For the Last Preserves of the Year: The Humble Citron Melon

citron melonI first learned about watermelon’s pale-fleshed, seedy ancestor while studying traditional ways of preserving modern watermelon. Why, I wondered, do people bother to make the watermelon’s narrow inner white rind into pickles and sweet preserves when the red flesh and the seeds have much more nutritional value and flavor? Was the white layer proportionally bigger in watermelons of the past? And what is a pie melon? Did Southerners actually make pies out of a sort of watermelon?

Soon I was reading about the citron melon, the native African watermelon from which our garden varieties were developed. Citron melons grow wild in many hot places today, including the southern United States. Green Deane describes them growing in Florida citrus groves, though the melon wasn’t named for this preferred habitat.* Wild citron melons are said to be usually bland-tasting, but sometimes they’re sweet or bitter. Cultivated varieties are always bland. “Pie melons” can be citron melons or crosses between citron melons and sweet watermelons.

That much I learned from other writers, but I wanted to experience this fruit for myself. So when I found a listing for red-seeded citron melon in the Seed Savers Exchange catalog in 2011, I had to send for some seeds.

I couldn’t grow melons of any sort in the cool, short summer of 2011, but this year I did better. My single citron melon vine produced several round fruits, each no more than 7 inches in diameter and striped dark green on a pale green background. I picked the melons at the first frost of the year, in early October, and hoped that they would keep well on the cool tile floor of our entry hall while I spent the next several weeks canning and drying tomatoes, peppers, apples, and pears. Later I would try making some citron melon preserves, which are just like watermelon rind preserves except that you use all of the melon except for the hard outer rind and the seeds.

In early November one of my readers, Val, suggested that I have a look at a blog post by a writer in southern France concerning “jamming melons,” or melons d’Espagne. In Médoc, writes Mimi Thorisson, everybody makes confiture with these melons just after harvest, in early November. She suggests two variations on the basic confiture, one with vanilla and one with mandarin orange and ginger. Her recipe, I noticed, closely resembles American recipes for citron melon preserves. In her photos, the melons d’Espagne look just like my citron melons.

I consulted other French sources. Some French writers say the melons are harvested in late fall and kept in a cool place until just after Christmas, when they are made into the last preserves of the year. All the French recipes I found are much like both Mimi’s and the American recipes. If melons d’Espagne and red-seeded citron melon aren’t exactly the same variety, they must be very close.

I cut into one of the melons. Inside, it fit the French descriptions. The flesh was pale green and bland tasting. It felt slimy, like aloe. The red seeds were many, large, and hard in comparison with seeds of the sweet watermelon cultivars I know.

I worked out a recipe to suit myself. I didn’t add an apple or chop the melon in a food processor, as one French recipe specifies. This would give a jammy result, and I wanted to make preserves, that is, bite-size pieces of fruit in heavy syrup. I didn’t use the alum called for in some Southern recipes, to give the melon a brittle (and, to me, odd) texture. Instead of choosing either vanilla or orange, as Mimi suggests, I combined the two, as in other recipes.

I used half of a vanilla bean, and the flavor was overwhelming. So in the recipe that follows I call for only a quarter of a bean and offer the option of using ginger instead, as I’ll do next time. If you prefer vanilla to ginger, you might also follow another French tradition: Add a splash of dark rum at the end of cooking.

Citron Melon Preserves

For this recipe you’ll need a melon about 6 inches in diameter or else a piece of a larger melon. Cut the melon in half, and cut each half into narrow wedges. Poke or pry out all of the seeds. Peel each wedge with a knife, and then cut the wedge into ½- to ¾-inch pieces.

citron melon preserves3 pounds prepared citron melon pieces
2 clementines
3 tablespoons lemon juice

3 cups
sugar
¼ vanilla bean, split lengthwise and slivered crosswise, or 1 1-inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled, sliced thin, and slivered

Put the melon pieces into a preserving pan. Halve the clementines, squeeze out their juice, and add the clementine juice and the lemon juice to the pan.  Scrape out any membranes and stringy white bits from the clementine peels, slice the peels into thin strips, and add them to the pan. Add the sugar and the vanilla bean or ginger pieces. Stir gently, cover the pan, and let the mixture rest overnight.

