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.

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

 

Finally: A Good Thermometer for Home Preserving

 

javelin-proWhen 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.

 

Now Aboard the Ark: Scio Kolace

Scio kolace.JPG

New to Slow Food’s Ark of Taste  are kolace (pronounced “ko-LA-chee”) from Scio, Oregon, my home for 21 years. I’m proud to have nominated these filled sweet yeast buns whose history is so tightly bound with that of the little town.

Kolace are made from a sweetened yeast dough enriched with eggs, milk, and shortening (butter, lard, or vegetable shortening). Proportions vary somewhat among recipes. After the dough has risen, it is rolled out and formed into small rounds. When the dough has risen a second time, it is brushed with melted shortening, indented in the center, filled, and baked. The most common kolace fillings, traditionally, are ground and sweetened poppy seeds and a jam made of prunes or apricots. Other fruit jams can be used, or a filling made from cottage cheese. Sometimes streusel (posipka) is sprinkled on top before baking, or the baked kolace are topped with powdered sugar or glaze.

Still popular in the Czech homeland as koláče, these little buns migrated with the Czechs in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to communities across the West and Midwest, Scio (pronounced “SIGH-oh”) among them.

Now a village of some eight hundred people, Scio was established in 1866 by Oregon Trail pioneers around a water-powered grist mill built ten years before. The city soon became the commercial center of a region of fertile farm land known at the time as “the forks of the Santiam.” When Czech settlers began arriving in the area in 1888, Scio already had a population of more than five hundred, and the city was beginning to boom. The Czech newcomers established farms, stores, and other businesses, and more Czechs came. By 1937 there were 170 Czech families in the Forks.

In 1922 the ZCBJ (Zapadni Czechoslovakia Brakaska Jednota, or Western Czechoslovakan Fraternal Association) Lodge No. 226 built a gathering hall in the center of Scio. The ZCBJ Hall  was intended primarily for lodge meetings and Sokol activities (the Sokol program trained children in precision drill and gymnastics). But since its early days the ZCBJ Hall has been Scio’s main gathering-place for both Czechs and non-Czechs, for dinners, weddings, funerals, flea markets, plays (in Czech and in English), concerts, and, above all, dances. The hall had its own accordion band, and from the 1930s through the 1950s people throughout over the Willamette Valley knew the ZCBJ Hall as an outstanding venue for dancing.

A feature of all these events, at least when Czechs have been involved, has been kolace. Before lodge events people would order kolace by the dozen. When soldiers came to dances from Camp Adair, north of Corvallis, during World War II, they were given kolace for free.

Today most of the Scio Czechs have died or moved away, and in 1993 the ZCBJ Hall was given to the Linn County Lamb and Wool Fair. But some non-Czechs have learned to make kolace, and Scio residents continue to learn from the kolace recipes that have been passed along or published in community cookbooks. And so kolace are still made, now and then, for community events at the ZCBJ Hall. These treats help keep memories of the town’s past alive.

Scioans aren’t the only Americans who still love kolace. The buns are popular in many places where Czechs settled in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But kolace have evolved differently in different surroundings. Montgomery, Minnesota, for example celebrates Kolacky Days ]with squarish buns, whose dough is gathered at four points and stretched to the center, to cover most of the filling. Texas kolache  are sometimes filled with sausage, which is completely enclosed in the dough, like a hotdog in a corndog. Scio’s kolace have their filling entirely exposed, which means the cook must take extra care to keep the filling from running, falling out, or scorching.

Here’s my own recipe for kolace. I’ve adapted it from one in Carol Bates’s Scio in the Forks of the Santiam; Carol took it from the Scio Centennial Cook Book, published by Scio Home Extension in 1966. The original recipe calls for “shortening” instead of butter and “vanilla or any other flavoring,” amount unspecified. Over time, I have doubled the number of eggs and increased the amount of fat by half. I have also found it easier to cut pieces of dough from a rope than to roll out the dough and cut it into circles, as specified in the original recipe, and I’ve added a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar.

Linda’s Kolace

Remember, there is no single recipe for kolace; cooks have always improvised a bit. Possible additions include grated lemon peel and mace or nutmeg in the dough, and a sugar glaze, powdered sugar, or streusel on top of the buns.

¼ cup lukewarm water
4 teaspoons dry yeast
1 teaspoon plus ½ cup sugar
2 cups lukewarm whole milk
14 tablespoons (1 ¾ sticks) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
4 eggs, beaten
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
About 8 cups all-purpose flour (about 2 ½ pounds)
About 1 cup jam (preferably prune or apricot, without much added sugar) or poppy-seed
        filling
Cinnamon sugar

Pour the water into a large bowl, and sprinkle the yeast over. Stir in 1 teaspoon sugar, and wait a minute or more for the mixture to bubble.

Add the milk, the remaining sugar, all but 2 tablespoons of the melted butter, the eggs, the salt, and the vanilla. Stir in enough flour to make a ball that pulls away from the side of the bowl. Turn the dough out onto a floured board, and knead the dough for several minutes, working in more flour as necessary, until the dough is smooth and only slightly sticky.

