Roasted Peppers with Anchovies and Garlic

On Halloween, fall has finally set in here in the Willamette Valley. The trees stand bare, red and gold leaves carpet the ground, the sky is as grey as the wet streets, and the air is damp and cold. At this time of the year I pick the last of the peppers and remember where I was four years ago, watching the same change of seasons.

lunch in Diano d'AlbaMy daughter and I had hiked to a hilltop village near Alba, Italy, where beside a blazing fire we ate plate after plate of a fixed-price lunch. My favorite dish was soft, sweet, oily roasted peppers flavored with a paste of anchovies and garlic. It’s a perfect dish, I think, for the last of the pepper harvest.

In Piemonte peperoni al forno is made in various ways, and here in America we also have options. You might use salted anchovies instead of anchovies canned in oil. You might use big, thick-skinned peppers and char them to remove their skins. I prefer to use thin-skinned peppers and to leave the skin on. You know the little supermarket peppers that come in red, orange, and yellow? They would do, and if their flavor is dull the roasting would certainly enhance it.

That supermarket mix is the ancestor of one of my favorite peppers, which I have stabilized as Little Orange Sweet. It’s a little bigger than its hybrid forebears, with few seeds and a wonderful sweet taste. It’s an ideal pepper for roasting with anchovies and garlic. Here’s how I do it.

roasted peppers with anchoviesPeperoni al Forno My Way

2 pounds thin-skinned, ripe sweet peppers
2 ounces anchovy fillets packed in olive oil
1 small head garlic, cloves separated and peeled
½ cup olive oil

Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Rinse the peppers, and pat them completely dry. Halve or quarter them, depending on their size, and seed them. Spread the pepper pieces in a roasting pan. In a mortar, pound the anchovies and garlic to a paste. Blend in the oil from the anchovies and the additional oil, and toss this mixture with the peppers. Roast the peppers, stirring them at least once, for about 30 minutes, until they are tender. Serve them hot or at room temperature, with fresh bread to sop up the extra oil.

 

 

 

Jerusalem Artichoke Chips

Jerusalem artichoke chips

Even though I didn’t plant Jerusalem artichokes this year, even though I deprived last year’s survivors of water, and even though I pulled up many of the young plants over the summer, I still expect to harvest an enormous crop of tubers sometime in the next several months. The plant is tough.

But now I have a new way to use bucketloads of tubers. I developed this method last spring, after wondering whether turning the tubers into chips might relieve them of some of their windiness.

For the first trial batch, I sliced the tubers thin and soaked them for a half-hour in water with salt and lemon juice stirred in. This soaking, I hoped, would both prevent browning and give the chips extra savor. Then I dried the slices in the dehydrator until they turned leathery.

The chips turned out pale and uninteresting. So I baked them in the oven at 200 degrees F. until they were golden brown. Now, to my delight, they were sweet and crisp.

But I couldn’t taste the salt. Also, I concluded that the lemon juice had been unnecessary, since sliced Jerusalem artichokes seem uninclined to brown with exposure to air. So for the next batch I soaked the slices for an hour in a brine made of ¼ cup pickling salt to 1 quart water. I skipped the dehydration step; instead, I put the slices straight into the convection oven.

The second batch turned out as good as the first, with a bit of saltiness added.

I imagined that they would have been just as good with no salt at all. Besides, keeping the chips salt-free might discourage overconsumption—and overconsumption would be risky if the drying and baking failed to overcome the vegetable’s gassiness.

Here is my recipe. You decide about the salt.

Jerusalem artichoke tubers
Salt (optional)
Vegetable oil (optional)

Break the tubers apart at the nodes, scrub the tubers, and slice them thin with a mandoline. If you’d like your chips a little salty, soak the slices for at least an hour in a brine made of ¼ cup pickling salt to 1 quart water.

Drain the slices well, and spread them in a single layer on wire racks set over baking pans. If you have no wire racks that the slices won’t fall through, spread them directly on the baking pans, but expect the pieces to stick a little. To prevent this, you might oil the pan or even toss the slices with a little olive oil or other vegetable oil.

Put the pans into a convection oven heated to 200 degrees F. If you don’t have a convection oven, use a regular oven heated to 225 to 250 degrees F. Bake the slices for 1 ¼ to 1 ½ hour, rotating the pans at least once, until the chips are almost crisp. Don’t cook them so long that they turn dark brown, or they will be bitter, just like brown potato chips.