Set the pan over medium heat, and stir gently until the sugar is dissolved. Raise the heat to medium-high, and boil the mixture, uncovered, for about 40 minutes, stirring only occasionally and gently. When the preserves are ready, there will appear to be more fruit than liquid in the pan. The fruit will be partially translucent, and the syrup will form a thread when dropped into a glass of cold water.

Remove the pan from the heat. Ladle the preserves into sterilized half-pint mason jars, leaving ¼ inch headspace. Add lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 5 minutes.

Note that the syrup will probably jell, but slowly, over a period of days.

Serve the preserves on toast, biscuits, pancakes, or ice cream.

Makes about 4 half-pints

 

*Nor does the melon taste like citron; it isn’t tart at all. Instead, its English name derives from its generic name, Citrullus, which was first applied to its cousin colocynth, or Citrullus colocynthis, a plant that loves very dry as well as hot conditions. Ripe colocynth fruits on the vine look like oranges scattered about on the ground, as if somebody’s shopping bag had ripped in the middle of the desert. Citrullus colocynthis was once a highly valued medicine, traded throughout the Old World for its purgative effect, despite its horribly bitter taste.

Pommé: Breton Apple Butter

A jar of pommé, with the last of this year’s Braeburns

I first learned of this traditional preserve of Brittany from a travel guide. In our subsequent trip to Brittany, last spring, my family and I searched the grocery stores and gift shops for pommé. Some people we talked with mentioned a traditional bread or pastry called pommé, but none had heard of the confiture. We thought we’d found what we were looking for at a festival in Dol-de-Bretagne, but the pommé there turned out to be bread with apple filling.

Though apparently once very popular in the eastern, traditionally Gallo-speaking part of Brittany, pommé the preserve is little known today. It rarely appears in shops catering to tourists. As I learned with further research from home, pommé is still prepared, sold, and consumed mainly in the countryside.

Pommé is none other than apple butter, usually made without spices or added sugar, so that a spoonful offers a full taste of the caramelization that occurs with long cooking along with concentrated natural fruit sugars and acids. For farmers in the pays Gallo, making pommé was an excuse for a party. Each autumn, they would empty a barrel of fresh cider into a copper cauldron and add peeled, cored, and cut apples. Family members and neighbors would take turns stirring for twelve hours or longer until the apples had broken down and the cider had condensed to make a thick, brick-red, glossy jam. Once the apples were in the pot, everyone but the person stirring would sing and dance to the music of an accordion player or fiddler.

 Pommé was sometimes called le beurre du pauvre, the butter of the poor, because when you couldn’t afford to buy butter, or needed to sell all your homemade butter for cash, you could spread your bread with pommé instead. This made pommé especially popular during the world wars. After World War II, though, butter was more affordable, and so was the refined sugar for making modern jams. Pommé was nearly forgotten.

In the 1970s, residents of the villages of Bazouges-la-Pérouse and Tremblay began to revive the custom of the ramaougerie (“stirring”) de pommé as a public event, complete with live music, sales of artisanal goods, and cider pressings. The finished pommé is packed into jars and sold to the crowd.

Making pommé in a small batch at home is a less festive but also less time-consuming affair. Constant stirring isn’t actually necessary until the cooking is mostly done. This is how I’ve made pommé:

Small-Batch Pommé

1 gallon sweet cider
5 pounds cored, peeled, and quartered apples

In a big, wide, heavy-bottomed pot (mine holds 7.5 liters), begin heating the cider. Add the quartered apples—you can do this gradually, if you like—and simmer the mixture, stirring occasionally. When the apples have broken down and the pommé starts to spatter, stir it constantly for about 10 minutes, until it has thickened and darkened.  The finished pommé will be glossy and a warm red-brown. The total cooking time should be about 4 hours.

Ladle the pommé into pint or half-pint mason jars. Add lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.

