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When the Fruit Comes to Town, We Make Jam

When the Fruit Comes to Town, We Make Jam


I’ve been waiting and waiting for “the Utah Fruit Guys”  to come to town, and Wednesday evening, there they were at the Farmer’s Market. I did my graduate work at UC Davis, and the University of Utah, both of which are located in the midst of serious orchard country — and it ruined me for grocery-store stone fruit. So I wait. Every year, I wait and wait for the Utah guys, or sometimes we really luck out and get a truckload up from Colorado’s western slope — but we wait for real fruit.

And then we make jam. I was out of raspberry jam so I was thrilled to find beautiful flats at the market on Wednesday. In general, I don’t really believe in buying fruit to make jam — for me, it’s always been about being creative, and using up the excess from my yard, but I make a runny raspberry jam that I particularly like, and I was out of it, and so I spent what seemed to me a small fortune on a flat of nice raspberries.

So here’s the the other thing about the fruit coming to town, raspberries don’t last. It was Wednesday, right in the middle of the week, and the job-I-haven’t-quite-stopped-working-at-yet has been really busy. So I washed and weighed the raspberries (after a gentle spin in the salad spinner), and put them in a container with about 1/3 the sugar I was planning to use for jam. I like a runny jam, one that can be used as a topping for ice cream, or as a filling for cake, so I use 3/4 of the weight of the fruit instead of a 1:1 ratio. I gently shook the sugar into the fruit, and left it to macerate overnight — it’s a trick I picked up from Marisa McClellan at Food in Jars. It bought me some time, since I didn’t want to refrigerate the fruit, which spoils the flavor, but raspberries will go moldy in a flat second so I didn’t want to leave them out overnight.


It wasn’t until late the following afternoon that I had a free minute to cook them up, and as it was my first batch of jam for the year, I had to give my Beautiful French Jam Pot a little scrub, as well as wash up a flat of brand-new half-pint wide-mouth jars. I threw the jars in the oven at 225 to sterilize, added the rest of the sugar to the berries, and set them over a low flame to start cooking down. A couple of podcasts later, the fruit had gone shiny and thick, and it was ready to jar up.

Here’s the thing about making stuff, when you’ve been doing it a while, it’s not such a big deal. You get better at it. I’m still amazed when I run into people who think it’s magic, this ordinary preservation of delicious ingredients in season. I put up 11 half-pints and one leftover pint (in the fridge) during an afternoon when I was also fielding emails, and handing off files, and it wasn’t a big deal. Except for the waiting part, the waiting for good fruit.

Ever since we lost our cherry trees two years ago, I’ve got one eye cocked for the End of Fruit. For years I took that grove of cherry trees down the block for granted, and even after the guys who owned the lot built a big building there, they told me of course I could still pick cherries, and that no, of COURSE they weren’t going to bulldoze that grove, their mother would kill them if they messed with her pie cherries. And then we had a killing frost — it went from 65F to -10F in less than 12 hours, and we didn’t know it until spring, but it killed every cherry tree in town. My beloved grove is gone, and I’m hoarding my last few jars of precious sour cherries. I know the East Coast lost their peach crop this year, and when it seemed our Fruit Guys were late, I started googling to see if there was any problem with the Colorado and Utah crops. Perhaps it’s the other reason I can, to preserve what we have, to shore up our stores against an uncertain future. At any rate, I’ve got enough raspberry jam for a year, and more peaches than I can eat fresh this week, so there will be more noodling around with fruit.




My kitchen is the one part of my house that has still, after almost 10 years, not been renovated. It’s one of those tricky cases — if I pull the appliances out to paint, I might as well replace the floor. And if I’m replacing the floor then maybe I should have that problematic weird wall pulled out. But I don’t really have the funding to do all that, and well, the kitchen works surprisingly well in it’s unrenovated state, and so, nothing gets done. Sigh.

I’m considering painting it over the holidays. The Big Corporation I work for closes for a week so I’ve got to take the time off, and as long as I’m not getting paid, I might as well do something useful. But then there’s the floor issue, and I’m not sure I have the money to replace the floor, and then there’s the timing issue — will the floor guys be working that week? You can see where this goes. I’ll have to talk to Himself about it, since he’s the contractor and all and see what he thinks. I hate to paint, but I’m not bad at it, and it’s certainly cheaper than hiring someone (including Himself).