Turn the chips out to cool.  As they cool they will grow crisper. When they are cool, store them in airtight containers.

I tested the chips on people at an afternoon political meeting. Everybody seemed to like them, and none could guess what they were made of. Two people were gracious enough to take home small bagfuls, eat the chips all at a sitting, and report the results.

One of them told me that “right around 10 p.m. it hit. They weren’t particularly odorous or loud, just little bubbly poots all night, and that was pretty much the end of it. “

The other declared, “If I knowingly eat this food again I will plan on working around loud machinery, or going on a hike by myself.

“Bottom line, they taste good.”

Roasting the Last of the Tomatoes

roasted tomatoesTwo light frosts have blackened the tips of the tomato vines, but the fruits continue to ripen, slowly. They taste like autumn now, cold and a little mealy. I don’t care to haul out the canner for a small basket-load, so into the oven they go. Roasting and freezing are a good way to preserve tomatoes when you’ve had enough of canning and the house is chilly enough to make you want to turn on the oven.

Having misplaced the roasted-tomato recipe I’d developed in past years, I looked through others, on the Internet. How fussy they tend to be. Although tomatoes are rich in sugar and acid, and roasting concentrates both, many writers add sugar and vinegar to their tomatoes before roasting them. Most writers also call for tomatoes of a particular size, and usually you’re to place them all in the pan cut-side up—except in cases in which you’re to place them all cut-side down. Some writers even ask you to seed the tomatoes.

To my mind, all this fuss is a waste. I use tomatoes of any size, and I cut them into halves, quarters, eighths, or more pieces so they will cook into bite-size morsels. I toss them with oil and salt before tossing them into the pan. I add garlic and herbs, but I see those as optional.

The tomatoes end up simmering in their own juices, but they will do that however you slice and place them. Eventually the juices will dry up, and the tomatoes may even char a bit. At this point they are ready, to top pasta, pizza, or a tart or to freeze until later.

The one good tip I’ve garnered from other writers’ recipes is to line the pan with parchment paper. The tomatoes slide cleanly off the paper, and the pan needs barely any scrubbing.

Easy Roasted Tomatoes

4 pounds tomatoes, of any kind and any size, cut into chunks
3 to 4 garlic cloves (if you like garlic)
2 teaspoons fresh savory or thyme leaves
¼ cup olive oil
2 teaspoons kosher salt

Set a convection oven to 300 degrees F. (or a regular oven to 325 degrees F.), and line a 12-by-17-inch nonreactive pan with parchment paper. Toss the tomatoes in a bowl with the garlic, herb leaves, and olive oil. Add the salt, and toss again. Spread the tomatoes in the pan. Bake them for about 1½ hours, until almost all the liquid has evaporated.

But I am pushing my luck. Today I’ll pick green tomatoes, the perfect ones, full sized and with no sign of disease, in hopes that they will ripen indoors, stretching the fresh-tomato season a little longer.

Ask Santa for Empty Jars

When someone asks what you want for Christmas and you can’t think of anything, you at least know you don’t want commercial preserves, right? Those store-bought jams and relishes are never as good as the ones you make yourself, even if they came from the cutest little shop in someone’s favorite vacation spot. To avoid collecting jars that will sit unopened in your pantry for months or years, try asking for empty jars instead. I mean fancy preserving jars, ones you might never buy for yourself because they cost more than Ball or Kerr jars.

Among the possibilities are jars produced by the French company Le Parfait. You probably know Le Parfait’s old-fashioned glass-lidded jars—now called, on Le Parfait’s website, Super Jars—with their rubber rings and metal clamps. I have used big jars of this type for decades for storing dry foods, and the French still use them for home canning. After the jars are pasteurized, the jars are stored with their clamps unfastened. So long as the lids stay sealed, you know your preserves are good.

I tested another Le Parfjam jarait product, the jam jars, faceted on the lower half and bearing a screw-on metal top. These jars come in various sizes—324, 385, and 645 milliliters. I used the 324-milliliter jars, which hold about 1 1/3 cups and so, I figured, might be small enough for jelly (for a good set, jelly must cool rapidly). A standard American wide-mouth funnel just fits into the top of one of these jars. The metal top screws on with short threads, as on most commercial food jars, rather than with long threads, as on a Ball jar. I like the lids displayed on the Le Parfait website—they are decorated with little green leaves and red berries—more than the ones that came with my set, which are printed with “HOME MADE” in almost psychedelic blue lettering.

jam jar lid

Instead of boiling-water or steam processing for these jars, Le Parfait recommends “self-pasteurization,” which means turning the jam jars upside-down immediately after screwing on the lids. This practice is the norm in Europe, but the USDA frowns on it. So I processed my filled jars for ten minutes in a steam canner.

