Preserves with a Nordic Touch

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

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

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

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

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

Lime Ginger Pear Shrub

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Makes about 7 half-pints

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

 

 

Sweet Violets for Jelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

violet flowersViolet Jelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Makes 1¼ pints

 

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

From the New Joy of Pickling: Pickled Sliced Peaches

IMG_9609The Washington State Fruit Commission made my day again early this month, when a big box of fragrant, juicy peaches and nectarines was delivered to my front porch. The fruit was so tasty that I made small batches of plain peach jam and raspberry-peach jam and then, with my husband’s help, simply devoured the rest.

But I had promised the Fruit Commission a blog post, so I bought some locally grown, almost equally delicious peaches to make Spicy Pickled Peach Slices, one of the fifty-some new pickles in the third edition of The Joy of Pickling.

Whole pickled peaches are a treat at holiday meals, but most commercially grown peaches are too big to fit into mason jars. Even if I could buy extra-wide-mouthed jars, I wouldn’t want to serve whole fruits as big as a newborn’s head. Sliced peaches are not only easier to pack into jars; they are also easier to eat with a fork than are whole peaches.

With the sweetness, spice, and tang of a good barbecue sauce or chutney, and striking good looks to boot, this pickle is an excellent accompaniment to smoked and grilled meats. Try it over ice cream, too.

Spicy Pickled Peach Slices

2 3-inch cinnamon sticks, broken
2 teaspoons mace or chopped nutmeg
1 ½ teaspoons whole cloves
1 ½ inch gingerroot, sliced into quarter-size rounds and slivered
2 cups distilled white vinegar (5 percent)
2 ¼ cups sugar
24 coriander seeds
8 allspice berries
2 teaspoons hot pepper flakes
4 quarter-size slices of gingerroot
1 teaspoon pickling salt
About 4 pounds freestone peaches

Put the cinnamon, mace or nutmeg, cloves, slivered gingerroot, vinegar, and sugar into a saucepan. Bring the liquid to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar, and then immediately reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer the syrup for 10 minutes.

Divide the coriander, allspice, pepper flakes ginger slices, and salt among four pint mason jars.

In a pot of boiling water, blanch the peaches a few at a time until the skins loosen, about 30 to 60 seconds. Plunge the peaches into a bowl of cold water.

When all the peaches are blanched, slide off their skins. Slice each peach into wedges about 1 inch wide at the widest point.

IMG_9602Strain the syrup into a wide pan. Bring the syrup back to a simmer, and add the peach slices. Bring the mixture to a boil, and remove the pan from the heat.

Ladle the peaches and syrup into the mason jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Add two-piece lids, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 20 minutes.    

Makes 4 pints

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.

 

Strawberries and Roses for a Scented Spring Cordial

strawberry-rose cordialHere in the cool Northwest we’re not yet fully into strawberry season, though I’ve tasted a few tiny, tender, perfumed Alexandrias. But the rugosa roses are putting forth a new crop of lovely pink blooms daily, and I feel driven to capture their scent in one way or another. A few days ago I did so with this syrup, made with last year’s strawberries from the freezer:

Strawberry-Rose Syrup

1½ pounds hulled strawberries
½ pound strong-scented pink or red rose petals
4 cups sugar
Juice of 1 to 2 lemons, to taste 

macerating roses and strawberriesDrop the strawberries into a large bowl, add the sugar, and crush the fruit with a potato masher. Add the rose petals and crush some more, until the mixture is more liquid than solid and much reduced in volume. Cover the bowl, and let the mixture rest for 12 to 24 hours.

straining strawberry-rose syrup

 

Drain the syrup through a fine-meshed strainer. Stir and press the solids in the strainer to extract the remaining liquid.

Combine the syrup with the lemon juice in a nonreactive pot of at least 4 quarts’ capacity. Bring the syrup to a boil, and boil it for 1 minute.

If you’d like to store the syrup in the pantry, immediately pour it into pint or half-pint mason jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Add lids and rings, and process the jars for 10 minutes in a boiling-water bath. Alternatively, store the syrup in sterilized bottles in the refrigerator. I think it’s best to keep at least a little syrup in the fridge, so you can enjoy it while still smelling the perfume of strawberries and roses in your garden.

