming Boreal Blizzard, Boreal Beauty, and Boreal Beast, and, for colder regions, the earlier-blooming Indigo series, Tundra, Borealis, Aurora, and Honey Bee. Other early bloomers are Berry Smart and Sugar Mountain Blue, both bred in the Czech Republic. You’ll find information on all of these at Honeyberry USA.*

None of these haskap or honeyberry varieties is self-fruitful, so plan to buy at least two plants, of different, compatible varieties. Plant them five to six feet apart in a sunny place. Give them some mulch, and water them now and then, but don’t worry—haskaps aren’t nearly so thirsty as blueberries. L. caerulea doesn’t need acidic soil, either.

Most varieties will grow to about six feet tall. After four or five years you’ll probably want to prune the bushes lightly, by removing weak growth and the oldest wood; this will make harvest easier. You’ll probably be harvesting more than once each season, because the berries generally don’t all ripen at once (some varieties hold on to their fruits better than others, making it possible to delay picking). You’ll likely deal with no pests but birds.

After about five years the average haskap or honeyberry plant is said to produce 8 to 10 pounds fruit. From my three plants I got only about two pounds this year, but my plants are set a bit close to one other and to other shrubs in my edible landscape, and, after all, they suffered a move after their first two years. I expect a bigger harvest next year.

Haskaps are easy to prepare and store. Maxine, an octogenarian fireball when I met her (she is now in her nineties), was freezing most of her berries and sending each buyer home with a bag of frozen fruit and a recipe for haskap crisp: Mix 6 cups berries with 1½ cups sugar and 2 tablespoons tapioca; top the sugared berries with a mix of 1½ cups each brown sugar, oatmeal, and whole-wheat flour, 1 cup chopped roasted hazelnuts and ½ cup melted butter; and bake about ½ hour at 350 degrees F.

Drying haskaps may be trickier. When I dried some in a small dehydrator that lacks a thermostat, it was difficult to keep the berries from turning hard and crisp. Like cranberries, they might dry to a more appealing, tender, chewy texture after a soak in syrup. Without added sugar, I suspect, haskaps should be dried slowly, at a low temperature.

I had to try making haskap jam. This couldn’t have been easier. Here is my small-batch, low-sugar recipe.

haskap jam 1Quick Haskap Jam

To ensure good gelling, I nearly always add lemon juice to my jams. My haskap jam, however, turned out quite tart, so next year I’ll try the recipe without added lemon.

 1 pound haskaps, rinsed
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup sugar

Put the haskaps into a 12-inch nonreactive skillet. Mash them coarsely (I use a potato masher). Heat them over medium heat to a gentle boil.     

Turn off the heat, and add the lemon juice and sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring, until a drop of jam mounds slightly in a chilled dish. This should take no more than 5 minutes.

Ladle the jam into pint jar or two half-pint jars. Process the jars, if you like, or else store them in the refrigerator.

Makes about 1 pint

 

*Another good source of information about L. caerulea is the website of the Haskap Canada Association.

Sweet Violets for Jelly

IMG_0024As everybody knows, violets are blue—except when they are pink, or white, or mauve, or white tinged with lavender. This is what I learned after tilling the seven-foot-wide planting strip stretching the width of our city lot between the sidewalk and the curb.

I don’t know how many decades the seeds of Viola odorata had lain dormant under the grass and moss that covered this strip, but after brief exposure to the sun the seeds sprouted through several inches of bark mulch, and soon mounds of dark green, heart-shaped leaves formed a ground cover around the shrubs and larger perennials that I had planted.

IMG_0027That was last summer. A couple of weeks ago the violets began blooming, and now I have only to open the front door to fill my head with their unique sweet scent.

But few of my violet plants produce blue flowers. Shades of pink predominate in the parking strip, and where I’ve torn up parts of the shaded, mossy back lawn I’m finding white and blue-white violets.

In Europe and Asia, the homeland of the sweet violet, odd colors apparently arose spontaneously. Beginning in the nineteenth century, breeders named and propagated selections they particularly liked. The seeds must have sold widely. I imagine a long-ago resident of my house tearing open a packet of mixed-color violet seeds, sprinkling them up and down the planting strip, and tossing the leftovers into the backyard. The plants would have spread by seed and by rhizome until someone tore them up and planted lawn in their place. In recent decades, broad-leaf herbicides probably kept the violets from returning.

Seeds of ordinary blue violets are still available from many sources, but only a few suppliers sell seeds of old cultivars—Reine de Neiges (white, from Swallowtail Garden Seeds), Queen Charlotte (blue and white, from Hazzard’s Seeds), and the Czar (blue, from both Swallowtail and Hazzard’s). At least one nursery, Valleybrook Gardens of British Columbia, is still breeding violets; Valleybrook sells its Classy Pink, Intense Blue, and Bridewhite violets as potted plants to garden centers in Canada and along both U.S. coasts.

Maybe you wonder who would pay for a potted weed. Violets, after all, can be invasive. But even today some people take their violets so seriously that they join organizations to study, celebrate, and promote the little plants. The U.S. has its American Violet Society, and France Les Amis de la Violette. There is even an International Violet Conference.

I suspect that these violet aficionados fuss mainly over the appearance of the blossoms. I focus instead on the plant’s uses. Not only are violets among the earliest garden flowers to bloom, and not only are they fragrant. Since they don’t much object to mowing, they are an attractive addition to a shady lawn. The fresh blossoms are lovely in a salad, and they can be crystallized for decorating desserts. The dried blossoms and leaves, in a tisane, are said to soothe headaches and relieve insomnia. Violet liqueur is essential for cocktails such as the Aviator, and violet syrup can be a pleasant coloring and flavoring for white or sparkling wine, meringues, and ices.

