Strawberry season is almost over in the mid-Hudson Valley (it seems shorter every year, doesn’t it?) but other locally grown berries, currants and fruits will be at a farm stand near you all through summer. You can make the most of all the fresh delights as they fleetingly come and go — and you can preserve some for later, too. Sales of canning supplies shot skyward last year, a trend that was actually on the rise even before the recession turned everyone into a frugalista. If you were among those who bought canning supplies and actually used them, you already know how satisfying it is to get a yearning for a peach, say, in the dead of winter and have one in a jar nearby. (Yes, I know it’s not the same as a fresh one, but those rock-hard things trucked in from wherever in the cold months are not nearly as sweet and delicious as a peach you preserved yourself. Trust me on this.)
Canning does require time spent steaming up the kitchen on what’s most likely already a steamy day — that’s its drawback. Jam-making, though, is a bit less work, and you can freeze fresh fruit until you’re ready to have a jam-making day. When I was a kid growing up in England, one of our favorite family summer outings was blackberry picking in the hills near our house. A lot of the fat, juicy, wild berries went straight into our mouths, but those that made it home were turned into jam. My father was the jam-maker, and I’m pretty sure that his method involved just berries and sugar, cooked together until they were syrupy, and then poured hot into clean jars — no sterilizing, no pectin, no processing, no wax on top. The jam was delicious, and we all lived to tell the tale. These days, though, either we’ve become feebler or the bugs have become nastier, and most agree it’s best to take a more careful approach. Run your jars through the dishwasher to sterilize them, or boil them for several minutes and leave them in hot water until you’re ready to fill them, and then process the filled jars for about five minutes in the canning bath. It’s really very easy, and you’ll impress your friends.
Judy Essex, who has been making jams for 40 years and selling them as Judy’s Jams for the past 18, says my father was using the “cook-down method,” which typically takes about 30 to 40 minutes for the mix to gel, depending on the amount of natural pectin in the fruit. If you add pectin, a natural thickening agent, it considerably speeds up the process, she says. One important tip is to make only small batches — don’t try to double up recipes because the mix won’t thicken.
As for the jams themselves, there are countless recipes online, including some using no sugar, if there are diabetics in your life to consider. The old-timey, reliable Ball Blue Book of Preserving has recipes, too, with illustrations showing the steps for jam-making as well as for canning, preserving and pickling. If you don’t have a canning bath (which is just a deep pot with a rack in it), you can use a stockpot or any pot that allows an inch or two of boiling water to cover the jars when they’re submerged. Put a rack on the bottom, though, and make sure the jars don’t bang into each other. Judy Essex gives canning and jam-making demonstrations throughout the summer at Burd Farms on Rte. 209 in Kerhonkson. You can call her at 845-985-7775 to find out when the next demo will be. Or, if making your own jam sounds like way too much work, you can buy some of Judy’s. I happen to know that the strawberry and five-pepper jams are particularly delicious.