Saturday, June 23, 2007

Berry Stained Fingers

Yesterday we bought four flats of fresh strawberries which works out to 48 little green pint boxes. Half were Laura's and half were ours. We went out to Thompson Farms where the berries are grown without chemical pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers. East Multnomah County was once covered in strawberry farms but the farms are shrinking or disappearing these days, so I was delighted to support a local family owned business with my berry dollars. The smell of the fruit in the back of the van as we drove home was positively intoxicating!

I wanted lots for the freezer as nothing tickles me more than to pull a bag of perfectly ripe local berries out of freezer for those mid-winter smoothies. Quite a few berries were quickly rinsed and spread in a single layer on a large baking tray covered in waxed paper (which keeps the berries from sticking to the bare metal). Each tray sat in the freezer for about an hour and a half, just long enough for the berries to firm up. Then I popped the frozen berries into 1 quart freezer bags and stored them away for winter.

Meanwhile, the jam berries were sitting, bathed in sugar, as we waited for them to soften and get juicy. Laura's favorite recipe looked astoundingly sweet to me, but I've had the jam many times and it's quite delicious so I wasn't worried. She brought along her steam canner, a marvelous contraption which was entirely new to me. It requires heating only a few pints of water rather than than the gallons and gallons needed to fill my old canning kettle so the water heats much faster, you can process numerous batches quickly and the kitchen doesn't get nearly as hot as with the big canner. I think I'll have to find one of my own.
We ended up with 18 half-pint jars of strawberry jam. At this point Laura left and I still had a full flat of berries. Continuing with the freezer routine, I also started poking around in Stocking Up looking for more ways to use my remaining berries. Since I still had some of my Mt Vernon rhubarb remaining, I decided to try the strawberry -rhubarb preserves. This is not always a flavor combination I love, mostly because the rhubarb is often overwhelmed by the berries, and that appealing tang is lost in overwhelming sweetness. One of the things I really appreciate about Stocking Up is that many of the recipes are written with a goal of reducing sugar so I figured their recipe wouldn't be overly sweet. Also, the recipe uses low-methoxyl pectin (I use the Pomona brand) which is great stuff. Regular pectin won't thicken your jams unless your mixture is at least 50% sugar. This stuff, made entirely from citrus peel, will thicken jams, jellies, and preserves regardless of sugar content. I made the entire batch--8 cups of fruit cooked down into 6 half-pints--using less than a cup of honey and no sugar at all.

The resulting preserve is tangy and tart and, as far as I'm concerned, perfectly delicious. I'm sure that some folks would find it way too astringent. Others might not like the way the preserves look in the jar. The finished product gets rather foamy and I need to do some research to find out why that is. So it's not exactly picture perfect but it is absolutely delicious. I had one jar that didn't seal in the water bath canner last night which meant I could dig right into it this morning. I toasted some thick slices of Pugliese bread, spread them with a thin layer of cream cheese and then topped them with a thick dollop of freshly made strawberry-rhubarb preserves....heaven!
If you feel like making a batch of your own strawberry rhubarb preserves, the recipe is here.

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