Pickled fruit? People often ask me that two-word question with a look of mixed astonishment and horror. But in the Anglo-American tradition fruits have commonly been preserved in strong vinegar, along with plenty of sugar, to make sour, sweet, and long-keeping accompaniments for meats. These pickles are similar to English-style fruit chutneys, though not as heavily spiced. Less common but also traditional in North America are lightly sweetened vinegar-picked fruits, such as cherry olives—that is, vinegar-pickled dark cherries that resemble olives more in appearance than taste.
These pickles all have their place. I love sweet pickled figs or plums on the Thanksgiving table, sour pickled grapes on a salad dressed with olive oil alone, and cherry olives with pâté. But for a milder-tasting fruit pickle that complements a wider range of foods and drinks, it’s worth considering leaving out vinegar altogether. Pickling fruits in brine, in the same way as cucumbers and other vegetables, can be another appealing way of extending the season.
I recently applied this method to my favorite wild cherries, which are slightly bitter, too small to pit, and nearly black when ripe. To ensure that the cherries wouldn’t soften too much with fermentation, I picked them when they were not quite ripe but still dark red. And then I devised this recipe:
1 pint (about ¾ pound) small, slightly underripe cherries, stems trimmed to 1 inch or removed 2 small dried hot peppers, slit lengthwise 4 garlic cloves, sliced 2 to 3 sprigs thyme ¼ teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns (or substitute black peppercorns) 1 Mediterranean bay leaf 2½ teaspoon pickling salt 1½ cups water
Rinse the cherries well, and put them into a clean quart jar along with the peppers, garlic, thyme, Sichuan peppercorns, and bay leaf. In another container, dissolve the salt in the water. Pour the brine over the cherries. They won’t float—at least mine don’t—so you shouldn’t need to weight them.
Cover the jar loosely, and let it stand at room temperature for about a week. Check occasionally for yeast or mold, and promptly skim off any that appears. When the cherries taste at once briny, tart, and a little spicy, cap the jar and refrigerate it. Serve the cherries cold.
I like brined cherries as a small, slow, thoughtful snack, because even for me they are strange and hard to categorize. They are good with drinks before dinner; upon first tasting them my son Ben immediately wanted to try one in a martini. Use a gin with plenty of juniper, he recommends, but light on other botanicals.
Jelly isn’t much in style these days, I’ve noticed. Many people consider it too sweet, otherwise bland, and nearly devoid of nutritional value. I feel that way about many kinds of jelly myself. Who would choose strawberry jelly over strawberry jam, raspberry jelly over raspberry jam? Why throw out all of the fruit’s fiber and sacrifice the appealing texture that fiber provides?
Some fruits, though, are too fibrous or seedy for a mashed jam. When they also have high levels of pectin and acid, they are perfect for jelly. Oregon grape, Mahonia aquifolium, is one of these fruits.* I love the dark, tart, spicy jelly I make from the Oregon grapes growing beneath the bigleaf maple near our chicken house.
Still, some people would always choose a jar labeled jam over one labeled jelly. So, last summer, for the first time, I decided to try making Oregon grape jam. Because Oregon grapes are seedy—a quarter of the weight of each berry is in its three seeds—I decided I would strain out the seeds, but I would still include some of the fiber that distinguishes a jam from a jelly. Because Oregon grapes are so rich in pectin, I would add a little liquor to soften the jam. Here is my recipe.
Seedless Oregon Grape Jam
3 pounds (about 9 cups) stemmed Oregon grapes About 1 quart water 5 to 6 cups sugar 2 tablespoons brandy or orange liqueur
In a large saucepan, combine the Oregon grapes and enough water to cover them. Cover the pan, and boil the berries gently, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Crush the berries with a potato masher or other tool, and then boil them gently, uncovered, for 10 minutes more.
Press the berries and their liquid through the fine screen of a food mill or through a strainer, leaving the seeds behind. Measure the purée; you should have 5 to 6 cups. Put the purée into a preserving pan along with the same volume of sugar. Heat the mixture, stirring, over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved, and then raise the heat to medium-high. Boil the mixture until it “sheets” from a spoon or until the temperature reaches 218 degrees F. Immediately remove the pan from the heat, and stir in the brandy or liqueur.
