Tuesday, July 1, 2008



We’ve been sitting through a bout of pretty bad weather the last few weeks. After it was so hot in late May and early June, it’s been cold and really wet since then. My poor melons which were outgrowing their greenhouse pots have been sitting in the ground actually getting smaller since it’s been so cold and wet. We’ve had nights in the forties and yesterday, it barely made it out of the sixties. Though all my lettuces and cabbages and left over cold weather crops are doing quite well.

Another thing doing well is berries. It is getting close to currant time, and I have also already made two batches of strawberry jam from berries in my own patch. I’m tempted to get some more from one of the berry farms around here, but I was not impressed the last time I did pick your own at the big local farm. The berries were not good quality and there were so many rules! Don’t pick any with white tips. Don’t pick across the row. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. And worst of all, they actually did not allow people to bring kids younger than twelve with them to pick. Of course, who wants their kids to be rooting around in the kind of chemicals they spray on things these days, but one of the reasons why I enjoy picking and jamming and and jellying is because that’s one of the things I used to do as a little kid with my grandparents. Even my very short stint as a strawberry picker on a big commercial farm didn’t ruin it for me. Unlike my job I had as a baseball card sorter! I hate cards. I don’t think I’ve even thought playing war or solitaire or Sorry! was any fun since then. Memory card games are sheer heck, I tell you, and if my niece starts putting non matching cards into different piles, I get really uptight.

Anyway, I did end up plowing under my patch of honeyoe strawberries. They were just disappointing. They took up too much space for the three berries that were actually picked from than patch in two years. The sparkles are really great, but I have a lot of deformed berries. Strawberries can get into really funny shapes and get stunted from even a whiff of herbicide, and I didn’t realize my next door neighbors were going to spray roundup on everything that grew when I situated my strawberry patch right next to their property line. That is definitely something I will have to revise when I do the next patch. I guess next spring or at the latest the spring of 2010, when I put in more strawberries and get rid of this bunch, I’ll need to situate a patch somewhere a little less likely to get herbicide blow off from either the corn field or the neighbor’s.

Speaking of my “conventional” gardening neighbors who use pesticides and fertilizers all over their garden. Their stuff might be bigger right now, but my dirt looks better. Theirs is all pale and tan and dried up looking, and I know they have been irrigating even with all the rain, and mine is all rich and red and moist. Ha!

Anyway, about jam. I really think it’s actually pretty easy. Jam is easy. Jelly is hard. Because you need cheese cloth and a strainer, and you need to juice the berries before you make jelly. Jam, you just get the leaves and stems off and mash em up. I luckily found sugar on a good sale a few weeks ago, less than a couple dollars a bag, which is what it cost a few years ago. Though, I was prepared for jelly and jam season when they had all the sugar and baking things on sale over the holidays last winter. I bought up a whole bunch of sugar and vacuum sealed it. I used the bags you cut to size and left an extra few inches on the tops of the bags so I can reuse them to seal more sugar later. The vacuum sealer has been very wonderful. I made two giant pans of lasagna for a party way back in March and froze and sealed the leftovers into individual packages, and they are still as good as they were back then.

Back to jam!

Jam and jelly are really one of the few things that I can’t put off. When the fruit is ripe, you need to put it away. Everything else gets put on hold. Luckily, the first thing that comes in is strawberries, and they are not hard to deal with. No thorns, no seeds, no tiny little stems. Elderberries are so time consuming, and blackberries are just painful.

You need good sugar to make good jam. A brand name like Domino. It really makes a difference. The last couple of years I used Wegman’s store brand sugar for jam, and it made the jam just fine, but it didn’t store well. I got the really big bag, and and the bottom of the bag, there was just a rock hard piece of sugar that was too solid to even knock apart with a hammer. If sugar gets chunky or hard, usually I can still shove it into a measuring cup and use it that way, but the big, solid pieces that clumped up in store brand sugar were just too big! I usually store even sugar that is not vacuum sealed wrapped in a few layers of plastic bag because my basement gets so damp in summer, but even this couldn’t keep the store brand sugar from turning into a rock, so I’ve stuck with Domino ever since.

A tip for saving chunky sugar:

Pour sugar with a lot of lumps in to a metal bowl. Use a dry, sturdy utensil to grind up as much as you can. A pestle or a really thick stoneware teacup will work. Pour ground sugar through a sieve and either back into the empty bag (as long as it’s dry) or into a storage container. Save any stubborn sugar lumps for the sugar bowl where you can put them in tea or coffee. Or use them in recipes. I make a loaf of bread that calls for sugar cubes dipped in cinnamon to be baked right in. Use smaller lumps to put “snow” on decorated Christmas tree shaped cookies. In airtight containers, sugar has an almost unlimited shelf life!

Like a lot of things, you really don’t need that much to do jam. Jars, of course, but you can reuse other jars as long as they have the metal lid with the “button” on top and you can get the smell of whatever they used to have in them out. You need two big pots and also a saucepan. One pot is for cooking the jam, and the other is for jar sterilization. The jar boiling pot can be any old stock pot. The jelly cooker should have a thicker bottom. You can get a hot water canner with a little rack inside for lifting jars in and out almost anywhere. My mom got mine for me at a yard sale for fifty cents. You can buy new, but check yard sales and estate sales or your older relatives’ basements first!

Also, that fruit pectin, is the same whether you get the brand name or the discount stuff. It is also sealed really well, and keeps a long, long time. I bought about forty boxes a few years ago, and I just pull one out and use it whenever I like. I do orange marmalade in the winter when the citrus fruit is on sale, and if I didn’t buy ahead and stock up, I’d have a hard time finding pectin powder in the middle of winter. I get generic “Jel-ease” at Save a Lot instead of getting the name brand, and it is like a quarter the cost and does the same thing. also, the recipes for a million different kinds of jams and jellies come on a little paper right inside the box, and it’s really good resource for getting ideas on how to preserve things.

