These are chums

Something over a year ago I persuaded the spouse that we needed fruit in our little back yard, and I fell in love with the idea of chums and plumcots, which are hybrid cherry-plum and plum-apricot respectively. We bought two chum bushes and a plumcot tree from Green Barn Nursery in Quebec and picked them up from their Ontario affiliate in the early spring. There were a few flowers last year, but no fruit, and more flowers this year as the bare sticks we came home with transformed themselves into leafy bushes and fast-growing trees.

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This year we got one plumcot, but it vanished one morning before I even had a chance to inspect it properly, and five lonely chums. I’ll be away for a bit, so I picked two of them today, even though they were clearly not ripe yet, in the hope I would beat the birds and squirrels to the bounty.

Obviously I should have waited — they are supposed to be deep purple on the outside, not green with purplish blotches. But I think they will be quite nice if we net them as they ripen and if the critters don’t get them first. It’s hard to tell the taste when they are still so tart, but I’d say more of a plum than a cherry. Time will tell.

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Will we ever get enough of these babies to make a jam?

 

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Apricots and lemons

It seems I’ve never blogged about my maybe-favourite chutney, a tasty mix of apricots and lemons that we’ve done at least once a year. But apricots and lemons go surprisingly well together — you use the whole lemon, rind and all, as though it was a marmalade, with heat from ginger and cayenne pepper, or this year from two tiny jalapenos gleaned from the garden.

Relatively quick boil, for chutney. Perhaps a little runny, but goes well with grilled vegetables, omelettes, meat, cheese. Just about anything in fact. I like.

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Moroccan apricot lemon chutney (from The complete book of pickling, by Jennifer MacKenzie)
(I’m not sure what’s Moroccan about this one except perhaps the cumin)

4 organic lemons, peel washed and cut into strips (or chunks in our case) and flesh seeded and roughly chopped
6 cups apricots, roughly chopped
2 cups chopped onions
1 tbsp finely chopped ginger
2 small jalapeno peppers, seeded and chopped
1 tsp cumin, 1 tsp coriander, 1/2 tsp cinnamon, roasted in a dry pan until they darken a little
1-1/2 tsp salt
2-1/2 cups sugar
1 cup cider vinegar

Put all the ingredients into a heavy pot and simmer until nice and thick – about 20-30 minutes. Bottle in sterlized jars.

That was easy.

Except that looking at the recipe just now, I see that we should have boiled the  peels up in water before adding them to the chutney (also like marmalade). It softens the peels, and removes some of the bitterness. I wonder what not boiling them will have done to the finished product.

Oh, and we also made about a dozen jars of apricot jam — half plain apricot, and half with a splash of redcurrant thrown in at the end for pretty pink streaks. Something to remind us of summer.

 

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Like buttermilk, only better

There are those who rave about kefir because it contains the good bugs that our anti-bacteria society seems to want to purify out of existence. I just prefer the tart-sour kefir taste to the blandness of milk. But I rarely bought it, and never dreamed of making it myself. Then someone swapped me a jar of jam for a handful of kefir grains, and my life turned upside down, just like the discovery of steel cut oats revolutionized my winter breakfasts. There’s no machine, no thermometers and nothing to worry about, and kefir tastes great in oatmeal, cold oats or granola. Why didn’t I discover this decades ago? kefir2The secret for me is to make enough kefir for a day or  two, and just let the grains rest, covered with water, in the fridge when I’m not in kefir making mood. When I’m ready to ferment, I rinse the grains (which look like mini silicon brains), put them in a clean Mason jar and top up with as much milk as I think I’ll need the next day. I close the jar loosely (the ring/lid combo is my alternative to covering with a cloth) and let it sit on the countertop until it’s sour enough to use. In summer that can take as little as 6-8 hours, although the recipes all say 24 hours at least. Don’t close your jar tightly — the milk bubbles as it ferments, and a cracked jar (or an explosion?) could create a nasty mess in the kitchen.

kefir1 When it smells sour enough, I tighten the seal on the jar and shake it up to mix the whey back in with the solids, and then sieve it. The grains are little squeaky things so you sieve the mix gently – don’t try to force the grains through the mesh. Save the kefir, rinse the grains, cover them with water and put them back in the fridge until you want to start the game all over again. I’ve kept the grains in water for as long as a week so far, although I understand you can freeze them for longer storage. I’m planning that for the next few weeks; I’ll update this entry once I figure out if it works.

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The beauty of all this? Kefir grains grow as they sour the milk, so you almost always have some to give away. If my grains don’t work from the freezer, I can always find a way to get grains back.

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When dinner bites back

The berries are just about over at the community garden, and there’s a load of other things that have not made it to the harvest-me stage yet. So today I came back with baby stinging nettles, which I always wondered about cooking, but never did. I had just a handful, picked carefully with gardening gloves, and I did wonder if they would still sting as I rinsed them carefully in cold water (they did). I steamed them up with butter and some tarragon and served them with steamed garlic French beans and feta cheese for a super light supper.

Stinging nettles, once you cook them about five times as long as you think you want to cook them, taste rather nice, like an intense spinach without the metallic taste you get with spinach.

Of course the nettles should not be in the garden in the first place, so our next task is probably to get rid of them once and for all.

But I did enjoy my little experiment.nettles

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Jam-boree!

Once a year, canning buddy and I have a marathon pick ‘n jam session, hitting the market at 7am, then the pick-your-own and then retreating to the house for as many batches of jam as we can be bothered to make. Raspberry and strawberry jams are givens, but there are so many options for things to add and subtract that the fun could go on all day.