However, there was one easy fix I did yesterday that has made me feeling much more sanguine about my un-done kitchen. I had one bookshelf in there already — the one with the chiles hanging off it, but what with the CookBookSlut work (another column should be up next week) the cookbook situation was getting out of hand. There was this messy pile, with other messy stuff tucked in the corner, and messy re-usable grocery bags stuffed underneath.

So I succumbed to the Big Box store, where I found a new five shelf white unit for a ridiculously low price. I put it together, then finally had the space to organize the cookbooks.
I’m really trying not to keep them all — just the ones I think I’ll actually use. The others I’ve been selling to Powells (in exchange for yet more books — when I’m an old lady they’re going to find me buried under a pile of books). It makes me ridiculously happy to look over at that corner now — there are sections now for English cooking, Reference, Essays, American, Mushroom cookbooks, Vegetable/vegetarian, Baking, Greek, Italian, French, Asian, Meat/Charcuterie and Canning/Pickling. (You can take the girl out of the bookstore, but you can never really take the bookstore clerk out of the girl). I can see things now. I can find things.

I’ve also been playing around with this fun site called Eat Your Books. They comp’ed me for a membership, but it’s not very expensive — $25 for a year and if you have a lot of cookbooks, as you can see I do, I think it’s kind of a great idea. You search their database for cookbooks you own, then click to add them to your “bookshelf” — what they provide is an expanded database of the indexes of those books, complete with lists of major ingredients. So, for example, if I’m looking at the last of the lamb in my freezer, and wondering what to do with it, I can type Lamb into the recipe index on “My Bookshelf” and it will kick up all the lamb recipes in the books I own — then you can drill down if you want, lamb and ginger, or lamb and grilled, etc. What I’m liking about it is that it reminds me of cookbooks I haven’t used in a while, as well as that it provides an easy access to some of the encyclopedic cookbooks like Joy or the Sunset Cookbook that I often forget to consult. They’ll also kick out shopping lists for you, and I’m sure there are a bunch of other features I haven’t figured out yet.

So there we are, one small corner of the kitchen re-organized (or perhaps just organized), one small clot of chaos defeated. Now, what to make for dinner?

Cherries for a Year …

Cherries for a Year …

Now, it feels like summer.

That’s eight pounds of cherries from the empty lot down the street, preserved in four pounds of sugar. It’s not jam, because I don’t really like jam that much, and don’t use it (I tend not to like sweets in the morning).

What I do is pit the cherries (while staring out my kitchen window and listening to a book on tape — takes a while, entertainment is good). Then I weigh them, and put them in my big French Copper Jam Pot with half as much sugar by weight. I bring it to a boil, which essentially renders enough cherry juice to make a simple syrup. Then I pack them into hot, sterilized jars, and water process for 15-20 minutes.

It takes most of an afternoon, between picking, pitting and processing the cherries. But these are lovely sour cherries that grow wild (and unsprayed) down the block from me, and with an afternoon’s work, I have a year’s worth of fruit to eat on yogurt for breakfast, on ice cream for dessert, or to bake into a French yogurt cake (which is pretty much what you get if you invite me to a potluck).

Next are the plums, although my plum tree seems to be ailing and hasn’t produced so well the last couple of years. Last year there were so few that I just put them in a big half-gallon mason jar and filled it with vodka — The apples I had made into cider, and then the Sweetheart made hard cider for me, which was delicious and I drank it all winter. I pretty much learned to can because I hate seeing food go to waste, and I bought a house with fruit trees. So now, everyone gets jam for Christmas ….

Another year, another ten pints of cherries another circle around the sun …

Fruits of One’s Labor …

Fruits of One’s Labor …

Funny, this summer, while the garden was in progress, I found myself uninspired, and not actually eating that much from it. Perhaps its because the season was so strange — once my early success with spring greens under hoops burned out (because it got hot, and the plants burned up), I wound up in this long odd period when there wasn’t much out there a person could eat right now, most of it was things like carrots and beets and tomatoes and peppers and beans that took a long long time this summer to ripen.