Makes about 4 pints

The Kreibich Nectarine Revisited


When I wrote about my first little crop of Kreibich nectarines, about this time last year, my daughter had cut up all the fruits for a tart before I had a chance to play with them. This year the crop of small, white-fleshed fruits was much bigger, and I was able to make both lumpy and puréed nectarine jams, a nectarine-fig jam, and pickled nectarines. I’d like to pass on a few things I learned about this new cultivar.

First, the thin, bitter skins don’t slide off easily with a brief dip in boiling water, as peach skins normally do. I ended up peeling the fruits with a paring knife. For pickled nectarines, I wouldn’t bother with peeling at all next time. This would not only save time and trouble, but the hint of bitterness might pleasantly balance the sweetness and tartness of the pickles.

I made the puréed jam when I got fed up with peeling. After slicing the fruits and cooking them until they were tender, I passed them through the fine screen of a food mill before reheating it with sugar. This worked to eliminate the skins, but the puréed nectarine jam, like my beloved puréed pear jam, spattered furiously as I cooked it.

Fortunately, jam made from these nectarines, even when they’re puréed, becomes quite thick with just a minute or two of boiling. Are other nectarines so dense-fleshed? I’ve always assumed nectarines were as juicy as peaches. Because the Kreibich fruit was so sweet and dense, I reduced the amount of sugar in both the lumpy and puréed jams.

Something else remarkable about these nectarines is their color when cooked—neither  white like the nectarine’s flesh nor peachy orange, but rosy. The color comes from the red pigment that’s around the freestone pit and just under as well as in the skins.

There’s one more thing gardeners should know about this leaf-curl-resistant cultivar: It can get leaf curl. My tree did, during this year’s wet spring. I will have to spray with lime-sulfur this coming fall and winter if I’m to ensure the tree’s good health. And maybe I’ll try neem in early summer to ward off the cucumber beetles, who once again marred the nectarines’ skins.

Here’s my recipe for—

Lumpy Nectarine Jam

 2½ pounds peeled, pitted, and sliced Kreibich nectarines (see instructions)
3 tablespoons lemon juice
½ cup water
3¼ cups sugar

To keep the nectarines from browning, mix them with the lemon juice as you peel and slice them. I do this in a bowl, checking the weight occasionally with a kitchen scale. Stop cutting nectarines when you have 2½ pounds.

In a preserving pan, combine the nectarines and water. Cover the pan, and simmer the nectarines for 5 minutes. Crush them a bit with a potato masher or other tool, and then cover the pan again and simmer them a bit more, until they are quite tender. Remove the pan from the heat.

Add the sugar to the pan, place the pan over medium heat, and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Raise the heat to medium high, and briefly boil the jam, stirring, until it mounds in a chilled bowl.

Ladle the jam into three pint or six half-pint jars, and process them as usual.

You could make a fancier jam by flavoring it with, say, ginger, cinnamon, or rum, but the heavenly aroma of Kreibich nectarines needs no adornment.

Home Canning, BPA-Free

About a year and a half ago, home canners began to learn that the flat metal lids they use to seal their jars, like the metal cans that so much store-bought food comes in, were lined with a plastic coating containing bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical of questionable safety. Since then we’ve learned to limit our exposure to this endocrine disrupter by switching from polycarbonate to stainless-steel water bottles for grownups and from hard to soft plastic milk bottles for babies, and eleven U.S. states and even China have joined Europe and Canada in banning BPA from baby bottles. Those of us beyond babyhood, however, tend to take in BPA mainly through canned food. The linings of most cans haven’t changed.Nor have the linings of jar lids, for commercial use or for home canning.

Scientists and governments disagree about the magnitude of this problem, and even whether it’s a problem at all. Canada identifies BPA as a toxin; the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) believes BPA safe to use in can and lid linings; and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hopes that industry will find alternatives to BPA without governmental intervention.2 Because studies of the dangers of BPA have produced conflicting results, in November 2010 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) held a joint meeting of international experts to review the data on the health risks of BPA. In 2011 the background papers presented at that meeting were edited and posted to the WHO website along with a summary report. The conclusions were that BPA probably doesn’t cause cancer, induce genetic mutations, or, generally, accumulate in the body, but that it may possibly have harmful effects on metabolism, children’s (especially girls’) behavior, and sexual development and reproduction. More studies are needed, the scientists said.

