The end of summer draws near. The garden has been giving up its last fruits–yellow summer squash, cucumbers, one lone green pepper, a couple more chili peppers, a few tomatoes (the ones the tomato worms don’t gnaw), and even a few little carrots. The parsips, their lush green leaves looking prosperous, I’m leaving in the box for colder weather to sweeten before I pull them. I didn’t get the bounty of tomatoes and peppers I wanted for pasta sauce, so I had to look elsewhere for preserving ingredients.
One bright, dry afternoon, I drove on up to Libby’s Pick-Your-Own (click to see their nice website) and plunked myself down in front of a gloriously-laden blueberry bush. The Jersey variety was supposed to be sweeter than the larger Blue Crop, and they didn’t disappoint. I tested one or two but put the rest into my special Libby’s cardboard box I save from year to year. It is now ducktaped on the bottom to keep it together. As I worked, I listened to the chatter of two little girls who had accompanied their aunt to the orchard. Auntie insisted that each girl try at least five blueberries to make sure they were sweet. For the better part of an hour I listened to the two darlings announce they were continuing to “test” the berries while the aunt benevolently encouraged them to yes, keep eating them, but do please put one or two in the bucket once in awhile.
I understand how one might feel justified in encouraging this behavior. For one thing, these girls were clearly from out of state. They’d never seen a blueberry bush before and were amazed at how much better the fruit tasted than the ones from the grocery store. A well-meaning Maine relative would want to expose such innocents to an important Maine product. However . . .
Every blueberry that went into the little darlings’ mouths was one blueberry the farmer would never earn a penny on. I try to impress this fact on my daughter and any children that accompany me to various pick-your-own farms. We shouldn’t just sit there and gorge ourselves. It’s stealing, albeit unintentional.
Last year while picking the berries at this same orchard, I listened to a Boston-inflected youth brag to his similarly-toned grandfather that he was going to keep eating as much as possible so he could get them for free. He then went on to speculate whether or not building a fire and baking a pie between the rows of Blue Crop bushes would be possible. I waited in vain for the grandfather to correct this questionable line of thinking. I could have waited until frost closed down the farm for the season. Grampa merely laughed indulgently and commented that someone would probably notice the smoke and they’d get caught. Sigh.
Anyway, after an hour and a half, my box was quite heavy. Back at the barn, I was pleased to discover I’d picked seven and a half pounds of berries and happily paid the eighteen dollars I owed the farmer. As I drove home along the winding, downhill road past old farmhouses and grassy fields and the camps along Pickerel Pond, I planned my blueberry projects. Pie and jam, definitely. Maybe some muffins or a cake. The possibilities were as sweet as the berries.
Back home, we all had some fresh, lovely handfuls scooped straight from the box and still warm from the sun. The following evening I constructed a deep-dish berry pie which I served warm from the oven and accompanied by vanilla ice-cream. Can I just say “to die for?” My stomach is gurgling right now as I think about it.
Despite the pie and a batch of muffins the following morning, I was left with plenty of fruit for the long-awaited jam session a couple days later. I grabbed my new water canner–a traditional black “granite” type affair I’d purchased a few weeks earlier at Plummer’s Hardware–along with the accountrements necessary for a pleasurable perservation experience. These included my jars, a jar lifting tool used for grabbing hot jars from boiling water, a funnel for clean transfer of hot jam from pot to small-mouthed jar, and a funky little plastic “knife” for scraping around the inside of the jar to remove stray bubbles. Pot-holders. Sugar bag. Cutting board and chef’s knife for slicing lemon peel and chili peppers. Chef Michel Nischan’s cookbook, HOMEGROWN PURE AND SIMPLE: GREAT HEALTHY FOOD FROM GARDEN TO TABLE, a gift from my sister when I visited her in May. I’d been itching to try Nischan’s recipe for Blueberry, Lemon, and Chili Pepper Jam, and as luck would have it, I had two red chili peppers from my garden boxes that needed using.Everything went smoothly . . . at first. “I’m a whiz at this jam stuff,” I hummed to myself as I toasted the cinnamon stick over my electric burner, crushed blueberries with sugar, and dumped the mixture into the pot. “I feel just like Julia Child!” I exalted as I put one hand on the waist of my apron and stirred the boiling mixture with my wooden spoon. Before long a most delicious scent permeated my entire house, and I left the environs of my kitchen only long enough to zip to the garden to snip a few sprigs of cilantro to add to the berry mixture in the final minutes of cooking.
I sterilized the jars and put the lids in a pan of hot water. When the jam was thick enough to drip just right off the spoon, I turned off the heat, grabbed the pot, and began to ladle rich, goopy, frangrant jam into the tiny half-pint jars. I topped each one with a lid, and I screwed each rim tight.
Then the fun began.
The water was boiling in the canner, and the instructions said to put the jars into the canning rack before lowering everything into the water for processing. The instructions didn’t know about miniscule half-pint jars. I think the holder was designed for larger Mason or Bell jars–the kind you’d use for vegetable canning–because my little jars slipped right through the openings and to the bottom of the pot.
Enter the jar lifter. Now, if you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll try to explain this tool. It is like a pair of extra-large tongs only attached in the middle, like scisoors, and contructed more like four loops of metal, two loops to a side. On one side, the metal is covered in a soft, rubber material. On the other, black plastic forms rollers around the metal loops. My mistake was thinking the black rollers were used for picking up the jars.
I’d no sooner get the thing clamped around a jar and begin to lift when the glass would slip and roll back to the bottom of the (boiling hard now) pot of water. Swearing under my breath and feeling quite a bit less Julia-ish, I finally got the jars out of the water and back on the table. Consulting the various instructions in pamphlets and cookbooks, I finally stuck two dish towels into the bottom of the pot where they swelled up and floated to the surface while I gallantly pushed them down and basically threw the jars on top, hoping their weight would hold them on the bottom. Sweating, frustrated, sagging, I put the cover on the pot and set the timer for fifteen minutes.
I wrestled with the jar lifter again, noticing that this time one of the rollers had disappeared and was floating around on the bottom of the canning pot. Luckily, I had an extra lifter–I’d purchased it years ago for a cooking task for which it was not intended and for some reason had held onto it.
As I grabbed the replacement tool, I suddenly realized I was holding the wrong end of the thing. Epiphany! The black rollers were for my hands and the rubber end was supposed to grab the jars. Voila! The jars lifted right out.Things went much more smoothly after my epiphany. I retrieved the jars from the canner, let them rest on yet another pair of dishtowels on my kitchen counter, and wiped the sweat from my weary brow while listening to the cheerful POP! when the lids sealed.
I scraped a spoon around the now-cool cooking pot and sampled the goods. Yum! The combination of sweet berries and sugar, tart lemon peel, and kicky chili pepper was delicious. I couldn’t wait to try some out with fresh, raw goat cheese served on crackers, which I did the following week when I hosted a dinner party for a few good girlfriends. I don’t know about my guests, but I truly enjoyed the , ahem, fruits of my labor.
I’ve since given away a jar or two, depleting my meager supply, and I am thinking another trip up to Libby’s is in order. Now that apple season is upon us, I’m also dreaming of applesauce and apple butter preserves. I’ll keep you posted.
What have you been putting up this year in preparation for winter? Do you have any words of wisdom or survival stories you’d like to share? Send in a comment. Come “jam” with us, Outside the Box.