Canning, Recipes

Jailhouse Jam

Dennis and I picked apricots last weekend, and I’ve been making jam, pie filling, and canning apricot halves.  This is a good fruit year for our high desert valley, and all the old apricot trees around town are just loaded.  The fruit is small, because these trees are neglected, but it is good.

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We picked at three places in Susanville this year:  the old, historic Lassen County Jail, the old Superior Court building, and at a private residence.  We had picked at the old courthouse and then moved to the old jail and were picking there when a passerby told us about a house that had been foreclosed on a month before which had an apricot tree hanging over into the alley.  “I’ve been picking every day,” she said, “but there are just so many!  You should come over and pick there.”  How nice!  We thanked her and said we’d check it out.  And we did end up picking a few there because they were easy to get to and nice and ripe.

We had one other interaction with a passerby that was amusing and dismaying at the same time.  When we were picking at the old courthouse, a group of three young people, perhaps in their twenties, walked by.  One of the young men stopped and asked quite politely, “What is that in that tree?” The fruit was all over the ground, and if you’ve ever eaten an apricot, it was obvious what it was.  But I told him, and I told him how good they were.  “Huh,” he said, and looked a little mystified, as if the idea of picking food off a tree, as opposed to picking up a package of it in a grocery store, were a new one to him.  That might not have been what he was thinking, but I have encountered that sort of perplexed attitude in the young toward foraged food.  But just maybe he’d never actually eaten an apricot before.

We came home with about 40 lbs. of apricots.  I want to share my apricot jam recipe in hopes that others will be inspired to pick and preserve this abundant fruit.  (If you’re not going to make it yourself, I have some for sale to local buyers.  You can see all the varieties of jams and jellies for sale at www.gardenforestfield.com/jeanies-jams.)

This recipe was adapted from one in Lisa Krissoff’s Canning for a New Generation, a canning book I highly recommend.

Ingredients:

3 lbs. of fresh apricots

1 ½ cups sugar

3 tablespoons lemon juice

For a small batch, start with 3 lbs. of fresh apricots.  This will make about 5 half-pints of jam.  If you want to make a larger batch, double everything in the recipe, but make sure you use a larger enough pot to prevent boiling over.  Get your jars washed first and heating in your water bath canner while you work on your apricots.  The jars should be sterilized for 10 minutes in boiling water before you add the jam and process them, and it takes a while to get a big canner full of water to the boil.

I love making jam with apricots because it is one of the easiest of stone fruits to work with.  You don’t have to peel them, and they are freestone, which means the pit doesn’t cling to the flesh but comes away easily when you halve them.  So the first step to making apricot jam is to wash, halve, and pit the fruit.  Also cut off any dark spots from skin or flesh, because this jam is such a pretty color, you don’t want any dark bits to spoil the look of it.  Always cut away any moldy spots from the skin, if there are any.  If you find mold inside the fruit, around the pit, discard that piece of fruit, for it will taint your whole batch.

The next step is to dice the fruit.  You can do this by hand, but my hands don’t work very well anymore, so I do it in a food processor, pulsing until the fruit is chopped.  Don’t puree it.  The apricots cook down a lot, so a few bigger pieces are fine.

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Put the chopped fruit into a large, stainless steel or enamel-coated or porcelain pot and add 1 ½ cups sugar and 3 tablespoons of lemon juice.  I usually use freshly squeezed lemon juice, but I have used bottled in a pinch, and it doesn’t seem to change anything, so it’s your choice.  Bring to boil over high heat, stirring constantly, then reduce to medium and continue to cook for about 25 minutes.  Stir frequently to prevent sticking, but you can walk away from this for a few minutes at a time.  As the jam thickens, I start reducing the heat bit by bit so it doesn’t blurp all over me, the wall, the counter, and stove.  It really burns if it blurps on your skin, so wearing clean oven mitts while stirring is a good idea.

The trickiest part of making this jam is how to tell when it has cooked enough.  Apricot skins contain enough pectin to make a soft-set jam, but it won’t set hard like a jelly.  I use the plate in the freezer method to tell if the jam has cooked enough.  At the beginning of the cooking time, I put a small plate or saucer into the freezer to chill.  When the cooking time has expired, I start testing the jam by dropping a small dab from a spoon onto the chilled plate and putting it back in the freezer for one minute.  After that minute, I test the dab of jam by pushing it with my finger.  If it feels thickish and has a bit of wrinkle on the surface when it’s pushed, it’s ready.  But that’s not the only thing I look for.  When jam is ready to jar, it takes on a very glossy look.  It thickens, of course, but the glossy surface is a key for me.  As you watch the jam cook, stirring it frequently, you’ll see this glossiness develop.  The gloss in combination with how it behaves on the plate tells me when jam is ready to go in the jar.  Reduce the heat to low and keep the jam at a simmer while you fill the jars.

