Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Berry, berry good

A chef friend in California swears (practically) that French fraise du bois, wild strawberries, are the epitome of the berry genus.

He obviously hasn't picked and eaten local strawberries from Oregon's Willamette valley. These strawberries are as fickle as our vaunted Pinor Noir wine grape; susceptible to bruising, mold from moisture, yet, yield an outer-body experience when the stars align themselves.

Had one of those special moments last Monday night...

We had gone out to a friends farm last Sunday to pick a few berries for jam. When we arrived at the field, it became abundantly clear that we were probably the first folks to harvest this field.

The bushes were bright green and lively; low berries touching the ground were molding and rotting, but, the other 90% were stellar, scarlet gems! (sound of a long held note by Cherubim, here).

"How much more we gotta doooo-uh?!" whined one of our boys. Lisa and I looked at each other to see which would field the questions.

"Guys," I said, "this is like saying the gold is too heavy to carry back to the car."

"Yeah," followed Lisa, "You NEVER see this kind of fruit set at a you-pick-it farm. This is like the Mother Lode! So, get busy, we need two buss tubs full!"

We got our jars, lids, sugar, lemon juice and cooking utensils lined up for a Monday jam session after work. Propane was full for the outdoor burner (crab boiler in the NW) and the assembly line mapped out. Brendan was my right hand man. As jars and water came to a boil, we began paring our fruit in the deep, porcelain kitchen sink. JoJo (my nickname for Brendan) is always good for running commentary and interesting facts about whatever it is that you're doing.

"Dad, these berries are like totally red all the way to the center! Do you want the ones that look like this?" he asks, holding a bruised strawberry.
"Nah, let's pass on those guys. If we are canning questionable fruit, we may get a bloom of bacteria later and some off flavors," I offered.
"Ah, SIIIICK!" he muttered, "We could make like a Jam-Bomb and tie it to balloons, then, have an air burst of contaminated jam over Portland!" JoJo chuckled.
"OK...THAT'S sick! Sounds like you're playing too much video game stuff," I said.

The water pot for jars was on a boil and the smaller water pot for lids and bands was gently simmering. All was as it should be.

"JoJo, let's get this fruit into the pot and get going."
"K, Dad. What's the lemon juice for? Isn't that going to make the berries sour?"
"The acidity of lemon juice keeps the color bright. We adjust sweetness with the sugar." I said.

As the berries, sugar and lemon juice began to cook, the aroma brought Patrick out to the back deck.
"Oh man! What smells so good?!"
Patrick put his head over the pot of strawberries and immersed his face in the delicious vapors.
"Oh My Gawd!"
"Oh My Goodness!" Pat exclaimed, "This is like so flippin' phenomenal!"
"Here," I said, "Have a taste."
Pat closed his eyes and just "Mmmm"-ed.

Our canning continued well into the night, making 110 1/2 pints of Strawberry jam.

At 10:30 p.m., Lisa pulled a freshly baked loaf off a cooling rack, sliced it and placed it on the table. Three boys, a mom, and a dad ate the entire loaf, one deliciously slathered slice at a time.
"Dad, this so ROCKS!" proclaimed Liam through a wad of bread and jam.
"Cool, but, hold your voice down, the baby's sleeping." I said.

"Oh, sorry. If she wakes up, then we'll have to share and there's none left!"

Oregon Strawberry Jam

strawberries, pared and rinsed

lemon juice, fresh sqeezed, about 1/4 cup per gallon.

sugar, about half what the standard recipe calls for (almost 1 cup/pint of jam! Yuck!)

pectin, use the SureJell, low-sugar type in the pink box. It sets well with half the sugar of the regular pectin

Place pared fruit, lemon juice and sugar in your big pot. Look to see what volume your pot is so you can gauge the amount of pectin to use. For example, if it's an 8 qt pot and it's 3/4 full, then you have to add enough pectin for 6 qts of jam. 1 Qt.=2 Pints=4 half-pints. Each box of SureJell will do 8 half-pint jars. Follow the directions on the box!!!

Seriously, that is the toughest part of this whole process, figuring out pectin measurements.
If you're pectin is too shy, then you have 'berry syrup' for all your baking needs.
That's just plain wrong.
When I add the pectin and bring things to a boil, I test the 'set' of the jam.
Take a serving spoon of hot jam and place it on a bread plate. Place the plate in the freezer for 5 minutes to cool. If the jam is set when cool, then, you be good to go! Commence the canning!
(Thumping of a drum on a Roman ship echoes, the Olympic theme song begins to blare...).

Make sure your jars are hot when filling with hot jam. This creates the vacuum seal when it cools. Only do about 6 jars at a time, till you get comfy. Be methodical, work clean, and use canning tools like a jam funnel and jar tongs. They make the process much easier.

Get creative with labeling. Home made products are such treasured gifts. All of us respond more enthusiastically to a food product than to a gift card.

Take care, God bless and remember:
"Food, Faith, Family and Friends,
the Best Things in Life aren't Things!"

Chef BQ.

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