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The homegrown berry harvest has been stuck for years at about a dozen strawberries. Per year. In prior times this meant a few intense summery bites in a composed salad or a creamy dessert. Prospects were low for an increase in harvest size; our plants grew in pots, their runners stymied by by concrete and wood and trampled by dogs.
These days a free-range Biscuit pounces on anything showing a blush of crimson, meaning that the berries rarely make it back to the kitchen.
I’m coming to terms with the reality that we grow berries now mostly to make a point. Feeding a family has come to mean purchasing fruit in quantity, wherever it’s sold — at the grocery store, produce markets, from farmshares and from Costco, where berries are sold in giant plastic clamshells that carve up your hands if you’re careless.
It’s quite the opposite of what we first practiced when embarking upon this local food adventure, and not exactly the model I envisioned setting for our daughter. Fact is, though, we’re not doing very many composed salads right now. We’re reconsidering our household approach to dessert. And more to the point we’ve decided that good eating means you may eat as many fruits, vegetables, and nuts as you’d like, at meal and designated snack times. And that means having ample fresh supply on hand without killing the family shopper. It’s a method that works for all right now, including a toddler who manages to eat widely, and well.
A trip to the farmers market with the Biscuit — what could be better? Well. Set this Biscuit down on two wheels, and you better keep one eye on the pickling cucumbers stored down low while you browse the chile peppers and eggplants. I was feeling ambitious: corn and tomatoes looked at their prime, there were huge boxes of fragrant summer fruit, and plenty of stuff the Biscuit actually eats, like broccoli and chard.
But not so fast. The little critter ducked under the tables and climbed into crates of plums and apples, pausing briefly to pet a doggy. I was not to be deterred; I scooped her up, stopped to look at the carrots and greens, picked up a happy bundle of dahlias. We contemplated potatoes.
“You sure do like to sing,” a woman told the Biscuit on our way out.
These days we get to the farmers market so infrequently that I try to cram it all in. Which means sometimes I forget when to say when, and back home found the peaches and perfectly ripe tomatoes smashed to a pulp, having jostled with a honeydew melon and a purple cabbage, and lost.
Oh not funny, not funny at all.
But eventually I got over it, with this jam. You need to bring your ambitions down from the heights, this is your recipe.
Peach and Ginger Freezer Jam
1 lb peaches / 1 oz minced crystallized ginger / 2 cups sugar / 1 tbls lemon juice / ½ package pectin
Blanch peaches in boiling water for one minute. Drain, then peel and pit peaches. Crush fruit flesh with your fingers and mix with minced ginger, sugar, and lemon juice, then bring to a boil hard for one minute in a medium saucepan. Add reconstituted pectin and stir. Pour into glass jars. Store in the fridge, using within two weeks, or freeze for up to three months.
Here’s my new favorite way to preserve pears, which are low in pectin and thus not great for jam. Long cooking reduces the fruit to a buttery consistency, and the spices impart nice seasonal flavor to what’s otherwise a subtle (bland) fruit. Above, pear butter on pear-ginger muffins.
Recipe: Pear Butter
3 lbs ripe pears / 2 cups light brown sugar, approx. / 2 cinnamon sticks / 2 slices ginger, ½-inch each / ¼ tsp ground cloves / ¼ tsp ground allspice
Peel, core and chop pears. Cook in a large saucepan 20 minutes so, until soft. Add 3 tbls water if needed to keep pears from scorching. When pears are soft, measure their volume and add half the volume in sugar. Add spices and cook over low heat until very thick, 1-2 hours, stirring occasionally.
When pear butter is thick, remove cinnamon and ginger. If canning, ladle the butter into small self-sealing jars and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Adapted from Linda Ziedrich. Makes about 2 pints.
Pears feel quintessentially of winter but are in season right now in my friend’s south Seattle backyard — no matter that we’re in the thick of nectarines and melons at the farmers markets. Still, you don’t argue with Nature. I came right over when my friend mentioned that the weather had knocked half of them off his tree, and in short order I’d gathered ten pounds of Bartletts and a handful of Asian pears. Some were green and hard as a rock but most of them gold-skinned and ripening quickly.
Ten pounds and you’re talking cooked fruit or preserves. We had dinner guests coming, so the first dozen I slow-poached in a Riesling with lemon, cloves, vanilla bean, and ginger. They were delicious with pistachio ice cream; the leftovers made for a great crepe filling.
Next I tried Nigella Lawson’s pear-ginger muffins, featuring her secret baking weapon, sour cream. Easy and delicious, but they made just a minor dent in the pile of fruit, which was starting to attract dark clouds of fruit flies.
To finish off the supply I attempted a batch of pear-ginger jam, also infused with ginger and lemon, but it didn’t gell, which makes it a compote I suppose. I’ll go back for more pears soon and will hopefully find a more effective recipe next time. Meantime, here’s what I’ve gleaned about cooked pears:
1. Use firm fruit that is just starting to ripen. The firmer pears stand up to long poaching times and don’t completely fall apart during jam making.
2. Pears have low pectin content. Adding processed pectin or extra sugar can thicken jams; or consider adding lemon zest or green apples, which have higher levels of natural pectin.
3. Good partners for pears include ginger, lemon, vanilla, rosemary, basil, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom.
