Today’s guest post comes to us from Janet Reich Elsbach. Based in Western Massachusetts, Janet writes wildly beautiful things about food and life at A Raisin and a Porpoise. Her first cookbook, called Extra Helping: Recipes for Building Community One Dish at a Time, will be out this fall (and is available for pre-order now!). I also highly encourage you to follow her tiny dog Sylvester on Instagram. He is delightful.
There’s a poem by Wendell Berry that I keep taped up inside my closet so I can see it every day, because it helps me feel calm and serene when the circumstances of the world around me are not conducive to that state of being.
The Peace Of Wild Things
When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
What this has to do with canning is that a similar feeling of calm, also rooted in gratitude for the natural world and thoughts of what my life and my children’s lives may be, can be switched on in me by going down to the basement and into the pantry where I keep the jars of fruit that I have preserved from the summer harvest. I have the great good fortune of living next to my parents’ prolific orchard, and most years there is more fruit streaming out of it than I can tackle, even with the help of my canning coven.
My daughter lines up the jams and sauces and so forth in her very tidy way, sorting by color and type and size of container. If I have done it correctly, the sealed jars produce no aroma or other emission. But standing in the narrow, windowless alcove, between the skinny little shelves and among the crates of empties and other supplies that line the floor, I might as well be standing in the forest, inhaling the negative ions that wild places are said to give off to great tonic effect. I just feel a little bit safer, seeing the peaches and plums and tomatoes and apples lined up so neatly.
Possibly because a healthy population of jars is connected to my sense of calm, I struggle with the math that governs the pace at which the jars are opened. Ok, let’s be clear: I don’t do any math. I vacillate between periods of hoarding and bouts of lid-popping. By this point in the winter, it’s usually clear that we can probably increase consumption and I can stop being quite so careful. And nobody seems to eat as much applesauce as they once did. And I don’t like to keep anything more than two years from its canning date. So around this time of year, once holiday giving has cleared what it is going to clear from the inventory, I start making fruit leather.
Or rather, I continue making fruit leather. We (and by “we,” I primarily mean my son, though he does get a good bit of help) eat a lot of fruit leather. Given the yardage of fruit leather I have produced for this child in his 13 years of life, I’ve had a lot of opportunity to experiment and to refine my thinking. The main refinement is this: What is fruit leather, really, but dried applesauce? And now that I have determined that the tenderest texture derives from both adding some sticky sweetener (honey, for example) and using a blender to grind everything super-fine (think baby food consistency), I’m all set to experiment wildly.
Some of you in the audience may have already figured out that these wild, adventurous experiments I allude to basically take the form of adding different things to applesauce. Winter in New England, people! CRAZY TIMES UP IN HERE.
My usual formula involves zipping the applesauce up with a handful of the peaches or strawberries I’ve frozen, then adding lime juice, honey and a little heat from cayenne or some other type of chile. Tossing a piece of preserved lemon into the mixture as well makes a very complex and mysteriously delicious leather that reminds me of those wildly sweet-tart-hot mango chile pops you can find in Mexican markets.
But lately when I am breathing deeply in the canning closet, I see there is a good amount of jam that also needs to be deployed before its sell-by date. Honey and jam are not all that different, as you know if you have ever run out of one and used the other in your tea or on your pancakes.
In the fruit version here, I paired a jar of plum preserves with some fresh lemon juice, which adds a little tang and generally brightens the flavors, and included some fresh ginger to give it a little kick. Any fruit jam can substitute for the plum.
For the chocolate leather, I combined a jar of pear butter with the applesauce base. Pears and chocolate play so well together, as do strawberry or raspberry if you have a surplus of either of those.
My dehydrator is an ancient old workshorse that I inherited. In lieu of tray liners, which it does not possess, I use parchment paper. If you have a more modern appliance, by all means use the liners it probably came with. Fruit leather can also be made on lined cookie sheets in an oven that has a very low setting, which mine does not (and I’ve made the fruit shards to prove it).
Odds are you’ll soon be off on your own wild experiments. However you mix it up, it’s a new life for the jars lingering in the pantry and definitely not your standard lunchbox snack.