Tuesday, July 3, 2012

.."can"-do attitude..

We just returned from a week and a half in sunny California. It was a wonderful trip, and one that was long overdue. Having hailed from the OC (but moved to IL when I was very young), I have many extended family members still living out there. It's a long trip to make, and we don't get the chance to make it often. I'm always so glad when we do. More on that later...

Right before our trip West, I began to panic because I hadn't yet taken advantage of the strawberry harvest that was coming to a quick close. Two days before we were set to leave, I made the impulsive decision to buy 9 quarts of strawberries from a local farm. I chose the pre-picked variety, since I had missed the picking in these parts. We've had such a warm spring, strawberries came and went early.

So home I drove, with my strawberries and their sweet, luscious aroma filling up the car. I had big plans.

I am relatively new to canning. Over the last 4 years, I have read and experimented. I started with jams and jellies, since they seemed to be the easiest (which they are not). Each year I have attempted a new item to can: relishes, pickles, vinegars, fruit butters, pasta sauces/salsas. It's been a great way to extend my harvest. This year my new attempt will include the use of a pressure canner.

 I follow a basic recipe nowadays, depending on type and amount of fruit, but like to "doctor it up," so to speak. I am also particularly fond of jelly, although it would never win a contest, since it's always cloudy.

A couple of Christmas' ago my husband gave me one of my most favorite "cookbooks." It's not really a cookbook, but, for me, license to experiment. It's called the Flavor Bible, and it lists different ingredient pairings that go well together. It has been an invaluable tool in adding subtleties to my jellies and jams, not to mention other off-the-cuff concoctions.

I perused my bible, and under "strawberries" found two ingredients that piqued my interest. I decided to make a Lavender-Strawberry Jam and a Strawberry-Champagne jelly. Adding much more than one other flavor was putting my harvest at risk, so I opted to keep it simple.

Once the decision was made, the work began. Washing, hulling and chopping 9 quarts of strawberries is no joke. After preparing the strawberries, I mustered up the energy to make the jam. Instead of just putting lavender flowers in the jam, I instead chose to use a tea ball, so that the jam wouldn't end up with lavender bits. In the end, it was the right decision, as the jam has that hint of flowery goodness. Unfortunately, upon opening the jam, I discovered that the jam didn't set properly, so it's more of a sauce. But a heavenly sauce that will accompany ice cream, angel food cake, or any of a wide assortment of dishes.

I did not have enough energy to make the jelly in the same canning session, but I did cook the fruit down and put it in the jelly bag. If there's one thing I've learned (and prefer) about jellies, it's that the fruit can be a bit blemished, and you can drag out the process. Once I collected the juice, I stored it in the fridge to be dealt with after our vacation, and worked furiously to pack and prepare for our trip the next day.

Fast forward to today. Today I made jelly. I decided to make a half batch of Strawberry-Champagne jelly, as I was nervous about how it would turn out. This was all experimentation, after all. I am happy to say that it turned out just fine. You can definitely taste the champagne...and it's not an overly sweet spread, which is a nice change.

My last jelly will be a plain strawberry jelly. I think it's only fair to the kids. Their palates haven't appreciated my flavor combinations in the past.

I did manage to set aside a jar of strawberries that I just froze. They are a marvelous addition to smoothies, after all. Plus, I love how the jar looks in my freezer. Have I mentioned red is my favorite color?

Now, I wait for cherries and black raspberries........