However, I did put in some time as the season went on putting things up. The beets, for example. I harvested beets three or four times this summer, roasted them off, peeled them and froze them on cookie sheets in the freezer. Then I just popped them into ziploc bags (like the tomatoes in this photo — I just stuck them in a bag and froze them). So now, I can pull a few out, and have beets ready to throw in a salad or in some pasta. The tomatoes too — I’ve been thawing them in by the pyrex dish load, and throwing them in a burrito or using them when I sautee chard. They’re a little watery sometimes, but still so much better than a grocery store tomato. And then there are the pickled peppers. I love those pickled peppers and I’ve been eating them on everything.

For instance, breakfast lately has been burritos made with beans I cooked and froze in pint jars, cheese, chard (one of the few things still growing well in the garden), pickled peppers, previously-frozen tomatoes, and onion. The only things I have to buy in that meal are the tortillas and the cheese. Why this makes me as ridiculously happy as it does, is something of a mystery. I’m working again, so it’s not even like the money I save is that significant. I think it’s just the plain old pleasure of doing something oneself.

What I love about this part of the year, after the garden is over, and after the work of putting things up, is the pleasure inherent in that old phrase, “the fruits of one’s labor.” I’m eating the fruits of my labor — which means that I can find a wide variety of yummy things to eat for days on end without having to go to the grocery store. And that makes me very happy, especially when it’s cold and  blustery and snowy outside.

Culling Chickens

Culling Chickens

Seven chickens, it turns out, was a little more than my yard can really handle, and for the past several months, I’ve only been getting 2-4 eggs a day from the bunch. I’ve been trying to figure out what to do — and while I thought about trying to pawn them off on someone else, really, I knew all along that the responsible thing to do was to cull a few of them. (And for all of you Angry Vegans out there, I have heard your arguments, especially in light of my post at Ethicurean about how I don’t consider my chickens pets, and let’s agree to respectfully disagree.)

As I was going back and forth, trying to gather up my courage to actually deal with the situation, one of my older chickens came up lame the other day. They’d been out doing their chicken-y thing in my yard, and when I got the scratch and called out that it was snacktime, one of them was limping badly. This just brought home to me the problems posed by getting chickens when I didn’t know how to humanely kill one. That one was on the list, and now it was in pain, which was the one thing I wanted to avoid all along. I’d read online about wringing necks, but as I looked at the chicken, I was afraid I’d just botch it and hurt it more.

So I put out a couple of calls — to my Egg Lady, and one to Mark Rehder, who runs Farms for Families here in town, and who’d come by this spring to see the coop on a coop tour he was leading. Isabelle got back to me first, or rather, her husband Larry, who came by with their daughter Azalea to show me how to kill a chicken. Larry’s a Vietnam vet, a big gruff guy (and who has the sweetest relationship with Azalea, who is about eight, she and her dad just adore one another) and he showed me how to hold the bird, stretch it out, and quickly and quietly break its neck. It was very humane and over quickly. He did all three for me, cut their heads off, and we hung them from the apple tree. “You can do the rest,” he said. “It’s just like gutting a fish.” Um, sure, I thought as I waved them off.

So there I was in the backyard with three headless chickens hanging from the apple tree. Frankly, I wasn’t sure I could do this, but I figured I had to try. I put my biggest stockpot on to boil. I dug out the latex gloves I use for painting because I didn’t think I could stick my hand in warm chicken guts without them. I sharpened my knives. And I went online! Where I printed out instructions from these two sites: Cultivating Home, and this one, from Howling Duck Ranch. Thank you internets! Thank you people who posted good, close-up pictures in step-by-step format!

I set up a folding table (to which I later added a heavy cutting board), put the hose on low and left it to water the plum tree in the meantime, got a bucket with some hot bleach water for a rag and to clean my knives in between chickens, and lined a bucket with a garbage bag. I’d seen my dad and my brother field dress ducks, and of course, during my time with the Mighty Hunter there was even the antelope, but I’d never done it entirely on my own. I was kind of excited too, this was a skill I’d been wanting to learn.