After the processed or “self-pasteurized” jam jars have cooled, it’s hard to tell whether they have sealed. But I have found that if I hold both a sealed and an unsealed jar with the edges of the lids at eye level, I am able to see the difference. The sealed lids are just slightly concave. When you remove one you hear a little popping sound.

Familia Wiss lids and capI also tested some of Le Parfait’s Familia Wiss terrines. Also called bocals, these jars have straight sides and wide mouths, to make it easy for you to turn out your terrine (pâté without pastry) from the terrine. Available in sizes to hold 200, 350, 500, 750, 1,000, and 1,500 millimeters, these jars are different from any I’ve seen before in that each comes with both a flat lid (capsole) and a full cap (couvercle).  The flat lid is much like that of a Ball or Kerr jar, but heavier and bearing a big pimple in the center. The cap, which like a Ball or Kerr band serves to keep the flat lid in place during processing, sports an inverted pimple in its center. The cap could be used on its own for refrigerator storage, but because it lacks a protective coating, as well as a sealing ring, it shouldn’t be used on its own with acid foods.

The Familia Wiss terrines identified as 500 millimeters in size on Le Parfait’s website actually come embossed as “500-539 ml,”and a fill line is marked at 1 1/8 inches from the top, as if the jars were intended for pressure canning. To my delight, I found that each of these jars hold a pint with ½ inch headspace. They are shorter and wider than Ball or Kerr pint jars; in fact, they are perfect for accommodating quartered large pears in horizontal layers.

I processed three Familia Wiss jars in a steam canner. On one lid the pimple flattened completely; on the others the pimples flattened only a bit. But all three jars sealed firmly.

Le Parfait makes a tool called a tire-rondelle for opening both Super Jars and Familia Wiss terrines. You can use the tool sideways to tug on the tongue of a Super Jar’s rubber ring, or you can poke the pointed end into the pimple on the flat lid of a Familia Wiss jar to release the vacuum. An ice pick should work as well on a Familia Wiss lid, or you can pry up the lid with an ordinary bottle opener or a table knife.

For the French, apparently, Familia Wiss jars are used primarily for terrines, and Le Parfait’s website includes terrine recipes that make my mouth water. Unfortunately, the recipes omit instructions for pressure canning; instead, you are told to process the jars in a boiling-water bath for three hours. The USDA lacks any comparable recipes from which you might derive pressure-canning times, so if you decide to try one of these recipes you’ll probably want to store your terrines in the fridge.

Here is how I canned my pears in 500-milliliter Familia Wiss jars. You might substitute any pint mason jars in this recipe.

Familia Wiss jarsPears in Light Syrup with Vanilla

I used Bosc bears, but any variety should do.

If heating the pear slices in syrup seems like too much bother, you might put them cold into the jars. Heating them should soften them just enough to help them pack well in the jars, but if you’re not careful with this method you can end up with burnt fingers, mushy pears, or both.

3 inches of a vanilla bean
2 2/3 cups water
1 cup sugar
1 large or 2 small lemons
About 4 pounds (7 to 8) just-ripe pears

Wash three 500-milliliter Familia Wiss terrines (or wide-mouth pint mason jars) and the flat lids in hot, soapy water, and rinse.

Score the vanilla bean segment lengthwise, so that the seeds will escape into the syrup, and cut the segment crosswise into thirds. Put these pieces into a saucepan with the water and the sugar. Slowly heat the mixture, stirring to dissolve the sugar, while you prepare the pears.

Squeeze the lemon juice into a bowl. Peel, core, and quarter one-third of the pears. As you do so, drop the slices into the bowl and turn them gently in the lemon juice; this will keep them from browning.

When the syrup has begun to simmer, use a slotted spoon to transfer the pear slices to the syrup. Bring the syrup back to a simmer, turning the pear slices gently.

Immediately remove the pan from the heat. Pack the pear slices neatly into one of the jars along with a piece of vanilla bean, and pour syrup through a strainer to cover the pears.

Reheat the syrup as you prepare another third of the pears. Heat and pack them and cover them with syrup as before. Do the same with the last of the pears.

Cover the jars with flat lids and full caps (or mason jar bands). Process the jars in a boiling-water bath or steam canner for 20 minutes.