And more studies are under way. In the meantime, many home canners wonder why Ball, Kerr, and their Canadian counterpart, Bernardin, don’t play it safe by changing the coatings of their jar lids immediately. One reason is that these three formerly independent companies are all brands now belonging to Jarden Corporation, which also happens to own FoodSaver, Crock-Pot, Mr. Coffee, Oster, Rival, Seal-a-Meal, and Sunbeam, to name a few of the businesses this conglomerate has devoured. Jarden clearly has its corporate hands full, and no true competitors to worry about. Besides, the BPA-containing epoxy resin coatings, made by corporations such as PPG and Valspar, have for decades done an excellent job of keeping metal from leaching into canned food. Like their fellows in food processing, the folks at Jarden may feel that BPA-containing coatings are still their best choice (see Update, below).

I honestly haven’t fretted about BPA in my jar lids. Food stored in an upright mason jar, after all, needs never touch the lid. Even during processing, jellies and thick jams tend to maintain most of their headspace.

But other home-canned products, such as whole or halved tomatoes, do boil up and touch the lid while the jar is processed in a boiling-water bath or pressure canner. Is it possible to minimize the migration of BPA into home-canned food during processing? No one has performed experiments to find out, but studies on tinned foods offer some hints. According to one of the FAO/WHO reports, more BPA migrates from can linings into food when the food is processed at pressure-canner temperatures than when it’s processed at a lower temperature for a suitably longer period. Processing jars of tomatoes in a boiling-water bath, therefore, may result in less BPA contamination than pressure-canning them. Low-temperature pasteurization, recommended by the USDA for keeping cucumber pickles firm, results in even less BPA contamination in tinned foods than does processing the foods in boiling water. In the case of home canning, using the low-temperature method might result in no contamination, since the liquid in the jar would never boil. Salt tends to increase the migration of BPA into tinned food, according to the report, so unacifidified vegetables such as beets and beans, which you must pressure-can to prevent botulism, might take up less BPA if you left out salt. Oil has the same effect as salt, the report says, so you might prefer to can cooked tuna with water rather than oil.

Acids also increase migration of BPA. Most of this migration happens during processing, but some can occur during storage if the food is in contact with the BPA-containing coating. The coating can’t touch the food as long as the jar stays upright, but some home canners who send their products to friends and relatives worry that even jellies and well-gelled jams may end up tainted by BPA if the parcel is flipped during shipment.

This fear is legitimate. In 2010, Popular Mechanics  sent boxes loaded with movement and impact sensors around the country via the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), the United Parcel Service, and Federal Express. The packages got turned upside-down repeatedly during every trip with each company. (Although the USPS dropped the packages the least, it flipped them the most—on average, twelve and a half times per trip!) The package labeled “FRAGILE” and “THIS SIDE UP,” in fact, got flipped the most.

Alternatives to Ball and Kerr

Some home canners have tried to avoid these concerns by hunting down BPA-free mason-jar lids, and several have asked for my help in searching out and testing them. One reader of this blog recommended Leifheit lids, from Germany. These lids are both BPA-free and “bulletproof,” she told me. Before I ordered some, though, I wanted to confirm that they were BPA-free. This should have been easy; Leifheit has a U.S. division with an excellent website. But my emails and phone calls to the company were never returned, and others inquiring about BPA have reported the same experience. One blogger got through to a representative who admitted that the Leifheit lid linings have “negligible traces of BPA.” Perhaps as many traces as Jarden’s lids have, albeit at a much higher price? Nobody seems to know.

