Frozen Blueberries Love Fresh Rhubarb

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 thePacific Northwestnow, 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 jell. 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.

Blueberry-Rhubarb Jam

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 puree 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.

Makes about 6 half-pints

Quince in Bloom

Before the blossoms have all fallen, I want to share these pictures of my Pineapple quince trees. Like other quince varieties, they grow no more than fifteen feet high, and each forms an umbrella-like canopy. The trees blossom profusely, with pale pink flowers that are bigger than the blooms of all my apples and pears. The quince trees’ springtime appearance is outdone only by their glory of autumn, when their hundreds of big, golden, pear-shaped fruits perfume the garden with their tart fragrance.

Prior to the invention of packaged pectin, nearly every American farmstead or garden had a tree like this, if the climate allowed, because quince is an excellent source of pectin. The tart, light-colored juice combines well with other fruits and juices and with spices such as ginger, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The fruit is hard and mildly astringent, but when cooked it mellows and softens, without losing its shape, and with long cooking it turns from white to a startling ruby red. You can poach quinces in wine and honey, stew them with meat (as do cooks in the quince’s Caucasian homeland), and add them to apple pies and applesauce. You can make quinces into jelly, preserves, wine, syrup, membrillo, and liqueur. And you can probably do all this with the harvest of one mature tree.

Even if you’re not sure you like the fruit, consider planting a quince tree. You need only one, because it will self-pollinate. You won’t have to spray it; the hard fruit resists both apple maggots and coddling moths. You can think of your quince tree, if you like, as an easy-care ornamental.

But do try using the fruits. Here’s a very simple recipe for an aromatic syrup that’s delicious in either hot tea or iced water.

Raw Quince-Honey Syrup

Use a sturdy knife to slice the quinces. For coring, a tool that looks like a thick, sharpened little spoon works best.

1 pound peeled and cored quinces, cut into 3/4-inch cubes

2 cups honey

Layer the quince cubes and honey in a quart jar. Cap the jar tightly, and let it stand at room temperature for two weeks.

After two weeks, drain off the syrup and pour it into sterilized jars. Cap the jars, and store them in the refrigerator or another cool place. The syrup should keep well for months.

Eat the shriveled quince cubes as candy, if you like, or simmer them in white or rosé wine and serve them with roast poultry or pork.


Real Lemon versus ReaLemon

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.

 

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The Lucques Olive: A Langedoc Tradition Comes to America

Even as I was curing olives for the first time, in 2009, I knew I’d do it differently in 2010. Cured olives, like breads and wines, are wonderful partly for their variety. I love them green or black, big or little, salty and shriveled, bitter, sour, herbed, or oiled. Both ripeness and curing method, I knew, determined a cured olive’s look and taste. But how much difference did cultivar make? I wasn’t sure.

The olives I ordered in 2009, from M&CP Farms of Orland, California (www.greatolives.com), were green Sevillanos, which grow as large as an inch across and have firm flesh that you must chew off the pit. They were delicious both lye-cured and long-brined. But when M&CP offered another variety, Lucques, in 2010, I ordered them without hesitation.

As soon as I slit open the box the FedEx man brought me, I knew I’d never confuse Lucques olives with Sevillanos. Whereas the Sevillano olive is oval, the Lucques is long, slender, and slightly crescent-shaped, with a pointed tip. The unripe Sevillano is pale green, but the unripe Lucques is bright green like a Gravenstein apple.

Although the Lucques probably originated in Italy, the variety is an old favorite in Languedoc, especially around a village called St Jean de la Blaquière, where in the 1990s the local co-op cured two hundred tons per year. Although St Jean’s olives are now cured in nearby Clermont-l’Herault, St Jean still hosts the annual Fête de la Lucques.

Each autumn, all France awaits the cured green Lucques olives, beloved for their light, nutty, sweet taste; their meaty flesh, which comes away easily from the pit; and their color, which remains bright green even after curing. Most of the olives are available just a few weeks after the September picking, because they are treated with lye, which quickly eliminates all bitterness.

Unsure how best to cure my Lucques olives, I managed to track down two recipes from St. Jean de la Blaquière, one for the standard commercial cure, with lye, and one for the family-style long-brine method. I cured a gallon each way.

The lye-cured olives were ready less than three weeks later. They were indeed sweet and nutty and mild, and they were so good that they were gone in a month. I’d used no herbs or garlic, and nobody missed these embellishments. With only salt to enhance their flavor, the olives were irresistible.

