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?

 

 

 

First Achocha Harvest

I’ve had to wait through several weeks of computer woes to post his piece. I send it with wishes for a happy new year!

img_9628Achocha foliage with a fruit behind it. In my hand is a sandita.

In mid-December, freezing rain adorned the bare branches in my garden with icicles, which hung in place through a day of snow and several nearly sunless days that followed. But autumn’s first freeze had come only about a week before the freezing rain, nearly two months late. Suddenly, the nasturtiums, tomatillos, and oca and sandita tops had turned to mush. But no matter: The tomatillos and sanditas had long stopped fruiting, the nasturtiums hadn’t borne blossoms for weeks, and the oca had set its little pink tubers, which were now ready for harvest.

Only one vegetable plant seemed caught off-guard by the freezing weather: the achocha, Cyclanthera pedata. Just the day before it had seemed still in its prime, filling out its trellis and climbing onto the deck to smother the potted plants there.

This South American native, so long domesticated that it can’t be found in the wild, goes by many names, among them caigua, lady’s slipper, and Bolivian cucumber. Although achocha indeed belongs to the cucumber family, to me it resembles a cucumber only in that both are vines, and even in their vining the two differ radically. The achocha, unlike the cucumber, attaches itself to trellises and anything else in its path by grape-like tendrils. The smooth, bright green leaves are un-cucumber-like as well; in fact, they look like cannabis leaves.* Achocha fruits are plump but two-sided, gently curved like mangoes, and smooth, firm, and semi-hollow like peppers.

Through the summer, my single achocha plant suffered in the warm, light soil on the sunny south side of the deck. The vine grew slowly and seemed set on hiding under the deck instead of climbing the trellis of nylon netting. Soaking the roots with water didn’t seem to help, though perhaps I didn’t soak them often enough.

Then the rains came, and cooler weather, and the vine flourished. At the end of August it had produced only three fruits; before the freeze it bore seven more, each two to three inches long.

I’m not sure why my yield was so poor. Achocha is said to like plenty of sun and well-drained soil, but it also likes moisture and humidity, and Willamette Valley summers are dry. Perhaps my achocha would have thrived if I’d managed to keep its roots cool and moist with a well-placed rock or a sheltering neighboring plant. Maybe the east side of the deck would have been a better place to plant the achocha.

But since the vine managed to produce lots of tiny flowers through the summer and fall, I suspect my main problem was not the planting site but poor pollination. Achocha flowers are pollinated by hoverflies, or syrphid flies, which come in many species but generally look like wasps or bees with just one pair of wings—distinctly long wings—instead of two pairs. I saw no hoverflies around my achocha.

Or maybe I didn’t look hard enough; maybe I simply didn’t notice the hoverflies. Although achocha is supposed to be self-fertile, perhaps pollination is improved with two or more plants.

Other problems I had with this plant were (1) finding the fruit, and (2) knowing when to pick it. The fruit starts out as green as a jalapeno pepper, the same color as the foliage, and maintains this color for weeks, it seems, before lightening a bit. When I managed, with difficulty, to find some fruits among the foliage, I couldn’t tell how ripe they were. Achocha fruits are edible at all stages, but the older ones are more hollow inside, with big, black, roughly square and wrinkled seeds. From less developed fruits, I scraped out the tender, pale seeds and the spongy white pulp around them with a grapefruit spoon.

The seeded fruits are bland-tasting but pleasantly crisp. South American writers say that younger achocha fruits can be eaten raw, whereas the older ones are usually cooked. Achochas are often stuffed—so often, in fact, that in some places they are called pepinos de rellenar. And I’ve read that baby achochas, as small as olives, are sometimes pickled.

Finding myself alone one evening with five achocha fruits, I decided to use them in a stir-fry for one, along with the last of the eggplants :

Stir-Fried Achochas and Eggplants

 1 tablespoon peanut oil
½ medium onion, cut into wedges
1 garlic clove, minced
1 quarter-size slice fresh ginger, minced
5 achochas, halved lengthwise and seeded, and each half halved again
3 ounces small eggplants, cut into pieces approximately ½ by ½ by 2 inches
Soy sauce, sake, and honey to taste
1 teaspoon sesame seeds, toasted in a skillet
Roasted sesame oil, to taste

Pour into a hot wok 1 teaspoon of the peanut oil. Add the onion, and stir-fry the pieces until they are barely tender. Add the garlic and ginger, and stir-fry about 10 seconds more. Remove the onion mixture to a serving bowl.

Return the wok to the heat. Add the remaining peanut oil, and then the achochas and eggplants. Stir-fry the vegetables briefly, until the achochas turn a brighter green. Reduce the heat, and add about 2 tablespoons sake. Dribble about 2 teaspoons soy sauce down the inside of the wok. Add the honey. Cover the wok, and simmer the vegetables until they are just tender.