Makes 3 pints

Le Parfait jars are available at stores listed here, on the Amazon website, and, as I happen to know, at Down to Earth in Eugene, Oregon.

 

Canning Nectarines: Things the USDA Doesn’t Tell You

nectarines in jarsWhen a box of big, flawless, fragrant, just-ripe nectarines from the Washington State Fruit Commission landed on my porch, I had to decide quickly how to preserve them. Most years I’ve made my nectarines and peaches into pickles, chutneys, and fancified jams. Now nothing appealed to me more than the thought of simple canned nectarines in light syrup.

Thinking of the young 4H food preservers whose work I’d recently judged at the Benton County fair, I decided to walk in their shoes by following USDA instructions. I referred to a recipe that’s in Oregon State Extension literature, in the Complete Guide to Home Canning, and, with only slightly different wording, on the National Center for Home Food Preservation website.

Right away, I began to see how novice preservers can get confused. First I wondered if I should peel the fruit. The recipe says that “nectarines are not dipped in hot water or peeled like peaches” but gives no reason. Nectarine skins aren’t fuzzy, though they are sometimes a little bitter. But once the fruits are cut into pieces and heated in hot syrup, their skins begin to peel off. Floating skins are not pretty. Try to remove the skins completely at this point, and you burn your fingers. Wouldn’t it be easier to slip off the skins before cutting the fruits? (To defy the recipe in this way, you must turn to the canned-peach recipe for peeling instructions: “Dip fruit in boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds until skins loosen. Dip quickly in cold water and slip off skins.”) So I didn’t peel my nectarines at the start. Instead, I pulled off the hanging skins while the pieces sat in hot syrup—ouch, ouch, ouch!—and left the skins that were still more or less in place semi-attached.

Before that, though, I had to decide whether to cut the fruits into halves or smaller pieces. Like peaches, nectarines come as freestone or clingstone. The recipe doesn’t mention that clingstone nectarines, like clingstone peaches, are very difficult to halve. My nectarines turned out to be clingstone, but they were so big that halves wouldn’t have fit in the jars, anyway. Still, it was difficult even to quarter the nectarines without squishing the fruit. I ended up leaving a lot of flesh on the pits.

Before putting nectarine pieces in syrup, the recipe advises, you should prevent them from browning by dropping them into an ascorbic-water bath. Citric acid is sold in many ethnic groceries, but ascorbic acid is harder to find. No matter—you can use 500-milligram vitamin C tablets, according to the recipe: “Crush and dissolve six tablets per gallon of water as a treatment solution.” I had only 1000-milligram tablets. Any 4-Her can figure out that three 1000-milligram tablets should work as well as six 500-milligram ones, but how to crush and dissolve hard tablets is less obvious. I used my electric spice grinder (a small coffee grinder that I dedicate to spices) and whisked the powder into the water.

The fruit seemed to swell a bit in the water. Was it absorbing water while giving up sugar and flavor? I hurried to finish cutting the nectarines and move them into the syrup. As I did so I considered: If I’d cut the fruit directly into the syrup, the fruit wouldn’t have absorbed water, and the syrup would have protected the fruit from browning.

The recipe gives options for both hot-packing (cooking the fruit before putting it in jars) and raw-packing (putting the fruit raw into jars) but also asserts, without explanation, that “raw packs make poor quality nectarines.” In other words, choose the hot-pack option or waste your time and ruin your fruit. The question nagged: Why is there a raw-pack option at all? But I chose hot-pack—and, innocently—burnt fingers.

The recipe provides options for canning the fruits in heavy, medium, light, or very light syrup—or in water, apple juice, or white grape juice. The instructions don’t say, however, that canning in water makes for mushy, “poor quality nectarines.” That I already knew. But how does apple juice or grape juice affect the taste of the nectarines? You will have to find out for yourself; the recipe does not tell you, and I haven’t tried this option.

I chose to make the light syrup, using the specified 5¾ cups water and 1½ cups sugar for 9 pints. But this didn’t seem enough to cover 11 pounds of nectarines, the weight of whole fruits called for in the recipe, and 11 pounds of nectarines wouldn’t fit in the 5-liter pan I’d chosen. So I poured the syrup into my biggest pan and added half again as much water and sugar. I had forgotten something missing from the recipe that I know well from past experience: The nectarines should be heated in batches. I would end up with a lot of leftover syrup. And if I’d planned to heat the fruit in batches I wouldn’t have cut all the nectarines at once and so wouldn’t have worried about the long exposure to air that causes browning.