So I put on an apron and went to work. I dunked a chicken in hot water, swished it around, and started plucking feathers — they came off really easily, most of them. It took me 15 minutes maybe, not too long. Then I had to start cutting. The first one, I broke the crop trying to get it out of the neck cavity, which was a little messy, but I just kept hosing everything down, and I was clumsy getting the guts out, but eventually, I had a clean bird with a clean cavity. I didn’t try to save the livers or hearts or gizzards because well, I don’t really like them that much, and I sort of tore things up getting the innards out. Next time. The first bird took the longest, after that I sort of got a system down, and I can see how raising a bunch of meat birds would be useful if you wanted to learn how to kill and butcher. Like anything, they’re skills that come with practice. It took me just over 2 hours to do all three birds, which now reside in the freezer, waiting for the stockpot.

They’re pretty skinny — about 3 pounds each, and they were old birds. I might try a coq au vin though … My sweetie thinks it’s all more effort than it’s worth, in part because he doesn’t like livestock, but even though these were not the most economical chickens I’ll ever cook, I’m really pleased that I learned how to do this. I now know that if the end times come, I can kill, clean and butcher my own chicken. Which is something.

Treadmill Desk Part 2

Treadmill Desk Part 2

This morning as I was driving back into town, Dr. James Levine was on The Splendid Table (or on the podcast I was listening to). Levine is the guy at the Mayo Clinic who invented the treadmill desk, and who has fifteen years of data on the salutary effects of getting up out of your chair. Walking while working is best, but even standing instead of sitting has positive effects.

Here’s a link to a video of him talking about the issue: James Levine on Treadmill Desk

I’ve made a few modifications over the past couple of weeks. I was having trouble with the desktop height. I’d shoved a couple of old pieces of packing foam underneath, but they were squashing, so I asked my Sweetheart, the Carpenter, to take a look. He suggested a two-by-four. So I cut a piece as wide as the desktop, and wedged it underneath. Perfect! The desk is now level, and at the right ergonomic height so that my wrists aren’t bent at that angle that leads to weird symptoms like numbness and tingling etc … I also invested in a wireless keyboard and a mouse for my laptop. It now sits on the shelving unit that holds the monitor, and I increased my real estate on the desktop. There’s really plenty of room for what I need, especially as most of what I do for my day job involves clicking my way through the many steps and screens of our documentation publishing system.

While I’ve yet to lose huge amounts of weight, I have lost a few pounds. But more important to me — I just feel a lot better. Used to be that by four or five in the afternoon I was drooping and felt gross, now I get to the end of my day and still have enough energy to do stuff in the garden, or work on my new book, or whatever. I can also feel my muscles starting to recover from 15 years of sitting in chairs — what the pilates people call your “core” — in general, I walk about half the day. Sometimes, like right this very minute, at one mph which works when I’m typing, sometimes when I’m doing a lot of clicky work, I’ll crank it up to 2 or 2.5 mph, which feels like a more natural walking pace for me. Although I haven’t quite gotten the hang of typing at that pace yet. If I have a phone meeting I usually pause, because it’s a little too noisy for my speakerphone, and I often find myself standing on the side rails if there’s something I have to really concentrate hard on. But even as a standing desk, I think it’s an improvement over sitting in a chair all day.

So, there it is, my inexpensive treadmill desk. A used treadmill, an old folding table (upon which I wrote my whole first book — I like small desktops), a set of steel shelves, a wireless keyboard and mouse, and a hunk of old 2×4. Good to go. Inexpensive, effective, and for the summer especially, saving on cooling costs since I’m in my basment (which isn’t as dark as it looks in the photos).

Treadmill Desk

Treadmill Desk

I’ve had a bee in my bonnet the last couple of weeks about building one of these. Let’s just say that between all the freelance/contract work these past few months, and the fact that both of my dogs are increasingly gimpy, well, I haven’t been getting the amount of exercise I’d like to be getting. I’ve been spending way too much time sitting on my butt.

