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In Praise of Bruised Fruit

bruised fruit

One of my fondest fall memories from childhood is that of driving out to Sauvie Island to visit the Bybee-Howell House. My mom, sister and I would wander the antique apple orchard and pick the newly fallen apples off the ground. When we first moved to the area, we asked the groundskeeper and he requested that we not to touch the apples still on the trees (they used them to make fresh-pressed cider in September), but that we were welcome to as many windfall apples as we could carry.

We’d fill paper grocery bags until they were nearly ready to split open and then head home to make applesauce. I’d help my mom with the peeling and chopping, and I quickly learned from watching her that it was easy enough to cut around the bruises and occasionally wormholes, leaving behind perfectly useable (and delicious, fragrant, delicately-flavored) fruit.

Because of that early education in the use of imperfect fruit, I’ve never been one to shy away from damaged apples, overripe pears (pear butter), brown bananas (banana bread) or a peach with a bit of mold on one end (peach jam, sauce or butter). I see the potential in each piece and feel compelled to help all the remaining good parts of the nectarine achieve its delicious destiny.

One might think that living in the center of a large city would preclude me from having opportunities to find and use this less than perfect produce. However, it is not solely the provenance of aging orchards and roadside farmstands. I see it everywhere. Just last week I bought four pounds of slightly squished apricots at Reading Terminal Market for $2.97 (which was enough for a full batch of jam). Sue’s Produce often bags and sells their declining fruit and veg for pennies. And the vendors at my local farmers markets adore handing over bags of imperfect fruit to people who appreciate it and will put it to good use (don’t forget, these are people who love the act of growing food and dislike letting their food go to waste).

I am not advocating using fruit that has gone off or has begun to ferment (that’s a whole other kind of preservation). However, in these times, when we’re all looking for ways to spend less and save more, it’s important to accept the imperfect and learn just how useful a good paring knife can be.

Several days ago, Salon.com published an article about canning, in which the author ruminates on the economic realities of home canning and concludes (after some first hand experimentation) that while it can be a rewarding hobby, it is neither an effective use of time nor a frugal endeavor (in one paragraph, she calls canning “a small, sustainable luxury and a craft”). While I can see the position she’s coming from (she bought her ingredients at a New York Greenmarket, which is conceivably one of the most expensive possible ways to buy produce), I find myself distraught by her thesis. While it’s true that jars cost money, and that if you’re not careful, you can spend more on fruit that you might have planned, to me, canning is an essentially frugal act. Particularly if you search out the imperfect fruit like I talked about above.

Canning is also about choosing to take the act of food creation out of the hands of large corporations and return it to the home. It’s about knowing where your food came from and what went into it. It’s about always having a delicious gift to give to friends and family. It’s about stashing away the peak of summer for the dark, cold days of December and January. It’s about investing your time in the things that matter. It’s about creating something soul soothing and beautiful.

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Canning Jar Safety

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On Monday, I wrote a post about canning in vintage jars. Tara left a comment, asking about the safety of these jars. I briefly responded to her question there, but it’s an important enough question that I wanted to make sure that the query and my answer to it got its moment in the sun.

So here it goes. These jars are not recommended by the USDA. The only home canning method endorsed by the USDA is the one that involves Ball/Kerr/Mason jars and the two-part lids. Thing is, Weck jars aren’t endorsed either and they are widely sold today and are an extremely popular style of canning jar in Europe. These vintage bailing wire jars are the functional equivalent of the Weck jars. That fact leads me to extrapolate that if you treat the vintage jars with the same safety precautions that are recommended for the Weck jars (those safety precautions come from the Weck company, not from the USDA) and check the seal after canning by lifting the jar by the lid, your canned item will be just fine. As an added precaution, I only plan on using these vintage jars to can high sugar items like jams and jellies.

The thing to remember is that the government safety precautions are written for the absolute canning novice. They want to make the canning process as safe and idiot-proof as possible. And they’re right to do so, because people have gotten sick from eating poorly canned/preserved foods. While I wouldn’t recommend that you can in vintage jars during your very first canning session, I do think that it’s a viable option as you explore and want to try other styles of jars.

