Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Pumpin' up the jam

      For some reason I’d always been intimidated by the idea of putting up preserves- I guess I thought it was just too much trouble, and for some reason, the thought of being around big pots of boiling water kind of scared me. What I found out was that not only is it relatively easy (it helps to be the sort of person who actually *enjoys* standing in the kitchen for several hours peeling and squishing and coaxing and boiling), it’s also really rewarding.

      It all started with that stupid fig tree out back of my apartment. After being bombarded with figs the first summer I lived there, I decided I had to do *something* with the gazillion sexy little fruits I had left over after eating them out of hand, making breads and sauces (both sweet and savory), grilling them with various meats and cheeses.. Etcetera. So this past summer, more or less on a whim, I decided to make my first batch of fig jam.

      It wasn’t too hard to do, and in the end I was rewarded with jar upon jar of beautiful jewel-toned sweetness- which I promptly ate and gave away to all my friends. The fig jam was a hit, and the fig-ginger was lovely, but when I made fig-strawberry jam with a pile of gorgeous ripe strawberries from the farmers’ market, I knew I’d hit on something special. The first two batches practically flew out of my pantry. People were devouring it faster than I thought possible and asking for more. My plan was to make at least 3 or 4 more batches before the figs went away, but unfortunately life got in the way and the last few weeks of figs went unpicked and uneaten.

      Fast forward to a few weeks ago when I was at my folks’ house for a visit. I noticed the fruit on my dad’s nopales was abundant and ripe, and tickling my urge to make more preserves. The wicked, spiny prickly pears (or tuna as they’re known in Spanish) were just begging to be harvested and transformed into something delicate and sweet. I researched how to process them (hopefully without getting a handful of glochids in the process), grabbed a bucket, and got to work. The result? A lovely, purply-pink jelly with an almost sagey finish. It tasted like the desert, it looked like the sunset, and I was hooked- not only on the jelly, or the process of making the jellies, but on the idea of making them from found and foraged and gifted fruit.

      Since then I’ve made several batches of tuna jelly, wiping out the fruit from my mom’s nopales, and tried my hand at pomegranate jelly using fruit from the neighbors’ tree. (The pomegranates don’t like to give up their essence so easily as the figs and prickly pears, but the result was a dark amethyst jelly with an amazingly intense flavor- totally worth the effort) Now I’ll pretty much make jelly or jam out of whatever’s growing at the moment, and I plan on hitting up neighbors, coworkers and friends for their excess fruit in exchanged for my finished product. This week it’s more pomegranates, next week maybe more tuna (anyone got some cactus fruit they want to get rid of?) and who knows what I’ll be putting up next month… I’m looking forward to loquats and kumquats from my neighborhood next summer, and I might even see if I can grow some passionfruit vines!

      In the meantime, I have local gifts for far-away friends, and goodies to trade with my favorite farmers’ market vendors. I have a sense of satisfaction that I’m using what comes natural to the area in a way that makes people happy. And after the last batch of pomegranates, I have a kitchen that looks like something out of a serial-killer movie. Yum!

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