Recipe: Pears Poached in Riesling
6 firm pears, halved and cored / ½ bottle Riesling / 1 tbls ginger, minced / 5 cloves / zest of 1 lemon / ½ vanilla bean / ¼ cup sugar /
Place pear halves, Riesling, ginger, cloves, lemon zest, and vanilla bean in a heavy pot, adding water if needed so pears are just covered. Bring to a boil, then turn down to simmer for about 40 minutes, until pears are softened. Remove fruit. Scrape seeds of vanilla bean into remaining pear juices and bring back to a boil, adding sugar, and reducing until liquid is thickened and syrupy. Strain if desired. Serve pears chilled and tossed with their syrup alongside vanilla ice cream, or as a filling for sweet crepes. Feeds 6-10.
—> Check out a more recent post for a pear butter recipe.
Palmer, Alaska farmer Arthur Keyes has been experimenting with a pair of California strawberry varieties this summer. The California-in-Alaska story seems improbable, but Keyes sees a huge upside to growing the berries in Alaska. The fruit can ripen on the plant, increasing sweetness, and Alaska’s harsh winters and isolation mean that there are very few crop-threatening pests.
An artisan farmer has a tough job with very narrow margins, but if a creative thinker can find niche market….
Keyes says the strawberries have been very popular with his customers at the South Anchorage Farmers Market and I’m interested to see what happens next year if he expands his operation as planned.
It’s blackberry abundance around these parts, and judging from the masses of green berries about town, it should continue to be so for a while.
Which means a person can afford to play around a little bit. So I thought I’d turn a quart of “seconds” into a smooth sauce, a good workaround for urban berries with big, gritty seeds. And since I was making the effort, I thought I’d experiment a bit with the berry’s dark, lush flavors — turns out you can go sweet or savory. It being summer, sweet and light was the easy choice for me. Cursory investigation indicated that the berries would meld well with liqueurs such as kirsch and framboise, and with citrus flavors, lemon being most popular.
I opted for orange zest plus a splash of Grand Marnier, and though the resulting syrup was too subtle for the overpowering sourness of yogurt, the subtle bittersweet flavors were tremendous over plain vanilla ice cream, making for the easiest late summer dessert imaginable.
Recipe: Sweet Blackberry Syrup
2 cups blackberries / ¼ cup granulated sugar, or to taste / 1 tbls orange zest, chopped / 1 tbls Grand Marnier, or to taste
Cook the blackberries, sugar, and zest over medium heat, adding a bit of water if the pot is too dry. When berries have collapsed, about ten minutes, run the mixture through a food mill, then stir in Grand Marnier and reduce over low heat until thickened to desired consistency. Makes about 1 cup. Cool and serve with vanilla ice cream. Stays good for weeks in the fridge.
Thanks to an unusually hot summer, we’re already in the thick of things at the farmers markets, and that means meals are just about making themselves these days. This weekend’s table features pancakes gussied up with mouth-watering seasonal fruit — raspberries scored from Willie Green’s, peaches from Tonnemaker, and blackberries from down the street. The hardest part is getting the peaches home without their lush, sweet juices bursting through their jackets. Which is another way of saying that life is pretty darn good right now.
Just a little something I spotted in a neglected yard where there’s all-day sun. That puts us three weeks ahead of last year’s first blackberries, something I’d attribute to the summer’s unusually hot weather. (I mean, sunshine on the 4th of July? When does that happen in Seattle?) So I hustled on down to my secret berry picking spot, only to find lots of green nubs still some days from ripe. Soon enough.
My friend Justin called yesterday sounding desperate. “Come by and pick some plums. They’re ripe now. A few days, and it all turns to mush.”
So I gathered my cloth bags and trekked up the hill. The situation: a single plum tree with two varieties of fruit — one small and yellow with a beautiful crimson blush, the other a brilliant purple, with reddish flesh. Fruit was everywhere — tumbling through the bushes, rolling down to the sidewalk, piling up on the mulch. No problem, I thought, I’ll take everything you’ve got. As I gathered my loot, several more plums dropped from the tree and landed dully on the ground. In the end I brought back five pounds, and it hardly made a dent.
If you’re in Seattle and you’ll never finish eating the fruit on your tree, please consider having Lettuce Link pick your trees and donate the fruit to local food banks and shelters. They’re interested in unsprayed plums, apples, and pears that aren’t wormy. The upsides for you include a mush-free yard, a tax deduction, and good karma. To arrange a pickup, contact Sadie at email@example.com or . They also need volunteers to help pick trees and deliver fruit.
I’m not a forager, but I like to read those who are — such as Lang, local forager extraordinare. I think the stories help me look at the world a little differently, especially when I’m out on foot. Which is probably what caused me to notice the little berry plant growing in my neighbor’s wild and unruly side yard in the first place. How the plant got there I’ll never know, but last year I snacked on a few delicious berries while pruning back her overgrown wax myrtle, and the fruit was gone before I thought to identify it.
This year the plant produced dozens of berries. A few days back I plucked the ripest into a bowl and there was no doubt from the sweet, thick scent that they were raspberries. The harvest was just enough to add divine flavor to a couple of bowls of chocolate ice cream — good trade for a teeny bit of extra yardwork.