I 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, in 2011, I found a listing for red-seeded citron melon in the Seed Savers Exchange catalog, I had to send for some seeds.
I couldn’t grow melons of any sort in the cool, short summer of 2011, but in 2012 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 apart from 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.
3 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.
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 now 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:
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.
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.1 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 (though the lids can be hard to unscrew, even when you’re using them with dry foods). 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 the rings with each use to prolong their 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.
UPDATE, January 2, 2022: Leifheit no longer has a U.S. website. The company’s products are distributed in the United States by Household Essentials.
Quattro Stagione lids are now available to U.S. preservers through the Container Store. They cost $3.99 for a package of two.
Tattler lids now cost $32.50 for three dozen sets of narrow-mouth lids and rings and $35.50 for three dozen wide-mouth sets. The company offers these instructions for tightening its lids:
To get the feel for the correct tightness prior to processing, place the jar on a counter top or other smooth surface, then place your index finger on the lid (do not apply too much pressure while tightening the metal band). Screw the metal band on until the jar begins to spin on the counter top (or other smooth surface). This is the perfect tightness for processing!
Once the process is completed and the jars are removed from your canner, Let the bubbling die down (approximately 4-5 minutes), as this is pressure still releasing from the jars. Place a towel over the still hot jars (for safety) and finish tightening the metal bands. Now, let your jars cool naturally and when cool to room temperature, remove the metal band and lift the jar slightly by the lid. It should be well sealed. Your food is ready for storing (store without metal screw bands).
Elizabeth Andress seems to have removed her advice about Tattler lids from the Internet, but as of 2020 the USDA still wasn’t recommending their use. The agency has not, however, recommended against their use, either.
Six half-liter cylindrical Weck jars now cost $21.50.
Manufacturers of receipt machines are replacing BPA with BPS, which seems to be equally harmful. Is BPS used in canning-jar linings? Whoever knows isn’t telling.
1. 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. According to a 2009 article in Consumer Reports, however, some scientists believe that the 50-microgram limit is much too high.
Although Amazon identifies me as the author of this book, I’m really just the editor. The Canning and Preserving Handbook is adapted from the latest edition of the USDA’s classic Complete Guide to Home Canning. My job was to edit the text for clarity and consistency, so that the recipes and other instructions would be easier to read and follow.
The book opens with basic instructions, handsomely illustrated in watercolor, for water-bath and pressure canning. The remaining chapters comprise recipes for canned fruits and vegetables, including tomatoes in various forms, and chutneys, pie fillings, jams, jellies, ketchup, hot sauce, salsas, fermented pickles, vinegar pickles, and relishes. These are the basic recipes from which cookbook writers like me derive processing times for our own canned creations. All that the publisher and I left out are poultry, red meats, seafood, and a home economist’s bizarre invention called Zucchini-Pineapple.
For only $9.95 from Amazon, The Canning and Preserving Handbook comes with a comb binding, hard cover, and a lot of lovely full-page photos. I recommend this book for anyone who would like to keep at hand the USDA’s home-canning recipes, recommendations, and rules, all written in plain, unbureaucratic English. This sturdy, attractive little book would also make a fine gift for a beginning canner.
UPDATE 2022:The Canning and Preserving Handbook is now out of print, but used copies are available online.
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.
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 maraschinowas 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 an Oregon version of maraschino liqueur.
UPDATE 2022: The almost-maraschino cherries were heavenly. My current black cherry tree, grown from a scion of the seedling tree on our farm, produced a sizeable crop here in town last year. Although I greedily ate every one of those cherries out of hand, this year I hope to make almost-maraschino cherries once again.
In jams, pies, cobblers, and other sweet treats, rhubarb routinely gets paired with strawberries, for good reasons: Rhubarb and strawberries tend to reach the peak of their seasons together, and strawberries disguise the often lackluster color of rhubarb (although all-green rhubarb can be attractive on its own; see my recipe for Green Rhubarb Jam).
But in a spring as cool the one we’re experiencing in the Pacific Northwest now, local strawberries lag behind the rhubarb. There’s hardly a spot of red in the berry patches yet, and nobody wants to substitute hard, green-centered strawberries from California for sweet, tender red fruits from the garden or farm stand. This is a good time, though, to clean out the freezer, to make room for the abundance that will come (it will, really). And amid the pork chops and pesto may lurk bags and bags of last year’s fruit. My friend Sally hauls all out all her frozen fruit this time of year to make a batch of mixed-fruit wine. I make jam.
