I was showing my house to some visitors from LA last week, and Brooke noticed the jams and preserves lined up at the top of my pantry. “Do you know someone who makes those for you?” she asked.
“I did that,” I said.
“Really?” she seemed surprised, as if she’d never known anyone who made jam. “If I’m here next summer will you show me how?”
“Sure,” I told her. “It’s easy.”
It got me thinking about skills that used to be considered perfectly ordinary: making jam, running up a skirt on a sewing machine, growing some of your own food, fixing a broken appliance.
Making jam is actually really easy, and it’s one of those things that once you’ve done it a couple of times, becomes almost second nature. You can buy one of these canning kits at most hardware stores, although since I already had a big stockpot, I just bought an accessories kit (for the funnel and the big tongs to pull full jars from the hot water).Then you just need some jars, or if you’ve done this before, all you need are new lids.
And fruit. I have more fruit than I know what to do with — there’s the grove of pie cherry trees in the empty lot down the block from me, and in my backyard I’ve got 2 plum trees, 4 apple trees and although they’re not producing much yet, a patch of raspberry bushes. I’ve also been known to buy fruit sometimes — a couple of summers ago I bought a flat of beautiful raspberries from a kid who’d driven them up from Utah on a truck. Or last summer I made chutney from some gorgeous peaches that Maryanne brought me up from her sister’s place in Colorado. It all depends. What’s nice is knowing that if there’s a plethora of beautiful fruit, I can put it up for those long stretches of the year when the only fruit available has come a long way in a plane or on a truck.
As for the nitty-gritty, there’s no magic to it. You need to be careful to sterilize everything, and to watch out for chipped rims on the jars, but as my mother used to say, “If you can read, you can cook.” For most of my preserving, I rely on the “Preserves, Pickles, Relishes and Canned Fruits and Vegetables” chapter of The Fannie Farmer Cookbook. There’s a great section of general info like” “The basic proportions for jam are 3/4 cup sugar for each cup of prepared fruit.” That’s the kind of “recipe” I love — a general guideline that you can use with lots of different variations. Last summer I put up cherry jam, plum jam, spicy plum barbecue sauce, and I took a stab at a jalapeno-mint apple jelly (which didn’t jell, and that tasted weirdly muddy. I threw it out.) This year I decided that rather than put up jam, which I don’t really eat, I’d do cherries in syrup. I found this terrific recipe for Spiced Cherries and Cherry Syrup online. I did eight pints of the spiced ones, and six jars of plain cherries in simple syrup. I figure that should be plenty for a winter of desserts and sauces for game, with some left over for Christmas baskets.
One of my big goals when I moved up here was to learn to be more self-sufficient and there’s something enormously satisfying about growing and putting up your own food. You know exactly what happened to that food at every step of the process, and you wind up with a pretty row of jars along the top shelf of your pantry.