- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2003

JOIGNY, France

Here in Burgundy, the seasons mark the kitchen. Fall begins with wild boar, chestnuts from the woods and dandelion greens touched by the first frost. With spring comes baby cabbage, tiny onions and carrots and the first memorably sweet peas. Right now, it’s jam time.

I’ve already dealt with our garden rhubarb, so acid it needs the maximum amount of sugar — sugar equal to its own weight. (It is practically impossible to make preserves without a scale since most fruit must be measured by weight.) This large quantity of sugar helps set jam, as does pectin, a hidden secret.

Pectin is a setting agent found mainly in the peel and pits of fruit. Amounts vary widely. The riper the fruit, the lower the pectin content. Apples, plums and oranges (with peel) are high in pectin. Strawberries and cherries are low, so making jam from them can be chancy.

Some cooks like to play it safe and add powdered pectin or use sugar already dosed with it, but the resulting jam tends to be bland and slightly gelatinous. I much prefer the traditional solution of adding the juice of 1 to 2 lemons.

After rhubarb come the strawberry and raspberry harvest, and I have to resist any impulse to mess with them. The plain jam is so delicious — the essence of the fruit itself.

As equipment for preserving, you’ll need a stout pan of medium size. Unlined copper is the best material since it spreads the heat and cooks fast. (For fresh flavor, jam and jelly should always be made in small batches.) Stainless steel is an excellent alternative to copper, but aluminum and cast iron should be avoided because of the way they interact with the acid in fruit.

Raspberry jam is easy. The fruit takes three-quarters of its own weight in sugar and invariably boils to a perfect jam that just falls from the spoon. Strawberries, with their low pectin content, are less predictable and never set firmly, but that is part of their charm.

As with all jams, temperature is the key and, in my opinion, a candy thermometer is essential. Immerse the bulb in the boiling jam and watch the temperature rise while you stir, aiming for 83 to 105 degrees, the jelling point. A lot of scum comes to the surface and needs to be skimmed off.

Timing can be as little as 15 minutes or up to almost an hour, depending on the amount and juiciness of the fruit. At first, while moisture boils off, the temperature rises quite fast. It then seems to lose impetus. The jam will start to stick to the bottom and sides of the pan, so stir diligently. Take care, too, because it will spit ferociously and can make a nasty burn.

To test for the jelling point (referred to in the recipes that follow) lift the wooden spoon and let some jam run from the bowl. At each try, it will drizzle more slowly until at last it forms a characteristic double drip. This is the magic mark of jam cooked to a perfect temperature, and old hands rely on it alone. Another test is to chill a saucer in the freezer and then add a few drops of jam. If the drops set, the jam is ready.

My eye has been on the currant bushes for a while, but I have to be patient. Soon the fire-engine red berries will turn crimson and laden with juice, ready for jelly. Last year I picked them too early and had bitter jelly as a punishment.

It takes the whole morning to strip half a dozen bushes of enough of the little grape-like clusters to make a couple of quarts of jelly. The fruit is cooked with a little water until very soft and the juice runs and can be strained to boil with sugar. The traditional bag of tightly woven cloth is key to draining clear, sparkling juice from the cooked fruit, but a colander lined with several layers of cheesecloth can take its place. Never press the fruit to hurry the draining process or your jelly will be cloudy.

Jelly jars come in several sizes, some with screw tops. Personally, I like small jars between a 1- and 2-cup capacity so that the contents do not linger once opened. They make great gifts, too.

Jars must be sterilized before use to prevent the preserves from molding during storage. (Fermented preserves, full of bubbles, are usually the result of undercooking.) I find that a run through the dishwasher sterilizes fine, although purists maintain that jars should be immersed in boiling water for 5 minutes, then lifted out with tongs to drain and dry.

To fill jelly jars, set them on a wooden surface to deter cracking. (A metal spoon in the jar helps, too.) Ladle the preserve while still very hot into a large heat-proof measuring cup and pour it into the dry jars. While still warm, seal the preserves. There are various ways of doing this. You can add a thin layer of melted paraffin wax or press a round of waxed paper on top before sealing the jar with special rounds of transparent paper, all available at hardware stores.

