Friday, August 30, 2013

Jamming, or Life as a Disgruntled Bourgeoisie

The results of an entire day's work.
When I last posted, I was happily on about the joys of baking with freshly gleaned berries, and eating wild-caught Alaskan fish.

With an appetite for berries, I decided to go to a local farm where I could pick my own. We spent hours gathering blackberries, red raspberries, and just because they were there, a peck or two of peaches. Yes, peaches and other orchard fruits come in pecks!

It was far more fruit than we could eat fresh, so I decided to turn the blackberries into homemade jam. I'd made jams as a teenager at home in my Little House on the Prairie phase, but it had been over a decade since I attempted any sort of jam making. I geared up by buying a fresh set of jars, lids, sugar, and pectin, and set out all my equipment on the counter. Then I realized the pectin I'd purchased not an hour ago expired in 2011. Curses.

I turned off the pot of water I'd set out to boil, grabbed my purse, got in the car, and went posthaste to the nearest grocery store. Eventually, I located their pectin - luckily, still in working order. Once home, I again laid out my tools and got the pot of water back to a boil. It felt like I was either preparing to deliver a baby, or concocting a science experiment in the kitchen.

Jams can be made several ways. The fruit can be lightly cooked and the jam mixture kept in the freezer (aka "the freezer method"), or the fruit can be cooked for a longer period of time and sealed into sterile glass jars. I was using the second method, which was more complicated but also more traditional. I told myself freezing is for amateurs.

I sterilized my jars and lids in the boiling water, mashed my blackberries, added tons of sugar, and set the mixture to simmer gently, adding some of my new pectin. Meanwhile, I removed the jars and lids from the boiling water -- not an easy task, as someone really needs to invent non-slip tongs -- and laid them on a clean towel. Then I scooped the hot jam into the hot jars, put the lids and bands on them, and gently lowered the jars back into a pot of water to boil once again. The second boiling, if done correctly, creates the vacuum seals that keeps the jam fresh. Once the second boiling is completed (in about 10 minutes) the jars need to cool, and if you're lucky, the lid has created a nice, tight seal. If the jars haven't sealed, the jam in still edible, you just need to keep it refrigerated and eat it immediately rather than storing.

Total time: 5 hours. *Including berry picking, the pectin dash, and actual jam production.

Yield: 3 small jars of jam.

And this, my friends, is why we have an agri-industrial complex. Yes, you can make your own food. But under our current system, is faster, cheaper, and easier to buy it. If I were selling this jam, fair market price for the amount of labor, cost of supplies, and actual product would be $25/jar. No one is going to pay that, not even for the most exquisite jam in the universe. So we have Smuckers, for $3 a jar, that looks and tastes like the manufactured goo that it is.

PS Jam Day was also the day I cooked the last of our backyard roosters. This was a last-ditch effort to make the birds actually tasty. We pulled out a coq au vin recipe from Alton Brown that included wine, herbs, and even a little bacon. I'll tell ya what, if you soak something in wine overnight, douse it in herbs, onions, and bacon fat, and slowly braise it in the oven, and it still doesn't taste good, then you have done all you can. Make some pancakes for dinner and call it a night.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


Next to travel, food is my other great love, so its no surprise that my writing often turns to cooking, eating, and recipe-collecting.

Last week I was lucky enough to combine both in a quick jaunt over the border to Toronto. Ok, it wasn't so quick. We spend 11 hours in the car, conveniently divided by a stopover in Pennsylvania.

But Toronto is a great city for people who like to eat. Our first night there, we went to Little Italy and gorged on homemade pancetta, pasta, osso bucco, and red wine. After that, we had to stop into one of the neighborhood's numerous gelato shops for dessert. The next morning, we were off to the St. Lawrence Market for a famous peameal bacon sandwich and hot coffee. Delicious! Thus fortified, we set off for the Toronto Islands and spent a lovely afternoon nattering around on bicycles, soaking up sunlight along the shores of Lake Ontario, and finding quaint little cafes for lunch. Come dinnertime, we were back at the market buying up sweet corn, fresh asparagus, basmati rice, a few bottles of a local vintage, and $5 bacon-wrapped filet mignon (Seriously? Canada, I love you.) We then cooked up our feast surreptitiously on my friend Lori's grill. Lori, if you noticed anything amiss, that was us.

Idyllic, n'est pas?

Back home on the ranch, we've been taking a far more pragmatic approach to food. We're eating what has been raised, caught, or foraging either by ourselves, or someone we know. Case in point: one of the backyard chickens that had been "harvested" was transformed into a pot of adobo con pollo. It has been the most successful preparation of a backyard chicken so far. It actually tasted like chicken, and overall was pleasant enough that we could stomach leftovers the next day. But these birds, even at the tender age of 5 months, are chewier than a bran muffin composed of wood fibers.

Next up was some halibut, caught in Alaska by relatives and shipped to us in dry ice. I've never cooked halibut before, but thanks to this recipe, we grilled those filets up and had a blast messing around with the accompanying herbal pistou. I didn't even bother with the walnut butter. Anything that requires fennel pollen is just a little too precious for this gal.

Finally, the foraging. Just like Willoughby and his wildflowers in Sense and Sensibility, I acquired some blackberries from an obliging field.* These were duly baked into a cake, which will be consumed momentarily.

There is something very satisfying about food that is acquired through effort, and not just dollars spent at a grocery store. If I'm honest with myself, my efforts at this point don't amount to much more than dilettantism.  But my curiosity has been piqued. A subscription to Organic Farming may not be far off in the future.

* The neighbor's yard. But they weren't using them.