It’s been a real crash course ever since plums rained down from the sky some five days ago. My first glimpse of the task ahead came on realizing I didn’t know jam from jelly, nor compote from chutney. And that’s just the vocabulary. There’s plenty else to consider before embarking on your first food preservation odyssey. You hear stories of whole families being felled by botulism, such as the man and his grandson hospitalized in Ohio last week after eating improperly canned green beans. You’d be wise to spend a few moments contemplating the apparent problem there, which sounded like one of impatience — canning performed without the inconvenient heating step at the finish.

The heating step? First things first. I needed to get a handle on cooking fruit before things got any more complicated, so I started by fixing up a pot of Food and Wine‘s Italian plum compote with star anise and orange peel. This isn’t a bad way to get your feet wet, not at all. The compote had ambrosial flavor and lots of potential for interesting pairings; I kept some out to eat with crepes and ice cream and froze the rest for later use with roasted duck and grilled pork ribs. I’m sure we’ll find other tasty ways with the stuff too.

Next up was a spiced plum chutney that rated four forks on epicuious.com and was a cinch to assemble. We sampled it with pan-fried pork chops and the flavor was very good, though ten pounds of plums later, not so memorable that I can describe it for you. This went to the freezer as well. Then it was time to attempt a cinnamon plum chutney with the sort of sugar-vinegar levels generally associated with safe and responsible canning. This second chutney was sharp, lovely, and easy to make, a good thing since I was distracted fussing with the boiling water bath. The bath operates accordingly to a strict protocol — once the jars are clean and hot, you can practically hear the metronome ticking. Everything has to happen in a particular order or you don’t pass Go.

After a few tries I felt I had the process fairly well under my grasp and began entertaining thoughts of, well, skipping the boiling water bath. There’s a neat little trick of inverting the hot, filled jars that moves everything along nicely while also preventing scalded thumbs, and is endorsed by a number of prominent food writers. But I finally settled with the party line as preached by the more conservative National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia. They believe that you just have to boil the crap out of whatever you’re canning. And for God’s sakes, don’t tip those jars.

Meantime there were still five pounds of plums madly ripening in a cardboard box, so I marshalled the energy for one more recipe. Hank of Hunter Angler Gardener Cook dangled his plum wine recipe and I know we’d happily consume the product, if only there were enough fruit to pull it off. That one’s for next year. Sally of Mixed Greens suggested plum butter and her way couldn’t be easier — you place the fruit in a crock and cook on low for two days, a solid kitchen staple. What I opted for in the end was a batch of plum jam with cardamom. Not only was the jam as simple and fabulous as it sounds, but the canning lids pinged shortly after coming out of their bath. How satisfying was that?

Check out a previous post on dried plums for another superb and simple way of preserving these babies. The recipe for Plum Jam with Cardamom:

Recipe: Madelaine Bullwinkel’s Plum Jam with Cardamom

3 lbs Italian plums / 7 cardamom pods / ½ cup water / 1½ cup sugar

Rinse plums gently then halve, remove pits, and chop finely, or pulse in a food processor. Crack cardamom pods with a mortar and pestle and grind seeds finely. Tie hulls in a piece of cheesecloth. Place plums, cardamom seeds and cheesecloth package in a heavy pot, add water, and bring to a boil. Turn down heat and simmer for 10 minutes or so. Add sugar slowly and bring back to a boil, then turn down to medium heat and continue cooking, stirring periodically until jam is thickened, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, set jars and lids in boiling water for 10 minutes, then remove. Extract cheesecloth package from jam. Fill jars to ¼” below the rim, screw on lids, and immerse in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes, ensuring at least 1″ of water above the jar lids. When finished, remove and cool on a rack. Makes 2 generous pints.

*Jams are cooked, macerated fruit. Jellies are strained through cheesecloth for clarity and require pectin to jell. Compotes are cooked in a sweet syrup and chutneys are both sweet and sour, the latter quality typically derived from vinegar.

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