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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Sour Cherry Jam Recipe

cherries in the sink

I had grand plans for sour cherries this year. I knew that the sweet cherry crop had been bad, so when Mood’s Farm Market opened their u-pick sour cherry picking, I went the second day of the season. My thinking was that if I got there early, I’d get enough cherries to keep my in jam and pie-filling for the year. However, when I walked into the farmstand and asked to pick sour cherries, the 15 year old behind the counter just shook her and said, “you’re not going to find much.”

I told her I’d just do my best, and she shrugged her shoulders at me and wrote out the picking permit. As soon as I pulled up to the orchard, I could see she hadn’t been joking. In just over 24 hours, the sour cherry orchard had been picked nearly clean. Grabbing my bucket and step ladder, I began to wander, hoping I’d find a few pockets of cherries left.

10 cups pitted cherries

I spent a bit over an hour out in the orchard, gazing at trees with an upturned head. I went up and down that step ladder at least 100 times, each time repositioning it to grab a bit more fruit. It was hard work, and yet it was also wonderful. All the stretching and bending, it felt like the most productive and delicious yoga I’d ever done.

I went home that night with scant four pounds of cherries, which rapidly became three pints of jam. However a lucky thing happened as I was making the jam. I happened to broadcast my disappointment with the slim haul on Twitter. Some friends saw it and invited me to pick some cherries from the trees in their community garden, which happened to be dripping with fruit. With Angie’s help, I found myself with ten more pounds. Jams and pie filling galore!

pits

It might sound like I went to an awful lot of trouble for some sour cherries, but if you’ve tasted jams or baked goods made with little gems, you’ll know that the effort was well worth it. The flavor is bright, tangy (not sour exactly, just perfectly piquant) and, when combined with a bit of sugar, quite heavenly. I’ve been eating the jam stirred into plan yogurt (you might have picked up on the fact that yogurt is one of my favorite vehicles for jam) and I have six pitted pounds in the freezer, waiting to become pie filling at some later date – I plan on using this recipe as my starting place.

sour cherry jam bubbling away

Now, time is beginning to run out on sour cherries, but you can still get them if you look carefully. Here in Philly, Beechwood Orchards still has them (at least they did today at the Rittenhouse Market) and from what I hear, more northernly climates are just getting them in. Sometimes you can even get them frozen, which, if you’ve got a sour cherry tooth like I do, isn’t such a bad way to go.

I do believe that it’s time to offer up another giveaway. This time, I only have a four ounce jar on offer (I’m telling you, this stuff is precious to me), but it should be enough to firmly plant the flavor in your taste brain and make you jones for more. Leave a comment by Friday, July 10 at 5 p.m. if you want a chance to win. One entry per person, winner will be selected via the random number generator.

And on to the recipe…

Continue Reading →

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Mint Simple Syrup

mint syrup

I have always been a fan of minty things*. As a kid, I would beg my grandfather for some of the Tic Tacs he always carried in on his person (the rattle of that plastic box always takes me back to him as well). I’d trawl the bottom of my mom’s purse for linty Lifesavers. And Christmas time, with its pepperminty candy canes never failed to delight mw.

As the years have gone by, my love of minty things hasn’t diminished, although I find myself gravitating towards less sweet applications than the sticky candies of my youth. Lucky for me, in the last few weeks, I’ve had access to all the mint I can carry, thanks to the garden plot of friends Angie and Thad. They have a most bountiful mint plant and no matter how much we cut from it, the next day it seems to be back, bigger than ever.

We celebrated the 4th of July within spitting distance of that marvelous mint plant, and so I took home a large bouquet after the grilling and drinking was complete. Yesterday, as I tried to clear out the fridge a bit and make room for our lunchtime salads, I pulled that bundle of mint out of the crisper drawer and concocted a plan.

I poured two cups of filtered water into a saucepan and added two cups of cane sugar. I gave the mint a quick rinse (just to get any garden dust off of it) and added it to the pot. I brought the whole thing up to a brief simmer, stirred until the sugar was dissolved and turned off the heat. I let it sit on the stove while I finished the rest of the dishes. When I turned back to it, the syrup was cool enough to handle and I strained it out into a quart jar. Swiping my finger through a trail of drips, I tasted it and was pleased to note that I had captures the green, freshness of the mint perfectly. I plan on mixing this minty simple syrup with sparkling water, for easy evening drinking. You could use it in a mojito if you felt so moved.

This minty simple syrup keeps indefinitely in the fridge. Make an extra jar and stash it away for later.

While we’re on the subject of mint, has anyone made their own mint extract? I did a bit of searching and found that some folks take the same tact that homemade vanilla extract requires (put leaves in vodka, let sit until they’ve given up their essence). Anyone have first-hand experience (I plan on trying it, but thought I’d query the crowd as well).

