Turning seasonal fruit into spreadable goodness
When my 23-year-old babysitter invited me to a jelly party, I was both flattered and flustered. I had never heard of such a social event, but the possibilities inherent in the words "jelly party" raised some interesting imagery. Absent among the visions that came to mind, however, was the actual event: a kitchen packed with recent college grads all industriously cooking strawberry preserves and firing up the canning kettle. Hunh? Back in my university days, anything daring to call itself a jelly party would involve, at the minimum, grain alcohol, prophylactics, and a late-night visit from the local authorities. But I digress.
The home arts and do-it-yourself movement are all kinds of trendy these days, hence the phenomenon of hip young'uns throwing themselves the food equivalent of a quilting bee--all hands on deck to help process and preserve a giant batch of whatever local food is most seasonally delectable at the moment. Right now, strawberries are ripening all over Maryland, and their incomparable just-picked flavor and juiciness put to shame those pale pink grocery store impostors available the other 11 months of the year.
Fortunately you can savor local-berry flavor year round by making jam, which is ridiculously easy. Jam is a low-exertion project in that it's simply mashed fruit cooked with some sugar and pectin until thickened, then poured into jars (you don't even have to do the canning thing, if you would rather not get into that whole boiling of the jars, etc.; small batches keep in the fridge or freezer until used). Jelly, on the other hand, involves much skimming and straining to remove all the solids for a completely transparent product, so unless you're one of those obscure kitchen gadget freaks itching to justify the purchase of a jelly bag then jam is the way to go.
You are, however, going to have to get yourself some pectin. Pectin is a naturally occurring substance in fruit, and in the right combination with sugar and acid, pectin acts to form a gel. All fruits contain some pectin; apples and grapes have a lot, which is why commercial "all fruit" jams contain one or both in addition to the main flavor fruit. Other fruits, particularly berries, contain little pectin and so require help in the jelling department. A fair amount of some type of sugar is essential to successful jam; sugar must be present to interact with the pectin and acid for everything to jell, and sugar also acts as a preservative in the finished product (sugar works in the same way as salting foods for preservation by drawing out moisture and discouraging bacterial growth).
That sugar, however, does not need to be refined white sugar--other forms of glucose, fructose, whatever-you-got-ose all work, with adaptations. The most widely available standard pectins like "Sure-Jell" require a lot of sugar to thicken, but there are also low-sugar pectins that allow you to reduce the amount of sweetener. My favorite is citrus-based Pomona's Pectin, which allows for using natural sweeteners like stevia, agave nectar, and honey--or just plain old sugar if you like.
When I started making homemade jam a few years back, I was at first appalled by how much sugar is required in standard recipes. The simplest strawberry preserves require two quarts of strawberries, crushed, stirred with six cups of sugar in a pot, brought to a low boil and cooked, stirring frequently, until thick, about 40 minutes. The elegant simplicity of this recipe appeals in theory, but the sugar is nearly double the amount of berries and the long cooking time really diminishes the taste. Also, the result is just tooth-achingly sweet in a way that obscures the fruit. Lots of experimentation has led me to a nearly fool-proof strawberry jam recipe that uses much less sweetener and the briefest of cooking times to allow the fruit flavor to truly shine. This is less a recipe than a small-batch formula for jam using any kind of berries.
Very Berry Alterna-Jam
Makes about 3 cups of extremely delicious jam
3.5 cups ripe locally-grown strawberries (or other seasonal berries)
3/4 cup organic evaporated cane juice* (or 2/3 cup granulated honey, or 3/4 cup sugar)
1 box Pomona's Pectin*
*sold at Trader Joe's, Whole Foods and health food stores
Wash and rinse three 8-ounce containers (glass jars/bowls or plastic food tubs, with air-tight lids) in very hot water and set them aside full of very hot water.
Stem and hull strawberries, setting aside the smallest ones.
Put the large strawberries into a roomy pot and coarsely mash with potato masher; add 1.5 teaspoons calcium water (mixed according to directions from packet in pectin box) and bring to a boil.
Meanwhile, in a separate bowl thoroughly mix 1.5 teaspoons of Pomona's Pectin powder with your choice of sweetener.
Once fruit comes to a boil add sweetener/pectin mix and small whole strawberries, then cook, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes.
Allow to return to a boil and then remove from heat.
Pour water out of containers and spoon jam into hot containers, allowing at least 1/4 inch head room.
Cover and allow to cool on counter. The jam might look runny at first but will set as it cools.
Keep in fridge up to one month or one year in freezer.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201