Place the dough in a greased bowl. Cover the bowl, and set it in a warm place until the dough has nearly doubled in bulk and fails to spring back when poked with a finger.

Punch down the dough, and form it into two long ropes. Cut each rope into 20 equal pieces, and roll them into balls. Place the balls on greased baking pans to rise.

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F.

When the kolace have nearly doubled in bulk, brush them with the remaining butter (you may need to reheat it first). Hollow out the center of each kolace with your fingers, leaving a border of no more than ½ inch. Fill each center with about 2 teaspoons poppy-seed filling or jam, and sprinkle the kolace with cinnamon sugar. Put the pans into the oven, and immediately reduce the temperature to 375 degrees F. Bake the kolace for about 18 minutes, rotating the pans about halfway through the cooking, until they are lightly browned.

Makes about 40 kolace

 

Poppy Seed Filling for Kolace        

Hand-cranked metal grinders for poppy seeds are widely available in Europe but harder to find in the United States. Some people manage with an electric coffee grinder or a mortar and pestle. I’ve had best results by soaking the seeds overnight and then grinding them in a powerful blender.

1 cup boiling water
1 cup poppy seeds
¾ cup milk
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons honey
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract

Pour the boiling water over the poppy seeds, and let them sit overnight.

In the morning, pour off the water through a fine-mesh strainer. Grind the poppy seeds in a blender (I use a VitaMix) with the milk and sugar. Transfer the mixture to a small saucepan, and cook the mixture over low heat, stirring constantly, until it is thick, a few minutes. Stir in the honey, spices, and vanilla, and remove the pan from the heat.

The New Fruit Cellar

 

I took this picture through a basement window.
I took this picture through a basement window.

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.

Long Red Radishes from Italy, Angelica for the Bugs, and Roses for Preserves

long red radishI should have photographed these before they started to bolt, but they’re still lovely, aren’t they? The variety is Ravanello Candela di Fuoco, and the seeds were a gift from Charlene Murdock and Richard White of Nana Cardoon. Before the radishes get old and woody, they are mild, tender, and delicious. Charlene said she cooks with their pods, which I will try pickling.

If you want to attract beneficial insects to your garden, consider planting some angelica. As I’ve written before, this big, umbellliferous herb is good for candying, making into liqueurs and preserves, and even as eating as a vegetable. Besides all that, insects love the flower heads. Stopping for a minute beside my angelica plants today, I saw bees and flies—several species of each—and wasps, beetles, and more. I wish I had an entomologist on hand to tell me exactly what all these creatures are doing.

angelica with beetle

angelica with flyangelica with honeybee

moss roseOn a visit to an “heirloom” rose nursery yesterday I was disappointed to find more modern roses—such as miniatures and deep purple monstrosities—than old-fashioned varieties. I left with two David Austin cultivars, but just a mile down the road I had to stop to inhale the scent from a big patch of native nootkas, and back at home I admired my lovely moss rose, which came back after years of continuous mowing by the man from whom we bought this farm. I’ll probably use a few of the moss roses along with rugosas and nootkas when I make rose preserves this evening.

Shrub, Part II: Quince Vinegar, Syrup, and Shrub

quince shrub, syrup, & vinegarThe 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:

Quince Shrub 2

1½ tablespoons sugar
2½ tablespoons quince-flavored vinegar
3½ tablespoons cold water
3 ice cubes

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.  

Last-Chance Pickles from Last Summer’s Citron Melon

pickled citron melonI 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. 

Makes 3 pints

No-Cooking, No-Canning Black Currant Jam

raw black currant jamIn my intermittent effort to make space in my freezers, I was delighted to come upon a bag of black currants yesterday. Just the day before, while pruning my currant bushes, I’d been dazed by the musky fragrance of the wood—the same intoxicating fragrance that wafts from the fruit and leaves of the black currant.* (And perhaps most of all from the buds, for it’s the buds that the French collect for perfume.) And I’d suddenly realized that I’d neglected to make raw black currant jam last summer.

So I made some this morning, from my recipe in The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves: 

Raw Black Currant Jam 

¾ pounds fresh or thawed black currants, stemmed
1½ cups sugar

Briefly blend the currants and sugar in a food processor or blender. Pack the jam into a jar, and cap it tightly. Store the jar in the refrigerator. Makes 1 pint.

Don’t be tempted to reduce the amount of sugar called for here unless you plan to eat up the jam quick or store it in the freezer. Provided the currants were free of mold when you picked them, the sugar will allow the jam to keep well—so well, in fact, that for me this jam keeps perfectly in the fridge for a year. And don’t assume the jam will be too sweet for your tastes. Currants are low in natural sugar, and the added sugar is well balanced by the currants’ high acid content.

If you taste the jam immediately, you’ll probably feel sugar grains on your tongue. That’s OK—the sugar will soon dissolve. And although the jam may already seem thick enough to spread on toast, it will thicken more in the fridge, though it will never jell hard, as cooked black currant jam does.

*I mean Ribes nigrum, the European and Asian black currant, which the French call cassis. The yellow-flowered, thicket-forming variety known as Crandall, which was selected from an American species, lacks the cassis aroma.