Ladle the jam into sterilized pint or half-pint mason jars. Add lids and rings, and process the jars for 5 minutes in a boiling-water bath.
Makes about 4 pints
Making Oregon grape jam is slightly more work than making Oregon grape jelly, since the latter requires only dripping, not pressing. The result really isn’t much different; both the jelly and the jam turn out opaque, smooth, and richly flavored.
You could vary this recipe by adding spices—a stick of cinnamon, for example—or using another sort of liquor (I used my sister’s homemade liqueur of rosemary and Meyer lemon). If it’s a truly rough texture you want, you could include some or all of the seeds.
*Mahonia nervosa, also known as Oregon grape,is a related, shorter species with similar berries that can be used in the same ways as those of Mahonia aquifolia—in jellies, jams, pies, and wine.
Every day this winter I’ve eyed my citron melons in the entry hall, admiring their summery beauty and wondering how long they would keep. Some people say they store well for a whole year, but I’m guessing that’s true only in a quite cool place, such as an unheated cellar. The temperature in my entry hall is usually about sixty degrees Fahrenheit, probably not cool enough to warrant pushing my luck past February. Last week I figured that, though I didn’t need more citron melon preserves, I also didn’t want to lose the chance to experiment more with the melons, which I might never grow again. So I cut into a second one.
Although citron melons are notorious for their hard rinds, I’d had no trouble cutting my first melon, back in December. This time the rind seemed to have toughened. I sympathized with the writer of a poem, published in the Burra, Australia, Record in 1935, that begins this way:
There ain’t no dish I’d rather try Than my dear wife’s good melon pie. I get a melon from the pit And take the axe and open it.
Instead of an axe I used my twelve-inch chef’s knife, which Robert bought me for cutting big winter squashes. I’ve been a little bit scared of this knife ever since the day it flew into the air and I caught it by the blade instead of the handle. Now I often use the knife by holding it in place and pounding it with a rubber hammer (which as you can see I also use for closing paint cans).
That worked to split the melon cleanly. Cutting the halves into wedges, as I’d done to make citron melon preserves, would be too difficult and dangerous, because besides growing a tougher skin the melon had also become more mucilaginous, as if someone had injected it with a quart of aloe juice. My hands and cutting board were already slippery. I tried spooning out the pulp, but that was slow going. So I used a technique I often rely on for another hard fruit, the quince. I turned the halves face down and sliced them straight downward. Then, using a smaller, thinner blade, I cut the rind from the slices without much trouble.
Now I needed to remove the big, hard, numerous seeds. I picked as many as I could out of the sliced flesh, cut the slices into smaller pieces, and picked out more seeds. This is a job to do while listening to an excellent radio program, so you don’t start dwelling on the question of what your time is worth.
Although I hadn’t found a single pie recipe for this fruit that’s often called a pie melon, I‘d found two recipes for compotes of sorts, one in Mildred Maddocks’s Pure Food Cook Book, published in New York in 1914, and one from an unnamed cook in Queensland, who described the fruit as “So country! So winter! So not dinner party material.” I based my recipe less on Mildred’s than on the Queenslander’s, which included, enticingly, cinnamon and marsala. Lacking marsala, I used brandy.
Although the Queenslander used only a quarter of a melon, her other quantities seemed about right for my five-pound melon; this made me wonder just how big citron melons grow in Queensland. I wonder also if the flesh of Queensland pie melons is especially tender, because whereas the Queenslander cooks her compote for about forty minutes, mine needed two hours for the melon to soften.
As these differences indicate, melons called citron or pie melon can vary a lot. Mine are striped, white-fleshed, red-seeded, and tasteless. If yours vary from this description, you may need to adjust the recipe.
Baked Citron Melon Compote
½ cup raisins ¼ cup brandy 1 5-pound citron melon 1 cup sugar 1 orange 1 lemon 2 cinnamon sticks 2 tablespoons butter
Soak the raisins in the brandy for at least several hours.