Store preserves in a cool, dry place. If well made, they will keep several months without refrigeration, and don’t forget a neat label with the name and date, the finishing touch to your very personal creation.

Rhubarb and ginger jam

Strawberries are overwhelmed by rhubarb, I think, so to round out the tartness I prefer the British habit of adding peppery candied ginger. Leaving the fruit overnight to macerate is optional, but it speeds the cooking.

3 pounds rhubarb, stems only

6 cups sugar

3 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger

5 tablespoons chopped candied ginger

Cut rhubarb stalks into 1-inch pieces. Stir in sugar, cover and let sit overnight.

Transfer fruit to a preserving pan and stir in chopped fresh ginger and candied ginger. Heat gently until rhubarb softens to pulp and sugar dissolves. Turn up heat and boil to the jelling point. (See instructions in story.) Let cool slightly, then pour into sterilized jars and seal.

Makes about 1 quart jam.

Red currant or apple and rose geranium jelly

On its own, red currant jelly is wonderfully intense, and some years I flavor it with an herb such as rose geranium or lemon balm. Use it to glaze strawberry or raspberry tarts, serve it with roast lamb or simply enjoy it with crusty bread and butter.

4 quarts red currants or 4 pounds sour crab apples

2 cups packed rose geranium leaves plus a few to garnish finished jelly

3/4 cup sugar per cup of juice (this will vary)

Rinse and drain currants, leaving stems, or quarter sour crab apples, including peel and cores.

Add 2 cups packed rose geranium leaves and enough water to just cover and simmer fruit to a pulp, about 10 minutes for currants or up to 30 minutes for firm apples. Let cool, then place in sieve to strain, refrigerated, overnight.

Measure juice and stir in 3/4 cup sugar per cup of juice. Heat juice until sugar dissolves, then boil to the jelling point. (See instructions in story.) Let jelly cool slightly. For each jar of jelly, blanch an additional rose geranium leaf in boiling water for 1 minute and drain. Half fill sterilized jars with jelly and add a geranium leaf. Fill the jars and seal. Makes about 1 quart jelly.

Anu’s tomato chutney

Anu was raised in India and tells me that this delicious chutney, a recipe from her grandmother, is a staple in northern India and lasts about a month if refrigerated. The chutney may be sweet or spicy, so sugar and chili powder can be varied to your taste.

It is ideal with cold meats and good, too, with cooked chicken or fish. Onion seeds are available in Asian markets, or you can substitute a lesser amount of mustard seeds.

1 teaspoon onion seeds or teaspoon mustard seeds

3 pounds tomatoes

3/4 cup sugar

cup white vinegar

3/4 teaspoon salt

Chili powder

Heat onion or mustard seeds in a small pan over medium heat, stirring gently, until white smoke appears, 2 to 3 minutes. (Note that they scorch easily.) Let them cool.

Peel, seed and chop tomatoes and simmer them in a pan, mashing to reduce them to a pulp, until they hold the mark of the spoon, 5 to 10 minutes.

Stir in toasted onion or mustard seeds, sugar, white vinegar, salt and a large pinch of chili powder, or more to taste. Simmer chutney, stirring often, until it is thick and rich, just falling from the spoon. When nearly done, taste and adjust seasoning.

Makes 2 cups chutney.

Rose petal jam

This romantic jam relies on the full-blown perfumed roses of high summer. The petals are suspended in apple jelly that you make at home or buy commercially prepared.

2 cups apple jelly, either homemade or commercially prepared

3 quarts rose petals

1 cup sugar

⅓ cup lemon juice

Make apple jelly from red currant or apple and rose geranium jelly recipe above, using 2 pounds crab apples and omitting the rose geranium. Or buy 2 cups commercially prepared jelly.

To prepare rose petals, cover 3 quarts rose petals with just enough boiling water to cover and leave for 3 to 4 hours. Melt 2 cups apple jelly and stir in rose petals with the steeping water.

Add sugar and lemon juice. Heat until sugar is dissolved and boil to the jelling point. (See instructions in story.) Let jam cool slightly, then pour into sterilized jars and seal.

Makes about 1 quart jam.

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