Other helpful things for jelly and jam that you don’t need but which make things easier:

1. Long handled wooden spoon
2. Tongs and/or jar lifer to lift jars out of hot water
3. Canning funnel

And that’s it!

Basic jam steps:

1. Get fruit. The pectin you choose will tell you how much. Strawberries take two quarts. Jams don’t take a lot of fruit. Jelly takes more.

2. Get other ingredients. Generally this is just sugar, but strawberries and other less sour fruits also call for lemon juice. The acidity is what allows the fruit to be preserved. I buy the big bottles of lemon juice from concentrate. Lemons are too expensive, and those little lemon shaped squeezy bottles are not accurate.

3. Get jars ready. Count up your jars and make sure they are clean and have matching lids. I also like to have one ore two extra jars prepared just in case the recipe turns out more than I expect. There are a lot of variables involved here including size of fruit, water content and things like that. I usually get more than what the recipe says. Jars can be prepared in one of two ways. You can either put the jars in the canner and just boil the heck right out of them for ten minutes and then leave them in the hot water, or you can fill them with water and set them upright in the canner which you then fill just to cover the jars and bring to a simmer. This second way, you need to reboil the jars for ten minutes after you fill them. This is supposedly safer. I have started doing this because I think it is faster, and easier even with having to process the filled jars. I grew up just boiling the jars and filling them with hot jam and calling it good. The idea being that if you have boiling hot sauce in boiling hot jars, you can’t get any germs in there, but I guess thinking on that has changed. Though, I use the “new” method just because I don’t like to have to wait the whole time it takes for the jars to boil up empty for the whole ten minutes.

4. Measure the sugar. You need to measure the fruit later, but measure the sugar first because the ratio of sugar to fruit is actually really important. The same measuring cup that you will use to measure the fruit should be used at the beginning when it is clean and dry to dole out the sugar. Jam is serious scientific business, and if you skimp on the sugar or blow off the lemon juice, it won’t work.

5. Prepare the fruit. The recipe will tell you what to do with specific fruit and how to prepare it. Basically get rid of leaves and smash. A potato masher is good for this, but also that pestle or stoneware cup from the lumpy sugar incident can be employed in smashing up berries. Especially if you have a cheesy “modern” potato masher that is just like a curvy piece of steel instead of a nice round one, then just use the teacup. Measure the fruit out according to the recipe. If you’re short, you can pad that with a little water.

6. Do the cooking. The jars should have simmered or boiled or whatever for their allotted times and should just be hot now. Still sitting in the other big pot, waiting for the jelly. Mix up the pectin and lemon juice and boil. Then add the sugar. Make sure the pot is big. Jelly making involves bringing many cups of sugar to a full rolling boil for a couple minutes, and there is nothing funny about letting seven or eight cups of molten sugar boil all over your stovetop. A cousin of mine also ruined her ceramic cook top by trying to scrape off burnt sugar. I have a ceramic cook top, too, which I have dumped sugar on, and the solution is just keep cleaning it regularly and let the sugar wear off. It will eventually. But a nice big pot will also cover up the burner, and protect it from stray sugar. A “full rolling boil that cannot be stirred down” is the phrase on the jelly instruction, and it’s like anything else, you’ll know it when you see it. If you’re going to reprocess the jam, let it boil a minute. If you already sterilized the jars for ten minutes, let it boil two minutes. You need to stir all the time during this part. Nothing can scorch or stuck or burn or everything will be ruined.

7. Get the lids ready. The lids need to be clean and hot and pliable, as well. In the saucepan, get them hot fast with just a little water.

8. Jar up. Pull sterilized jars out of canner. (Why you might want tongs.) Use your funnel to direct the sauce into the jars. I’ve used a ladle, but just dumping the jam into the funnel right from the pot is quicker and easier. Long sleeves are a good idea, though, in case of hot splashes. If the jars were boiled ten minutes empty, slap on the lids, and turn them upside down on a dishtowel for five minutes, and you’re done. The “modern” method where the jars are just simmering in the canner: take out the jars and fill them and put on the lids. Drop the jars back into the hot water. Do it one at a time, so the jars don’t get a chance to cool down and explode! when you throw hot sauce in them. Then, make sure there is an inch of water over top of the jars and put the lid back on the big canner pot. Bring to a boil and boil ten minutes. This sounds like extra work, but it really isn’t. And also supposed to be safer!

9. Let hot jars sit in water for five more minutes. Lift out. (This is where the jar lifter comes in handy.) Let set for a day.

This sounds like a lot of work, but it really isn’t! Maybe two hours tops, counting doing the washing up and the picking. And it is a lot cheaper and better than storebought which with all the preservatives and high fructose corn syrup is kind of like jellified pop!

Energy and water and time saving tip:

Use the hot water left over in the canner to clean up. I usually dump it into the sink or the jam cooking pot. Nothing but hot water and jars ever goes into the canner so there’s n chance of getting soap on things that are finished.

I know there are ways to make jellies and jams without commercial fruit pectin. I keep reading about boiling tart apples. I haven’t tried it yet. I may, but right now I’m well stocked with powdered pectin! I have also not yet tried any jelly recipes with organic sugar or raw sugar, which I would like to do at some point in the future when I can afford to experiment and make mistakes, but right now I'm too poor and food is too expensive! Tried and true is the way to go, as long as tried and true actually works! Which in this case, it does!

Three Sisters update:

It looks like at least some of my corn is going to be “knee high by the Fourth of July” and my pumpkins and squash are starting to come up. So far so good!

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