I decided to make jam from the last of last summer’s blueberries combined with the first of this year’s rhubarb. The pairing worked: The rhubarb took on the deep-blue color of the berries, lent an interesting texture, and balanced the berries’ high pectin content so I could use minimal sugar and yet avoid a tough gel. To eliminate the unpleasant fibrousness of cooked blueberries, I first heated the berries separately and then pressed them through a food mill. The result is a lusciously soft, dark jam that seems the essence of blueberry until you notice the tart yet subtle background note of rhubarb.
Supposing no blueberries turn up in your freezer, wait a few weeks. With adequate watering, your rhubarb will still be going strong when the first blueberries ripen. Then you can mix the two deliciously in jam—or in a pie, a tart. a crisp, or a cobbler.
1 1/2 pounds blueberries 1 pound trimmed rhubarb (leaves and tough bases cut off), cut into small pieces 3 1/3 cups sugar 2 tablespoons lemon juice
If the berries are frozen, let them thaw.
In a broad, heavy-bottomed pan, simmer the blueberries, covered, for about 5 minutes. Press them though the fine disk of a food mill.
Combine the berry purée in the pan with the rhubarb, sugar, and lemon juice. Cook the mixture over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar has dissolved. Raise the heat to medium-high, and boil the mixture, while still stirring frequently, until the rhubarb breaks down and a bit of the jam mounds in a chilled bowl, or until the temperature of the mixture reaches 221 degrees F. This should take no more than 10 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat.
Skim the foam from the jam, and ladle the jam into sterilized half-pint mason jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Close the jars, and process them for 5 minutes in a boiling-water bath.
Remove the jars to a rack or pad, and let them stand undisturbed for 24 hours, after which time the jam should be well set. Store the jars in a cool, dry, dark place.
Before the blossoms have all fallen, I want to share these pictures of my ‘Pineapple’ quince trees. Like other quince varieties, they grow no more than fifteen feet high, and each forms an umbrella-like canopy. The trees blossom profusely, with pale pink flowers that are bigger than the blooms of all my apples and pears. The quince trees’ springtime appearance is outdone only by their glory of autumn, when their hundreds of big, golden, pear-shaped fruits perfume the garden with a pineapple-like scent.
Prior to the invention of packaged pectin, nearly every American farmstead or garden had a tree like this, if the climate allowed, because quince is an excellent source of pectin. The tart, light-colored juice combines well with other fruits and juices and with spices such as ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The fruit is hard and mildly astringent, but when cooked it mellows and softens, without losing its shape, and with long cooking it turns from white to a startling ruby red. You can poach quinces in wine and honey, roast them with vegetables, bake them like apples, stew them with meat (as do cooks in the quince’s Caucasian homeland), and add them to apple pies and applesauce. You can make quinces into jelly, preserves, wine, syrup, paste (membrillo), and liqueur. And you can probably do all this with the harvest of one mature tree.
Even if you’re not sure you like the fruit, consider planting a quince tree. You need only one, because it will self-pollinate. You won’t have to spray it; the hard fruit resists both apple maggots and coddling moths. You can think of your quince tree, if you like, as an easy-care ornamental.
But do try using the fruits. Here’s a very simple recipe for an aromatic syrup that’s delicious in either hot tea or iced water.
Raw Quince-Honey Syrup
Use a sturdy knife to slice the quinces. For coring, a tool that looks like a thick, sharpened little spoon works best.
1 pound peeled and cored quinces, cut into 3/4-inch cubes 2 cups honey
Layer the quince cubes and honey in a quart jar. Cap the jar tightly, and let it stand at room temperature for two weeks.
After two weeks, drain off the syrup and pour it into sterilized jars. Cap the jars, and store them in the refrigerator or another cool place. The syrup should keep well for months.
Eat the shriveled quince cubes as candy, if you like, or simmer them in white or rosé wine and serve them with roast poultry or pork.
Home preservers often wonder why USDA preserving recipes calling for lemon juice specify that the juice should come from a bottle. In most grocery stores the only such product used to be ReaLemon, which is made from concentrate and preserved with sulfites. Today a few competing brands of lemon-juice-from-concentrate are available, with similar assortments of preservatives. To most discerning cooks, ReaLemon and its imitators don’t taste quite real, and to people allergic to sulfites these products may be a health hazard. Bottled fresh lemon juice, with juice from Sicily or Peru, is available at some fancy grocery stores, but it also contains sulfites. Why shouldn’t home preservers use fresh lemons, which are inexpensive and available year-round in every supermarket? Is ReaLemon really better than real lemon?