Makes 2 to 2½ pints

On a warm, sunny day, after a couple of hours of scything grass or other sweaty work, drop a few ice cubes into a tall glass. Add 2 to 4 tablespoons Strawberry-Rose Syrup (depending on the strength of your sweet tooth) and ¾ cup carbonated or plain cold water. Stir well, and then drink up the most refreshing treat imaginable.

If the day is coming to a close, you might forget the water and instead combine the syrup with chilled bubbly wine.

 

 

A Better Boiling-Water Canner?

tamale steamer cum canner
An aluminum tamale steamer serves as a rust-free, extra-tall canner.

I’ve always hated my graniteware canner. You know what I mean—one of those big, lightweight, speckled black pots with the cheap chromed rack inside. My rack rusted out in the first year of use. After I replaced it I noticed the pot itself was rusting, too, as the thin enamel coating flaked off the steel in spots. My jars always came of the pot covered with metallic scum. I couldn’t use the pot for sterilizing empty jars, or the scum would end up all over the interior of the jars. Worst of all, the canner wasn’t quite tall enough for quart jars. I couldn’t cover them with even a half-inch of water (the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends submerging jars by 1 to 2 inches) without the water boiling over and putting out the stove flame.

My graniteware canner is old, I admit—about thirty years old, I’d guess. But canners of this type haven’t improved. The 21- to 21.5-quart models—intended to hold seven quart jars—are still only 9.75 to 10 inches tall. If the specs give a greater height, the manufacturer is probably measuring from the base of the pot to the top of the lid handle.

Although I haven’t thrown out my rusty old canner, it has sat undisturbed in the garage for many years. For boiling-water canning I mostly use my two stainless-steel stockpots, along with the stainless-steel racks that I bought to fit each of them. This setup works perfectly for processing pint and half-pint jars.

But even the taller stockpot is too short for quart jars. So for canning tomatoes, fruits, and juices I’ve substituted my old pressure canner, with the lid left loose. This isn’t the best solution, though, because the thick aluminum wall of the pot takes a long time to transfer heat.

That’s why I started looking longingly at the tamale steamers in the grocery store. These aluminum pots are heavy enough to be sturdy, but light enough to heat up quickly. They come in various sizes: 12, 20, 32, and 50 quarts. Each pot has an indentation around the side, two inches or so from the base, to support a perforated rack. I figured that one of the bigger pots ought to make a good canner.

And so I bought the second-largest size, 32 quarts, and tried it out with quart jars of quince juice. The interior diameter of this pot measures only 14.5 inches, compared to the 15.75-inch width of my graniteware canner, yet seven quart jars fit roomily in the tamale steamer. I could even fit in an eighth jar while retaining at least a quarter-inch of space between the jars.

Even with its raised rack, the tamale steamer is plenty tall—13.5 inches. I can cover my quart jars with 2 inches of water and not worry at all about a boilover. With this pot, I can properly submerge even 1-liter Weck juice bottles.

One problem with the steamer is that it’s made for steaming, not boiling. The rack rests so high that you need about 6.5 quarts of water just to reach its level. All of that water takes a long time to heat. This might not be a concern when you are canning all day long, but heating so much water for a single batch seems wasteful

The solution is easy, though: Next time I process quart jars I’ll take out the raised rack and set a smaller one, probably borrowed from my pressure canner, in the bottom of the tamale steamer. With such an adjustment, the 13-inch-tall 20-quart steamer would be adequate for processing quart jars. In fact, the 20-quart steamer might even be tall enough for quart jars even with the raised rack in place.

Aluminum tamale steamers aren’t expensive. I paid $25 for the 32-quart pot. In comparison, graniteware canners range in price from about $20 to about $40.

So, consider treating yourself soon to a superior boiling-water canner—and treating your friends and family to a big Christmas tamale party.

