Monday, July 19, 2010

Better late than never

My strawberry patch had a second flush of ripe berries over the weekend. Given the wealth of fresh plums, cherries and peaches on our counter right now, I feared that the strawberries would go uneaten. What? Homegrown strawberries uneaten? Well, we find these July berries to be a little less luscious then the first June crop -- blander and drier, likely secondary to the inevitable heat and water issues of high summer. Come fall, they sweeten up again.

I had never gotten around to canning strawberry jam in the peak of the June harvest -- I made a refrigerator batch that was gobbled up in a day and then all the extra berries went to a friend with a weakness for late-night strawberry shortcake. I figured now was the time to put up some jars of preserves. If you are planning on serious strawberry preservation (either freezing or canning), June-bearing varieties are probably a better bet than everbearing. The problem with everbearings is that, after a relatively sizable June crop, they put out a few berries every few days. This is fine for garden snacking, but you rarely have enough ripe all at once to make a cobbler or a big amount of jam. I had read that putting some white-shouldered berries in jam is a good idea, because they have higher pectin levels, so I put some under-ripe berries into my jam pot. I had just enough to make 5 half-pints. If I hadn't also been canning apricot jam, it would have hardly been worth it to clean and sterilize all the equipment, let alone heat up my whole house with the water-canner!

I made a new recipe, strawberry balsamic jam, from Eugenia Bone's Well Preserved. This is the first of Bone's recipes that has disappointed. One, there's too much vinegar, making for an overwhelming sweet-and-sour effect; two, the balsamic gives the jam a very dark, unappetizing color; and three, the recipe inexplicably instructs the cook to scoop out the cooked fruit with a slotted spoon and just can that. I had trouble understanding how this made any sense -- the fruit had given up most of its liquid to the sugar syrup. I couldn't have filled one half-pint jar with the actual fruit solids. Bone tells the reader to can the syrup separately. Anyway, I canned everything together.

In the end, the jam tastes fine -- definitely usable, especially if I pair it with cheese or other savory dishes. It just doesn't have a bright, clean strawberry taste. Dialing back the balsamic to 2 tablespoons instead of 5 might really help the recipe, but I am too much of a scaredy-cat to mess with canning recipes. I never tinker with the ingredients or processing times and I never use amateur Internet recipes. I like to see that the recipes published in books have been safety tested per government standards, or whatever such bureaucratic nonsense. Normally I snicker at stuff like that, but I fear the botulism, and will take my canning recipes government-approved.

So here I am with five jars of "sophisticated" jam. Sigh. Classic strawberry jam may be simple and naive, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes "gourmet" recipes --in their effort to make foods taste more complex or nuanced -- end up overshadowing the key ingredient. Have we all become such fancy chefs in the kitchen that we can't serve up a simple dish? Next time, I'm just going to let the strawberries be strawberries, and save the balsamic for my salad dressing.

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