One European mason-jar manufacturer makes truly BPA-free metal lids, according to Cathleen O’Keefe of the Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA). Bormiolo Rocco, an Italian producer of fine glass, sells these mason jars and one-piece caps under the name Quattro Stagioni. Cathleen, who places bulk orders on behalf of NOFA members and anyone else who wants the caps, sold me some in both regular and wide-mouth sizes ($.80 and $1.05, respectively, for a packet of two, plus a little for shipping; Ball lids, when sold with screw bands, cost almost as much). The Quattro Stagioni caps are easy to use: You just rinse them in hot water, fill the jars as usual, and screw on the caps. If I’m translating the Italian instructions correctly, you’re supposed to leave the jars in the kettle of hot water until they have cooled, but I take them out as soon as the boiling period is up, in accordance with USDA recommendations. You can tell the jar is sealed in the same way you can with a Ball or Kerr lid: The vacuum pulls the center of the lid down firm. Nicest of all, you can open the lid by unscrewing it rather than prying it off. Quattro Stagioni caps are not intended for pressure canning.

An American-made, BPA-free alternative to Ball and Kerr lids is a product called Tattler. The Tattler lid is made of solid plastic, a substance called acetal copolymer. This plastic contains no BPA, and it’s approved by the USDA and FDA for contact with food, including meat, provided the food doesn’t contain 15 percent or more alcohol. The plastic lids are guaranteed to last a lifetime, and the company says that in their thirty-five years or so in production no one has ever asked for a replacement. The lids are especially recommended for use with acid food, since acid doesn’t degrade them as it does metal. The lids can be used in pressure canners as well as boiling-water canners.

To make a Tattler lid stick you need a rubber ring, which you place on the jar rim under the plastic lid, and a standard metal band to screw over the plastic lid. The rubber ring is reusable several times, until it becomes stretched, cracked, or cut. The company recommends reversing each ring with each use to prolong its usefulness. You can buy the rubber rings with the lids or separately; the metal screw bands you must get elsewhere.

The recommended procedure for using Tattler lids and rubbers is a little different from that recommended for Ball and Kerr two-piece caps. After scalding the Tattler lid and ring and placing them on the jar top, you screw on the metal band all the way and then turn it back ¼ inch; this allows the jar to vent during processing. After processing, you tighten the metal band as soon as you take the jar out of the canner (use two heavy towels or potholders to avoid burning yourself). When the jar has cooled, remove the metal band. You know the jar is sealed if the lid stays on. To remove the lid, gently insert a table knife between the rubber and the jar.

An Extension food safety specialist at the University of Georgia, Elizabeth Andress recommends allowing 1 inch headspace when canning with Tattler lids, but I can’t imagine why. I suspect this would lead to oxidation—that is, darkening of the food at the top of the jar. When I’ve used Tattler lids, I’ve stuck with the standard headspace measures of ¼ inch for jams and jellies and ½ inch for pickles.

Tattler lids and rings are probably too expensive ($20.95 for three dozen narrow-mouth lids and rings and $23.95 for a wide-mouth set, from the company website) if you are selling or giving away your preserved foods and aren’t sure the recipients will return everything—jar, lid, ring, and band–undamaged. But the lids and rings are very nice for home use, especially with ungelled acid foods such as pickles, relishes, and tomatoes. And Tattler products may be affordable if you can buy them from a local store instead of having to pay for shipping.

Maybe you’re nervous about putting any plastic in contact with your food. Another option is glass—glass jars with glass tops. I’ve long kept some of the German-made Weck jars, which are now widely available at U.S. cookware stores as well as via the Web. These jars come with rubber rings much like the Tattler rings, and stainless-steel metal clamps that hold down the glass lids during processing. The rings shouldn’t be reused, according to the manufacturer, but you may find that like Tattler rings they last well through multiple uses. You know a ring is good when you take the clamps off the cooled jar and the glass lid stays on. For storing opened jars in the refrigerator, Weck sells plastic caps to fit.

When the rubber rings for your Weck jars have worn out, of course, you must find new ones, and until recently this was difficult to do in theUnited States; my Weck jars sat unused for years for this reason. Now, however, the rings are available inexpensively at Weck’s U.S. website.

Some Weck jars come in whimsical shapes; I have “deco” liter jars that are nearly round. USDA processing times are based on jars shaped more or less like Ball and Kerr jars. If this concerns you, either stick with the more standard shapes or increase your processing times a bit.