Return the onion mixture to the wok, and stir. Sprinkle over about ½ teaspoon sesame oil. Cover the wok, and turn off the heat. Wait 1 minute.

Transfer the stir-fried vegetables into a serving bowl, and sprinkle the sesame seeds over. Serve the vegetables with steamed greens and steamed rice.

It was a fine solo meal, texturally rich with the crisp achocha, soft eggplant, firm onion, and chewy sesame. I hope you’ll keep stir-frying in mind among ways to prepare achochas. And definitely try partnering achochas with eggplants.

Achochas probably haven’t yet shown up in your local farmers’ market, but you can buy seeds from Nichols Garden Nursery.

*Achocha is so little known in the United States that writers disagree on its botanical name. Those marijuana-like leaves are a clue: They are palmate, or like a bird’s foot, which is what the species name pedata means. C. brachystachya, a relative with which C. pedata has been confused, has very different leaves as well as much smaller, oblong, spiny fruits. A common name for C. brachystachya is cuchinito, “little piggy.” The piggies are said to make good, gherkin-like pickles.

Salad Days and Striped Beets

shredded-chioggia-beet-7

The fall rains came early this month to the Willamette Valley, and they have scarcely let up for more than a few hours since. The ripening tomatoes split and opened like flowers. The vines blackened and finally dropped their remaining fruit, green spotted with rust and sometimes hairy with mold. I’ve gotten wet and muddy as I pull up vines and dismantle trellises, and frustrated as I fumble with knotted wet twine. But the grey clouds hiding the sun have a silver lining: These are our salad days.

We missed our greens last spring, when the weather turned unseasonably warm. The lettuce, mizuna, arugula, and spinach all flowered before they could grow to eating size. We ate some tough, bitter salads while waiting for the cucumbers to appear and the tomatoes to ripen.

Salad days go fast here in fall, too. Some years the weather stays too hot for too long, and again the greens go to seed. Other years the first freeze comes too soon, in early October. Growth stops, and the little plants begin to rot.

But as long as the rains keep falling, the garden greens thrive, immune to the diseases discoloring and shriveling the tomato and cucurbit vines. Slugs and snails, if I let them, will eat everything but the chicories, but a daily patrol ensures that the humans get some leaves, too.

So for dinner at a friend’s house last weekend I happily offered to make a salad. I would prepare a big bowlful of tender young leaves of spinach, mizuna, arugula, chicory, and nasturtium. While harvesting I pulled up some Chioggia beets, the Italian variety with the candy-striped roots. I cut off the leaves and chilled them to cook later. The roots would provide contrasting color for the salad.

These beets have posed a problem for me: When I cook them their colors run. The stripes disappear, and the roots end up looking like red beets with anemia. So I decided we would eat the beets raw.

I grated them coarsely and tasted them. The raw shreds had the earthiness of cooked beets without the sweetness that disguises the roots’ inherent bitterness. I bathed the shreds in vinaigrette; that didn’t help much. But then I added a little sugar, and the bitterness seemingly vanished. I knew what to do: I would bring the beets to our friends’ house in a lidded container with the vinaigrette, and then dress the greens with the mixture right before dinner.

In just two hours in their bath, however, the beets lost their stripes. The shreds were now uniformly pink. To preserve the stripes, I should have done the grating and the dressing all at the last minute. Still, the pink shreds of beet were pretty, especially in contrast with the deep greens of the leafy vegetables.

Fall Green Salad with Shredded Raw Beets

I used tarragon in the dressing because the plant will soon die back and I won’t taste tarragon again until early summer. But I could have instead used some of the green seeds on the five-foot-tall fennel plant by the deck; I would have crushed them lightly in a mortar to bring out their flavor. Cumin would be delicious with the beets, too.

My husband would have liked me to use unrefined sunflower oil instead of olive oil. For many people the flavor of sunflower oil would be too strange, but for the two of us that would have been a good choice.

If you don’t have Chioggia beets or don’t care about stripes, you can use red or yellow beets in this recipe instead.

 1 teaspoon minced tarragon
¼ teaspoon fine salt
½ teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons lemon juice
½ teaspoon prepared mustard
A few grindings black pepper
1/2 cup olive oil
½ pound Chioggia beetroots, peeled and coarsely grated

 Combine all the ingredients but the beets in a pint-size jar or other container. Cap the jar, and shake well. Open the jar, and add the beets. Shake again.

If you want the beet shreds to keep their stripes, serve the beets immediately, with their dressing, over fall salad greens. Otherwise, store the jar in the refrigerator, and take it out 15 minutes before serving the salad.