Experiment with Specialty Pectins

As many readers of this blog already know, I almost never use packaged pectin. After writing a whole book about old-fashioned fruit preserves, made as they were before packaged pectin was invented, I’ve felt no need for Sure-Jell or MCP or any such stuff. But recently Nadia Hassani, who wrote about her own experiment with pectins in her blog “Spoonfuls of Germany,” told me how much she liked Dr. Oetker’s Gelfix, a pectin mix from her native Germany, and offered to send me some. Gelfix seems to be sold all over Europe, but in the United States it can only be ordered through the Internet. I said I’d try it.

I decided to compare the Gelfix with a new product from Ball, a pectin mix that comes in a small plastic jar instead of a box, with flexible instructions that allow you to vary both the batch size and the sugar content. And then I saw a box of Pomona pectin at Nichols Garden Nursery and decided to include it in the test, too. Available mainly from special sources like Nichols and food co-ops (though some supermarkets are beginning to carry it), Pomona also offers flexible recipes, which allow the use of little sugar or even none at all.

I pulled bags and bags of frozen raspberries out of the freezer. I was accustomed to making raspberry jam with nothing but sugar and a little lemon juice added. My raspberry jam took a few minutes of boiling to set, but it always set to a pleasant, soft gel, and never turned out stiff or sticky or syrupy. How would I like raspberry jam made with these specialty pectins?

I started by examining the packages.

GelfixGelfix. Nadia had sent me Gelfix Extra, which requires only one part sugar for two parts fruit, by weight. Dr. Oetker also makes Gelfix Classic, which requires one part sugar for one part fruit, and Gelfix Super, which call for only one part sugar for three parts fruit. Nadia finds jam made with Gelfix Classic too sweet. Gelfix Super contains fructose—to boost the sweetness of the jam, apparently, while keeping the calories low. (In case your jam doesn’t set, Dr. Oetker sells packets of citric acid, too. Lemon juice works as well.)

Gelfix pectins are made from both apple pomace and citrus peels. The Classic and Extra versions contain dextrose, a form of sugar that’s included in Sure-Jell and Ball pectins as well and that’s replaced by the fructose in Gelfix Super. Gelfix Extra and Gelfix Super contain sorbic acid, a preservative, apparently to retard the fermentation and mold growth to which low-sugar jams are prone. All three Gelfix versions contain citric acid, which takes the place of the lemon juice traditionally added to jam to aid in gelling. All three also contain hydrogenated vegetable oil, which I imagine is meant to replace the traditional pat of butter that helps keep the jam pot from boiling over. The fat must be in a very small amount and somehow granulated, because the Gelfix pectin mixture is a powder, not a paste.

The Gelfix box contains two packets, each of which makes at least two and a half pints of jam. On the Internet I found prices for Gelfix ranging from $4.65 to $5.95 per box. At $5.00 per box, probably about the best you could do with shipping included, Gelfix would add about a dollar per pint to the cost of your jam.

Keep in mind that the Gelfix instructions are in German. Sprechen Sie Deutsch?

Ball pectinBall. I turned to the Ball product, called RealFruit [sic] Classic Pectin. Again that word classic. I began to understand that this is a code word for old-fashioned high-methoxyl pectin, the kind that requires a high sugar content for good gelling.1 Only two other ingredients are listed on the label, pectin (from citrus, apple, or both, the label doesn’t say) and citric acid. Ball’s Classic Pectin, in other words, has the same ingredients as Gelfix Classic except for the vegetable fat.

Had I chosen the wrong product for a fair comparison? I’d found a Ball pectin for low-sugar jams on the shelf at Bi-Mart, but on peeling back the label I’d learned that this Instant Pectin was intended only for freezer jam. Now I wondered if Ball made a pectin mix more like Gelfix Extra–a product Bi-Mart hadn’t stocked. A quick Internet search told me this was so. I should have bought Ball’s Low or No-Sugar Needed Pectin instead of the Classic Pectin.2

I couldn’t have known this without checking the Web. Here in Oregon, Ball’s new products, unlike the company’s mason jars and lids, are only slowly gaining acceptance in supermarkets and other stores. Ball’s Pickle Crisp is another product that none of the stores in my area have stocked. I’d never seen Ball pectin of any kind until I found it at Bi-Mart, a low-cost dry-goods store that caters to rural folk here in the Northwest. Now my raspberries were thawed and waiting. I decided to carry on my experiment with Ball’s Classic Pectin.