The only disadvantage I find with Weck jars, besides the prices (for example, six half-liter cylindrical jars cost $18.25, plus shipping, on the Weck website), is the minor difficulty of getting the metal clamps on. I often chip the lids when doing this, though the slight chipping doesn’t damage their integrity.

Should the health risks of BPA induce you to try one or more of these alternative canning products? Perhaps so, if you’re worried, especially if you’re feeding your home-canned goods to young children or shipping them around the country. But first you might try more effective ways of reducing your BPA exposure. Besides shunning polycarbonate bottles, avoid eating foods from metal cans, particularly meats, soups, and vegetables, unless the cans are labeled as BPA-free. Don’t heat food in plastic containers, and wash your hands after handling thermal paper (slick cash-register receipts, for example).

As long as you’re using conventional jar lids, you may be able to reduce your exposure to BPA by leaving the salt out of pressure-canned foods, processing tomatoes in a boiling-water bath, and using low-temperature pasteurization for pickles. Most important, store your jars upright.

Update, May 24, 2013: According to Jarden Home Brands, Ball and Kerr lids produced since last fall have no BPA. Starting this summer, boxes of the lids will be labeled “BPA-free.” Until then, you can find out whether lids in your cupboard or on the store shelf have BPA or not by checking this article at Diary of a Tomato.

______________

1. For a list of exceptions, see this 2010 article by A. K. Streeter.   

2. The EFSA and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency agree that 50 micrograms per kilo of body weight is a tolerable daily intake of BPA. Urine tests have indicated that the average American takes in one-thousandth of this amount. As reported in this 2009 article from Consumer Reports, however, some scientists believe that the 50-microgram limit is much too high.

 

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Quince Jelly Candy

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.

Makes about 1 cup jelly candies

How to Core a Quince

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?

Homemade Grape Molasses

Quince preserved in grape molasses

Arrope, mostillo, mostarda, saba, vin cotto, vino cotto, pekmez, petimezi—these words from various lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea all mean the same thing: grape juice boiled down to a thick syrup. Before Arabs introduced cane sugar to Europe, molasses from grapes, figs, or pomegranates was the best substitute for honey, a product that was usually more costly—or painful—to obtain.*

Grape molasses is still fairly common around the Mediterranean. In Spain arrope is used to fortify wines, to transform them into liqueurs with rounded flavor and enhanced sweetness. In Italy vin cotto is sometimes be served with quince paste and cheese. In Turkey pekmez is used in preparing many desserts. Grape molasses is also dribbled on toast, salads, steak, yogurt, and ice cream, and used as a marinade for duck and other meats.

The typical way to begin making grape molasses is to save some of the must when you’re pressing grapes for wine. You need at least two quarts must, which you’ll get from about six pounds of grapes. If you don’t have a fruit press, you can separate the juice from the seeds and skins by putting stemmed grapes through a tomato strainer. Or you can heat the grapes in a covered kettle until they come to a boil and burst their skins, and then drain the juice through a colander. For a jammier texture, press the grapes through a fine strainer (or use a food mill, if the grapes are seedless).

The second and final step in making grape molasses is to gently boil the juice—in a wide, heavy, nonreactive pan—until you have a thick syrup (like hot honey), taking care that it doesn’t caramelize. The boiling requires at least an hour and a half, longer if you’re using more than two quarts must.

Store the hot molasses in tightly closed jars. You can process the jars in a boiling-water bath, if you like, just as you would jam—five minutes if you’ve sterilized the jars first, ten minutes if you haven’t.

The color, texture, and flavor of your grape molasses will depend on your grape variety. The juice will darken with boiling in any case, but dark grapes, to my mind, make the most visually attractive molasses. The molasses will be more or less tart, and notably astringent or not. If it’s made from an American grape variety, it may jell upon cooling, though slow cooking can prevent this.

To make preserves in a truly ancient style, add fruit to your grape molasses while it’s cooking. Dried fruit, such as figs, are added to the juice at the start of the cooking. A few weeks ago I added a cup of dried figs to the juice of eight pounds of seedless, blue Glenora grapes to make two pints of dark, rich preserves.