The recipe also fails to say that hot-packed fruit needs less syrup than raw-packed fruit. After brief cooking, fruit softens, so that it packs tighter in the jar. Less room is left for syrup. Although the recipe writer frowns on raw-packing, the quantities of water and sugar called for seem intended for raw-packed, not hot-packed, fruit. Even if I hadn’t increased the quantity of syrup, I would have had too much.

Once the nectarine pieces were heated, according to the recipe, I should layer them cut-side down. This is sensible; the pieces pack tighter if they are all curved in the same direction. But imagine how much harder it is to place them this way after they have been heated in syrup. Ouch, ouch, ouch! The recipe should call for gloves.

The recipe didn’t tell me to check the filled jars for trapped bubbles. Instead of poking a knife or chopstick or plastic “bubbler” into the jars and disturbing the arrangement of fruit slices, I simply turned the jars back and forth gently before adding any more needed syrup.

Before finishing up I raw-packed two jars and marked the lids with an R. After processing (I used a steam canner, for 20 minutes), the fruit in these jars was a little yellower, less orange, in color. The fruit also floated a bit more in these jars; that is, the jars held a little more syrup in relation to fruit. I think this is what the recipe meant by “poor quality,” but I’ll wait until winter to open the jars and find out what else may be poor about my raw-packed nectarines. I suspect I’ll find them more than palatable.

Hopeless rule-breaker that I am, I deviated from recipe just a bit in the end: Before putting the nectarine pieces in jars I dashed out to the garden and gathered some herb sprigs—mint, basil, shiso, lavender, and anise hyssop. Slipping one into each jar, I hoped the flavorings would be subtle; I didn’t intend to make anything fancy. But the herbs had been waiting to be used, and they now look so pretty in the jars. The USDA writer, of course, fails to mention the possibility of adding flavorings of any sort.

And what to do with leftover syrup? I dropped in the nectarine pits, still bearing a lot of flesh, cooked them a bit, and then strained the syrup. It sits in a jar in the fridge now, waiting to be mixed into soda water or cocktails.

As a reward for all this work, I sucked the flesh off the cooling pits.

The lesson I take from this project is this: USDA recipes are handy for reference, especially for processing times, but in their aloof brevity these recipes can trip up even an experienced home preserver. They certainly can’t take the place of good writers and teachers in guiding us through the tricky business of home food preservation. The lovely preserves that dozens of children presented to the Benton County Fair are a tribute to their 4H leaders’ skill.

Preserves with a Nordic Touch

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

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

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

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

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

Lime Ginger Pear Shrub

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Makes about 7 half-pints

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

 

 

A Better Way to Make Cherry Chutney

cherry-rhubarb chutney
Cherry-Rhubarb Chutney with grilled chicken

With some of the big, dark cherries the Washington State Fruit Commission sent me last year, I made a tasty chutney. It disappointed me, though. The cherries were so mild in flavor that the spices and vinegar overwhelmed them, and when cooked down the cherries lost their appealing meatiness. The chutney might have been made from almost any dark fruit.

I knew that the flavor of these cherries was too muted to shine in any sort of canned product, but this year I challenged myself to cook them into a chutney in which they would stand out anyway, for their shape and fleshy texture. I made the challenge even harder by also deciding to use rhubarb, which usually turns to mush with a few minutes’ cooking. The way to get what I wanted, I figured, was to combine the ingredients of an English-style chutney with a method of making fruit preserves—that is, I cooked the mixture slow, in the oven.

The chutney turned out beautiful. The tartness of the rhubarb complements the sweetness of the cherries, and the cherries lend the rhubarb better color. And you can tell at a glance that you’re eating cherries and rhubarb, not some mystery fruit.

Cherry-Rhubarb Chutney

2 pounds dark sweet cherries, pitted
2 pounds rhubarb stalks, cut into 1-inch chunks
¼ pound onion, cut into wedges
2½ cups light brown sugar
3 tablespoons minced fresh ginger
3 tablespoons yellow mustard seeds, toasted in a dry pan until they pop
2 tablespoons chile flakes
2 3-inch cinnamon sticks
2 teaspoons canning and pickling salt
2 cups cider vinegar

Set the oven to 250 degrees F. Combine all the ingredients in a large nonreactive, oven-safe pot. Put the pot, uncovered, into the hot oven.

After 40 minutes, gently stir the mixture. The sugar should have dissolved.

After another 40 minutes, stir gently again.