Ball inner label
Ball’s sturdy peel-back label reseals against the jar time after time.

The instructions inside the Ball pectin label surprised me. There were two recipes, one for “Traditional Jam” and one for “Reduced Sugar Jam,” identical except for the amounts of sugar called for. Packages of old-fashioned high-methoxyl pectin are full of warnings: You must never alter the quantity of sugar, or your jam will fail! The Ball pectin, I figured, must be all or partially amidated, or subjected to a treatment with ammonia that makes high-methoxyl pectin behave more like low-methoxyl pectin, the kind that requires little or no sugar but gels in reaction with calcium. Normally, low-methoxyl pectins require added calcium for making jam. Amidated pectins do not; they are much less fussy about calcium levels. Jams and jellies made with amidated pectins are unusual, too, in that they will regel after you melt them. The Ball pectin isn’t so old-fashioned after all.

Ball’s “Traditional” recipe calls for 1 2/3 cups sugar to 1 1/3 cups chopped or mashed fruit. A weight measurement would be more precise, and also more useful for comparison with the Gelfix proportions. But the old saw “A pint is a pound the whole world round” proves more or less accurate for both mashed raspberries and granulated sugar. So the recipe calls for at least as much sugar as fruit, by weight. Truly traditional jam making, without packaged pectin, typically calls for three parts sugar to every four parts fruit, by weight, though you’d use less sugar with low-pectin fruits and more with high-pectin, high-acid fruits. Ball’s recipe is typical not for no-pectin-added jams but for jams made from high-methoxyl pectins, the only kind sold before the 1980s.

Ball’s “Reduced Sugar” recipe calls for much less sugar, only 1 cup for 1 1/3 cups chopped or mashed fruit. This is more in line with traditional jams. Still, I balked at the either-or choice. The label seemed to be telling me that the pectin could make good jam with a standard amount of sugar or a very high amount of sugar, but not with some amount in between. Why couldn’t there be a single recipe with the sugar amount specified as a range? Most likely, I figured, the marketing people at Ball think consumers can’t handle choices that aren’t black and white.

But the Ball instructions offer cooks another, more flexible choice: that of batch size. Here’s another command you may remember from boxes of high-methoxyl pectin: Never alter the batch size! If you don’t have quite enough berries, go pick some more! If you have too many, leave them out!

Actually, traditional jam makers have to be careful about batch size, too. If your batch is too big for your pot, for one thing, your jam will boil over. For another thing, evaporation is part of the process of reaching the gel point. A bigger batch has proportionately less surface area and so will gel more slowly. Also, natural pectin reacts best when both heating and cooling are rapid.

The Ball label invites multiplying the recipes but warns against exceeding ten jars per batch. You have to do a little figuring to understand out what this means: If the basic recipe makes two half-pints, the ten jars referred to must be half-pint jars. So you can multiply the recipe by five, but no more.

The Ball jar contains enough pectin, according to the label, to make up to 22 half-pints. You’d fill fewer jars with less added sugar, but even with the reduced-sugar recipe you should be able to fill 18 half-pint jars. The 4.7-ounce pectin container costs about five dollars, so using the low-sugar recipe with Ball Classic Pectin would add about 27 cents per pint to the cost of your jam making. At least in the United States, the Ball product is considerably cheaper than the Gelfix product.

Pomona package & instruxPomona. The last brand in my study contains no added sugar at all.3 The list of ingredients on a box of Pomona’s Universal Pectin is brief and precise: “1 packet low methoxyl citrus pectin and 1 packet monocalcium phosphate.” Low-methoxyl pectins need calcium to form a gel, but they can gel with less sugar and less acid than can high-methoxyl pectins. So no citric acid is included in the Pomona package, and with higher-acid fruits adding lemon juice is optional.