Even more interesting are my Glenora-quince preserves. Quinces conveniently ripen at about the same time as grapes, so combining the two seems natural. I used a pound of quinces—peeled, quartered, cored, and then cut into smaller pieces—for six pounds of grapes. I added the quinces to the juice after reducing it by half. Then I gently boiled the fruit in the syrup for about an hour, until the syrup was suitably thick.

Semi-reduced juice with quinces just added

Early in the cooking, my quinces looked almost like sliced beets in beet juice. Afterward, in jars, the quince pieces were invisible in the dark molasses.

Preserves made with grape or other fruit molasses are more complex in taste than preserves made with refined sugar. Deliciously tart, mildly astringent Glenora-quince preserves go just as well with smoked pork or roast poultry as with toast or yogurt.

Fat bunches of Canadice grapes, my favorite for fresh eating, still hang on the vines trellised over our back deck. Before the birds and wasps get them all, I think I’ll boil some down into molasses.

* I use the word molasses for these fruit products because it originally meant “honey-like.” The word syrup seems less suitable, from a historical perspective, because it comes from an Arabic word for a sugar-sweetened drink. 

A New Bottled Lemon Juice: Fragrant and Sulfite-Free

After reading “Real Lemon versus ReaLemon,” Harry Merzian of Dream Foods International sent me a sample bottle of his company’s Italian Volcano Lemon Juice. This juice is not made from concentrate but squeezed from fresh-picked lemons, which are organically grown near Mt. Etna in Sicily. Instead of preserving the juice with sulfites, Dream Foods “gently” pasteurizes it. Once you open one of the 1-liter glass bottles, Harry says, the juice will keep for 30 days in the refrigerator.

My husband, my daughter, and I did a comparative tasting of Italian Volcano Lemon Juice, ReaLemon, and the strained juice of an organically grown lemon. (I thought the lemon was from California, via the supermarket, but my daughter now tells me that a local friend grew it in her hothouse. In either case, the lemon was almost certainly a Eureka or a Lisbon.) My husband and my daughter, for both of whom the tasting was blind, could immediately tell which juice was which. Whereas the ReaLemon was cloudy, pale, and notably bitter, with the aroma of added lemon oil and a slight but unpleasant aftertaste, the fresh lemon juice was clear and yellow with a mild aroma, a balanced sweet-tart flavor, and no bitterness. The Italian Volcano had to be the one with a pinkish-brown tinge. This juice was extremely aromatic, much more tart than the other two, a little sweet, and only mildly bitter. To me, the Italian Volcano tasted a bit like grapefruit juice.

The strong aroma of Italian Volcano comes from the lemon juice itself, Harry says. No oil is added, and the pressing method doesn’t allow accidental inclusion of oil from the rind. The Sicilian lemons must be like no lemons I’ve tasted before. Harry credits the volcanic soils.

Italian Volcano isn’t standardized for acidity. Harry says the pH (pH is a measure of acidity different from percentage of titratable acid) ranges from 2.2 to 3.6. I’ve just tested the pH of the juice Harry sent as 2.4, which is close to results I’ve gotten in the past for fresh lemon and lime juice and various kinds of vinegar. To my husband, my daughter, and me, the Italian Volcano tasted more acidic than it actually was.

Because of its neutral flavor, fresh California (or Oregon) lemon juice would generally be my top choice for canning. But Italian Volcano would be excellent in many desserts and in lemonade and cocktails, and it would be preferable to ReaLemon in canning if anyone with an allergy to sulfites might eat the canned food. Do keep Italian Volcano’s variable acid level in mind.

Dream Foods International was founded in 1998 by Adriana Kahane, who as an MBA student at the University of Southern California studied the feasibility of importing Sicilian citrus, especially blood oranges. The company today imports only juice, lemonade, and limeade, not fresh fruit. For more information about Italian Volcano juices, visit the website at www.dreamfoods.com.

Triple Crown Blackberry Jam

“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.

3 pounds Triple Crown blackberries
3 2/3 cups sugar
3 tablespoons lemon juice

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.

Maraschino Cherries: The Almost-Real Thing

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 was renamed 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.