Because yesterday afternoon was warm and sunny, Robert carved the jack o’lanterns on the deck while I cut back the caneberries. “Do you want to use any of this flesh?” he yelled. He likes to scrape the walls of the pumpkins so thin that the candlelight glows through them.
It was sweet, delicious. I’d suspected would be, when I bought it at the produce market up the highway. This pumpkin was a deeper orange than the others, and heavier for its size. The cashier told me it weighed more than the much larger pumpkin I’d brought from the bin a minute earlier. This one might be tastier, too, I told her.
“You eat Halloween pumpkins?”
Usually, I explained, I put them into the compost or bury them in a raised bed. But if they are sweet and dense and not stringy, certainly I eat them. I didn’t mention the seeds, which we would roast and eat regardless, or the high price I’d be paying for compost-to-be if we didn’t eat any part of the pumpkins.
The trick-or-treating started out slow. Families in costume walked slowly by the house, gazing at the lit jack o’lanterns but not coming up the walk. During a pandemic, it’s hard to know if you’re being too presumptuous in knocking on a stranger’s door. So I made a sign—“Trick-or-Treaters Welcome”—and stuck it on a brick porch post. And the kids started coming. Each time they did, I pulled on my plague mask, a black cotton bird’s beak stuffed with tissue paper (herbs would make me sneeze), to which I’d affixed goggles cut from black felt. While Robert pulled open the door, I extended the broomstick to which he had hung a basket, now filled with candy.
Between trick-or-treating groups, we munched roasted pumpkin seeds and I checked the big pot full of pumpkin flesh on the stove. I let the cooking finish with the lid off, so excess water would steam away.
This morning I pressed the cooked pumpkin through the food mill, but that turned out to be an unnecessary step: The flesh was string-free. But now it was a fine purée, ready for a pie—except that it was still pretty watery. I could freeze it as it was and use it for soup, but I had pie on my mind. So I dumped the purée into a fine strainer, and waited a few minutes before packing the purée into freezer containers. I was about to pour the pumpkin water into the compost, but then I tasted it. It wasn’t just water. It was orange and sweet and tasty. It went into the fridge to await its future in a soup or stew.
Robert brought in the little jack o’lantern and took over at the butcher block. He is cutting away the peel, slicing the flesh into chunks, and filling the big pot again. We will have plenty of pumpkin for pie—not butternut or kabocha but genuine jack o’lantern pumpkin, pumpkin that did its duty on an old-fashioned Halloween night.
I fell in love with purple peas two years ago at Monticello, where the pea was Thomas Jefferson’s favorite vegetable. He had his slaves plant every variety he could get his hands on.
I didn’t taste the purple peas; I only saw them growing in Monticello’s restored garden. With their lovely pink-and-violet blossoms and deep-purple pods, they were the Blue-Podded Capucijner, said to have been grown by Franciscan Capuchin monks as early as the sixteenth century and now for sale in the Monticello gift shop. The Capucijner is recommended for drying for soup, but it is sometimes picked young and eaten as an edible-podded snow pea. I didn’t know that at the time, or care. I just loved the plant for its looks.
In Monticello’s shop I reluctantly bypassed the Capucijner seeds, because in my little garden I can spare only four feet of row for peas, and I usually devote all of that space to Cascadia snap peas. But after Slow Food USA paired seeds from the Ark of Taste with new varieties from the young company Row 7 in Slow Food’s Plant a Seed Campaign last year, a packet of Beauregarde snow pea seeds was passed around the table at a Slow Food Corvallis board meeting. With one look at the watercolor image of purple pods on the packet, I dropped the packet in my bag.
Last February I planted some Beauregarde seeds alongside my Cascadias, and soon I was rewarded with pink-and-purple blooms like the ones I’d seen at Monticello. Deep-purple pods followed, bending as the peas inside began to swell. I had to search for the packet to remind me what sort of peas I was growing. At this point, some of the peas—green in their purple pods—were nearly big enough for eating shelled. But Beauregarde was supposed to be a snow pea. So I started picking.
Beauregarde was bred by Michael Mazourek, an associate professor at Cornell, where he breeds vegetables to resist insects and diseases on Northeastern farms. Row 7 Seeds is his collaborative venture with Dan Barber, chef and restaurant co-owner at the nonprofit Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, also in New York, and seedsman Matthew Goldfarb. The men’s shared goal is to breed vegetables for taste as well as suitability for organic farming, to produce the seeds organically, and to sell them widely. On the Row 7 website, they list all their collaborators, chefs around the United States who test the vegetables in their kitchens and farmers across the country who produce the seeds.