However, just because I’ve offered instructions on how to do this style of canning, I do not intend to endorse other antiquated styles of food preservation. I’m not going to start sealing jars with paraffin wax (despite my father’s happy memories of licking his grandmother’s jam off of wax discs). But I will continue to can in these bailing wire glass jars, using fresh rubber seals and following safe canning procedures (making sure my jars are clean and undamaged, doing the hot water process and then testing the strength/quality of the seal once the jars are cool by lifting the jar by the lid). I like the way they look, I like how sturdy they are and I like that the only waste produced is the rubber seal. All that said, don’t do it if it makes you uncomfortable.

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Canning in Vintage Jars

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When I first started becoming truly enthralled with canning, I began to look beyond the standard Mason/Ball/Kerr jars available. I discovered the Weck jars that are typically used in Europe, but was put off a bit by the price tag and the fact that they are often hard to actually get (I did break down and order a half dozen from Lehman’s, but with shipping, they cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $7 a jar. That is far too much for the volume of canning I typically do).

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However, when I took a close look at the way in which the Weck jars seal, I realized that they are practically identical to the vintage bailing wire canning jars that were popular in this country through most of the 20th century. The glass lids on the Weck jars seal via a rubber gasket. Through the hot water process, everything is held in place by a couple of metal clips. The glass lids on the vintage jars seal via a rubber gasket.

During canning, the lid is held in place by the metal wire that locks up over the lid. The thing that makes the vintage jars even better than the Weck jars is that you have an easy way to keep the jar closed after you’ve opened it, via the bailing wire. When you use the Weck jars, you have to keep replacing the metal clips (or get a set of their plastic lids).

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So once I figured out that the jars I already had (and had gotten for free when helping a friend of a friend clean out her mother’s basement) would do the exact same job as the spendy ones, I got down to work. I ordered a set of rubber gaskets from Lehman’s for just over three bucks (they’re the only ones who still seem to carry them) and made a canning plan.

I did a mixed berry jam, because I’ve been endeavoring to clean out my freezer, in preparation for the coming onslaught of produce and still had some frozen fruit from last summer. I supplemented my frozen strawberries and raspberries with some fresh (but cheap and decidedly not local) strawberries (I made up for it the following week by hand-picking 13 pounds of local strawberries and making the best jam I’ve ever tasted. That recipe is coming later this week).

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When canning with these jars, most of the steps are the same as with the screw-top jars. You clean your jars, lids and seals well, prepare your jam and fill the jars. Once the jars are filled, you wipe the tops clean and the apply the rubber seals and top with the glass lids (of course, making sure that your vintage jars and lids are without chips, cracks or other damage).

Like when you can with conventional mason jars, you need to leave some space for the air to escape. To do this, you don’t lock the wire down all the way. You close it so that it’s closed, but pointing up, not down (if this doesn’t make sense, just get an old bailing wire jar and start opening and closing it. You’ll soon notice the two closure positions).

Process jars as usual. When time has elapsed, remove the jars from the water, being careful not to tip them (these jars are mostly glass, which means that if you get the jam on the top of the lid, you’ll see it, and if you’re a bit of a perfectionist, the residue that will stick to the lid will vex you). At this point, grab a tea towel and lock the wires into the tightest position with the wire pointed downwards. This presses the rubber gasket more firmly into contact with the rim of the jar and ensures a good seal.

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These jars are in the fully locked, post-process position.

The next day, when the jars are all cool, unlock the bailing wire. The lid should not move in the slightest. Test your seal by picking the jar up by the glass lid (don’t go crazy, just lift an inch or two above the countertop). It should hold fast. If it doesn’t, your seal is no good. If it holds, leave the wire unlocked and store as you would any other sealed jar.

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Homemade Pancake Mix

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As far as I’m concerned, my father is the king of pancakes (and waffles too). During his early twenties, he spent a spell working as a short order cook at the International House of Pancakes. After eating one doughy pancake too many, he determined that he could do better than the sorry mix that IHOP used. So, for a period spanning multiple years, he wholly devoted himself to the creation of a better pancake mix.

By the time my sister and I entered the scene (1979 and 1982), Mo was a self-declared pancake master. There was always a batch of dry mix in the fridge, ready to be combined with eggs, milk and glug of vegetable oil. It was perfect for those Saturday mornings, when nothing but a stack of pancakes would do.