We started with this, which included the last of my black cap raspberries from the community garden, and a small container of red currants, also from the garden. They yellow raspberries were a gift. We ate them, unwashed, between batches of jam.


jam3By 4pm, with the shortest possible breaks for coffee and lunch, we had 55 jars of jam, plus a container each of strawberries, raspberries and cherries to keep for eating fresh. It was quite the production line. At any one time we had one or two jams prepped and one on the boil. As soon as the on-the-boil one was ready, we moved one of the prepped jams to the stove and started on that. And rather than waterbathing each batch as we finished it, we did four big water baths of around a dozen jars apiece, coding the lids carefully so we knew which jam was which. It would be so sad to think you’re opening a jar of raspberry lime, and it turns out to be raspberry lemon instead.

jam1We mostly worked with a proportion of 7 cups of fruit, four cups of sugar and the juice of two lemons, which cut the sugar somewhat from our normal 6-4-2 ratio. It seemed to work, although the jams are mostly a little on the runny side. Not a problem my end, given that most of my jams end up in yogurt rather than on bread:

Strawberry raspberry jam (7 jars)
This has to be one of my always-favourite jams, melding two tastes of summer into one glorious mix. It’s so good that I tend to save it rather than open it, so there’s still a jar of 2013 strawberry-raspberry in the cold room.

Raspberry jam (7 jars)
The KISS principle jam. (Keep it simple, stupid). You can’t go wrong with raspberry jam.

Two-cherry jam (5-1/2 jars)
I think this one was half sour cherry, half sweet. We used kiwi instead of pectin. Using kiwi instead of pectin may change my jamming life.

Red-black raspberry jam (6-1/2 jars)
Half red raspberries, half black-cap beauties, like the ones in the black-cap raspberry jam a week or so ago. My arms and legs are still scratched up from picking these. My partner in community garden crime says it’s like we’ve been wrestling with kittens.

Sour cherry jam (4-3/4 jars)
Kiwi for pectin again. Do you see a trend?

Raspberry lime jam (7 jars)
It looked as though we were going to run out of lemons. Besides, it tastes good.

Strawberry lemon verbena jam (5 jars)
This is that New York Times no-pectin strawberry jam again. I’ve done it with mint and with lavender, so it was time to give lemon verbena a try. That came from the community garden too.

Raspberry-mint-chocolate jam (7/3/4 jars)
The jury is still out on this one. We threw chocolate chips in at the end, and they didn’t melt in that well, so we have chocolate blobs as well as raspberry seeds. And I’m not 100 percent convinced about the idea of raspberries and mint. But it might grow on me.

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The kiwi to no-pectin jam

I more or less stopped using commercial pectin a few years back because I don’t like the firm-set texture, and I don’t like the piles of sugar you need to compensate for the bitterness of the pectin.

But there are fruits that won’t set without added pectin, cherries for example. So each year I bit the bullet as we followed the recipe on the Bernadin pectin box for a couple of big batches of cherry jam, which is probably canning buddy’s must-make jam each year. Bernadin suggests an extraordinary 7 cups of sugar to four of fruit, along with two pouches of liquid pectin. It sets like a rock, and I didn’t mind much anyway. Cherry jam, as I have said before, is simply not my favourite.

But the New York Times transformed my strawberry jam making last year with a recipe that throws a kiwi fruit into the mix, because kiwi contains the pectin that sweet, ripe strawberries don’t. Could we do that for cherries? Would a cherry jam with kiwi turn to syrup, or would it set?

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The result, I am proud to say, is a lovely, soft set, both with sour cherries, and with a mix of sour and sweet. We added a single chopped up kiwi fruit to our generous kilo of cherries and mean 800 grams of sugar (plus the juice of two lemons). Our only mistake was to include every last scrap of kiwi (barring the skin) — next time we’ll cut out the woody bits at the stem as we chop the fruit. The rest of the fruit melts away to nothing as you boil the jam, barring a few intriguing black seeds. But the woody bits turn to pale chunks in the dark red jam, and it doesn’t look quite right. But hey, it’s cherry jam without added pectin, and canning buddy says we could even use less sugar next time, with perhaps a second kiwi to firm up the set.

Me? I haven’t yet opened my jars of cherry jam, and I suspect they will linger in the back of the store cupboard until I finally give up and give them away.

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But I can’t wait to try my twice-failed melon-ginger jam with kiwi rather than with pectin. The syrup I ended up with last time was perfect for poaching peaches or apricots, but it wasn’t jam.

Any other no-pectin tips out there?

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Blink and you’ll miss it



reducrrant jelly3I always forget how easy jelly is, especially if you’re using redcurrants, which I suspect consist of 99 percent pectin. I picked a small container of them at the garden this week, added the few dozen berries from our own crowded out redcurrant bush and simmered them up with a drizzle of water last night before leaving the goop to drip overnight. The recipe says weigh the liquid, add an equal weight of sugar and then boil up for five minutes until it sets. I didn’t even add the juice of a lemon.

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All I can say is that redcurrant jelly doesn’t need anywhere near five minutes to set. I had 218 grams of liquid, according to my trusty digital scale. So I added 190 grams of sugar, heated gently until the sugar melted, and then boiled the liquid. By the time I looked back round from setting the timer, the bubbling mix had that jelly tone already, and my set test proved that there was no need to wait any longer. What was that, a 3-minute boil? Maybe even less. It was all over before I’d even had time to make my morning coffee.

I poured into hastily sterilized jars (one regular jar and half a small one), and sealed them. Too small a batch to think about water bathing. There’s plenty of room in the fridge.

redcurrant jelly

Very productive.

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