Michael Mazourek named Beauregarde for Violet Beauregarde, a character in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. As you may remember, rude, arrogant Violet chews an experimental gum that makes her swell up and turn blue, like a giant blueberry. The Oompa-Loompa factory workers squeeze the juice out of her, but the indigo color remains. And that’s what most special about the Beauregarde pea pods: However you cook them, the deep-purple color remains.
The purple color comes, of course, from anthocyanins, which may or may not enhance human health by fighting infections, inflammation, cancer, and diabetes, by preventing dementia, and by improving vision. Unfortunately, none of these benefits has been proven. What we know anthocyanins do is improve plants’ defenses–against disease, drought, predation, and other stresses. Perhaps because of anthocyanins, Beauregarde resists fusarium wilt, although the plant is susceptible to powdery mildew late in the season.
Humans appreciate anthocyanin pigments for their appearance, in the garden and on the plate, and for the extra, vaguely spicy flavor they lend to, say, Black Krim tomatoes or Purple Haze carrots. But there is one annoying thing about most red and purple vegetables: Their pigments tend to leak out. I’ve written about this effect in pickled Swiss chard stems, and I’ve experienced it also with purple peppers. Michael Mazourek knows the trick of keeping the purple in the peas.
I didn’t research Beauregarde peas before cooking them, so their color retention amazed me. Cooking the peas brought other surprises as well. First, they are not sweet. My snap peas are sweet enough to eat as dessert. Shelled peas are sweet, too, if picked at the right stage. Green snow pea pods develop sweetness as the peas develop, although as they reach maturity the sugar turns to starch. Row 7 advises letting Beauregarde pods swell until the peas are halfway to shelling size. This is what I do when I grow green snow peas, but I must disagree with this recommendation for Beauregardes. Swollen Beauregarde pods look deformed, they are tough, and they need stringing. And their flavor is not improved over the flat pods.
The second big surprise, for me, was the long cooking Beauregarde peas seem to require. I haven’t timed the cooking exactly, but at least ten minutes are needed to render even flat Beauregarde pods tolerably tender.
The third surprise was that Beauregarde peas taste bland. Their anthocyanins don’t seem to give them that extra je ne sais quoi. I can best describe their flavor as neutral vegetable.
But still these pea pods can be delicious. I love them sautéed in olive oil with plenty of garlic and then braised with a little water liquid until they are tender. The tender but chewy texture, the taste of garlic throughout, and the prodigious purpleness combine to make me devour a dishful of Beauregardes, and reach for more.
The food shortages that accompanied the outbreak of the coronavirus and continue to this day have made local food—food produced for the local population rather than for shipping across the country and overseas—a suddenly more urgent cause. I have struggled to understand why supermarkets have been able to stock all-purpose flour but not bread flour or whole-wheat flour. But I have asked myself a more important question, too: Why are we all reliant on grain and flour from Midwestern mega-mills? One hundred and twenty years ago, everyone in this valley ate wheat both grown and ground within ten miles or so from home. If we still did that, we would have some security against crises that upset the national and international food distribution networks.
As I thought about all this last week, my heart swelled for the one pair of local farmers I know who grow wheat, barley, and meal corn, bag it themselves, and spend much of the summer at farmers’ markets selling their goods to the public. And I took a bag of the Harcombes’ naked barley out of the freezer.
Naked barley gets naked by dropping its inedible hulls during harvest, just as modern wheat varieties do. This means the barley doesn’t need “pearling”—the abrasive process that removes the bran as well as the hull of each kernel. Naked barley takes longer to cook than pearl barley, but it has a pleasant, chewier texture, nutty flavor, and more nutrients. And its habit of shedding its own hull means that small commercial farmers and even homesteaders can easily process it to a ready-to-cook stage. You can use naked barley in brewing and for animal feed as well.
Paul and Nonie Harcombe’s naked barley is a variety called ‘Streakers,’ the first release of the Oregon State University Barley Project. Naked barley was nothing new when the OSU researchers started their project, but they aimed to breed something new indeed: a naked barley that would resist the rust disease endemic to the Pacific Northwest. The grain has grown well for Paul and Nonie. Now they just need to get people used to eating barley.
