Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Cardamom, pepper, tarragon and mint, Part 1

I tried to make the title rhyme with parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme(?); however, my choices of herbs and spices as flavorings for jams "sing" of the exotic and the country.

Von Thun's table
Saturday I went to the Metuchen N.J. Farmer's Market in the parking lot off New St. The VonThun farm of Monmouth Junction regularly sets up there and they have a solid offering of all the popular fruits and vegetables. Front and center were some wonderful Jersey peaches, just hours away from the peak of ripeness and ready for jamming. The peaches came from a neighboring orchard. To carry the 6 pounds of peaches, plus corn, eggplant and a melon the size of a pumpkin, VonThun gave me a big tote bag which is so much nicer than the throwaway plastic baggies.

I had two recipes for peaches from the Better Homes and Gardens Canning magazine - peach jalepeno pepper jelly, and peach jam with cardamom. I started with the jelly and Here is the recipe:
Straining the juice with cheesecloth lined 
      Peaches: 2 lbs, peeled, pitted and chopped
       Cider vinegar, 1 cup
      Jalepeno peppers, 3 or 4, seeded and chopped
      Sugar, 5 cups
      Liquid pectin, one 3 oz bag

    Put chopped peaches in a large stockpot and mash with a potato masher. Add vinegar and chile peppers. Bring to boiling and reduce heat, then cook for at least 20 minutes until everything is very soft. Use a jelly bag or colander lined with cheesecloth, strain the mixture. You need 2 cups juice. Discard the solids.
Combine 2 cups juice with the sugar, and bring to a boil, stirring. Quickly stir in the liquid pectin. Bring to a boil again, stirring constantly for one minute. Remove from heat and skim the foam on the surface. Fill hot jars with hot jelly, wipe the rims and put on the lids. Process in a boiling water bath canner for 5 minutes. Makes 5 half pints (8oz jars).
Top: Peach-jalepeno Jelly
Botton: Apple-peppermint Jelly

The best jelly is clear and sparkling, from juice that has slowly dripped through the bag. I wanted every last drop of juice, so I squeezed the pulp almost dry and filtered it a second time 95% clear. When I tasted the juice wow, hot and sour and sweet, you have to try it!

The next batch, also from BH&G, was for peach jam with cardamom. See page 73 for the recipe.This brought back memories of a family vacation in Zanzibar in 2009.
Peach Jam ready for lids
The inn served many variations on mango jam, with black pepper, with cardamom, with cinnamon, etc. It was the first time we had jams with strong spices. In fact, we took a tour there of a spice farm, more of a backyard garden in the jungle than a farm, imagine chickens, cats and a 
few other animal species here and there. We carried umbrellas against the rain and traipsed through muddy fields, yet we saw everything from allspice to vanilla. The innkeeper made the jams herself using mango which grows abundantly. Peaches are similar in color and taste.

Monday, August 15, 2011

An Impromptu Taste Testing

Curious about the flavors of my specialty jams, I invited my mother, my sister and her husband, my daughter and her husband, and my husband to taste a selection. Included in the taste test are the lemon thyme herb jelly, from the Better Homes and Gardens (BHG) magazine; the strawberry marsala jam from BHG, the peach preserves in Earl Grey tea from Bon Appetit’, and bing cherry jam from the Blue Ribbon Preserves book.
The jars certainly make an appealing appearance, the light yellow, the dark red, the pinky red, and the brown fillings were examined for texture and  3 out of 4 were judged very good. The herb  jelly was firm but tender, the preserves had big chunks of fruit suspended in a semisoft jelly, the  strawberry jam was thick and  kept its shape, but the cherry jam had the consistency of a jelly with the small pieces of fruit – not acceptable because it was neither jam nor jelly.

Everyone dug in with crackers piled with product, here is the verdict on taste alone. 