After a final 40 minutes, remove the pot from the oven. With a slotted spoon, transfer the solids to a bowl, leaving the cinnamon sticks in the pot. Boil the liquid on the stove top, with the pot uncovered, for about 15 minutes, until the liquid is reduced approximately in half, to a syrup.

Remove the cinnamon sticks from the syrup, and return the fruit to the pot. Heat the mixture gently, without stirring, just to a boil. Ladle the chutney into pint or half-pint mason jars. Add lids and rings, and process the jars in a boiling-water or steam canner for 10 minutes.

Makes 3 ½ pints

 

 

 

 

A New Fruit for Cooler Climates

haskaps on bushIf you’ve come upon fruiting blue honeysuckle bushes in your local garden center this year, you can thank two fruit-loving Oregonians, Jim Gilbert and Maxine Thompson.

After one of his fruit-gathering trips to Russia in the 1990s, Jim introduced American gardeners to Lonicera caerulea, or the honeyberry, as he called it, through his mail-order nursery, One Green World. Later Maxine, a professor emeritus in horticulture at Oregon State University, began breeding the Japanese subspecies, from the northern island of Hokkaido. Maxine called the berries haskap, their Ainu name. She has sold plants of numbered selections to people who wanted to test them and, subsequently, propagation rights to nurseries all over the world.

haskaps in handIf you get the right variety for your region, these plants may be worth a try in your garden. Dark-skinned, with a bloom, the fruits look like elongated blueberries. They are high in vitamin C and richer in antioxidants than even black currants. The berries are not particularly aromatic, but they are mildly sweet and pleasantly tart. Their many seeds are hardly noticeable on the tongue, and the berries makes a luscious jam with no need for added pectin and none of the graininess of blueberry jam.

I planted two of Jim’s honeyberry varieties on our farm about ten years ago. One never produced berries; the other produced a few, but only once or twice. I admit that I probably didn’t water the plants often enough, but Maxine, when I visited her homestead in wooded hills north of Corvallis, explained to me the bigger problem: The two Russian subspecies, L. caerulea edulis and L. caerulea kamtschatica, are adapted to extremely cold winters. Here in the Willamette Valley, they break dormancy too early and as a result bloom too early. The Japanese subspecies, L. caerulea edulis, blooms about a month later. And yet haskaps are the earliest berries of the year, ripening even before strawberries.

The three plants Maxine sold me, each of a different numbered variety, grew into little vase-shaped shrubs beside our farmhouse. They looked very different from the sprawling honeyberry plants I’d bought from One Green World. One of those was entirely prostrate and the other a little taller, but both seemed unsure whether they were vine or bush.

Upon selling the farm I said goodbye to Jim’s honeyberries, dug up Maxine’s plants, and set the haskaps in our little city garden, where they are thriving. Now four years old, they are three to four feet tall and maintaining their handsome vase-shape. And this year, for the first time, they provided me a substantial crop.

As Maxine must have intended, the three selections together exemplify the diversity of the haskap subspecies. One’s fruits are long and torpedo-shaped, extra-tart and least numerous. The more productive, medium-size plant has thick, blunt-ended, sweeter berries. The smallest plant has the shortest berries, and their tendency to hold on to their blossoms makes for a bit of fuss in the kitchen.

The L. caerulea plants you find in your garden center will have names, not numbers. Yezberries (Yez is an old name for Hokkaido) are Maxine’s selections, released in 2016 and 2017. Yezberries Maxie, Solo, Keiko, Tanna, and Sugar Pie all bloom late and are suitable for warmer climates, like mine and Maxine’s. Also late-blooming are some of the varieties bred by Bob Bors, of the University of Saskatchewan, who has crossed Maxine’s Japanese selections with Russian honeyberries. Bob’s releases include the late-blooming Boreal Blizzard, Boreal Beauty, and Boreal Beast, and, for colder regions, the earlier-blooming Indigo series, Tundra, Borealis, Aurora, and Honey Bee. Other early bloomers are Berry Smart and Sugar Mountain Blue, both bred in the Czech Republic. You’ll find information on all of these at Honeyberry USA.*

None of these haskap or honeyberry varieties is self-fruitful, so plan to buy at least two plants, of different, compatible varieties. Plant them five to six feet apart in a sunny place. Give them some mulch, and water them now and then, but don’t worry—haskaps aren’t nearly so thirsty as blueberries. L. caerulea doesn’t need acidic soil, either.