And why not eat barley, especially when it’s hulled but not pearled? The whole grain is full of minerals and fiber. It can help to lower both blood sugar and cholesterol. It is excellent as a breakfast cereal and in grain salads and pilafs. And it makes an interesting substitute in some traditional pearl-barley dishes, such as this soup.
I have used here a mix of chanterelles and winter chanterelles (funnel chanterelles, yellowfoot chanterelles) from the freezer. Both are easy to find in the lower Cascades, not far from my home, and easy to identify, too. Before freezing the mushrooms last fall, I cleaned them and cooked them in a dry skillet until they stopped releasing water.
¾ cup naked barley 2 ¼ cups water 6 dried shiitake mushrooms 1 quart beef or chicken stock 1 Mediterranean bay leaf 2 tablespoons olive oil or butter 4 ounces onion, chopped 2 ounces carrot, chopped 2 ounces celery, chopped 2 garlic cloves, chopped 8 ounces frozen cooked chanterelles or other mushrooms, thawed ½ cup chopped parsley 1 tablespoon fresh thyme or savory leaves Salt and ground black pepper to taste
Put the barley into a bowl with 1½ cups of the water. Cover the bowl, and let it stand overnight or for at least several hours.
Toward the end of this period, put the shiitakes into a bowl with the remaining ¾ cup water. Weight the shiitakes with another bowl set inside the first, and let them soak for an hour.
In a pot, combine the barley, the stock, the shiitake soaking water (reserve the shiitakes), and the bay leaf. Bring the mixture to a boil, cover the pan, and let the barley simmer for an hour or until it is tender.
In a small skillet, heat the oil or butter over medium heat. Sauté the onion until it is tender. Add the carrot, celery, and garlic, and sauté 5 minutes more. Put the vegetables into the pot along with the frozen and thawed mushrooms, the parsley, and the thyme or savory. Slice the shiitakes, and add the tops to the pot. Add the salt and pepper to taste. Return the contents of the pan to a simmer, and simmer them for about 20 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.
Serve the soup at once, or cool it for later reheating. The naked barley won’t swell as much as pearl barley, so your soup won’t turn into porridge. If you’d like it thinner, though, just add some stock or water.
I am so mechanically inept that I have never been able to figure out the Kraut Source fermentation device—an expensive thing ($30!) made up of several stainless-steel parts that somehow fit together on top of a standard American mason jar. I was just as bemused when I received in the mail a ChouAmi fermentation device, which is nearly exactly like the Kraut Source device except that the ChouAmi version fits on a straight-sided, 1-liter Le Parfait jar. Such a jar was included in the package, but instructions were not.
The jar and all the stainless-steel pieces sat on the kitchen counter for months. Occasionally I would examine them and try fitting them together. Enlightenment alluded me. Then I decided use a big daikon and an Egyptian walking onion, before it went to seed, to make some kakdooki.* I looked at the Le Parfait jar. It appeared to be just about the right size to hold my big daikon. It was time to try out the ChouAmi.
Kakdooki is Korean-style fermented radish cubes, flavored with ground red pepper, green onions, garlic, sometimes ginger, and often fish sauce or tiny brined shrimp or both. This is one fermented pickle that I never bother to weight, because the seasonings seem to prevent any yeast or mold growth. Regardless, I would use my fancy new device. I mixed the radish cubes and seasonings, dropped them into the jar, and pressed down the mixture with my fingers. It fit perfectly, with just an inch or so of headspace.
I picked up the ChouAmi pieces, and suddenly I knew exactly how they fit together. I placed the main piece on top of the jar and screwed the ring over it. Then I turned the loop in the center of the main piece. This released a spring attached to a perforated plate sized to fit perfectly in the jar (this main piece is actually three; they come apart for cleaning). The plate pressed against the vegetables, while liquid rose over it. I set the dome on top.
Only hours later did it occur to me that the dome wasn’t meant to keep out dust. It was sitting in a trough. So I filled the trough with water. Now I had an airlock! Carbon dioxide could escape under the dome, through the water, but oxygen couldn’t get in.
What an elaborately clever device! No wonder the price was so high.
Actually, though, I don’t know the price of a ChouAmi. The company is still getting started, through a Kickstarter campaign. The company website needs work; I couldn’t get the instructional video to play.