Extension agents explain that lemons vary in their acidity, and that bottled lemon juice does not. To make sure your jam or your salsa–or, especially, your lemon curd— reaches a safe level of acidity, you should always use the bottled stuff, say the home economists. I decided to find out whether they’re right.
I first researched laws regarding bottled lemon juice. The Code of Federal Regulations (Title 21, volume 2, revised April 1, 2010), includes this FDA rule: Lemon juice prepared from concentrate, like ReaLemon, must have “a titratable acidity content of not less than 4.5 percent, by weight, calculated as anhydrous citrus acid.” Citric acid is the main acid in lemons. Lemons also contain some malic acid, but it usually isn’t measured separately. The ascorbic acid, or vitamin C, for which lemons are justly valued is destroyed by heat and so ignored in discussions of food processing. For our purpose here, we can say simply that lemon juice made from concentrate must have an acid level of at least 4.5 percent, and that the law allows this acid level to vary.
Hmmm. Even if the law allows a variable acid level, a manufacturer would settle on a standard, right? In the opinion of my husband, a chemist, that standard would be 4.5 percent. After all, water is cheap! Why would ReaLemon use more lemons than necessary?
I asked the folks at ReaLemon whether they standardized the acidity of their lemon juice and, if so, what their standard was. Here is their reply: “ReaLemon meets or exceeds the FDA standard of identity for lemon juice, which is 4.5% w/w.” This reinforced my husband’s opinion: ReaLemon had a standard acid level, and it was 4.5 percent.
We decided to test this hypothesis. I bought a bottle of ReaLemon, and we titrated the juice (I’ll explain in another post how to do this). ReaLemon tested at 4.9 percent—the “natural strength” of lemon juice, according to the label. The company rose in our estimation. They were exceeding a minimum standard!
If lemon-juice-from-concentrate is at least 4.5 percent acid, and sometimes 4.9 percent acid, what is the natural range of acidity in lemons? I posed this question to David Karp, a fruit researcher at the University of California, Riverside, who also writes for the Los Angeles Times. David referred me to Walton Sinclair’s Biochemistry and Physiology of the Lemon (University of California, 1984), a four-inch-thick summary of all scientific research on Citrus limon.
According to the research, some lemon varieties are more acidic than others. Lemons of a single variety can vary in acidity depending on the local soil and climate, the rootstock on which the tree is growing, the amount of fertilizer applied, and the season in which the lemons were picked. Lemons and other citrus fruits grown in hotter places, for example, are generally less acidic than those grown in cooler places. Both potassium and nitrogen fertilizers tend to increase acidity levels. New Zealand lemons are less acidic than California lemons, and California lemons are less acidic than Sicilian lemons.
Even a single lemon can show variations in acidity, depending on when you do the testing and from what part of the fruit you take the juice. California lemons increase their acid levels almost 25 percent during curing–that is, in the weeks of storage after harvest. One study found that juice from the stem end of a lemon is slightly more acidic than juice from the blossom end, and another study found that juice from the core area is slightly more acidic than juice from the periphery.
If all these variables make you think the home economists are right, think again. Although lemons vary in acidity, they generally don’t vary much. The least acidic lemon found among all those tested in dozens of studies, an uncured Eureka from California, had an acid level of 4.53 percent. The most acidic uncured Eureka tested at 6.50 percent, and cured Eureka lemons ranged from 5.71 to 7.42 percent. Lisbon lemons from California varied less, from 4.79 to 4.86 percent acid before curing and 5.25 to 5.32 percent afterward.
Florida lemons vary no more in their acidity than California lemons. In one Florida study, samples ranged from 5.16 to 6.41, in another from 5.24 to 5.92.
If you live outside the United States, the lemons in your market may be more or less acidic. In New Zealand lemons averaged only 4.9 percent acid, and in Italy lemons tested as high as 8.1 percent acid. But you won’t find lemons from New Zealand or Italy in Safeway or Albertsons.
Note that I’m not counting Meyer lemons as lemons. A cross between a lemon and an orange, the Meyer is relatively low in acid. Meyer lemons sampled in July averaged 2.4 percent acid in one study; those sampled in February and May averaged 4.1 percent acid.
