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Canning: a plum crazy, labor of love weekend

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It seems reasonable to wager that the majority of people reading this spent Labor Day weekend at the beach, or thinking jealous thoughts about people who did.

Not me.

I was doing exactly what I did last year at this time: plucking pits out of 10 pounds of tiny, flavor-packed damson plums. Next I tackled 20 pounds of larger, intense Italian plums. Both were grown in the Piedmont and procured through a friend who knows the farmer.

When faced with such a bounty, I like to take a snout-to-tail approach. First, I made lustrous damson plum jam. Using the sweet fruit stubbornly clinging to the pits, I made a quart of plum-infused simple syrup—cocktails, anyone? The pits still claimed a fair amount of the good stuff, so I dumped them into a fresh quart jar and covered them with organic red wine vinegar. In a month, strained and rebottled, I'll have damson plum vinegar—which, I also think it's safe to wager, you won't have in your cupboard.

That was just the start. I drowned about a third of the Italian plums in three jumbo bottles of vodka, along with sugar, some cinnamon sticks and lemon peel. By the holidays, it will be transformed into slivovitz, a plum liqueur. I also made plum jelly and plum apple butter, the latter of which I spiked with some of last year's slivovitz.

What else? Oh, yes. I recreated one of my most requested recipes from last year: apricot hot pepper jelly, an enticing balance of sweet and spicy. And I tested a secret recipe that might be in a cookbook next year. It was a slow-cooked, totally-worth-it revelation that yielded 11 half-pints. Again, sorry, this is something I guarantee you do not have in your house, though I bet you wish your cupboard was hot like mine.

Yes sir, all in one weekend. My back aches, but I made it through without cutting or burning myself, went out to dinner twice and even found time to watch Roger Federer spank someone to advance at the U.S. Open, only to fall in the next round. Still, life is good.

Earlier this year, my family helped me "organize" my canning jars, which were tucked under beds and tumbling out of closets. To my surprise, I had some 16 dozen half-pint jars, many still shrink-wrapped. I think I was supposed to be shamed by the display. I was thrilled.

For me, canning is an opportunity to be creative—to take the stage, so to speak, and strut my stuff. I love when friends and family are happy to receive my creations at the holidays. It's even better when they request favorites, and better still when they return empty jars for refills.

While many Southern canners learned the art from their mothers or grandmothers, I grew up in a New Jersey household where making a mess in the kitchen simply was not allowed. My inspiration came from Mrs. Imogene Orme of Brazil, Ind., whose particular penmanship on the tags for jams, jellies and preserves she entered annually in the Indiana State Fair caught my eye when I lived in the Hoosier State in the 1980s.

Mrs. Orme signed her full name and hometown (pronounced "Bray-zil") on dozens of entries, most of which were adorned by Best of Show or, at worst, blue ribbons. I was in awe of her jewel-toned jars, which were enshrined in glass cabinets in the Home & Family Arts Building. Long before the era of Tina Fey, I knew, deep in my heart, I wanted to go there.

In 1987 I entered a jar of peach butter. Somewhere in my house, carefully tucked away in a place so special I can no longer remember it, is a red ribbon framed alongside a photo of a stunned me pointing to my victorious entry—second only to one by Mrs. Imogene Orme of Brazil, Ind.


Don't get in a pickle—start simple

Virginia Willis knew she was an obsessive canner when she flew home to Georgia after culinary school in France with a big copper confiture pan in her lap.

"It wouldn't fit in my bag, and I certainly wasn't going to leave it there," she recalls with a laugh. "Everyone thought I could can because I was Southern, but I never did before I was told to. I earned that thing."

A true confiture pan, the Cadillac of canning pots, can cost $300 or more in fine culinary shops. You don't need one, though, to make great jam. In fact, Willis now uses hers decoratively, to hold fruit and vegetables.

"You just need a wide, heavy-bottom pot" to allow jams and jellies to bubble off excess moisture without scorching over high heat, Willis says. "Really, most people can make simple recipes with whatever they've already got."

Newbies should aim to start with simple, tested recipes, such as the dill pickles Willis recommends in the Southern Living book Little Jars, Big Flavors (Oxmoor House, 2013; recipe below). Willis says it's essential to use reliable recipes in the beginning—to ensure not only that jellies gel and pickles pickle, but also that canned foods are shelf stable and safe to consume as much as a year later.

Dill Pickle Spears

These classic spears are crisp, sour, and a sandwich's best friend. Like most pickles, they'll reach their best flavor and texture after three weeks in the jars.

Makes 6 (1-pt.) widemouthed jars for the shelf

Hands-on time: 20 min.

Total time: 50 min., plus 1 day brining and 3 weeks standing time

4 lb. (3- to 5-inch) pickling cucumbers
10 Tbsp. canning-and-pickling salt, divided
3 cups white vinegar (5% acidity)
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 Tbsp. pickling spice
12 dill sprigs
2 Tbsp. whole mustard seeds

Wash cucumbers, and trim any that are longer than 4 inches (so that they'll fit comfortably in the jar). Cut each cucumber lengthwise into quarters. Place spears in a large clean container (such as a 12- to 18-qt. plastic pail or dish basin). Combine 6 Tbsp. salt and 1 gal. water in a large pitcher, stirring until salt dissolves. Pour over cucumbers; cover and let stand at room temperature 24 hours. Drain.

Sterilize jars and prepare lids.

While jars are boiling, combine vinegar, next 2 ingredients, remaining 1/4 cup salt, and 1 qt. water in a 3-qt. stainless steel saucepan. Bring to a boil.

Place 2 dill sprigs and 1 tsp. mustard seeds in each hot jar. Pack jars tightly with cucumber spears. Cover spears with hot pickling liquid, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Seal and process jars, processing 10 minutes.

Remove jars from water, and let stand, undisturbed, at room temperature 24 hours. To check seals, remove the bands, and press down on the center of each lid. If the lid doesn't move, the jar is sealed. If the lid depresses and pops up again, the jar is not sealed. Store properly sealed jars in a cool, dark place up to 1 year. Refrigerate after opening.

Note: Pickling cucumbers are small, crisp, unwaxed, and needn't be peeled. Widemouthed jars aren't essential for pickles, but they do make for easier packing.


This article appeared in print with the headline "A plum crazy weekend."

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