The monocalcium phosphate, the Pomona instructions say, is to be combined with water. You mix ½ teaspoon of the powder with ½ cup water, and you store this “calcium water” in the refrigerator, where it will keep for months. Although the Pomona instructions call for adding calcium water to every kind of fruit, too much calcium can interfere with gelling. So the amount of calcium water called for varies from 2 to 4 teaspoons per four cups fruit or juice. You shake the jar just before you measure some out.

Inside the Pomona package are recipes for low-sugar jams and jellies, no-sugar-added jams, and uncooked freezer jams. My favorites are the all-purpose recipes for cooked jam and jelly sweetened with a little sugar (1/4 to ½ cup per 1 cup fruit) or honey (1/8 to 1/3 cup per 1 cup fruit). For jam, you use ½ to ¾ teaspoons pectin for 1 cup fruit; for jelly, you use a little more pectin, ¾ to 1 teaspoon per 1 cup fruit. Otherwise the two recipes are the same. You refine these basic recipes according to the amount of fruit you want to use and how sweet your jam or jelly to be. These recipes are much more flexible than Ball’s.

The price of a box of Pomona pectin varies from about four to six dollars per box. A box contains 8 to 9 teaspoons pectin. This makes four batches of berry jam, if you use 4 cups of prepared berries per batch. Depending on how much sugar you add, your output will be 18 to 20 half-pint jars of jam. At $5.00 per box, the pectin would add 25 to 28 cents to your costs per jar, about the same as for the Ball pectin.

Making the Jam

I had thawed enough berries to make four batches of jam with about 2 pounds of fruit per batch. I used Ball’s “Reduced Sugar” recipe (1 cup sugar per 1 1/3 cups prepared fruit) for the best comparison with the Gelfix recipe (1 pound sugar per 2 pounds fruit). With the Pomona pectin, I made two batches of jam, one with 1 cup sugar per 2 cups fruit, and another with ½ cup sugar per 2 cups fruit.

The process differed slightly among the brands. With Gelfix, you boil the fruit, sugar, and pectin together for 3 minutes before testing a drop of jam on a chilled dish. With Ball, you bring the fruit and pectin to a full boil, stir in the sugar, and boil hard for 1 minute. With Pomona, you stir the pectin into the sugar, bring the fruit and calcium water to a boil, add the pectin-sugar mix, and boil hard for 1 to 2 minutes. Since I like a softer set, I chose a 1-minute boiling time with the Pomona pectin.

In all cases, the boiling was brief enough to produce a pinkish rather than dark red jam. In all cases, too, the jam set up quickly. As soon as I would take the pot off the heat, the surface of the jam would wrinkle with any disturbance; this is a sure sign of gelling. With the Ball pectin, the jam was clumping as I filled the last jar.

Although the Gelfix instructions say nothing about boiling-water processing, which isn’t normally done in Europe, I processed all the jars the same way. I sterilized them first in the canner, and after filling and closing them I gave them a 5-minute boiling-water bath.

The Taste Test

While my son Ben and his wife were visiting, we held a blind jam tasting with warm biscuits. We had to work at identifying differences among the jams—except in the case of the very-low-sugar Pomona, which lacked the sheen of the others and tasted more tart. To me, this stuff looked and tasted like cooked puréed fruit, not jam, but my husband, Robert, actually preferred its fruitier, less sugary flavor. The other, sweeter Pomona jam was a bit softer than the rest, probably because I’d given it the minimal boiling time. The Gelfix jam, which turned out slightly softer than the Ball, was Robert’s favorite. Deanna preferred the Ball, and Ben was torn between the not-so-low-sugar Pomona and the Ball jam. Most interesting to me was this: No one could tell that the Ball jam had more sugar.

Conclusions

Gelfix works well if you can get it, if you can read or translate the German instructions, and if the price and the addition of vegetable fat don’t put you off.