A second gallon of Lucques olives got the slow cure—a fresh-water soak, with frequent changes, for fifteen days, followed by immersion in a light brine for four days and a medium-strong brine thereafter. These olives are still sitting in salt water, again without flavorings, in a warm closet. They are bitter, but every time I taste one it’s less bitter than the last. By the first of April, I predict, my family will start on our second Fête de la Lucques. I can hardly wait.

Testing Pickle Crisp

More than a year ago I wrote here about Pickle Crisp, a granulated form of calcium chloride that Jarden, the company that makes Ball jars, was planning to sell for home canners (after taking a powdered form of the same chemical off the market, because it tended to dissolve in steam). The new Pickle Crisp came out last spring, but it never appeared in stores in my area, despite the nearly universal popularity of home canning hereabouts. In October, I finally gave up looking in stores and ordered a jar of Pickle Crisp directly from Jarden, so I could try it in pickling the last of my jalapeños. The 5.5-ounce jar cost $5.99 plus shipping.

The directions on the container called for adding a rounded ¼ teaspoon to a quart jar or a rounded 1/8 teaspoon to a pint jar, along with the vegetable or fruit pieces and the pickling liquid. Because I was testing Pickle Crisp in just one half-pint jar of jalapeño rings, I used only a good pinch. Then I let the jar of jalapeños sit on the shelf for a few weeks before trying them, to give the calcium chloride plenty of time to do its work.

Old-fashioned pickling lime, most popular in the South, is used in much larger quantities and mixed with water. You soak the fruit or vegetable pieces in the mixture, and then you rinse and soak them repeatedly in fresh water to remove the excess lime. In comparison with pickling lime, Pickle Crisp seemed incredibly easy to use. But it also struck me as being, like lime, an unnecessary additive, however harmless.

I opened two jars of jalapeños at the same time, one with Pickle Crisp and one without. The Pickle Crisp peppers were noticeably firmer, but not brittle in the way that cucumbers treated with lime can be (I’ve never tried treating peppers with lime). I actually liked the firmer texture.

Although I bought the Pickle Crisp just to try it once, I think I’ll experiment with it more in the months to come.

Honey from a Watermelon

I didn’t invent watermelon molasses, Sara Bir informed me. At least I wasn’t the first to invent it.

I’d cooked twenty pounds of watermelon into a cup of syrup because I and the rest of the family were tired of eating watermelon and the melon was overripe anyway. Besides, I’d had grape molasses (arrope, mostillo, mostarda, saba, pekmez) on my mind. I’d been thinking about life before cheap cane sugar, especially in Europe. Honey was a cherished sweetener then, but it wasn’t always available. Before the word molasses and its cognates referred to cane syrup, they were applied to honey-like fruit or vegetable syrups. Molasses derives from the Latin word for “must”—grape juice—and the word for “must” comes from the Latin word for “honey.” The oldest reference to molasses in the Oxford English Dictionary, from 1582, defines it as “a certeine kinde of Sugar made of Palmes or Date trees”; the second, from 1588, calls it “Sirrope of sugar, beanes [etc.].” When you had more fruit—even beans!—than you could eat, you might preserve its essence by boiling down the juice.

Fruit molasses hasn’t gone entirely out of style. Grape molasses, fig molasses, and pomegranate molasses are still imported to the United States from the Mediterranean region and sold at high prices in specialty stores. These products provide a mellow sweetening in sauces, dressings, and desserts, and grape molasses is the sweetener in cheaper kinds of balsamic vinegar.

Why not make molasses from watermelon? I’d decided to try it. The result, as I described in The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves, was remarkably like grape molasses. With so much boiling, fruit juice darkens and loses its volatile flavors. In the finished syrup, you taste mostly sweetness and minerals.

When Sara came upon my recipe for watermelon molasses, she’d already made a version herself—an experience she describes in entertaining detail at www.metroactive.com/papers/sonoma/09.04.03/dining-0336.html. Sara had come upon a little cookbook, Our Favorite Recipes, compiled by the Friendly Aid Society of Free Evangelical Lutheran Cross Church of Fresno, California, and published in 1979. In the book were some distinctly American dishes, such as Jello salads, but there were also foods with exotic-sounding names, like grebbles and berrocks. What interested Sara most were the three coffeecake recipes calling for watermelon molasses, and the recipe for watermelon molasses itself.

Sara wrote me to ask what I knew about watermelon molasses. I didn’t know much; I certainly didn’t know it was a popular ingredient in the kitchens of Fresno Lutherans. I wondered where these people had come from. I pondered the word berrocks, which didn’t sound as if it had ever been German.