Adventures with Almonds, Part II: No-Flavor-Added Homemade Marzipan

Before I used my Hall’s Hardy almonds, I thought, even though they didn’t taste bitter I should perhaps try to purge them of any amygdalin, the bitter compound that converts to hydrogen cyanide. I could find no authoritative instructions in how to do this, but plenty of informal advice was at hand. In one Internet forum, a man from Lebanon said his family would soak bitter almonds in many changes of water before eating them. A Spaniard advised soaking bitter almonds in vinegar for a day. Heat is also said to destroy amygdalin, although I doubted the efficacy of dry-heating, since the bitter nuts from Trader Joe’s and Costco had been roasted. For other foods containing cyanogenic compounds, such as cassava and bamboo shoots, scientific studies have found grating, soaking, fermentation, steaming, and exposure to air all to be effective in reducing the toxin, by as much as 99 percent.

I would have subjected my almonds to a hot-water bath regardless of any concern about amygdalin. Marzipan is supposed to be pure white, not freckled with brown bits of skin. Usually I blanch almonds by dropping them into boiling water and leaving them for a minute before draining them. When they are cool, I pop each nut out of its skin by pressing with thumb and forefinger at the broad end. This time I poured boiling water over the nuts and left them to soak for 30 minutes. The water turned milky but didn’t taste bitter. The nuts, still highly perfumed, released their skins easily, although because the skins, like the nuts, were mostly in small pieces, I didn’t try to remove every last brown bit. The naked kernels were white—a barely creamy white, much whiter than skinned California almonds.

I could have made a tiny mound of marzipan with only these nuts, by grinding them in my little hand-cranked nut grinder. But my Hall’s nuts were powerfully flavorful, perhaps too flavorful to use on their own. Traditionally, only a few bitter almonds are included in each batch of marzipan. Because I like round numbers, I decided to combine my 2.5 ounces of Hall’s Hardy almonds (weighed before soaking) with 13.5 ounces of commercially grown California almonds, for a total of 1 pound almonds.

I skinned the California almonds in the usual way, by putting them into a pot of boiling water for a minute, draining them, and then squeezing each one from its skin. I then ground all the nuts, a few handfuls at a time, in a miniature food processor, the kind run on the motor of a stick blender. The meal looked like very fine, fresh-cooked couscous. Some people report trouble with this process; they add water, rosewater, or orange flower water to keep the almonds from turning to an oily paste. But my Hall’s Hardy almonds had absorbed quite a lot of water, and I had ground the California almonds while damp instead of taking the trouble to dry them. I encountered no sign of pastiness.

Next I had to decide how much sugar to add. Various writers say that marzipan contains less sugar than almond paste does; the latter is firmer, for forming into the shapes of animals and fruits and so on, whereas the latter is softer, for using in baked goods. Others say the opposite—that marzipan has more sugar than almond paste. I make no distinction between the two, because recipes for marzipan itself are so variable. One recipe in Larousse Gastronomique, for example, calls for twice the weight of sugar as almonds; a second recipe calls for half the weight of sugar as almonds. I decided to use what seems to be the most common ratio: one part sugar, by weight, to one part almonds.

Now, how best to add the sugar? I once watched an embarrassed chef attempt to make marzipan by simply grinding granulated sugar and blanched almonds together in a big food processor. The sugar would not dissolve. Some cooks use confectioner’s sugar instead of granulated sugar, but I didn’t want my marzipan to taste of cornstarch. Added liquid, such as rosewater, probably helps to dissolve the sugar as well as to prevent oiliness. I love the flavor of roses, but to me it has no place in marzipan. I figured I could use superfine sugar and hope that the moisture remaining in my ground almonds would dissolve it, but I didn’t want to take that chance.

ground almonds with syrup
The ground almonds with syrup added

So I made a heavy syrup instead. I slowly heated two parts sugar and one part water until the sugar dissolved, and then I boiled the syrup to thread stage before adding it to the almond meal. I stirred the hot syrup into the meal; there seemed no need for the usual kneading.

At this point most people would add some almond extract, some other flavoring, or both. But on tasting my marzipan I found that the level of bitter-almond flavor was perfect. I didn’t need any almond extract, and I certainly didn’t want to cover up the natural bitter-almond flavor of my marzipan with rosewater, orange flower water, or vanilla extract.

drying the marzipan, best
Drying the marzipan

The marzipan was quite soft. I knew it would firm up as it cooled, and then I could cut it or mold it into shapes and let the pieces dry in a cool oven. Because I didn’t plan to use the marzipan right away, however, I decided to try another method of drying it out: I heated it, turning it often, in an iron skillet over a burner set on low heat. Then I let the marzipan cool for an hour and I divided the still-warm mass into two 1-pound loaves. When they had cooled further, I stored one in the freezer and the other in the fridge.