Ball’s RealFruit Classic Pectin is cheaper than Gelfix but requires more sugar. If you want to make your jam with less sugar, look for Ball’s Low or No-Sugar Needed Pectin. Be sure you don’t buy Ball’s Instant Pectin by mistake; it’s intended only for freezer jam.

Pomona pectin costs no more than the Ball mix and is the clear choice among the three if you want to add pectin but not dextrose to your jam. Pomona also allows more flexibility in the amount of sugar you add to your jam than does either of the other products I tested. The necessity of adding calcium water is little bother. The only problem I see with Pomona is its limited availability. To encourage your local store to carry it, send your name and your store’s name and address to info@pomonapectin.com.

One final suggestion: For truly traditional jam, try making it without added pectin. Use three parts sugar to four parts mashed raspberries, and add a squirt of juice from a fresh lemon. The process is simple and quick, and the result is delicious. For more information, see The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves.

 

Notes

1. The main component of pectin is something called galacturonic acid. Molecules of this acid have groups of atoms called carboxyl groups. In nature, about 80 percent of these carboxyl groups are esterified with methane—in other words, turned to esters, groups of atoms that give fruits their fruity aromas. Methoxyl refers to a methane group, CH3, that is attached to a larger organic molecule through an oxygen atom. This arrangement is commonly described as R-O-CH3, with R representing the larger molecule. The linkage by way of an oxygen atom is also called an ester linkage.

When pectin is extracted, the proportion of esters decreases, to a varying degree. The ratio of esterified to non-esterified galacturonic acid determines the behavior of pectin in making jam and jelly. So pectins are classified as high-methoxyl (or HM, or high-ester) or low-methoxyl (or LM, or low-ester), depending on whether more or less than half of the galacturonic acid is esterified. As far as I know, Pomona is the only pectin packaged for home preservers that is identified on the package as low- or high-methoxyl.

2. Ball’s Low or No-Sugar Needed Pectin contains dextrose, pectin, citric acid, and calcium ascorbate. The last ingredient helps preserve color while presumably providing the calcium needed for low-methoxyl jams to gel.

3. When figuring how much sugar you’re adding to your jam, you must account for how much sugar is in your pectin package. Nadia had informed me that, for a given weight of fruit to be prepared, Sure-Jell is heavier than Gelfix. The weight is mainly in sugar, in the form of dextrose. I compared the Ball mix with the other two in this way: If 1 kilo fruit makes 6 cups “Reduced Sugar” jam with the Ball pectin, and the 133-gram jar contains enough pectin to make 18 cups of this jam, then we can figure that the Ball mix would add 44 grams per kilo of fruit, compared with 32 grams per kilo for Sure-Jell and 25 grams per kilo for Gelfix. These differences, to me, are minor. But I appreciate that Pomona leaves the addition of sugar entirely up to the jam maker.

Oregon Grape Jam

Oregon grapesJelly 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.      

Oregon grape seedsPress 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.

Bamboo for Dinner

digging bambooSometimes the best strategy for managing pests is to eat them. Cajuns savor stewed nutria.  Mexicans crunch fried grasshoppers. The French swallow butter-soaked snails. And I have started eating bamboo.

After beautifully screening my bee and compost yard for fifteen years, my bamboo hedge is getting out of hand, pushing up shoots as far as 10 feet from its designated territory and right through the heavy-duty landscape fabric at the base of my raised beds. The shoots can grow as much as a foot in a day.

Why was I fool enough to plant running bamboo without walling it in? Actually, I have no regrets about this, most of the time. The 25-foot-long hedge not only looks lovely all year around; it also provides all the stakes and trellis material that I and my friends can use, and on summer afternoons it shades one of my beds so I can grow lettuce there.

But I need to put a little more effort into bamboo control measures.*

bamboo hedgeI don’t know what species of bamboo I have; the nursery sold it simply as “green bamboo.” According to the American Bamboo Society, there are about 1,450 species of bamboo, many of them native to Asia but others to Australia, Africa, or North or South America. Most if not all species have edible shoots. My bamboo grows about 15 feet high, and the canes are no more than about an inch in diameter.