Peel and seed the melon, and cut it into approximately 1-inch cubes. Heat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.
Remove the zest from the orange and lemon in fine strips, and then squeeze out the juice, picking or straining out any seeds.
In a three-quart casserole, combine the raisins, their soaking liquid, the melon cubes, the sugar, and the orange and lemon juices and zests. Tuck the cinnamon sticks into the mixture, and dot with the butter. Bake the compote uncovered for about two hours, turning the fruit gently a few times, until the melon is tender, golden, and slightly translucent.
You can serve the compote warm or cool, perhaps with cream, though I like it plain.
The compote turned out mildly sweet. If you think you’d like it sweeter, honey would be a pleasant addition. The fruit’s mucilaginous texture remained after baking, but neither Robert nor I found it objectionable; I think it’s growing on me. Because the melon is virtually tasteless, all the flavor of the dish comes from the added flavorings–the raisins, brandy, cinnamon, and citrus. How could a dessert with those flavors be anything but good?
As the Queenslander points out, you could make this dish into a pie by thickening the liquid (with cornstarch or arrowroot or just by simmering it down a bit), spooning the fruit and liquid into a baked pie shell, and perhaps adding a topping of cream or meringue. I like the compote just as it is, though, for breakfast or an afternoon or late-evening snack, and maybe even as a homey dinner-party dessert.
Here’s another, rather extravagant way to use the last of the season’s quinces. I devised this recipe because I wanted something similar to quince paste but prettier and more delicate. Quince jelly candy makes a lovely addition to a holiday sweetmeat platter.
If you don’t like cardamon, leave it out; you might use a cinnamon stick instead. If you really like cardamom, use six pods instead of four.
2 1/2 pounds quinces, with cores and skins, sliced fine 4 cardamon pods 1 cup water 1/2 cup sugar 1 tablespoon strained lemon juice Extra-fine sugar, for coating the jelly
Combine the quinces, cardamom, and water in a heavy-bottomed kettle. Simmer the quinces, covered, until the fruit and juice turn pink, or about 1 hour and 40 minutes. Stir occasionally during the cooking, and take care to keep the heat low enough to avoid scorching. Add a little more water if necessary.
Strain the juice through a coarsely woven jelly bag. You should get about 1 cup juice.
Combine the quince juice with the sugar and lemon juice in a 10-inch skillet. Heat the mixture slowly, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved, and then bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly. When the syrup “sheets,” or when a drop hangs stubbornly from a raised metal spoon, quickly empty the pan into a 5-by-7-inch mold (I use a small Pyrex casserole dish), leaving any foam behind on the side of the pan. Reaching the gel point should take no more than a few minutes; it may happen, in fact, before the syrup even comes to a full boil. (If you’re not sure that the syrup is jelling; remove the pan from the heat briefly before emptying it into the mold. If the syrup is jelling, the cooling surface will wrinkle slightly when you tip the pan.)
Let the jelly cool and dry in the mold until the jelly is fully set; you’ll know it is if the lower edge fails to swell when you tip the mold. I let my jelly sit in the mold at cool room temperature for about two days. In a warm, dry place, you might allow for less drying time. To speed the process, put the mold into a food dehydrator or oven at a temperature of about 150 degrees F.
Sprinkle a board or plate with about 1 tablespoon of extra-fine sugar. With a table knife or small spatula, loosen the edges of the jelly from the dish. With your fingers, carefully lift the sheet of jelly from the mold and lay the jelly on the sugared plate or board. Turn the jelly over to coat the other side with sugar. Slice the jelly into 1-inch squares, sprinkle them with more extra-fine sugar, and store them in an airtight tin lined with waxed paper.
Around the seed cavity of a quince is a hard core of flesh that tends to stay hard after cooking. When a recipe requires coring a quince, you’ll want to remove all of this hard flesh. Doing so can be difficult; a sturdy paring knife will suffice, but only if looks don’t matter much. After accidentally cutting crosswise through a few quince slices, you may find yourself hunting through your Drawer of Useful Things (as I call mine) for a more appropriate tool.