* The Winner*: Lemon thyme herb jelly was everyone’s favorite by far. Soft lemony taste with touch of herb
Second and third were either the peach in tea preserves or the bing cherry. Comments were that the peach in tea had a good fruit presence which was not noticeably flavored with tea, and the bing cherry lacked the bright flavor of cherries.
Last was the strawberry marsala jam, which drew at least one ‘thumbs down’ and was decidedly not a “breakfast toast topper”.
Here’s what I would do to improve them. The recipe for the peach preserves in Earl Grey tea called for the tea leaves to be distributed throughout . I would not let the tea leaves mix in; while it doesn’t affect the taste, it looks bad.
For the cherry, I would make a cherry marmalade or cherry conserve, because the large dark cherries tasted great when eaten fresh, but lost flavor when cooked. I could try using a different variety of cherry too.
The strawberry marsala jam would be delicious served with goat cheese and a savory cracker.
It’s fun to try unusual recipes.

Better Pickles and a Special-tea Peach Preserves

I love pickles: dill cucumbers, bread and butter pickles, sweet pickles, mixed pickles, etc. The salty, spicy and vinegary flavored vegetables are indispensable accompaniment to my sandwiches and snacks. However, the quality of crunchiness was hard for me to accomplish in a home-canned pickle. I followed standard recipes from good sources, but they have resulted in a “cooked cucumber” texture, even after chilling them in the refrigerator.

I refer to my previous post about “Icicle Pickles”. These came out really nice, they were cucumber spears that became a little translucent upon processing, kind of like icicles. They tasted great but were limp and soft, not a desirable texture. I had to find a better way.

The change I made was in the canning process. I read about in the book, Blue Ribbon Preserves by Linda J. Amendt, published by HP Books.
The author describes a processing called Low Temperature Pasteurization, which is a variation on a water bath canning, on page 263. Lower temperature of the water, a few degrees under the boiling point, for a longer time period, usually 30 minutes, allows the pickles to remain crisp and retain their natural color, while still making them safe for storage.

I tried this method yesterday, with some of my home grown cucumbers and dill seed, and tasted them today.
Are they crunchy? YES!   Thank you Ms. Linda J. Arendt.

Here is the recipe. Makes 6 pints. For whole, half or quartered (spears) cucumber pickles, I recommend a wide mouth pint jar. Makes a nice looking product and is easy to pack the larger sizes. Regular pint jars work well too because the cucumbers rest just under the shoulder of the jar and stay in place without floating up.
Dill Pickles – quick fresh pack method
4 lbs cucumbers, sliced in half, about 4 inch long pieces.
1 quart white vinegar
1 quart water, use distilled water if your water is hard
½ cup pickling salt
¼ cup sugar
6 heads of dill seed, or 6 teaspoons dill seed
24 peppercorns

Scrub the cucumbers with a soft brush in running water, to remove the dirt and spines. Rinse well. Cut into halves or quarters of the right length to fit into the jar.
In a large pot, combine the water, vinegar, salt and sugar and bring to a boil, stirring until dissolved. Add the dill seed and 4 peppercorns into each jar, and pack the cucumbers snugly. Pour hot vinegar solution into the jars, covering the cucumbers and leaving a ½ “ head space. Insert a plastic knife into the jars to free bubbles of air. Wipe the rim clean and put on the lids and rings.
In a water bath canner, heat the water to 185 degrees. Set the jars into the rack and start the timer for 30 min. Use an instant read thermometer or an immersible probe, like Pampered Chef's. Keep the water temp between 180 and 185. Do not boil or let the temperature fall below 180 degrees. After the time as elapsed, remove the jars from the canner and set out to cool.

Why not try a really unique product? Like Peach Preserves in Earl Grey Tea syrup? Yes, let’s try it.

So my friend Maria brought over 5 lbs of peaches, earl grey tea bags, and I had the sugar, the lemon juice and the jars.  She peeled, pitted and sliced them into ½” sections and layered them with the sugar and lemon juice in the large stockpot and left it for 30 minutes to release some juices. Then I placed it on medium heat and while stirring to dissolve the sugar, added 4 teabags. The recipe directed to open one tea bag and stir the leaves into the fruit. As the mixture heated up, the tea began to color it light brown and it released a the mild floral fragrance of bergamot.. Brought the mixture to a full rolling boil, cooked for a couple of minutes, stirring fast of course. We added one pouch of liquid pectin and cooked for another one minute. Then we had a little bit of jell, but with a preserves you want a clear jelly like syrup, not stiff. The consistency improved as it cooled in the jars and the flavors needed some time to combine. You can see the tea leaves in the syrup. The leaves escaped the bags when the preserves was boiling. I don't think I am happy with that.