So I’m afraid that if you head to your local kitchenware store today you won’t find the ChouAmi. But the store is probably closed, anyway. So, wait until the danger of the corona virus eases, and then keep your eyes open for the ChouAmi. If you’re happy to make most of your vegetable ferments in a 1-liter jar, this device may prove to be a bon ami indeed.
*Green Egyptian walking onions are sweeter and milder than scallions.
How is this for a garish plate? The mashed potatoes are made with Purple Peruvians, an old fingerling variety with the most intensely purple flesh I’ve ever seen in a potato (though not all of the tubers are solid purple; some are marbled purple and white). When I made baked chips for a dry-farmed potato tasting last year, I I had trouble with the Purple Peruvians; they needed much more time in the oven than the other varieties before they would dry out and turn crisp. Still, as chips they were the second favorite of five varieties among a big roomful of food enthusiasts, and as boiled potatoes they nearly tied for second place.
But what Purple Peruvians are best for, in my opinion, is mashing. I like the way the lavender mashed potatoes stand out here beside cooked mixed greens from the garden and the tomato-citrus jam, thinned with soy sauce, that tops the albacore steak. And these mashed potatoes don’t just sport a pretty color. They truly taste as good as they look.
You don’t need a recipe to make Purple Peruvian mashed potatoes. Fingerlings can be hard to peel completely, but I simply strip off the skins with a vegetable peeler and ignore the many eyes. I boil the potatoes in just a little salted water, so they are cooked mostly by steam. When they are tender, only a very little water is left in the pan. I then add milk and butter to the hot potatoes, set the pan over low heat until the butter melts, and purée the contents with an electric mixer. I can beat the potatoes for quite a long time without their becoming gluey.
I haven’t grown this potato myself before—the ones I’ve used were left over from the tasting—but I will make room for one in my little garden. The Maine Potato Lady tells me what to expect of the plant: These potatoes are late, frost-tolerant, pest-resistant, and, like the Makah Ozette, “rangy”—by which she means you have to search widely to find all the tubers if you don’t want them volunteering the following year.
Thanks to the mild winter, Robert and I have been eating so much greens that I keep checking my skin for a greenish tinge. It’s hard to keep up with the spring onrush of asparagus, artichokes, and Asian brassicas while we’re still eating overwintered arugula, collard buds, and Swiss chard.
The chard is especially overwhelming. Mostly self-sown, it grows in deep-green clumps all over the garden, reaching ever taller as it prepares to set seed. I’ve been cutting the stalks, squishing the snails, separating the best leaves, and cutting up and burying all the rest of the plants in hope of foiling leafminers, the larval stage of flies who lay their tiny white oblong eggs in neat rows on the underside of the leaves.
I’ve been packing the best-looking leaves into bags and taking them to the neighbors (two fully extended arms equals six feet of social distancing). But now I’ve run out of neighbors. So, when heavy rain and wind sent a few chard plants sprawling over the ground the other day, I decided it was time to do some preserving.
The thought of frozen chard reminds me of frozen spinach, which my mother used to buy in a paper box, thaw in a saucepan, and plop onto plates while my father sang that he was Popeye the Sailor Man and I turned white and covered my mouth. But frozen spinach is actually little different from cooked fresh spinach, and frozen chard is little different from frozen spinach. You can use frozen chard in puréed soups, chunky soups like minestrone, lasagna, tossed pasta, crêpes, quiche, saag paneer, and much else. And how handy, on busy days, to have cooked chard in a form that needs only thawing. No disposing of snails and slugs, no washing, no cutting out stems. Just thaw the stuff, and it’s ready to incorporate into dinner.
So yesterday I prepared and froze some chard. The process is simple:
Immerse the chard, in batches, in a big kettle or bowl of water, and agitate the water enough to clean the leaves of snail dropping.
Drain the leaves in a big colander.
Cut the stems off small leaves, and cut the stems out of large leaves, with a knife or kitchen shears.*
Cut the bigger leaves into pieces. You don’t need to chop the leaves; you would lose more nutrients that way, and leaving them in big pieces gives you more flexibility when you take the chard out of the freezer.
Bring a kettle of water to a boil, and blanch the leaves in batches for 2 minutes, using a blanching basket.
Lift the basket, drain off the hot water, and transfer the chard to a big kettle or bowl of cold water. Agitate the water a bit to cool the leaves.
Drain the cooled chard in a colander.