Forget the pear corer; it’s too flimsy. What you need is the tool pictured here, a pointed spoon with sharpened sides. Best known as a peach pitter or pitting spoon, it’s designed for jabbing into a stone fruit and withdrawing the pit while leaving the fruit intact. My mother-in-law probably thought I knew what a peach pitter was when she bought me mine, at least a dozen years ago, but I didn’t, and in fact I’ve never tried to pit a peach while leaving it whole. I’ve often used my pitting spoon for scraping the white pith from citrus rinds. Its main use in my kitchen, though, is in coring apples and, especially, quinces.
I don’t know where my mother-in-law bought my pitting spoon, but finding one today can be hard. Canneries, once the main market, now use big machines instead. But I’ve found one online source: the Organic Tool Company of Turlock, California. Have a look at Pitting Spoon No. 2, priced at $12, and at the many other uncommon tools for the farm, garden, and kitchen in the OTC catalog.
Does anyone know of another source for pitting spoons?
“Rip out those plants, Mom!” my daughter told me. “They’ll totally take over!”
She meant the alien-looking blackberry canes towering over one of my Marionberry rows. The monstrous canes don’t sprawl over the ground like the Marions but stand erect, as tall as fifteen feet. Each cane is as thick as a sapling, and thornless. The leaves aren’t blotched with rust like those of the Marions but solid green, the picture of health.
The fruit is different, too. Whereas Marionberries are long, slender, and soft, these other blackberries are big, round, firm, and glossy. They lack the sour, bitter, winy notes of Marionberry; their taste is frank Himalaya, with a little less acid. They ripen with the wild Himalaya, too, starting at the end of the Marions’ season.
It’s the resemblance to the Himalaya that scares my daughter. We love this most common wild blackberry, but it’s so invasive that we rip out every start except along the irrigation ditch and at the far edges of the wheat field. The new blackberry plants in the row with the Marions aren’t spreading, though, at least not yet. They stay in two tidy clumps, lightly attached to wires just to be sure the plants won’t topple over in the wind (they’re technically considered “semi-erect”).
These plants are the Triple Crown blackberry, a variety jointly developed by USDA breeders in Oregon and Maryland. Released for sale in 1996, the variety is starting to get popular both in and beyond the Pacific Northwest and the mid-Atlantic states. Triple Crown is named for its three “crowning attributes”: flavor, productivity, and vigor. But the variety has two other wonderful attributes, and they’re the ones that will keep me from ripping out the plants: disease-resistance and thornlessness. With western Oregon’s long, cool wet season, disease-resistance is all-important. And I never miss the pain of tiny blackberry thorns in my fingers.
Still, my daughter has a complaint unmentioned in the berry trial reports: “The seeds are too big. They stick in my teeth.” So I decide to make the Triple Crowns into one of her favorite jams, seedless blackberry.
Triple Crown Blackberry Jam Makes about 3 pints
Although you could use a different blackberry variety in this recipe, I’ve written it especially for Triple Crowns. These berries are relatively low in acid, so I use a little more lemon juice than usual. And because the berries are so large and firm, I cook them before putting them through the food mill.
In a broad, heavy-bottomed, nonreactive pot, simmer the berries, covered, until they are tender and most of their juice is rendered, about 10 minutes. Then put the berries through the fine screen of a food mill.
In the pot, combine the berry purée with the sugar and lemon juice. Heat the mixture over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved. Turn the heat to medium-high, and boil the jam until a drop mounds in a chilled bowl. (The spoon test will work with this jam, too; when the jam is ready, two drops will run together off the side of a spoon.)
Remove the pot from the heat. Ladle the jam into sterilized jars, and process them in a boiling-water bath for 5 minutes.
Once my daughter has tasted this luscious, dark jam, I hope, she’ll never again complain about my monster blackberry plants. In the next year or two, I may be ripping out Marions to make room for more Triple Crowns.
