Contrary to its popular persona, summertime is no time for slackers, especially for picky eaters like me. Gardens are "coming on" like a transvestite hooker in Times Square, or at least the pre-1990s/Lion King version, juicy and taut and low-slung on the vine. Fruits and vegetables are coming on like the Visigoths came on Rome, climbing over her walls and bursting through her gates.
Said this Roman to the garden Visigoths: BRING IT.
Now's the time, if you want to keep the abundance through the winter, if you want to eat something other than blueberries from South Africa or mushy tomatoes from Mexico this December, to meet the onslaught with Mason jars and screw top lids and deep pans of boiling water.
Now's the time to put up or shut up. Don't be crying to me about paying $5.99 for 6 ounces of raspberries at the Community Market four months from now.
I've never canned before, despite coming from a venerable canner. My father's mom, my grandmother, who died when I was six, put up all sorts of yummies. I remember the rows of dusty jars on wooden shelves in the stairwell that led down to the basement. Our next-door-neighbor when I was growing up, Mrs. Behrend, canned. She made raspberry and strawberry jams with little wax seals on the top. I remember peering into the roaring boil of deep purple-red mash, marveling at how long it was going to take to get to peanut butter and strawberry jam sandwiches. Don'tcha have a jar of Smuckers in the fridge?
In the farmers' market equivalent of an impulse buy, I bought a half-bushel of peaches and 10 pounds of blueberries, heaving the boxes onto the counter in my kitchen.
My husband offered to distribute them to neighbors and family members. "I could take them to Chicago with me, see if Chris wants some," he said.
I gave him a funny look. "We are eating all of this. Just not all at once."
I bought some pint jars and lids and a canning pot at the hardware store. I didn't buy any pectin, opting to follow the no-pectin-necessary philosophy of Kevin West (although he does apologize for his "anti-pectin diatribes" in his book, Saving the Season).
I'd like to report that I toiled over a hot stove in the middle of a muggy day in Ada for 6 hours, but that wouldn't be true. First, it didn't feel like toil; it was a pleasure to work with the fruit, especially the flowery-smelling peaches. And second, on the day I did this, it was one of the many cloudy, cool days we've been having this summer. And, third, it really doesn't take all that long, maybe three hours. I had to tack on an extra hour for my hardware store supply run.
I made a peach jam flavored slightly with cloves. I made a sugarless peach jam that I call a peach "slump," because it doesn't set up as well as the sugary version. I made a batch in which I steeped several bags of Earl Grey tea, and a batch where I tossed in a few cardamom pods. Neither left a discernible taste, so I'll have to be more robust with my quantities next time.
I froze most of the blueberries, because they don't take to jamminess very well. Its flavor is in its skin, not its pulp. "It's not even juicy, just damp," Kevin West complains. "Remove the skin from a blueberry and what is left might as well be nothing."
He solves the problem of the "superficial blueberry" by distributing its skin evenly through the mash by grinding the blueberries through a food mill. And he enhances the distinctive, spicy, pine-y flavor by adding another ingredient that also shares that quality: Gin.