*Sadly, the man I live with isn’t so fond of the flavor of mint (he searches out toothpaste with the most mild of mint flavor), so I keep my minty habits to myself.

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Some recent pickling projects

pickled ramps

I have a secret for you. Sometimes, making pickles is so easy that it doesn’t even require a recipe. I have two recent examples, that I hope, when shared, will inspire you to leap up from your computer and rush to the kitchen in order to toss something (anything) with a bit of brine and seasoning.

Back in May, a friend gave me a small jar of ramps (very pungent wild onions) for my birthday. I knew that the way to best appreciate the gift was to pickle them. I did a bit of recipe searching, but found that the dominant pickled ramp recipe available online was a sweet one (if this story is sounding familiar to you, it’s because I briefly blogged about my search for a good pickled ramp recipe back in May). I didn’t want to go that way, so I forged a different path.

Knowing that a standard brine calls for half vinegar, half water and whichever spices make your taste buds sing, I mixed up a concoction of apple cider vinegar, water and some pickling spices (I used my standard Penzeys pickling mix, but added a pinch of cayenne to it for a hint of heat). After a month and a half in the fridge (you don’t have to keep them in the fridge that long before eating, 3-4 days would do it, I’ve just got many pickles on my plate), they hit all the right pickly notes and make this girl quite happy indeed.

pickled mexican sour gherkins

Last Saturday, while strolling the Rittenhouse Square Farmers Market, I happened upon a stand selling pints of tiny cucumbers that looked like miniature watermelons. I asked the farmer about them (a very nice guy named Don) and he said that they were Mexican Sour Gherkins and encouraged me to taste one. They were bright, tangy and fresh tasting and so I bought two pints for $6 (which was more than I’d ever paid for such a small quantity of something destined for a brine).

When I got them home, I suddenly found myself overwhelmed by kitchen projects. My plan to devise a special brine for these little guys was quickly abandoned. Instead I just rinsed them off and poured them all into the quart jar of leftover brine I had in the fridge. The brine was from my end of season pickled asparagus that I did a few weeks ago (you can find that recipe here). Over the last week in the fridge, their natural tartness has married in a highly delicious way with the brine and I munched a small bowl this afternoon just because I could.

So, next time you find yourself with an unusual ingredient, don’t fret over what to do with it. Pickle it! I’ve got a whole bag of garlic scapes in the fridge right now, awaiting a briny fate.

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Foods in jars at the Fancy Food Show

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I took the day off from work on Monday in order to head up to New York for a day of the Fancy Food Show. Last summer, I went for two and a half days, but this year, since I’m not writing for a general interest food site at the moment, I decided to just spend a single day wandering the show floor. I had a good time, tasting and chatting, but the whole time I was there, I kept feeling like I didn’t quite belong.

As I looked at all the available products, I realized how little I’m interested in promoting things for people to buy (despite all the wonderful things available out there in the world). I’m far more interested in encouraging people to shop their farmers market, plant a garden and make their jams, spread, pickles and condiments on their own. However, the show was great in that it planted many seeds in my canning brain, that are now germinating and growing into recipes. Here are some of the best examples of foods in jars that I saw, maybe they’ll help inspire some of you as well!

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This Black Olive with Ginger Jam was amazing – sweet, sharp and poignant in the very same bite.

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These were some of the best pickled veggies I’ve ever tasted, they manage to be crisp, bright and shelf stable. As some of you might know, when you can pickled vegetables, it can be a challenge to keep them crunchy and safe for storage at the same time. This company has figured out a magic solution (when I pressed them about their process, they clammed up).

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Carrot jam? Carrot jam! As far as I could tell, this was shredded carrots, cooked with sugar, spices and a bit of vinegar. It’s going on my list of things I’d like to do someday.

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These port wine and fruit jams were just lovely. Sweet and rich, the port wasn’t overpowered, but was definitely there. They’d be excellent with cheese (and wouldn’t be hard to make at home).

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Actually, here’s one product that I do love, that you can’t really make at home. Organic peanut butter from the folks who bring you Cream Nut (the most delicious and expensive peanut butter around). This one might be worth buying (probably only as a special treat though, it is quite pricey).

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A few canning links

I spent yesterday at the Fancy Food Show up in New York, and I’m still catching up on life after just one day away. I took a bunch of pictures of various foods in jars while there, and I hope to have a post up for you guys about what I saw there (as well as a recipe for sour cherry jam) up in the next day or so. In the meantime, to tide you all over, here are some links to good canning stuff elsewhere.

There are a couple of interesting conversations going on about canning over on MetaFilter right now, including one that mentions this here blog (thanks for the nod sararah!). The Oregonian has a terrific article on preserving cherries and the recipe for gooseberry jam on Doris and Jilly Cooks (made out of gleaned berries) looks wonderful.

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