Look what I found in the liquor store in Albany, Oregon, among the flavored vodkas and cheap tequilas! I wasn’t looking for maraschino (pronounced maraSKEEno), but finding it made my day. It’s cherry season in the Willamette Valley, a region once well-dotted with cherry orchards. Almost all have long since been cut down, but the birds continually replant the feral descendants of the Bings, Lamberts, and Royal Annes that once made our nurserymen and farmers so proud. The fruit of the cherry trees that manage to grow up, mostly along the edges of farmed fields, can be large or small, red or yellow or black, and sweet or sour or bitter. My favorite tree, which grew from a seedling beside our shed, annually produces hundreds of pounds of small, black, slightly bitter fruits.
Because these cherries are too small to pit, I’ve had to find uncommon ways to preserve them. This was the same quandary faced hundreds of years ago by the people of Dalmatia, a region of modern Croatia along the Adriatic Sea where thrived the marasca cherry, a small, dark, slightly bitter variant of the sour morello. Sixteenth-century Dominican monks in Zadar (or Zara, as the name is still spelled on the Luxardo label) crushed the cherries along with their pits and some of their leaves and probably added some honey before distilling the fermented mash. The product, aged in white ash and then sweetened with cane sugar, became known as rosolj, “sun dew.” In the eighteenth century, rosolj wasrenamed maraschino and relished by the wealthy all over Europe.
Girolamo Luxardo began making maraschino in 1821. Luxardo’s double-distilled clear liqueur is sweet, viscous, and mildly bitter, with a complex flavor and aroma that you probably wouldn’t recognize as cherry or almond. By the time of the U.S. Civil War, Luxardo maraschino was available in the United States, where bartenders put it in cocktails. By the late 1800s, marasca cherries soaked in maraschino had also become popular. They were the ultimate cocktail garnish.
Prohibition put an end to the importation of both maraschino and maraschino cherries. So in the 1920s Ernest Wiegand, a professor at Oregon Agricultural College, devised a cheap, nonalcoholic substitute for maraschino cherries, using Oregon’s big, fleshy, pale Royal Annes. He first soaked them in a salt-and-alum brine, and then he packed them in sugar syrup doctored with food coloring, acid, and almond extract. His shiny crimson knockoffs soon took the place of maraschino cherries in cocktails, in “fruit cocktails” (which had gradually lost their liquor but continued to be served in cocktail glasses), and atop sundaes.
At the request of readers, I included the home version of Wiegand’s recipe in The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves. But I personally preferred to soak my cherries in brandy. I’d never tasted marascas, but they sounded quite similar to my own favorite cherries. I figured that my brandied cherries, with sugar and a little almond extract added, must be pretty close in taste to true maraschino cherries. A couple of years ago I tried my brandied cherries on a young woman from northern Italy. They did taste something like maraschinos, she said. But they weren’t the same.
This year I have what I need to make almost-true maraschino cherries—I have maraschino. So here’s my new recipe: Fill a jar with stemmed sour cherries (preferably small dark ones with a touch of bitterness). Cover the cherries with maraschino. For a pint jar, you’ll need about a cup of liqueur. Cover the jar, and put it in a cupboard. Wait a few weeks or months. Then eat your cherries and drink your now dark and frankly cherry-flavored liqueur, over ice, in a cocktail or fruit cocktail, or however else you like.
I’ll let you know come fall how I like my almost-maraschino cherries. In the meantime, let’s hope that one of our new little distilleries considers producing anOregonversion of maraschino liqueur.
Before the blossoms have all fallen, I want to share these pictures of my Pineapple quince trees. Like other quince varieties, they grow no more than fifteen feet high, and each forms an umbrella-like canopy. The trees blossom profusely, with pale pink flowers that are bigger than the blooms of all my apples and pears. The quince trees’ springtime appearance is outdone only by their glory of autumn, when their hundreds of big, golden, pear-shaped fruits perfume the garden with their tart fragrance.