On the Web, I found numerous recipes for bierocks—yeast buns stuffed with ground beef and cabbage—and at least one was attributed to the Volga Germans. These were people from southwest Germany, mostly, who at the invitation of Catherine the Great in 1763 settled along the Volga River in Russia, where they were allowed to maintain their language, culture, and various religious traditions (Lutheran, Catholic, Reformed, and Mennonite; Jews weren’t welcome). Although the Volga Germans mainly kept to themselves, they must have learned a few things from the locals. Their bierocks or berrocks—the accent is on the second syllable—were pirogi.

A century after the Germans began migrating to Russia, they lost some of their special privileges, including exemption from military service. When other countries beckoned new settlers, whole Volga villages moved themselves to North and South America. In 1886 and 1887, I discovered, Evangelical Lutherans from several villages on the eastern side of the Volga, near Saratov, settled in Fresno County.

Fresno is a good place to grow watermelons. So is the Lower Volga, a Russian culinary dictionary assured me. Watermelons grow so abundantly from Kamyshin to Astrakhan, on the Caspian Sea, that until recently much of the crop was either brined or boiled into nardek—watermelon molasses! Modern transport allows the shipping of fresh watermelon today, so nardek is produced in only small amounts. It’s a lot of trouble to make, after all, and refined sugar is cheap. For Fresno Lutherans, however, the tradition lives on, or at least it was still alive in 1979. Nearly a century after their ancestors had come to Fresno from Russia, the Friendly Aid Society members still required watermelon molasses to make a proper coffeecake.

The Friendly Aid Society members called their watermelon molasses by the English name, the same one I used. But I thank Sara for sending me on the trail of an old word—nardek—for my invention that truly wasn’t new at all.

Gooseberries in Syrup

gooseberries, topping & tailing

Before you eat or cook a gooseberry, you must top and tail it–that is, pull off the stem and the shriveled, dry blossom. These are my first harvest of Hinnomaki, a Finnish variety. They’re not only prettier than my green gooseberries (Oregon Champion, a nineteenth-century variety from Salem, Oregon); they’re also sweeter.

Because I’d never done it before, I decided to can the gooseberries in syrup. For a cup of fruit, I used 1/3 cup each sugar and water. That’s a heavy syrup, but not as heavy as recommended by the old preserving book I consulted, which also told me to pour some of the syrup into the jar before adding the berries. This is supposed to keep the berries from floating, as apparently is the Extension recommendation to dip the berries in syrup for 30 second and then drain them before putting them in the jar and pouring the syrup over.

After putting the berries in the jar, you pour the syrup over, leaving 1/2 inch headspace, and then process the jars in a boiling-water bath for 15 minutes.

Although I put some of the syrup in the jar before adding the berries, they floated. They’re beautiful anyway, though, and they should be delicious next winter, over ice cream, cheesecake, or pound cake.

Green Almonds

green almonds

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.

Candied Fennel Cores

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Four consecutive days of below-freezing temperatures put an end to the remains of my vegetable garden. As in many years past, I was late in digging carrots and setting up plastic tents over the greens (which might actually have survived if I’d included an electric heater, set on high). After three days of bitter cold I dug up the carrot bed, in frozen chunks six inches deep, and set the blocks in the garage to thaw. I also dug up two enormous bulbs of Florence fennel, the kind sold in stores as anise (which it isn’t) or finocchio (Italian for “fennel”). The bulbs were frozen through.

I set the fennel in a big bowl on the kitchen counter for a day and a half, until the bulbs had thawed enough to handle. Then I cut away the outer layers, which had browned a bit. Most of the rest became, with the addition of onion, potato, chicken stock, and sour cream, a big pot of pureed fennel soup. Delicious! It was the best thing I’d ever made with fennel—until two days later.

I had saved the fennel cores. These were hard, solid, and white, like cabbage cores. The cores of Florence fennel are included in many Italian recipes, although they take longer to soften than the outer layers; I could certainly have cooked them in the soup. But I had been reading Tim Richardson’s Sweets, a wonderfully entertaining yet scholarly history of candy. Tim had made me think how medieval my Joy of Jams was. All those fruit pastes and syrups started with recipes the Arabs developed, or borrowed from the Persians. These treats became popular throughout Europe in the Middle Ages. My book even includes some recipes for crystallized fruits, which are just preserves with the syrup drained off. To a large extent, The Joy of Jams is about medieval confectionery.