Stuff the chard into pint-sized freezer containers. I use freezer-weight plastic bags. Don’t squeeze out excess liquid; you can do that after thawing the chard, if you decide you want to.
Label the containers, and put them in the freezer.
You’ll notice that both the blanching water and the cooling water look a little green afterward. Your chard has lost some nutrients, but you don’t have to throw them down the drain. Return the water to the garden instead.
*You can avoid this task of stem extraction by planting verde da taglio, an Italian chard variety with relatively flat, tender leaves and thin stems. With verde da taglio, you can simply cut off the stems rather than carving around them.
If your chard has thick stems, though, you can certainly use them. You might pickle them, for example, with vinegar or by brining. But I dislike them and so chop them up and compost them. I don’t worry about leafminers hatching in the compost, because the flies don’t lay eggs on the stems. (Snails and slugs don’t eat chard stems, either. I’m not the only one who dislikes those stems!)
While I was promoting the first edition of The Joy of Pickling at the Oregon State Fair, in 1998, a woman asked me if I’d make lemon pickles. Certainly I’d pickled lemons; I started to show her the various pickled-lemon recipes in the book. She clarified her question: Had I made fresh cucumber pickles with lemon juice in place of vinegar? I had not.
So this woman, Glenda Lund, mailed me a recipe—because people did that sort of thing, before the turn of this century (and hardly ever since then).
The recipe called for 1 quart lemon juice to 3 quarts water to 1 cup salt. I didn’t know what to think. USDA folks wouldn’t like the recipe, I knew; they hadn’t studied cucumber pickles made with lemon juice, and they would countenance the inclusion of the recipe in my book only if I increased the amount of lemon juice to 3 quarts for 3 quarts water, to match their rule of thumb for cucumbers pickled with vinegar. That would make horribly sour pickles.
So I left the recipe out of the second edition of The Joy of Pickling and again out of the third edition. After all, I had plenty of other recipes to develop and add to the book. But I kept Glenda’s handwritten letter in my file of ideas for future editions.
This year, as I considered how to use the last few batches’ worth of cucumbers from the garden. I thought of Glenda’s recipe. I had never even tried it. After twenty-one years, I should do it now.
I did not, after all, have to process the pickles; instead, I could store them in the refrigerator. The cool temperature of the fridge, combined with the acid and salt in the brine, would prevent the growth of pathogenic microbes for at least several weeks.
So I would make a refrigerator pickle, and I would reduce the recipe to one-quarter of the original so that all the pickles would fit into a 2-quart jar.
Now that the pickles have aged for about two weeks, I can say that they’re like no other cucumber pickle I’ve eaten before. They are quite sour enough. They taste briny and lemony and clean, and I would like to eat them with feta cheese and oily black olives. I would like to feed them to everyone I’ve ever met who hates the taste of vinegar.
Here, finally, is my version of Glenda’s recipe for—
Saltwater Dill Pickles
3 cups water 1 cup strained lemon juice ¼ cup pickling salt 2 grape leaves Enough whole pickling cucumbers, 3 to 5 inches long, to fill a 2-quart jar 2 large dill heads, with foliage 6 to 8 garlic cloves
In a covered saucepan, heat the water, lemon juice, and salt just to a boil. While the liquid heats, lay the grape leaves in the bottom of a 2-quart jar. Cut away the cucumbers’ blossom ends, and pack the cucumbers into the jar, interspersing the dill and garlic among them.
When the liquid comes to a boil, pour it over the cucumbers, covering them completely. Close the jar with a plastic cap.
When the jar has cooled, store it in the refrigerator. Wait a week or so before serving the cucumbers.
As the sky turned grey and the rains commenced, I knew what I wanted to do with what might be the last of my suyo cucumbers. I wanted to fill a quart jar with thin crosswise slices, adorned with sliced red onion and yellow pepper and covered with vinegar diluted to the point that I could serve the mixture as a salad.
Had I created such a recipe before? I couldn’t find one in the Joy of Pickling. No problem—I would start from scratch.
Suyo, suhyo, or sooyow cucumbers are not a particular cultivar but a general type of Cucumis sativus. These long, slender cucumbers, said to have originated in northern China, have undergone a lot of breeding in Japan. At harvest they are at least 10 inches long. At 1 inch in diameter, some cultivars may reach 18 inches. If left to grow longer they may reach 2 feet or more, although they will be past their prime. The vines’ small tendrils make them good climbers, and when the vines climb they are more likely to produce straight rather than curled fruits. The skins of the fruits can be ridged or smooth, and they are fairly thin; for salads or pickles, you can peel these cucumbers partially, completely, or not at all. The best thing about suyo cucumbers is that they are seldom bitter (although the cultivar I planted this year had an inch or two of mild bitterness at the stem end).