Fill the sterilized jars with simmering jam to within ¼” of the rim.  (Do use a canning funnel and a good ladle.  It will make your life so much easier.)  As you fill each jar, wipe the rim with a damp cloth or paper towel, and put the flat and ring on, tightening the ring only hand tight.  Place the filled jar in the boiling water bath and move on to the next jar.  This ensures that your jam doesn’t cool off too much before you start your processing time.  When all the jars are full and capped and in the canner’s rack, lower them completely into the boiling water and put the lid on the canner.  You should always have enough water in the canner to cover the tops of the jars by at least an inch when they are completely submerged. It will probably take a couple of minutes to bring the water back up to boiling.  Don’t start timing until the water is boiling.  At sea level, this jam only needs to process for 5 minutes.  I add processing time because my elevation is over 4000 feet.  Always adjust your processing time for your altitude.  There’s a handy altitude chart at https://www.freshpreserving.com/altitude-adjusting.html.

When the processing time is finished, use jar tongs remove the jars to a towel-covered surface to cool and do not touch them until they are completely cool.  Don’t push on the lids.  You’ll hear pings and pongs as the jars seal, but when they are completely cool, it’s a good idea to remove the rings, wash away any spillage, and test the seal on each jar by prying gently with your fingertips.  If the lid didn’t seal, refrigerate that jar and eat it first.  If you fill the jars to the correct level and clean the rims thoroughly before adding the flat and ring, you shouldn’t have any problems with failure to seal.

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This jam has no commercial pectin or preservatives in it, other than the sugar and lemon juice (both of those are somewhat preservative), so it should be enjoyed within a year or so.  It will be good longer than that, but I’ve noticed that mine tends to darken a bit on the surface of the jam after a year.  It still tastes fine, but just isn’t as pretty in the jar.  I always, always write the date on the top of the jar flat with a Sharpie before I put the jam away.

I hope somebody out there will go pick apricots and make some jam!  As for me, I’m on to making pie filling for the freezer, canning apricot halves in light syrup, and dehydrating some halves for quick snacks.  I do love apricots!

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Remodeling the Kitchen

Countertop Resolution

As you may know if you read my last kitchen renovation update, we asked The Home Depot for a partial refund on our countertops, because of all the mistakes made by U.S. Granite, the company contracted with Home Depot to cut and install the countertops.  I asked for a 50% refund.  I didn’t think I’d get that much, but I didn’t figure they’d give me what I asked for, no matter what the amount was.

My letter to The Home Depot detailing all the mistakes and delays in the installation process went first to the customer complaints person at the Northtowne Home Depot in Reno.  She forwarded it to her store manager, who didn’t have the authority to grant such a large refund.  (The refund would have amounted to about $1900 if they had given us 50%.)  She had to bump it up to the district office.

At that point, everybody went on vacation.  And after we got home from vacation, the district manager went on vacation.   We finally called after two more weeks and were told we should have an answer in a few days.

It was pretty plain they were stringing the thing out, hoping we’d get tired of it and settle.  And that’s what basically happened.  After a month of waiting, the district office manager said she’d refund us $1000.  If we refused that offer, we’d have to deal with corporate.

Dennis didn’t want to deal with corporate.  I didn’t want to deal with corporate.  Neither of us wanted to bring a small claims court case.  We just wanted to be done.  And they knew it.

We decided to accept the refund offer of $1000.  It’s a little less than 30%, if my math is correct, which is unlikely.  But it’s enough.

I have to add that all the people we actually spoke to at the Northtowne Home Depot were polite and sympathetic and took our complaint seriously.  Nobody tried to brush us off or deny what happened to us.  I appreciate that.

That concludes the Home Depot/U.S. Granite ordeal.  The kitchen renovation isn’t finished yet.  Because of the months of delay, we weren’t able to move on to installing the microwave or backsplash or finishing the wall in our proposed timeline.  All that stuff was supposed to be done by spring, so we could move on to other things that need doing outside. And now it’s summer, and we’re involved in all the big summertime projects that have to get done outside in dry weather, like renovating the old house on our property that we call “the barn.” It has to be re-roofed and re-sided and critter-proofed this summer.  But we’ll get back to the kitchen in the fall.

There’s nothing quite like DIY, is there?  But at least when you do it yourself, you know the quality of your own work, and if it’s not right, you’ve got nobody else to blame, and nobody else to resent.  I’d rather be in that situation than fighting with so-called professionals to do a job right after I’ve already paid them.

