There’s cooking and there’s cooking. What I mean by that is there is deliberate recipe development, whether you’re inspired by an idea or are trying to perfect a technique and make something already out there — better. There’s also cooking that requires you to put on your waste-nothing hat on, in an effort to rescue produce be it because it has lingered in your crisper or food bowl a bit too long, or because it has the shelf life of approximately a few hours before it fully disintegrates. Today, I’m writing about the latter. Next time, I’ll write about the former. I try to strive for balance.
I know I wrote last week that I’m going down the rabbithole of recipe writing for a few weeks, and was not going to be heard from, but I need to write because it clears my head.
But let’s get back to what really matters here. It’s summer, after all, and peak of amazing produce. Anyone else feel completely overwhelmed when they go to their local greenmarket? I want to buy it all, and often it feels like I do. I often buy too much. But I’m greedy and I don’t want to miss those little available-for-a-week-only opportunities. Gooseberries? I’ll take a pint! Red currants? Yes, please. Two weeks after we got married, I spied sour cherries at my local greenmarket, the very last of the season. I bought the remaining two pints, pitted them, and now they are sitting pretty in my freezer awaiting their fate.
A few weeks ago, one of the stands at our local greenmarket had incredible peaches that it was selling by the bag. The peaches were so fragrant, you could smell them a block away. Of course, I bought a bag. But when came home and took the peaches out of the bag, I realized that they were so ripe that the weight of them crushed and bruised one another. In fact, most of the peaches needed to be tended to immediately. As much as I wanted to make a peach pie, it was out of the question. We were in the middle of a heatwave, and our apartment tends to run so hot, we have air conditioning on through November. With the oven on for over an hour, even with our a/c in full swing, we would still be sweating.
Over on our dining table, I spied a few sad looking apricots lying around. I was planning on roasting them with honey and vanilla, and tucking them into my morning yogurt, but as I looked at my sad, bruised peaches, I decided to put up a few jars of jam. I’ve written before about my love of both apricot and peach jams. Every year, I make a few jars and hope they last me through the winter, but instead I proceed to tear through them with the greatest of speeds.
Our house goes through its fair share of jams. Which also means our house has a rather large number of empty jam jars, which I can’t seem to part with. I repurpose them into storage vessels for grains, leftovers, spices, and what-have-you.
I had Marisa McLennan’s amazing new book, Food in Jars, at my bedside – a book I want to spend all summer with from first page down to the very last. We’ve known each other virtually, Marisa and I, for years, and whenever I have a canning question, Marisa is my go-to person. In fact, I have Marisa to thank for conquering my fear of canning solo. When she asked me if I’d love to receive a copy of her book, there was only one answer I could give her – a resounding yes.
I took Marisa’s basic idea for peach jam, namely the proportion of sugar to the fruit, and her hot water bath primer, and just ran with it. I’m not much of a liquid pectin user. Years of living in Russia and canning with my mother and grandmothers, without pectin, instilled that stubbornness in me. I feel that with just a little patience, every jam will thicken on its own. Eventually. You just need to give it time. It was from Marisa that I learned to let my jams get to 220 degrees F and from her that I learned test of a plate from the freezer trick. In fact, when I made my first jam a few years ago, I was deathly afraid of canning and Marisa walked me through it. Which is why, I think, that her book is so great. Without being precious or twee, Marisa walks you through canning be it as sweet or a pickled thing. You can almost hear her reassuring voice guiding you through things like hot water bath (hint: not scary at all!)
So off I went with my jam, intent on rescuing the bruised peaches and the wilting apricots. While my peaches and apricots were simmering, I threw in some vanilla, lemon zest, and juice. But I wanted the jam to have little sex appeal. I spied my shiny, new pepper grinder (a thoughtful wedding gift from a friend who just wrote about a classic-as-it-gets peach pie – I’m sorry, Deb, but I couldn’t help but add something to my peaches!) and you can probably figure out the rest. The jam got a nice, healthy dose of black pepper and I got a few satisfying sneezes a few minutes later. While the jam was simmering, I edited some recipes. It felt good to be in the kitchen making something. Satisfying. And an hour later, I had homemade jam ready to be stored for months or spread on toast immediately. I’ll let you guess which option I chose.
Peach Jam with Apricots and Black Pepper
With a lot of help from Food in Jars
A word about sugar in jams. Yes, it is a lot of sugar. And no, I don’t recommend changing the ratio of fruit to sugar drastically. Sugar, besides acting as a flavor balancer to the fruit, works to create the right consistency.
12 medium peaches and 4 apricots (about 3 pounds of fruit)
3 cups granulated sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 to 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1. Place a small, clean plate in the freezer. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. While the water comes to a boil, make a small “x” incision on the peaches on the opposite side of the stem. Blanch the peaches, in the boiling water, for 1 to 2 minutes to remove the fuzz. Immediately transfer them to an ice bath and let cool. Peel and pit the peaches and give them a good, rough chop. Pit and chop the apricots as well.
2. In a large, wide (rather than tall) pot (a jam pot is ideal), combine the fruit with the sugar, and over medium heat, bring to a simmer. Stir in the lemon zest and juice, and vanilla and insert a candy making thermometer to monitor the temperature – you’re looking for that magic 220 degrees F, which is generally the temperature that jam sets at. Decrease heat to low and simmer the jam until it is of thick, syrupy consistency. Take your plate out of the freezer, and drip a tiny bit of jam onto it. Tilt the plate and watch the drip run down the plate. If it stops and gets thick midway, your jam is done. If it runs all the way down, keep simmering your jam. I like to make sure my jam reaches the required temperature and I get the right consistency, but sometimes one happens before the other, so just find a good middle ground. Jam, incredibly so, is a by-feel art. Tasting and smelling is key. My peach jam takes about 45 minutes give or take a few minutes.
3. While your jam is simmering, prepare a hot water bath in another pot (this pot you want to be tall) and sterilize your jars by boiling them in the hot water for about 10 minutes. Transfer the jars and their lids to a towel-lined counter, facing down. Set aside until needed. Keep the water simmering.
4. When your jam is just about done, add in the black pepper, stir, and let it simmer for about 2 minutes.
5. When jam is ready, ladle it into the jars, allowing for ½ inch head space on top. Place the lids on top of the jars, twist, and slowly lower them into a hot water bath. Let the jars “bathe”, simmering, for about 10 minutes. Using canning tongs, remove the jars and set them aside. Within 20 minutes or so, you should hear a bright “pop” of the lid. Try to press the top of the lids down, they should be flush and not have any “give”. If the center of the lid goes up and down with pressure, unscrew the jar, screw the lid back on, and repeat the hot water bath method.
Makes 3 pints and just a little extra to enjoy immediately (who’ll ever complain of that?)