So, I found a used treadmill at my local sports equipment resale store for under 200 bucks, and it was even small enough once the pedestal and arms were detached that we could get it in the Subaru. The Sweetheart put it back together for me. And after a weekend of somewhat manic de-cluttering and cleaning, I cleared out a space for it in the basement. This is not a particularly slick setup. There’s a set of metal shelves behind the treadmill where I put the big monitor. A lot of what I’m doing at my new contract gig is fairly routine — checking PDFs, publishing documents through our online publishing system (which can be slow) and my hope is that I’ll both geet some exercise and be able to concentrate a little more if I’m also walking while I’m doing this routine stuff.

At the moment, my setup needs a little tweaking. I’m using an old folding table for the desktop, and have some leftover packing foam underneath to stabilize/make a better angle. I’ll need to secure the whole thing (which I’ll probably have to ask for some help from that guy with all the tools). But so far, so good. I’m walking while I write this. Ive been able to check email and I can see the screen with enough clarity to do what I need to do.

And I’m not sitting down! I’m standing up. I’m walking 2 miles an hour. It would be nice to get back in shape, and perhaps even drop a few pounds. But for the moment, I’m mostly just happy not to be sitting still. Feels good.

Blast from the Past

Blast from the Past

bassine de confiture ancienne

[I’m up against a bunch of deadlines, and just don’t have any blogging mojo right now, so here’s an oldie but goodie from the archives. Back soon.]

Behold, my gorgeous Veritable Ancienne Bassine A Confiture en Cuivre, 10L. I got it on eBay France (which is a very dangerous site), although if you click the link above, they’re also available on Amazon. I first saw the Beautiful French Jam Pot in this piece in the San Francisco Chronicle about small jam-makers in the Bay Area. There was a charming photo of Rachel Saunders of the Blue Chair Fruit Company making jam, and behind her on the stove you can see one of these pots. I emailed her, asking about the pot, and wondering whether the fact that it’s unlined copper is a problem. She pinged me right back and said this: “Actually, these are THE classic pots for jam making. Once the fruit has been combined with sugar, it will not react with the copper — in fact, quite the opposite; it does not affect the flavor at all, unlike aluminum and various other metals, and it makes the cooking SO much easier. I can’t recommend it enough; the only thing to remember is, don’t put fruit by itself into a copper kettle, or it will react!”

So off I went to eBay France, which is, as I said, a very dangereuse place for someone like me, and I found this great pan, with a big long copper and brass spoon to match, and it was expensive, but not outrageously so — I clicked PayPal, and six weeks later, look what arrived at my door (along with a very sweet little ceramic candleholder that the seller threw in as a petit cadeau). I was beside myself with joy, and the first thing I did was go down to the cellar and clean out all the frozen plums that have been languishing down there since last fall. We’re so far behind the season this year that there isn’t any new fruit, but as you can see here, I had plenty to fill my gorgeous bassinefull of fruit I pitted them, and weighed them as they went in, and it was about 20 pounds of fruit. Of course, I forgot that I’d need room for 15 pounds of sugar (I generally go on a ratio of one part fruit to 3/4 part sugar for jam), but with some melting and stirring, it all fit. Then I used my mini-chop to whiz up the zest from four lemons, and a big chunk of fresh ginger, which I stirred in as well.

I love love love this pot. Rachel was right — the temperature control is fabulous — there’s enough room with that wide top that it didn’t boil over, and there wasn’t any sticking or scorching. Through no fault of the pots, I did overcook it some — there was so much liquid that came off the plums that I kept thinking I needed to boil it down some more. My mistake — the jam is very thick, almost like a fruit leather, but it tastes great.  The ginger and lemon zest add just the right zing — I’ve been eating it the past few mornings on leftover frozen pecan biscuits (that I made for my Easter party — I got a little carried away and had a couple of dozen frozen leftovers — but they’re great — you can just pop them frozen into the toaster oven and there you go). Anyhow, I’ve been taking a pecan biscuit, splitting it open, slathering it with yogurt cheese and then drizzling some of this jam over the top (a minute in the microwave makes it drizzle-able). Yum.

plum ginger jam jars Here are the fruits of my labors. Ten pint jars and a dozen half-pints. Hostess and holiday gifts … and just yumminess on the shelf. Yay. Summer is here. There’s jam to be made and a gorgeous pot to make it in ….

What is “Real” Cooking?