Most varieties will grow to about six feet tall. After four or five years you’ll probably want to prune the bushes lightly, by removing weak growth and the oldest wood; this will make harvest easier. You’ll probably be harvesting more than once each season, because the berries generally don’t all ripen at once (some varieties hold on to their fruits better than others, making it possible to delay picking). You’ll likely deal with no pests but birds.

After about five years the average haskap or honeyberry plant is said to produce 8 to 10 pounds fruit. From my three plants I got only about two pounds this year, but my plants are set a bit close to one other and to other shrubs in my edible landscape, and, after all, they suffered a move after their first two years. I expect a bigger harvest next year.

Haskaps are easy to prepare and store. Maxine, an octogenarian fireball when I met her (she is now in her nineties), was freezing most of her berries and sending each buyer home with a bag of frozen fruit and a recipe for haskap crisp: Mix 6 cups berries with 1½ cups sugar and 2 tablespoons tapioca; top the sugared berries with a mix of 1½ cups each brown sugar, oatmeal, and whole-wheat flour, 1 cup chopped roasted hazelnuts and ½ cup melted butter; and bake about ½ hour at 350 degrees F.

Drying haskaps may be trickier. When I dried some in a small dehydrator that lacks a thermostat, it was difficult to keep the berries from turning hard and crisp. Like cranberries, they might dry to a more appealing, tender, chewy texture after a soak in syrup. Without added sugar, I suspect, haskaps should be dried slowly, at a low temperature.

I had to try making haskap jam. This couldn’t have been easier. Here is my small-batch, low-sugar recipe.

haskap jam 1Quick Haskap Jam

To ensure good gelling, I nearly always add lemon juice to my jams. My haskap jam, however, turned out quite tart, so next year I’ll try the recipe without added lemon.

 1 pound haskaps, rinsed
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 cup sugar

Put the haskaps into a 12-inch nonreactive skillet. Mash them coarsely (I use a potato masher). Heat them over medium heat to a gentle boil.     

Turn off the heat, and add the lemon juice and sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring, until a drop of jam mounds slightly in a chilled dish. This should take no more than 5 minutes.

Ladle the jam into pint jar or two half-pint jars. Process the jars, if you like, or else store them in the refrigerator.

Makes about 1 pint

 

*Another good source of information about L. caerulea is the website of the Haskap Canada Association.

Sweet Violets for Jelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

violet flowersViolet Jelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Makes 1¼ pints

 

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

Cherry Peppers for Stuffing

036-2When I traveled to Italy for Slow Food’s Terra Madre two years ago, I spent a lot of time examining fruits and vegetables in jars. And the preserve I saw more than any other was stuffed cherry peppers. Most were filled with prosciutto and cheese; some were filled with tuna. Some were sott’aceto, under vinegar; most were sott’olio, under olive oil.

I was most impressed with the peppers themselves: They were uniformly round, red, and free of cracks and other imperfections. I had grown cherry peppers for years, from seeds of various origins, and I’d tried to improve the fruits by saving seeds from only the best plants. But always my peppers turned out uneven in size and shape, with many of them more conical than round. When the rains came, they all would crack around the stem. Upon learning that vastly improved cherry peppers existed, I promised myself I’d throw out all my old seeds.

About the time I did so, last winter, someone gave me a few seeds of a superior cherry pepper. I must have planted all the seeds, because I can’t find the envelope, and now I’m no longer certain of the variety name. But I believe it was Ciliegia Piccante (“Hot Cherry”), a popular hot cherry pepper from Italy.

And how lovely those peppers were in the garden! As the perfect 1-inch green spheres gradually turned red, they never cracked, even when heavy rains fell in September.

When my cherry peppers were uniformly scarlet, I picked them all at once and then considered what to do with them. In past years I had pickled a lot of cherry peppers whole, but this year’s peppers were so pretty that I felt they merited stuffing, Italian-style.

The stuffed peppers I’d seen in Italy were once a common household product, but no longer; people were worried about botulism, which from time to time has sickened a handful of Italians. The Italian government provides general advice on safely preparing vegetables sott’olio: Basically, you boil the vegetables in vinegar before covering them with olive oil, and then you give the jars a boiling-water bath. But there is no Extension-style advice for making stuffed peppers sott’olio.

An Italian friend explained to me how her mother prepared stuffed peppers: She would freeze the fruits whole after harvest, and then just before serving them she would boil them, seed them, stuff them, and marinate them.