Suyo cucumbers’ uniform diameter and typically small seed cavity make them ideal for cutting into crosswise slices or chunks. If you like to make bread-and-butter pickles, you should definitely be growing suyos.
But bread-and-butters are too sweet and too sour for my taste. Instead I’ve made this light, pretty pickle.
Quick Suyo Pickle Chips
Feel free to change the spices to suit your whim.
1 ¼ pounds suyo cucumbers, unpeeled, sliced crosswise into 1/8-inch-thick rounds 1 small red onion, about 4 ounces, halved lengthwise and sliced thin crosswise 1 to 2 sweet yellow or red peppers, about 4 ounces, halved or quartered lengthwise and sliced thin crosswise 2 tablespoons pickling salt 1 teaspoon grated fresh turmeric 2 garlic cloves, sliced 2 teaspoons chopped fresh ginger 1 teaspoon coriander seeds, lightly crushed ½ teaspoon cumin seeds 1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes 6 tablespoons cider vinegar ¾ cup water 2 teaspoons brown sugar
In a bowl, combine the cucumber, onion, and pepper slices. Add the salt, and toss the contents together. Drop the ice cubes from one full tray on top. Let the bowl stand at room temperature for 3 hours.
Drain the vegetables in a colander, rinse them, and drain them again. In a small bowl, mix together the turmeric, garlic, ginger, coriander, cumin, and pepper flakes. Pack the vegetables into a quart jar, layering them with the mixed spices.
In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, water, and sugar. Cover the pan, and bring the mixture just to a boil. Pour the hot liquid into the jar of vegetables. Turn and tip the jar to release trapped air bubbles, and then cap the jar. When it has cooled, store it in the refrigerator.
Wait a day or two, at least, before serving the pickle.
To replenish my stock of Candela di Fuoco radish seeds, I let a single plant go to seed. It grew into a lovely bush, about three feet tall and wide, with pretty pink blooms that continued to appear as seed pods matured and dried. Although I loved the look of the plant, it was taking up bed space that I needed for other things. So last week, as soon as I could collect a few handfuls of dried pods, I pulled up the plant.
But most of the pods were still green and tender. I couldn’t let them go to waste. Although they were quite small—unlike the pods of “rat-tail” varieties, which are grown specifically for their pods—I collected enough to fill a pint jar. And now I have one more pickle, a jarful of tangy tidbits with a mild radishy bite, to bemuse my friends this summer.
Pickled Radish Pods
1 pint fully formed but still tender radish pods, stems trimmed to ¼ inch 1 small hot pepper, fresh or dried 1 tarragon sprig 1 large garlic clove, sliced ½ cup cider vinegar ½ cup water 1 teaspoon pickling salt 1 tablespoon olive oil
Pack a pint jar with the radish pods, hot pepper, tarragon, and garlic. In a saucepan, bring to a boil the vinegar, water, and salt. Pour the hot liquid over the pods, covering them well and leaving only about 1/8 inch headspace. Cap the jar, and leave it at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours, turning it two or three times.
Add the olive oil to the jar, cap it tightly, and store it in the refrigerator, where the radish pods should keep well for months.
If you’re proud of your home-preserved foods, why not show them off at your county or state fair? You probably won’t win big prizes—fair premiums are small these days, if they are available at all—but you’ll inspire your fellow preservers to aim higher, and you might even motivate some people to try preserving foods for the first time.
Of course, you’ll want your jars displayed with ribbons, preferably blue. To maximize your chances, check out these rules I’ve gleaned in judging preserves at county and state fairs:
Be sure you’ve used a conventional recipe. This takes much of the fun out of showing off your preserves, but most fairs specify that the recipe must come from the USDA, Extension, or Ball or Kerr. You might try citing a Ball or USDA recipe that’s almost the same as yours and noting what you’ve changed. This way the judge will know that you haven’t done anything to jeopardize the safety of the product.