Because bamboo species vary so much, it’s hard to find reliable advice about harvesting and preparing the shoots. Some people say to cut them a few inches below the soil surface as soon as they emerge from the ground. Others say to let them grow to as high as a foot. Some say what matters is time, not height, because the shoots grow tough and bitter when they are exposed to the sun for too long. I decided to harvest mine when they were no taller than 6 inches; many were only 2 to 3 inches tall. I dug with my hori-hori to break the shoots about an inch below the soil surface.

In most cases I should have waited a day, or a few hours, anyway. There is not much to eat in a 2-inch-tall, 1-inch-wide bamboo shoot, after you remove all the sheath leaves. Also too much bother were the skinniest shoots, ½ inch or less in diameter. I should have left those for the mower.

raw bamboo shootsAll the bamboo experts seem to agree that bamboo shoots should be kept cool and cooked soon, so I collected mine over the course of just a week. I stored them in an unsealed plastic bag in the refrigerator.

As I washed and trimmed and peeled the shoots, I tasted many of them. They had an unpleasant rawness about them, but none were bitter, not even the few I’d harvested at 10 inches tall. Later I cut some 12-inch shoots and licked their ends; they weren’t bitter, either. Next year I’ll follow advice from the self-published book Farming Bamboo: I’ll harvest the shoots at 6 to 12 inches, for a maximum of tasty flesh without bitterness.

peeled & sliced bambooTo make the shoots easy to peel, I scored them lengthwise, as you might an onion. I broke off the tips, which were all leaves without solid flesh, and trimmed off bottom ends that were damaged or very hard. Then, following instructions from Washington State University (WSU) Extension, I cut the shoots crosswise into 1/8-inch rounds, some of them hollow and some of them solid, and boiled them in an uncovered pan of water for 20 minutes. Leaving the pan uncovered is supposed to allow the compounds that cause bitterness to dissipate into the air (according to Farming Bamboo, tropical varieties are especially likely to have these compounds). If any bitter taste remains in the shoots, say all of my sources, boil them in fresh water for 5 minutes more.

The initial 20 minutes’ cooking time was a compromise. Japanese writers call for as much as 90 minutes of boiling, always with rice bran added to remove bitterness, but in Japan cooks often boil their thick shoots whole. Farming Bamboo says that 10 minutes of boiling is enough, and that non-bitter shoots can be added raw to stir-fries.

My cooked shoots weren’t at all bitter. They were still firm to the tooth, but they had lost their raw taste. Their delicate flavor reminded me of artichoke bottoms.

bamboo ready for fridgeHow best to store cooked bamboo shoots? Japanese writers say to keep them covered with water in the refrigerator and to change the water every day; the shoots will keep this way for as long as a week. Farming Bamboo says that if you boil the shoots in lightly salted water, you can store them dry in a plastic bag or other container in the refrigerator. Again, I compromised, sort of: I’d boiled my shoots in unsalted water, but now I put them in a quart container and covered them with salted water (1 ½ teaspoons salt to 1 pint water). I figure I’ll change the water every two or three days, adding a little salt each time.

Bamboo shoots can be frozen, too. If you slice and blanch them, says Farming Bamboo, you can store bamboo shoots in a sealed bag in a freezer for up to a year. They can go straight from the freezer into the wok.

Besides providing a pleasant, mild flavor and an appealing crunch in salads and stir-fries, bamboo shoots are good for your health. They are low in calories, but they are high in potassium and fiber.

bamboo saladLast evening I briefly marinated two handfuls of bamboo shoots in a dressing of lemon juice and roasted hazelnut oil, and then I added the shoots to a salad of spinach, arugula, blanched asparagus, and sliced boiled eggs. A delicious way to celebrate springtime! Tonight I may add the shoots to a stir-fry, with broccoli and maybe some turnips. And, true to form, I’ll also have to pickle some bamboo shoots. Let me know if you have any suggestions.

*A good source of information on other simple control measures (such as shallow trenching—I’ll try that next) and everything else about growing bamboo is the Bamboo Garden, a 20-acre Oregon nursery with 300 bamboo species for sale.