Freezing peppers without blanching works well; raw peppers don’t soften in the freezer as other vegetables do. But my freezer was full, and in any case I didn’t think the peppers would benefit from boiling. I wondered if I could pickle the peppers—jar them up sott’aceto—and then, later, simply stuff them.

Because I didn’t want the peppers to turn out too sour, I used a light pickling solution, with more water than vinegar. I left most of the peppers whole, without slitting them, although for the sake of comparison I seeded one pintful. I poured the liquid hot over the peppers, but I did not process the jars, because in my experience processing makes peppers soft. Then I stored the jars in the refrigerator, although because I’d sterilized the jars before filling them and they had sealed well, pantry storage would have been adequate.

Three and a half months later, on Christmas Eve, I opened a quart jar of the peppers, stuffed them with prosciutto and cheese, and marinated them in the refrigerator overnight. About a week ago, I did the same with the rest, except that this time I stuffed some of them with a tuna filling.

The peppers I’d seeded before pickling turned out softer, and their liquid was cloudy and tinted orange, whereas in the other jars the liquid was a clear yellow. In other words, the seeded peppers had given up more of their goodness to the pickle juice. A bigger fault, though, was that their cut edges were torn in places. They had been hard to cut cleanly, when fresh, and now they looked untidy. The whole pickled peppers, in contrast, were easy to cut, Jack-‘o-lantern-style, without any tearing.

This is the way I’ll treat my cherry peppers from now on:

Marinated Stuffed Cherry Peppers

 For pickling:
1¾ pounds whole ripe cherry peppers
1½ cups white wine vinegar
2½ cups water
2 teaspoons salt

For Stuffing #1:
4 ounces thin-sliced prosciutto
3 ounces cheese (such as provolone, manchego, or aged cheddar), in ¼-inch cubes

For Stuffing #2:
1 6.5-ounce can albacore, packed in water or olive oil
1 ounce (about ½ small can) anchovy fillets
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
1 tablespoon capers
About 3 tablespoons olive oil
Ground black pepper to taste

For the marinade:
1 cup olive oil
2 large garlic cloves, crushed
1 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves
A few grindings of black pepper

img_9833-2Rinse the peppers, and trim their stems. Pack the peppers into two sterilized quart mason jars. In a saucepan, bring the vinegar, water, and salt to a boil. Pour the hot liquid over the peppers, leaving ½ inch headspace. Release any bubbles with a pointed chopstick, and top up the jars if needed, retaining the ½ inch headspace. Add flat lids, and screw the rings on tight. Turn the jars upside down for 5 minutes, and then right them. When the jars have sealed and cooled, store them in the refrigerator.

img_9838-2
Each pepper is packed solid with seeds.

Several hours to a day before serving the peppers, open the jars. Cut around the stem of each pepper as if you are making a tiny Jack o’ lantern. Using a small spoon, such as one meant for feeding a baby, seed each pepper.

To make Stuffing #1, cut the prosciutto into ½-inch lengthwise strips. Wrap a strip snugly around a cube of cheese, aligning one edge with the top of the cube. Tuck the excess prosciutto under the cheese cube, and insert the wrapped cube into a pepper. You should have enough prosciutto and cheese to fill half the peppers.

To make Stuffing #2, combine the ingredients in a food processor, adding olive oil from the can of tuna or anchovies or both, if you like, plus enough additional oil to make a soft, smooth mixture. Spoon the tuna mixture into the remaining peppers, and level the top of the filling.

img_9855-2Place the filled peppers in a single layer in one or more serving dishes. Whisk together the marinade ingredients, and pour the mixture over the peppers. Cover the dishes, and chill them until 15 minutes before you are ready to serve.

The stuffed peppers all tasted good, apparently; on both occasions they got eaten up fast. Unfortunately, one little bite was all I could stand. The peppers were too hot for me!

I want to make stuffed cherry peppers again, and I want to be able to eat them myself. So now my task is to find a beautiful, uniform sweet cherry pepper. I have just received from Reimer Seeds seeds of both Kuners and Red Cherry Large sweet cherry peppers. Kuners, in the catalog picture, looks much like Ciliegia Piccante. Red Cherry Large, said to date to before 1860 (how have I missed encountering this variety before?), is supposed to be 1½ inches in diameter. For Red Cherry Large I’ll cut my cheese cubes a little larger; hopefully a stuffed pepper this big won’t be too awkward to eat. I’ll let you know!

Do you have your own favorite cherry pepper, hot or sweet, to recommend for pickling or stuffing?