During my lifetime, I’ve put in many hours studying the art of the pancake at my dad’s elbow. He taught me how to tell when a pancake was ready to flip (bubbles around the edges that stay open after popping) and to cook over a medium-low heat, so that cake gets cooked all the way through (to prevent the horror of a pancake where the outside is burnt, but the inside drips with raw batter).

Those pancake lessons were also my first instruction in the art of cooking by feel, as Mo eschewed exact measures when it came to batter mixing. Pulling out his favorite batter bowl, he’d beat an egg for each eater (and an extra for a leftover cake or two), add a nice pour of milk and a quick dollop of canola oil or melted butter. Once he had a loose emulsion, he’d scoop in a couple of serving spoonfuls of dry mix at a time, stirring until the batter was right. He’d look for something that wasn’t runny, but wasn’t stiff either. It’s something that you figure out over time, he’d say.

Since I’ve had my own kitchen in which to play, I’ve altered the sacred dry mix recipe a bit. Luckily, this is just the sort of creative thinking my father encourages, so all toes are intact. My favorite addition is the bit of toasted millet, as it adds a wonderful nutty crunch. This mix is a wonderful thing to keep stashed in a jar at the back of the fridge, because it means that a friend and family pleasing meal is always just a couple of minutes away. I occasionally make these for dinner and add a few chopped pecans and some sliced banana to each cake just after I spoon the batter on the griddle. By adding that bit of protein and some fruit, I convince myself that they’re a healthy and balanced meal (which I then drown in grade b maple syrup).

The mix recipe is after the jump. I make it entirely with whole wheat flour (a combo of regular and pastry), but if you like a lighter pancake, sub in some unbleached all-purpose. These are also divine if you splash a bit of vanilla extract into the batter just before griddling. The dry mix also makes a lovely housewarming or hostess gift, particularly for the pancake lovers in your crowd.

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Save Your Blanching Water

pitcher-of-blanching-water

I finally found the time to make a batch of pickled asparagus tonight. It was my first attempt at pickling and it was satisfyingly easy. I’ll write up the details tomorrow. However, there’s one little tip I wanted to share with you all.

You see, the particular recipe I followed called for the asparagus to be blanched for just ten seconds prior to being packed into the jars. After I retrieved all the asparagus bits from the pot of water, I set aside the now bright green blanching water and poured it into a pitcher to cool down. Tomorrow, when it’s room temperature, I’ll water my houseplants with it, giving them a hit of the nutrients that transferred from the asparagus into the water.

As we all move forward into the heart of the pickling and canning season, this is a great way to reuse that vitamin-rich water (you can also do this when you steam/blanch veggies for dinner).

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Honey Lemon Marmalade

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Having immersed myself in the world of marmalade over the last month, it’s definitely something I’m adding to my preserving repertoire. However, I am really grateful to be moving on canning/pickling projects that require less knife-work, as I don’t think my right hand could handle any further citrus chopping. This batch of Honey Lemon Marmalade required 14 lemons, which took nearly an hour to break down (and I seriously recommend that you make sure you don’t have any paper cuts prior to embarking upon this recipe). However, the work was worth it because this is one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.

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Back in January, I was obsessed with drinking infusions of honey, lemon juice and ginger. It was great way to fend off the winter chills and felt fairly virtuous to boot. While this marmalade doesn’t have any ginger in it, it evokes those infusions, and makes me want to stir spoonfuls into hot tea (I haven’t done it yet, but I may not be able to resist the urge).

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This is the first time I’ve used honey as a sweetener in a canning project, and I think it worked pretty well. It wasn’t the sole sweetener, I also used some evaporated cane sugar (not because I was trying to be healthier, I was simply of out regular sugar). I wanted the flavor of the buckwheat honey (darker and slightly richer than regular wildflower honey), but because it’s such a deep taste, I was afraid that it would overwhelm the delicacy of the lemon.

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The other thing I did differently with this batch of marmalade is that I used a full dose of pectin. In past batches, I used a single 3 ounce pack of pectin. This time around I used a full 6 ounces, which really firmed things up. I also lengthened the cooking time, in the hopes of drawing out more of the natural pectin.

As always, I have a half pint of this marmalade that could potentially have your name on it. Leave a comment if you want in on the giveaway, I’ll pick a winner by Saturday at 5 pm. Thanks to all who entered, the contest in closed.

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