Prior to the invention of packaged pectin, nearly every American farmstead or garden had a tree like this, if the climate allowed, because quince is an excellent source of pectin. The tart, light-colored juice combines well with other fruits and juices and with spices such as ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The fruit is hard and mildly astringent, but when cooked it mellows and softens, without losing its shape, and with long cooking it turns from white to a startling ruby red. You can poach quinces in wine and honey, stew them with meat (as do cooks in the quince’s Caucasian homeland), and add them to apple pies and applesauce. You can make quinces into jelly, preserves, wine, syrup, membrillo, and liqueur. And you can probably do all this with the harvest of one mature tree.
Even if you’re not sure you like the fruit, consider planting a quince tree. You need only one, because it will self-pollinate. You won’t have to spray it; the hard fruit resists both apple maggots and coddling moths. You can think of your quince tree, if you like, as an easy-care ornamental.
But do try using the fruits. Here’s a very simple recipe for an aromatic syrup that’s delicious in either hot tea or iced water.
Raw Quince-Honey Syrup
Use a sturdy knife to slice the quinces. For coring, a tool that looks like a thick, sharpened little spoon works best.
1 pound peeled and cored quinces, cut into 3/4-inch cubes
2 cups honey
Layer the quince cubes and honey in a quart jar. Cap the jar tightly, and let it stand at room temperature for two weeks.
After two weeks, drain off the syrup and pour it into sterilized jars. Cap the jars, and store them in the refrigerator or another cool place. The syrup should keep well for months.
Eat the shriveled quince cubes as candy, if you like, or simmer them in white or rosé wine and serve them with roast poultry or pork.
I didn’t invent watermelon molasses, Sara Bir informed me. At least I wasn’t the first to invent it.
I’d cooked twenty pounds of watermelon into a cup of syrup because I and the rest of the family were tired of eating watermelon and the melon was overripe anyway. Besides, I’d had grape molasses (arrope, mostillo, mostarda, saba, pekmez) on my mind. I’d been thinking about life before cheap cane sugar, especially in Europe. Honey was a cherished sweetener then, but it wasn’t always available. Before the word molasses and its cognates referred to cane syrup, they were applied to honey-like fruit or vegetable syrups. Molasses derives from the Latin word for “must”—grape juice—and the word for “must” comes from the Latin word for “honey.” The oldest reference to molasses in the Oxford English Dictionary, from 1582, defines it as “a certeine kinde of Sugar made of Palmes or Date trees”; the second, from 1588, calls it “Sirrope of sugar, beanes [etc.].” When you had more fruit—even beans!—than you could eat, you might preserve its essence by boiling down the juice.
Fruit molasses hasn’t gone entirely out of style. Grape molasses, fig molasses, and pomegranate molasses are still imported to the United States from the Mediterranean region and sold at high prices in specialty stores. These products provide a mellow sweetening in sauces, dressings, and desserts, and grape molasses is the sweetener in cheaper kinds of balsamic vinegar.
Why not make molasses from watermelon? I’d decided to try it. The result, as I described in The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves, was remarkably like grape molasses. With so much boiling, fruit juice darkens and loses its volatile flavors. In the finished syrup, you taste mostly sweetness and minerals.
When Sara came upon my recipe for watermelon molasses, she’d already made a version herself—an experience she describes in entertaining detail at www.metroactive.com/papers/sonoma/09.04.03/dining-0336.html. Sara had come upon a little cookbook, Our Favorite Recipes, compiled by the Friendly Aid Society of Free Evangelical Lutheran Cross Church of Fresno, California, and published in 1979. In the book were some distinctly American dishes, such as Jello salads, but there were also foods with exotic-sounding names, like grebbles and berrocks. What interested Sara most were the three coffeecake recipes calling for watermelon molasses, and the recipe for watermelon molasses itself.
Sara wrote me to ask what I knew about watermelon molasses. I didn’t know much; I certainly didn’t know it was a popular ingredient in the kitchens of Fresno Lutherans. I wondered where these people had come from. I pondered the word berrocks, which didn’t sound as if it had ever been German.
