Beebop a reebop a Japanese Knotweed preserve

Among the many fantasy hobbies I have, one of my favorites is fantasy foraging. All winter long, I have Northeast Foraging on my bedside stand, attempting to memorize the facts for field garlic or may apples or fiddleheads so that on some future date I might be walking through the Fells, stop short and knowingly declare to my companion “Ah, it looks like the epazote is in season. Excellent, my last preserved set is nearly done, and my enchiladas simply aren’t the same without it!” Then (in my fantasy life) I’d take out my beautifully prepared foraging kit, expertly select a sustainable harvest of the plant in question, and then go home and use it in my latest home cooked meal that night.

I do have a great imagination, don’t I? It’s a consolation in this troubled age.

On Saturday, Adam and I took a run along a portion of the as-yet-unfinished Tri-Community Greenway. Running along, I spotted not two blocks from my house one of the approximately five plants I *can* ID at sight – the ubiquitous Japanese Knotweed.

A common sight

Today, in a break in the rain, Adam and I returned to the spot, knives in hand, to make our harvest. A very very short time later we had about 10x more knotweed than we needed, and I returned to the kitchen. In my fozen reserves are one pound of chopped rhubarb from last season. It’s difficult to get one’s rhubarb and one’s strawberries to tie out perfectly, especially when one has preteen boys who like strawberries. So here’s my plan – I’m going to make rhubarb knotweed jam, using a rhubarb jam recipe. It’ll probably be really quite sour. It may be terrible. It may be amazing. Here’s the journey of discovery!

Step 1: Cut up the knotweed
Fortunately, my handy foraging book explains how to prep the knotweed for use. I only used the smallest shoots, guaranteeing tenderness. I contemplate, cutting them up, how much like octopus they look. I’ve given up eating octopus on the belief that they’re too smart to eat. The same may be true of Japanese Knotweed, but I show no mercy to the invasives.

Choppy choppy

Step 2: Decide on a jam recipe
So here’s a secret for you. There aren’t THAT many variables in a jam recipe. Basically you have fruit mass, sourness, sugar & pectin. The only tricky one is pectin – some plants have it natively (mostly apples). Most don’t. I ended up with:

1 lb cut japanese knotweed
1 lb frozen cut rhubarb
1/2 cup water
7 cups sugar
1 tablespoon butter (I always add this, despite no recipes ever calling for it, to keep the foaming down. #secrets)
1 tablespoon lemon juice (I debated – this was definitely sour enough – but decided the anti-oxidation factor was worthwhile)
1 packet liquid pectin (Certo)

First I boiled the rhubarb & knotweed in the water until tender.
Then I added the butter & sugar & lemon juice.
Once it was at a roiling boil, I added the pectin & boiled for one additional minute.
Then I jarred it.

Step 3: Realize that making up recipes is harder than it looks
Japanese knotweed is green. Rhubarb is dominantly red. When you mix red and green together, whaddya get? That’s right. Puke brown. With greenish flecks. The color was just… wrong. Bad wrong. You think about taste in a recipe. Perhaps while baking you think about leavening. But you forget about color, about scent and about texture. Or rather, I did. This one had like 5/7 correct. That is, er, not enough.

Not a good food color

Still I sallied on. Lots of foods go through ugly duckling stages. And hey, were we so shallow that we wouldn’t eat food just because it tasted red and looked brown? Well, maybe. I started coming up with a list of people who were known to be polite, regardless of provocation. You know, possible future jam-gift recipients.

Step 4: But how does it look in practical applications?
A great joy in life is mopping up hot jam with fresh bread. The moment of truth arrived. I have 8 jars of this stuff. Would this be my stocking stuffer at Christmas to the long-suffering? Would it be so bad I should just pour it out here and now? Had I discovered a new culinary delight, the likes of which the world had never seen? It was the moment of truth.

It definitely looks better in small quantities

And it was… pretty good? Not bad? Probably better than the jam you get at Denny’s in the little square Smucker’s packages? Perhaps? If you’re into a sort of, er, greenish flavor overtone? And it doesn’t look quite as bad in the jar as in the pot, either.

Could be, uh, something with cinnamon

Step 5: Make other people eat it
I didn’t invite anyone to dinner tonight. No, I rather informed them that they were eating my food. Unless they had a better idea, which I knew they didn’t. I didn’t invite someone who would give me a polite platitude, but rather someone who would tell it to me like it is. I got a mixed reaction – I got neither a flat rejection, nor a subtle request to go home with a jar.