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Garden and Greenhouse

A Lesson From the Garden

I haven’t written about the garden this spring for a couple of reasons.  One, we’ve been so busy with the kitchen renovation that I got really behind in the garden.  At least a month behind, or more.  The other reason I haven’t written much about the garden has to do with this new lesson I’ve been learning.

I have always been a goal-oriented, task-conscious person.   I have been a working toward a series of goals my whole life, it seems.  I’ve achieved many, although not all, of them.  I think it’s important to have goals, to set tasks and follow through.  This is one definition of responsibility, and I believe in fulfilling one’s responsibilities. But lately, I have been learning a new kind of lesson in my garden.

The lesson is this:  Do what you love, but not to the point that it hurts you.  Or in other, more concise but overused words:  Listen to your body.  This might seem an obvious statement, but to many of us compulsive-gardener types (and other compulsive types), it can be a revelation.  I realized last summer that doing what I love was hurting me.  And I don’t mean just temporary pain.  I mean what I was doing, overworking myself in the garden, was contributing to the worsening of an ongoing problem.

My profile page for this blog mentions my disability.  (I really hate that word, but what else can you use?)  I’ve spent most of my life ignoring the fact that I have severe scoliosis, which is curvature of the spine, for those who don’t know.  My spine is shaped like an elongated, backwards S.  My whole torso has been twisted and shaped by the curving and twisting of my spine, and in fact, doctors and physical therapists have told me that most likely my inflammatory problems in joints and bones in the rest of my body can be traced back to the dysfunction of my spine.

I resolved when I was twelve years old not to let scoliosis define my life.  It might shape my body, but it wouldn’t determine who I would be.  But at sixty years old, I’ve learned that’s nonsense.  Of course something so consuming defines one’s life!  How can it not?  But what I’ve also learned is that this kind of shaping doesn’t have to be a negative thing.  It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.

I believe that every life is a conversation or negotiation between body and spirit (and mind and heart and maybe some other things as well.)  There’s a verse in the Bible that I’ll take out of context.  “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”  I find much truth about myself in that short sentence.  My spirit is willing to stay out all day in the hot sun and pull weeds until I can barely move my legs.  In my head, I LOVE doing that!  I love taking a messy patch of ground and making it neat and tidy.  But my flesh is weak.  My body simply can’t take that kind of abuse any more, and it should never have been subjected to that kind of abuse.  If the body is a temple of the spirit (taking another verse out of context), then it should be cared for.  In that negotiation between body and spirit, both should have a voice and be listened to.

So last fall, I resolved to cut back in the garden.  This meant that I wouldn’t plant enough tomatoes to can or make salsa this year.  I have plenty left over from previous years.  I wouldn’t plant green beans to can.  I have some in the pantry still. I wouldn’t plant potatoes, because I shouldn’t be digging to plant them or digging to harvest them.  I wouldn’t plant cucumbers because I don’t need pickles.  I wouldn’t plant pumpkins because I still have pumpkin puree in the freezer.

It was much harder this spring, come planting time, to stick to that resolve, but I did it.  I only planted ten tomatoes (instead of twenty-five), two peppers (instead of a dozen), and a few winter squashes.  I planted more cantaloupes than usual for eating fresh because they are so easy, but half of them died for no reason I can tell.  That’s the garden taking care of me when the spirit overcame the body, I guess! I didn’t even plant any carrots because I had heirlooms go to seed and reseed. I did plant a lot of cabbage, and between the little brown slugs and the deer getting into the garden through a gate left open, I only have three plants left, so I won’t be making any sauerkraut.  God and the garden taking care of me again, presumably.

As for weeding, that’s another negotiation.  Spirit says, “Get out there and get those weeds pulled before they take over the squash and tomatoes!”  Body says, “You can do a little today, and little the next day, and you’ll get it done.  And if you don’t, what’s the worst that can happen?”  Spirit says, “Duh! They’ll take over the garden!” Then mind intervenes and reminds both body and spirit that an integrated, semi-wild garden is a good thing for plants, birds, bees, and other pollinators.  Yes, mind has a voice to heed too.

Day before yesterday, I weeded the squash patch.

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I thought I was setting a realistic goal.  Spirit thought so.  Body thought so.  Mind thought so. I only pushed myself a little to finish it, and then later my knee told me that was a bad idea.  (It would have been really nice if my knee had told me to stop before I was finished, but it didn’t.)  Yesterday, I heeded the lesson.  Spirit really wanted to get the whole tomato patch weeded.  Body said, “Remember your knee?  Do half.”  Mind concurred. So I did half.  And today, I finished the rest of the tomato patch.

It took three days to do what I would once have pushed to do in a day (or less). And the world didn’t end, and the weeds didn’t take over.  And my knee feels okay, and the rest of me doesn’t feel too bad either.  That’s progress.

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