Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Strawberry Fields

Ross's Nikon Images 447 - CopyWhen I was a child my great- grandparents would come to visit every Sunday. They’d park their brown Plymouth at the top of the driveway and we’d gather on the porch to greet them. My tall, spectacled Grandpa would emerge first to open to door for my tiny grandma and they’d walk side by side his arm resting lightly on her shoulder up the grassy walk. She always carried their gift, a six pack of soda pop.

Back then soda came in those tall skinny bottles with the long necks. The Six-Pack would contain five Coca Cola’s and one Orange Crush. I have four brothers. Being the only girl, smack in the middle of the brood had its drawbacks but this was one of the perks. The Orange Crush was for me. In recognition of my femininity; my preference for dolls in a house full on Tonka trucks my grandparents always brought me a pretty little tasty bottle of Orange Crush.

Every now and then they’d mix it up a bit and substitute Strawberry Crush. Which is what this blog is about; the smell of Strawberry  Soda Pop on a sunny summer day .

Yesterday I took my children to pick strawberries. As we balanced our buckets a warm breeze wafted across the field carrying the scent of berries and I swear it smelled just like Strawberry Crush. Our purpose on this mild day was to pick strawberries for jam. Bald eagles circled as we picked our way across the field. Little E settled into the warm soil and alternated between placing berries in her bowl and in her mouth. In twenty minutes (adjusted to reflect the two trips to the bathroom required by E.) we’d picked 8 pounds of glossy red berries. As we left the field it was hard to resist the shiny little gems and by the time we got to the car our baskets nearly spilled over. My fingers were stained red and both E an d J had cheerful red stains on their chins (and cheeks and forehead and eyelids for E.) Ross's Nikon Images 449

After dinner that night I made five batches of strawberry jam. As I stirred the crushed fruit the smell of strawberry soda infused the air and I could almost see my grandparents at the table; chatting with my mom and dad a dark haired little girl darting in and out of the room.Ross's Nikon Images 583

Plain old strawberry jam can be bought at any grocery store. Making your own jam allows you to break out of the mold. I wanted my jam to have some pizzazz. To that end, I pondered great strawberry combinations. My first batch was a classic combination of strawberries and aged balsamic vinegar that smelled sweet and musty and earthy and made me think of old, old books. I like my jam to have some chunk so I didn’t crush the berries to a pulp. The result was a glorious ruby colored jam that wasn’t too sweet and tasted of fresh berries.

My herb garden provided the next inspiration. I flirted with Anise Hyssop but decided the licorice flavor overwhelmed my precious berries. I considered fennel, mint, rose petals and even tarragon but chose rambunctious take-over-the-garden Lemon Balm. I chopped up a couple of tablespoons and added it just before ladling the jam into the jars. I worried that the bits of green would turn black but it melted into the jam leaving a light herbal essence and no other evidence.

I was on an herbal roll so the next batch had tiny perfect pungent purple lavender flowers. I wanted the jam to have an almost imperceptible scent as a jam-laden scone reached the eater’s mouth. I wanted the experience to be relaxing and nostalgic and heady…but not to taste like lavender. Using a light touch I sprinkled a few flowers in the cooling jam…no scent…I added a few more…then more and then more and finally I stripped a couple lavender wands and dumped the whole bit. Success.

All this chemistry made me heady…my next experiment combined orange and strawberry. This combination has won two different taste tests so far. It’s J’s favorite and we’ve already eaten two of our four jars. The orange flavor was nearly as strong as the strawberries and tasted like orange marmalade without the bitterness that comes from all the orange peel. The color was a glorious bright red and glowed in its jar.

I’m married to a purist who’d be happiest with plain old strawberry jam.  So the next batch was unadulterated, all strawberry and nothin’ else jam just for R.

As I surveyed my work—16  jars lined up like proud tin soldiers, a warm, happy feeling came over me. I thought of my great grandparents, of warm summer days and thought that one day my children may smell the scent of fresh strawberries in the wind and will remember our day. strawberry jam 030

Strawberry Jam

Makes 4 half pints

I recommend Pomona’s Universal Pectin which uses calcium to activate the pectin allowing you to add as much or as little sugar as you want. You can even use honey.

Smash four cups of berries leaving some chunks. (You can smash them more when you cook the jam them if desired.)

Add 2 teaspoons calcium water (in the Pomona Pectic box) and stir well. In a separate bowl combine 1 ½ cups of sugar with 2 teaspoons of pectin. Mix well. Place your berry/calcium water combination on the stove and stir over medium heat until it comes to a boil. Add the sugar/pectin mixture in a steady stream. Don’t dump it in all at once as this seemed to make more foam. Continue stirring until your mixture comes to a boil. Continue stirring until you can feel it begin to thicken (about two minutes). Remove from heat.

For Strawberry Balsamic Jam: Add 1 tablespoon Balsamic Vinegar. Stir well and ladle into jars.

For Strawberry Lemon Balm Jam: Add 2 tablespoons chopped fresh lemon balm. Stir well and ladle into jars.

For Strawberry Lavender Jam: Add approximately 30 lavender flowers (not the whole wand but the tiny flowers that make up a wand). Stir well and ladle into jars.

For Strawberry Orange Jam: Add 2 teaspoons Balsamic Vinegar and the zest from one orange. Stir well and ladle into jars.

Seal with canning lids and process in a water bath for ten minutes. To prevent separation periodically shake the jars as the jam cools.

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