But don’t be too conventional! Your chances of winning for one of a dozen nearly identical jars of blackberry jam are pretty low. You might do better with a less common fruit, such as quince or red or black currant, or with preserves, jelly, or chutney instead of jam. “Fermented foods, dried foods, and meat and seafood are always underfilled classes,” says Carol Newton, an Oregon State Fair judge (at the Oregon State Fair, fermented foods don’t have to be pasteurized, if they’re submitted on ice or in a cooler). At my own county fair, I’d like to see more pickles, especially whole-cucumber pickles and properly packed dilly beans.
Make sure you’ve used fresh produce, picked at the right time, and fresh spices. Even without tasting your entry, the judge may be able to spot inferior produce. Green beans bulging with their seeds were obviously picked too late. A cucumber held too long may look a bit shriveled, and cutting into it may expose a hollow center. Corn that looks brownish may be a supersweet variety—a type unsuitable for pressure canning because the sugars can caramelize.
Show off your knife skills. Canned bean and carrot pieces should be identical in size. Beets should be sliced as evenly as possible (while slicing, you might save ends and other small pieces for a salad).
In case you’re not so handy with a knife, using a mandoline probably won’t hurt your chances for a ribbon. Crinkle-cut carrots may well catch the judge’s eye.
Avoid floaters. Floating fruit is often inevitable, but choosing slightly underripe pears or peaches, for example, certainly helps, as does careful, tight packing. Choose your best-filled jar for submission to the fair.
Check for appropriate headspace. A good judge knows that the proper headspace of ¼ or ½ inch may change after processing. But a jar with too much headspace appears only partially filled. Never enter a jar that has lost liquid in processing; sauerkraut, for example, should be completely covered with brine. (In boiling-water as well as pressure canning, you can usually keep liquid from leaking from jars by avoiding rapid changes in pressure. After processing canned fruits, tomatoes, or pickles, let the jars sit in their hot water bath for five minutes after you turn off the burner.)
Use standard packaging. Submit a jar with a conventional size and shape, so the judges can tell that the processing time was appropriate. The jar should be sealed with a two-piece lid, because many judges are nervous about one-piece lids, and even more so about glass lids. Note that less common jar shapes may be accepted and even favored if they bear the Ball label; I watched one judge choose a “pretty” Ball jar for first place without tasting any of the entries. Tatler lids are also usually accepted.
Avoid rust. Many judges hate the sight of rust; some will remove a metal jar band just to check for any rust on the inside. So use a brand-new band, or at least one that looks brand-new.
Make sure the jar is clean. You washed the jar well before filling it, of course, but did you remove any residue from an old label? Take off the band and check for stickiness around the rim, because many judges will do exactly this.
Label the jar completely and neatly. Check the fair guidelines carefully to be sure you’re including all the information asked for and writing it in the right place. Usually you need to provide at least the name of the product, how it was processed (by a boiling-water bath or pressure canner), and for how long. You may have to add where you got the recipe and, for jam or jelly with added pectin, which brand and type of pectin you used. (Regardless of whether the fair requires it, I suggest noting if you made your jam or jelly without added pectin. Judges who always use commercial pectin themselves don’t seem to understand that strawberry or peach jam naturally turns out soft.) A decorative paper label, on the top or side of the jar, may win you points over entries labeled with black marker on the lid. You might even tie a handsome label around the jar rim, if the fair rules allow this.
No doubt you’ll feel let down if you don’t win a ribbon, especially if the judge didn’t even taste your entry. Be aware that most fairs forbid judges to taste low-acid canned goods, because of the risk of botulism, and some forbid any tasting at all. Also, since tasting is time-consuming, and ultimately can be sickening, the judges may prefer to rank entries by looks alone. “Unless I deem then unsafe,” says Carol Newton, “I taste jams and soft spreads, most specialty foods, and pickles.” But not all judges do.
If you don’t win, hopefully you’ll at least get an encouraging comment from the judge. Carol Newton always provides comments, she says, to allay disappointment and encourage entrants to come back. Other judges simply don’t have time to write comments. If there is something wrong with your entry, though, the judge will probably let you know, so you can do better next time.
If you garner neither ribbon nor comment, your entry may have been perfect and yet not outstanding. If the fair uses the “American system” of judging, which allows for only single first-, second-, and third-place ribbons in each class, the judge’s decision may have been arbitrary. Don’t let this upset you. Look around; see what your fellow preservers are failing to bring to the fair. Next year, bring that. And make sure it’s beautiful as well as delicious.