Why yes, I can!
I grew up eating my paternal grandmother’s homemade jelly and pickles. How I wish now that I had learned preserving from her! I’m sure that she would have been happy to teach me, had I but asked. Instead, I am self-taught, and have been making jams, preserves and pickles for only a few years. For the most part, I use the incredible fruits grown in western Washington, available at local farmers markets or from U-Pick farms. One of my favorite U-Pick places is the blueberry farm in the Mercer Slough, just across Lake Washington from Seattle.
When my parents, sister and nephews were visiting from Texas earlier this month, we went blueberry-picking. Seven people can pick a lot of blueberries in a short amount of time. Little boys (and adults) will also eat lots of berries, but not as many as they can pick. When five of those seven people went home to Texas, over six pounds of beautiful, dusky blueberries remained. I just had to make preserves.
But how does one make preserves when one’s kitchen has been reduced to studs, roughed-in plumbing and electrical, and sheetrock? I relied on the kindness – and kitchen – of friends. Janeen and her Hijo live right across the street from us, and kindly allowed me to fill their kitchen with fruit and sugar and jam-making paraphenalia. I contemplated using the blueberries for another batch of blueberry chutney, but decided that I wanted to try a new blueberry jam recipe instead. (Also, I’d had enough of chopping onions to make pickles.) Looking through a couple of preserving books, I spotted Wild Blueberry with Pinot Noir and Licorice in Christine Ferber’s Mes Confitures, and a blueberry jam made with red wine vinegar in Jeanne Lesem’s Preserving in Today’s Kitchen. I thought about the open bottle of nice Washington Syrah that I’d let sit for a few days too many on the mantle. Past its prime for drinking, but not yet vinegar, the wine still tasted fruity, so I substituted it for pinot noir. I used proportions similar to Ms. Ferber’s recipe, and her two-day process:
Mercer Slough Blueberry Syrah Preserves
makes 6 half-pint jars
2 1/4 pounds blueberries (handpicked by small Texans in the wilds of the Mercer Slough)
8 oz. Washington state Syrah
4 1/2 cups sugar
Juice of one lemon
In your preserving pan, combine the blueberries, sugar and lemon juice. Bring to a simmer. Pour the mixture into a ceramic bowl, cover, and refrigerate overnight.
Next day, return the blueberries to preserving pan, and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Boil on high heat, stirring regularly to prevent sticking, for about 10 minutes. Skim foam from the pan. Add the wine, and return the mixture to a boil. Check for set.
Ladle the jam into sterilized jars, top with cap and rings, and process in a boiling water bath for 5 minutes. After removing the jars from the water, listen for those happy ploinking sounds that indicate the caps have sealed. If a cap doesn’t ploink, the jar ain’t sealed; refrigerate it for enjoyment in the near future.
Overnight maceration of the fruit combined with short cooking results in preserves studded with intact blueberries. The berry notes in the wine come through, complementing the blueberry flavor, and adding a welcome bite to the mix.
On the next weekend’s trip to the farmers market, I was drawn to a display of small boxes filled with luminous red berries. I’d not cooked with fresh currants before, and I was unable to resist the lure of the plump, glowing orbs. Silly me; I still have no kitchen! Back I went to the borrowed kitchen across the street, with a recipe combining currants with – you guessed it – blueberries.
Blueberry Currant Jam from RecipeZaar
makes 5-6 half-pint jars
4 cups red currants
4 cups sugar
4 cups blueberries
In a saucepan, boil currants with a quarter cup water, stirring frequently, until currants burst and release their juices – about 10 minutes. Remove from heat.
When cool enough to handle, put currants through a sieve to remove the seeds and skins. You are not aiming for a clear jelly, so feel free to press on the currant pulp to collect as much juice as possible.
In a preserving pan, mix the currant juice and the sugar. Bring mixture to a boil, and boil hard, stirring, stirring, stirring, for about 5 minutes. Add the blueberries, and bring back to a boil. Boil for 10-15 minutes, or until jam sets.
On an impulse, I ground a little black pepper into the pot of jam when I took it off the stove. Then I ladled the jam into jars, capped them, and did the whole boiling water bath thing. Six jars came out of the hot water and… Ploink! Ploink ploink ploink! Ploink!… only five sealed. Hooray! One jar of jam into the refrigerator, for spreading on toast and stirring into Greek yogurt.
In this jam, the blueberries broke down completely. (I had imagined blueberries suspended in currant jam, but the result was instead a fairly homogenous, smooth jam. Perhaps if I added the blueberries later in the cooking process, or used smaller berries, they might survive the cooking intact.) When the jam was fresh from the pan, the flavors of currants and blueberries were still distinguishable; a week later, the flavor is melding, sharing currant’s bright tartness and the blueberry’s dark sweetness. The black pepper is not identifiable, but adds a subtle warmth to the jam.
Nicky at Delicious Days also asked about favorite preserving book(s). I am slowly building a small collection, but my first remains my favorite: Well Preserved: Pickles, Relishes, Jams and Chutneys for the New Cook, by Mary Anne Dragan. Even if you are not a new cook, I expect that you will enjoy Dragan’s recipes for conserves, pickles, chutneys and flavored vinegars.