Here is my complete recipe:

marzipanMarzipan with (or without) Hall’s Hardy Almonds

For a stronger bitter-almond flavor, use a higher proportion of Hall’s Hardy to California almonds—say, 4 ounces Hall’s to 12 ounces California almonds.

 If you’d like to flavor your marzipan with rosewater or orange flower water, spread your blanched almonds on a towel and let them dry thoroughly before grinding them. Add the liquid during the grinding or incorporate it afterward.

You can use this recipe with ordinary almonds alone, if you like, by starting with a pound of almonds and, at the end, adding almond extract to taste.

 2.5 ounces Hall’s Hardy almonds
13.5 ounces California almonds
2 cups sugar
1 cup water

Blanch the almonds for 1 minute in a pot of boiling water. Drain the almonds, and squeeze off their skins. (If you’re concerned about amygdalin in the Hall’s Hardy almonds, do as I did: Cover them with boiling water, and drain them only after 30 minutes of soaking.)

In a food processor, grind the blanched almonds in batches to a fine meal. Collect the meal in a bowl.

In a saucepan, heat the sugar and water slowly, stirring, until the sugar has completely dissolved. Raise the heat to medium-high, and boil the syrup until it spins a thread in a glass of cold water, or to about 232 degrees F.

 Pour the syrup into the almond meal, stirring thoroughly.

Heat a large iron skillet over the lowest heat setting. Add the marzipan. Stirring, gradually raise the heat as needed until you can see tiny bubbles evaporate on the bottom of the pan; from a distance this looks like a vanishing white haze. Don’t let the pan get any hotter; you don’t want to caramelize the marzipan. Continue turning it in the pan for about 10 minutes, until the mass is noticeably firmer.

Remove the pan from the heat, and let the marzipan cool.

Form the marzipan into two loaves. Wrap them in plastic wrap or first in parchment paper and then in foil. Store the loaves in the refrigerator or freezer until you’re ready to use them.

Persimmon Treats for the Holiday Cookie Platter

persimmon chews

The day the sale of our farm closed, I picked nearly all the remaining fruit in the orchard, but I had to leave the persimmons. They were the biggest crop I’ve ever had, on a tree at least fifteen years old but still barely taller than I. What bothered me most was that, thanks to the unusually long, hot summer, the persimmons were sure to ripen completely for the first time—to turn bright orange and lusciously sweet, as persimmons regularly do in California.

So I was especially grateful when a fellow Master Food Preserver offered me a big box of squat, nonastringent Fuyu persimmons. She had gotten them from a relative who didn’t know what to do with them. They had been left on the tree through weather in the low twenties, and so in places they were as soft as a ripe Hachiya (the acorn-shaped variety that is astringent until fully ripe) while in other places they were quite firm. But still they tasted very, very good. And they had arrived just in time for me to make a few into toothsome holiday treats.

I’ve based the recipe that follows on one apparently created for the little American persimmon—a native Eastern fruit that I’ve never yet had the opportunity of tasting—and for another American native, the black walnut. This nut is worth a try if you have a black walnut tree in the neighborhood and don’t mind the husking and shelling. I substituted fat, sweet English walnut meats from a local friend’s old tree.

The original version of this recipe called for dark brown sugar, and I sometimes prefer it for its richer color and taste. But light brown sugar lets you taste more of the persimmon’s own delicate flavor.

To extract persimmon flesh, scrape or spoon it from the skin, discarding any seeds. If you use Hachiyas or fruits of another astringent variety, be sure they are fully soft. Persimmons such as Fuyu can be used when quite firm. Firm flesh will need chopping.

Persimmon Chews

1 cup plus 3 tablespoons walnut meats
3 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar
1 cup persimmon pulp
1 cup brown sugar (light or dark, as you prefer), packed
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon butter

 Chop 1 cup of the walnuts, and put them into a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Grind the remaining walnuts with the confectioner’s sugar in a spice grinder or blender. Set this mixture aside.

Add to the saucepan the persimmon pulp, sugar, egg yolks, and butter. Cook the mixture over medium heat, stirring often at first and then constantly as the mixture thickens. Continue cooking until the mixture forms a ball that pulls away from the side and bottom of the pan, or to 230 degrees F. This will take about 20 minutes.

Remove the pan from the heat, and let the mixture cool for about an hour. Then form it with your hands into 1-inch balls, and roll each ball in the sugar-walnut mixture.

When the balls are completely cool, store them in an airtight container.

 Makes about 2 dozen chews