With all this information before me, I guessed that the juice of a lemon from one of my local grocery stores would test at somewhere around 6.0 percent acid. It would almost certainly be a Eureka or a Lisbon (the fruits of these two varieties are hard to tell apart) or a clonal selection of one or the other. If it were a Eureka, it might be a little more acidic than 6.0 percent; a Lisbon might measure only about 5.0 percent.
So I bought a lemon, and my husband and I titrated the juice. It tested at 6.2 percent acid. Eureka! (Probably.) We drank some of the juice, too, and compared the taste with that of ReaLemon. The natural lemon juice was much less bitter (ReaLemon, like other varieties of bottled lemon juice, contains oil from the peel) and noticeably more sour.
Provided you start with regular lemons rather than Meyers, then, substituting fresh lemon juice for bottled in canning should be entirely safe, although the finished product might end up a little more tart than it would with bottled lemon juice.
Are you adding lemon juice to jam or jelly? This is done not for safety, generally—nearly all fruits are acidic enough for safe canning—but to ensure that the jam or jelly will jell. You can add a little less lemon juice than a recipe specifies if your fruit is quite tart, or a little more if you want a stronger gel.
If you’re canning tomatoes, the acidity of your lemons shouldn’t be a concern. Nearly all tomatoes are acidic enough to can without added acid. If yours are unusually dull in flavor, follow the USDA recommendation: Add 1 tablespoon lemon juice per pint of whole, crushed, or juiced tomatoes. Or, if you like, add more.
Recipes for canned salsa call for quite a lot of lemon juice (or lime juice, or vinegar). If you’re using several fresh lemons, their acidity will average out, and the average will almost certainly be higher than 4.5 percent. By using fresh lemons you may risk making your salsa a little too tart, but you can minimize this risk by using low-acid, paste-type tomatoes, such as Roma, which provide the additional advantage of making salsa thicker.
A particular concern of many home preservers is the safety of fresh lemon juice in canned lemon curd, a tart, buttery custard that’s used as a dessert topping and filling and as a spread for toast, pancakes, waffles, and so on. It’s essential to have a high level of acid in a protein-rich food that’s processed in a boiling-water bath. Home economists say that canned lemon curd is safe only if the lemon juice comes bottled, but remember: American store-bought lemons—the regular kind, not Meyers—are at least as acidic as bottled lemon juice. Besides, you may prefer to use more lemon juice in your curd than called for in the USDA recipe, which, I notice, contains proportionally less lemon juice than does my recipe in The Joy of Jams. You can find the USDA recipe here.
Lemon curd doesn’t need canning, of course. If you put it in a jar in the refrigerator instead, it will keep well for several weeks. You can also freeze lemon curd, and thaw it in the refrigerator for a day before you plan to serve it. If you have a lot of lemons and want to juice them right away, you might freeze the juice so you can make lemon curd as you need it. Lemon juice keeps very well in the freezer.
If you want to give your lemon curd as gifts, though, you may be set on canning it. In this case, be sure to follow the USDA processing instructions. Heat the water to no more than 180 degrees F. before adding the jars, and boil them for 15 minutes, or longer if your altitude is over 1,000 feet.
When you give a friend a jar of your homemade lemon curd or another preserve, you can feel proud that you’ve used the tastiest, freshest ingredients, and confident that your gift won’t prompt an allergic reaction to sulfites.
Liked this post? To receive more like it, subscribe to A Gardener’s Table.
I found these at Barbur World Foods, a Portland neighborhood grocery–cum–Mediterranean specialty market, where green almonds make their appearance every spring. At the stage you see here the almond kernel is hard but still moist, rather like a shell bean (think of edamame—soybeans—briefly boiled in their pods, or cooked fresh fava beans). The nut has a pale skin that easily peels away with the fingers. You might add a few of the kernels to a jar of apricot or peach jam, or sauté them in a little olive oil and eat them sprinkled with salt. Or enjoy them just as they are, for their mild, pleasant vegetable flavor, enhanced perhaps with the perfume of bitter almond, which I tasted in the batch I bought last year but not, for some reason, in this year’s.
At an earlier stage of greenness, the kernel is a translucent gel and the fruit is edible whole. At this point the green almond, like a green walnut, can be pickled in vinegar or preserved in syrup. I hope I’ll be able to experiment with green almond pickles and preserves in a few years, when my newly planted Hall’s Hardy almond tree (a cross between a peach and an almond) grows up.
UPDATE 2022: Barbur World Foods is now simply World Foods. I never got around to trying green almond pickles or preserves. Let me know if you have green almonds to share!