On the Web, I found numerous recipes for bierocks—yeast buns stuffed with ground beef and cabbage—and at least one was attributed to the Volga Germans. These were people from southwest Germany, mostly, who at the invitation of Catherine the Great in 1763 settled along the Volga River in Russia, where they were allowed to maintain their language, culture, and various religious traditions (Lutheran, Catholic, Reformed, and Mennonite; Jews weren’t welcome). Although the Volga Germans mainly kept to themselves, they must have learned a few things from the locals. Their bierocks or berrocks—the accent is on the second syllable—were pirogi.
A century after the Germans began migrating to Russia, they lost some of their special privileges, including exemption from military service. When other countries beckoned new settlers, whole Volga villages moved themselves to North and South America. In 1886 and 1887, I discovered, Evangelical Lutherans from several villages on the eastern side of the Volga, near Saratov, settled in Fresno County.
Fresno is a good place to grow watermelons. So is the Lower Volga, a Russian culinary dictionary assured me. Watermelons grow so abundantly from Kamyshin to Astrakhan, on the Caspian Sea, that until recently much of the crop was either brined or boiled into nardek—watermelon molasses! Modern transport allows the shipping of fresh watermelon today, so nardek is produced in only small amounts. It’s a lot of trouble to make, after all, and refined sugar is cheap. For Fresno Lutherans, however, the tradition lives on, or at least it was still alive in 1979. Nearly a century after their ancestors had come to Fresno from Russia, the Friendly Aid Society members still required watermelon molasses to make a proper coffeecake.
The Friendly Aid Society members called their watermelon molasses by the English name, the same one I used. But I thank Sara for sending me on the trail of an old word—nardek—for my invention that truly wasn’t new at all.
In the woods one day, my friend Jocelyn saw me eat an Oregon grape, tried one herself, and screamed. I was unfazed; just after my daughter, not yet two years old, had eaten her first Oregon grape, she had pantomimed death throes.
If you were to taste one of these little not-grapes—and I urge you to try one—you too might guess that they were poisonous, for they are very tart and a little bitter. But they are rich in pectin and make a fine jelly. Nearly black in color, the jelly has a grape-like but spicier flavor.
In either its tall or short form, Oregon grape, Mahonia, is an evergreen shrub with prickly, holly-like leaves and bright yellow blossoms. Though native only to the Pacific Northwest, from northern California to southern British Columbia, the plant is widely grown elsewhere for its beauty and its drought-resistance. I saw it growing in public beds all over Paris, often along with another Northwest native, red-flowering currant.
In summer, Mahonia’s yellow flowers turn to blue berries that hang on the plant for several weeks. The berries are ready to pick when they’re uniformly dark. For three half-pint jars of jelly, you’ll want to collect about three and a half pounds of berries. Just slide your fingers down each bunch, and the berries will fall into your basket.
It’s easy to extract the juice of Oregon grapes with a steam juicer. If you don’t have a steam juicer, simmer the berries, covered, with half their volume of water for fifteen minutes, mashing them after the first ten minutes. Drain the juice through a jelly bag—let the juice drip for several hours—and then boil it for ten minutes to reduce it a bit. From this point on, making jelly is quick and easy.
Oregon Grape Jelly
3 cups Oregon grape juice 2 ¼ cups sugar
Combine the juice and sugar in a wide, heavy-bottomed, nonreactive pan (that is, a pan with a stainless-steel or well-enameled interior surface). Place the pan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar is dissolved, and then raise the heat to medium high. Boil the syrup, skimming occasionally, until it begins to jell. This will take only a few minutes. You can test for jelling by scooping a little of the syrup with a metal spoon and then tipping the spoon high over the pan. You’ll see the drops thicken and slow, and then two drops will run together. That’s the point at which you remove the pan from the heat.
Skim any remaining foam from the surface of the syrup. Immediately pour the syrup into three sterilized half-pint mason jars. Add the jar lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for five minutes.
Remove the jars from the water bath, and let them cool on a rack or pad. Leave them alone until the next day, when the jelly should be firm.