But I’d left out candied vegetables. “All kinds of roots and stalks were being candied in England by the sixteenth century,” according to Tim. They included parsley roots, angelica stalks, lettuce stalks, and stranger foods like sea holly, borage, and bugloss. They also included fennel roots.

My fennel had tough, rough, dirty roots, and I didn’t want to waste my time on them. But the cores seemed to hold some promise. So I made a small batch of . . .

Candied Fennel Cores

5 ounces Florence fennel cores, cut into 3/8-inch cubes
1 cup water (plus more for cooking the fennel)
2/3 cup sugar
Pinch of cream of tartar

Put the fennel cubes into a saucepan with enough water to cover them. Simmer them for about 20 minutes, until they are tender when pierced with a fork. Drain them.

Combine the 1 cup water, the 2/3 cup sugar, and the cream of tartar in a saucepan, and heat the mixture gently until the sugar dissolves. Bring the syrup to a boil, and continue boiling it until it is reduced by about one-third. Add the fennel, and bring the mixture to a full boil. Remove the pan from the heat. Let it stand at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours.

Return the pan to the stove. Simmer the fennel in the syrup for about 25 minutes, until the cubes are partially translucent and the syrup reaches thread stage (230 degrees F.).

Remove the pan from the heat. Let the fennel cubes rest in the syrup at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours.

Drain the fennel cubes. Set them to dry in a warm place until they are no longer sticky. I used a food dehydrator, but you could instead use a very low oven or even a woodstove.

The finished candies ranged in color from pale gold to amber. They were firm but not tough and had a mild but appealing fennel flavor. If you wanted to intensify the flavor, you could add a few fennel seeds to the syrup.

I thought about including the candied fennel cubes on a Christmas dessert platter, alongside my candied Asian pears, or in a Christmas pudding, but I didn’t hide them away fast enough. They got eaten almost immediately. I must admit that I got my share.

Green Rhubarb Jam

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While my husband and I were visiting Tours, France, a few weeks ago, the owner of our chambre d’hote (bed-and-breakfast), served us jam that she had made just the day before from rhubarb growing in the long, narrow garden behind her row house. Brigitte’s rhubarb jam was the best I’d ever tasted. And it was green.

Most garden rhubarb has skin that is all or mostly red and flesh that is all or mostly green. Cooks covet varieties that are red through and through, because they make beautiful jams, tarts, and pies. Green-fleshed, red-skinned rhubarb tends to cook up a pinkish brown. For this reason, many cooks combine their rhubarb with strawberries. Some doctor it with red dye.

Brigitte’s rhubarb jam was the color of kiwi flesh. Her plant may have been of a variety called Goliath, which I’ve since found mentioned on a French website and in some British and Australian sources. Or perhaps it was Mammoth Green, which was popular in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These old varieties are said to be vigorous and especially tart and flavorful, but they are now rare. Most likely, Brigitte’s rhubarb was Victoria, today’s main commercial variety. Victoria comes in both red and green forms.

Gardeners who buy rhubarb crowns for planting are sometimes surprised to see the stalks come up green. In these cases the crowns were usually sold simply as “rhubarb,” with no mention of color or variety. If your unnamed green rhubarb has pink speckles on the skin near the base of the stalks, and if the plant hurries to send up a seed stalk, it is probably Victoria.

Remembering Brigitte’s beautiful and delicious green rhubarb jam, I wanted to make some like it. But my rhubarb plant—probably red Victoria—has red-skinned stalks with a little red pigment here and there in the flesh. I solved this problem by cutting the stalks approximately in half. The lower halves had pale flesh with occasional pink patches; the upper halves had grass-green flesh with almost no red pigment. I used the lower halves for strawberry-rhubarb preserves. With a paring knife, I skinned the upper halves, and these I turned into green rhubarb jam.

As you can see in the picture, my jam is really a greenish gold; it’s not as green Brigitte’s. But the color is much prettier than pinkish brown, and the flavor is delightful.

Here’s my recipe for green rhubarb jam: Peel the green-fleshed parts of rhubarb stalks, cutting away any pink parts, and cut the stalks crosswise into ½-inch pieces. In a big, wide, nonreactive pot, mix 1 1/2 pounds of these rhubarb pieces with 2 cups sugar. Let the mixture sit overnight; in the morning, the sugar will be nearly completely dissolved. Boil the mixture over medium-high heat until the syrup is almost all absorbed and the texture is jam-like.