What is “Real” Cooking?

It’s that time of the month when I write my Bookslut review (will post link when it’s up) and the topic of why we cook, and what constitutes “real” cooking, and what we go to cookbooks and food websites and food blogs looking for has once again bubbled up to the top of my head.

I love my cookbook review gig, in no small part due to the stream of cookbooks that is flowing toward my house these days. I love cookbooks. As a teenager I used to read them like novels, and my very first professional job out of college was working as an editorial assistant on the Best of Gourmet series, and the encyclopedic Gourmet’s Best Desserts. And yet, so many of the cookbooks that come across my threshhold seem merely to be collections of recipes. There are a lot of interesting recipes, and often I find a combination of ingredients I wouldn’t have thought of (beets and grapefruit this winter, much to the horror of the Sweetheart). But too often, I’m left feeling that that’s all there is, a collection of recipes; that despite the gorgeous photos and all the rest, these cookbooks are more about individual dishes than they are about cooking.

As I was mulling over this issue, I came across this terrific post over at A Life of Spice, about how some readers of cookbooks, and cooking blogs, see a complicated recipe as a sign of authenticity. A Life of Spice is written by Monica Bhide, author of Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen. In this post, she tells the story of a reader, who accosted her at an event, claiming her book was “too simplistic”. Bhide was shocked, she’d tried to write a cookbook for busy modern cooks. What did this woman mean?

I probed her a little, and her response surprised me even more. She loved the dish, and so did everyone who ate it. But it did not fulfill her cooking aspirations. “Indian cooking is supposed to be hard,” she said. “And this book made it seem easy. That isn’t real Indian cooking, right?”

“Real” cooking. It begs the question, what kinds of cooking do we consider “real”? Is cooking an everyday skill that we use to feed our friends and family, or is it some arcane hobby that we pull out to impress dinner guests or to prove to ourselves that we can master something difficult?

I guess I’d argue that it’s both, although my inclination is always to avoid the “hard” cooking — I have less than no interest in learning how to use any of the techniques of molecular gastronomy; I don’t want to cook food that gets stacked in a tower; I avoid recipes with long lists of ingredients; and in general, I gravitate toward home cooking rather than restaurant cooking.

But on a social level, I’m less concerned about cooking enthusiasts who want to play around with “hard” recipes than I am by the steady erosion of basic cooking skills in the general population. I’ve written before about how I’d love to see mandatory (and interesting) home economics courses taught in schools, courses that include not just basic cooking and sewing, but budgets and checkbooks and credit as well. Our local food bank recently ran a promotion where they gave people slow cookers, so they could begin to learn how to feed themselves and their families real food, despite their busy schedules.

And yet, even in this terrific profile the Sacramento Bee wrote about Elise Bauer, of Simply Recipes, she mentions that she started the blog because:

“I didn’t know how to make a roast,” she recalls. “I knew how to make quesadillas.”
Her education began by watching her parents cook and using their recipes. Bauer’s blog – originally at – incorporated that learning and used short, homey stories to introduce carefully described, workable recipes.”

Even after building one of the most successful recipe sites on the web, Bauer tells the Bee that: “I don’t claim to be a cook,” she said. “My mom knows how to cook a meal. I know how to cook one thing at a time.”

Which begs the question, what are we trying to learn here? How to cook recipes, or how to cook for our families? What’s the point of all these blogs and TV shows and magazines and cookbooks if people still don’t have the basic skills necessary to look around the house, count heads, and pull basic ingredients out of the fridge and the pantry to make a meal for them? A meal, nothing fancy, just dinner.

Morels, a Primer

Morels, a Primer

Because we are all impatient for spring to arrive, here’s a link to a terrific article over at Civil Eats about morel hunting for novices.

Morels are a good first mushroom to learn to forage for since they really don’t look like anything poisonous. The closest character is the false morel, but once you’ve found some true morels, that one is pretty easy to spot. And it won’t kill you, which is good.

So, while we watch the snow fall outside, again, we can dream about tables covered in beautiful morels, skillets filled with morels sizzling in butter with just the tiniest bit of garlic, chicken and morels in cream sauce, and the heady smell of a house full of drying mushrooms. Sigh.