A modern use for violets—because it requires added pectin—is violet jelly. High-methoxyl pectin, the regular kind, requires acid for gelling, and the acid I add comes from lemon juice.* Lemon juice also enhances the flavor of the jelly, and it has another effect, one that might impress your children: A little lemon transforms violet “juice” from the deep blue of blue violets to a pinker shade, nearly as pink as some of my pink violets.

IMG_0033Last week I decided to make violet jelly using only blue violets and to leave all the pink blooms alone. I don’t know what color jelly pink violets would make.I will try that experiment one of these days.

Much of the violet aroma is sadly lost in cooking, but if you start out with plenty of blossoms you will produce a jelly that is intensely flavorful as well as gorgeous.

violet flowersViolet Jelly

When you pick your violets, you needn’t remove the green calyx at the base of each flower. Even a bit of stem here and there won’t hurt your jelly.

In this recipe I’ve used Ball’s “Classic” pectin because I had some on hand, not because I favor it. You can substitute another brand, but you may need to adjust the method according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Note that when you strain your violet “juice” you can safely squeeze the jelly bag without making the juice cloudy.

4 cups blue violets
2 cups water, boiled and then left to cool for about 2 minutes
3 tablespoons strained lemon juice
3 tablespoons Ball “Classic” pectin
1½ cups sugar

Put the violets into a bowl (I use a quart glass measure), and pour the water over them. Cover the bowl, and let it sit at room temperature overnight.

In the morning, strain the liquid through a jelly bag. Squeeze the bag to extract the last of the blue liquid. Add a little water, if needed, to equal 2 cups.

Stir the lemon juice into the violet liquid. The liquid will turn a pinker shade. Pour the liquid into a preserving pan. Gradually sprinkle the pectin over, and stir it in. Bring the mixture to a full boil, and immediately add the sugar. Bring the mixture back to a boil. Boil it for 1 minute.

Remove the pan from the heat. Ladle the syrup into sterilized ½- or ¼-pint mason jars. Add two-piece caps, and process the jars in a boiling-water or steam canner for 5 minutes.

Makes 1¼ pints

 

*Low-methoxyl pectin requires no acid for gelling, but in my experience this pectin produces cloudy jelly. Also, low-methoxyl pectin is usually used to produce low-sugar products (you can identify it in stores by phrases like “for low- or no-sugar jam”). Keep in mind that if your jelly is low in both sugar and acid it is not safe to eat.

Goodbye, Scrumptious September

With October have come gray and dripping skies and, to the garden, split and spotted tomatoes and feasting snails and slugs. This weather is the norm for autumn in western Oregon—if not for the Pacific Northwest in general.

renatas-happy-face-2016
Renata’s happy face at the Lebanon Downtown Farmers’ Market

But nearly all of September was sunny and warm, the peak of the harvest season. Last month was a time to celebrate, and I did.

First was the Labor Day weekend tomato tasting at the Almarodes’. What an excellent way to compare and choose among varieties that have done well for your neighbors! With homegrown and home-smoked turkey, homemade wine, live music, and salads from everybody’s gardens, this annual event is always a big, noisy party.

tomato-tasting-at-almarodes

A couple of weeks later the Santiam Food Alliance celebrated the Day of the Nightshades at the Lebanon Downtown Farmers’ Market.

nightshade-day-4
Master Gardener Betty shares advice and beautiful books.

 

Nightshade Day 2.JPG
Here’s Lisa making tomatillo salsa. In the foreground is her eggplant relish, in the background an assortment of fresh tomatoes for tasting.

Robert and I squeezed in a food expedition to Portland, with visits to the Barn (Trapold Farms’ overgrown farmstand) and various ethnic markets. My favorite was Supermercado Mexico. In the long glass case lining one side of the store were beautifully cut meats and, at one end, seafood, salsas, and dulces.

octopus-at-supermercado-mexico

salsas-at-supermercado-mexico
Tomato salsa goes by many names. On the left is one that makes its primary use clear.
dulces-at-supermercado-mexico
On the left, candied fruits; on the right, guava paste and quince paste

Then there was a tasting of savory jams, at my house. For at least an hour my tasters were silent and serious, absorbed in their work.

savory-jam-tasting

Robert and I ended the month with a plane trip to Boulder, Colorado, where some people, at least, stop running and pedaling in the sun long enough to cook and eat well. We especially enjoyed an inventive but unpretentious dinner at Arcana, lunch at the Dushanbe Teahouse, and basil-mint-chocolate-chip ice cream at the Heifer and the Hen, where other imaginative ice-cream flavors include squid-ink-and-lemon.

preserves-at-arcana
Preserves on display at Arcana

 

teahouse
The teahouse was shipped in pieces from Boulder’s sister city in Tajikistan.
ice-cream-at-the-heifer-and-the-hen-2
The Heifer and the Hen–a swinging place!

leyden-cheeseI nearly forgot to mention our greatest find in Boulder: raw-milk Leyden-style cheese made from grass-fed Jersey cows at James Ranch, near Durango. I’ve never had true Dutch Leyden cheese, so I don’t know how it compares, though I can say that the James Ranch cheese lacks the annatto-orange rind of the Dutch version. In any case, I love the hard, sharp, crumbly James Ranch Leyden, laden with both cheese crystals and whole, fragrant cumin seeds. We didn’t even balk at paying nearly thirty dollars a pound for this cheese at Cured, a shop on hip Pearl Street in Boulder.

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.

Update: July 25, 2017
I have yet no news from Maggie and Ryan, but another company, Kraut Source, is now offering stainless-steel mason-jar bands, at http://www.krautsource.com/new-products/stainless-steel-lid-ring-3-sets.