So, all in all, probably a B- effort. That’s below the level I’d need to repeat the experiment.

It definitely looks chives-y on bread. It’s not.

What did we learn from all this?

1) It’s easy to harvest too much Japanese knotweed, but no one cares if you do

2) Maybe it would be good pickled. I liked the shape of the circles. Raw, it’s ok but nothing you’d ever crave. It is apparently very high in resveratrol, but I’m pretty sure the 2:1 sugar to weed ratio more than counterbalances that. Also, I’m pretty sure resveratrol is just an excuse to drink wine.

3) I actually liked it as a jam ingredient except for the critical failing of color. I am trying to think of a seasonal, local green fruit to pair it with. I thought of green grape (I think a sweeter pairing would be better than sour/sour). If you like mint, I think that would be a really interesting pairing (cut down on the sugar and make it a meat sauce). It might also go well in a pie. I’m thinking blueberry would overcome any green and balance it out. I have quite a bit set aside in the freezer, so I might actually try this latter option.

So friends! If you would like some extremely nutritious, hyper-local, small batch artesenal jam, let me know. I have seven jars currently looking for a home – first come, first served!

Just not quite right
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The Impossible Dream – Damson Plum Jam

Many of you are familiar with my age-long quest to make Damson Plum Jam. It’s been six years now that I’ve had a plum tree in my yard, waiting for that magic year when the winter wouldn’t destroy the entire region’s stone fruit crop (it has the last two winters in a row), when my tree was mature enough, when those stupid cut-worms were off-timing so that I could FINALLY get some plums off my tree.

Friends, I have terrible news.

I’ve been keeping an eagle-eyed watch on my plum tree this year, largely due to the complete kills from the last two years. When the end of February hit and the weather was so warm, my plum tree started getting ideas about it possibly being spring. This is what’s killed my harvest the last two years. So I checked on bud progression every day, willing it to take it slow and not try to grow up too fast. (Parenting and plums have more in common than you think.) And I noticed this weird black stuff. I didn’t think too much of it. Trees have galls and weird things all the time. Surely this was just a weird thing. I poked at it. It seemed very hard, and it didn’t crack off. I resolved to look up what it was “later”.

Black mark of deathly doom

Later arrived Sunday, in my survey of the state of blooms as we batten down for our third Nor’Easter in like 10 days. (Starting Tuesday. UGH.) I finally Googled “plum black knot” and the results curdled the pit of my stomach. It was like eating prunes, only I don’t have any prunes because I don’t have any plums and also I kind of like prunes.

Black knot is a fungal disease that strikes fear in the hearts of owners of plum trees. It doesn’t matter if they are edible plums or the decorative, landscaping variety, the trees could be fatally affected.

(citation)

It seems so unfair! This tree has yet to bear a single plum! I don’t even know what a damson tastes like! I’ve been nurturing it for 7 years now. And now this! A number of sources were like “Yeah, if your tree has this you should probably just get rid of it.” Noooo!!!

With the thaw coming any day now, and the return of the warmer weather likely to happen SOMETIME in the next two weeks (please please please) Adam and I went out to deal with it immediately. If we were going to do this, completely and early was our best strategy. Maybe we can stop the spread to the other branches? There were six galls, but only six. I was still in my church dress. We ravaged the limbs of the quiescent tree with ruthless branch clippers. Limb after limb, studded with incipient buds, was severed and dropped onto the snowbanks below. We lost the second largest stem of the tree. This isn’t a great time to prune, either, since right now the tree is susceptible to more infections from these scars we inflicted. It feels like a long shot. Did we buy the tree time to at least have a few plums first? Is is a lost cause? Am I forever condemned to go damson plum jamless?

We will see what this spring brings, and hope.

Dreams I have had

Makes preserves, and redeems us

I’m sitting in the kitchen, waiting for my apple butter to cook. It’s mid-October, so unless I get 70 apples on Monday (it’s happened before…) I’m probably done with my seasonal canning for the year. I have a farm share – a double fruit share and a theoretically small but is actually vast vegetable share. I try, as much as possible, to do my preserving from this local, fresh, organic produce. So with my source of prepaid goodies ending soon, I’ll hang up my magnetic lid grabber, at least for now.

I feel like this was an off year for jam. I blame it entirely on plums. Previous years, I’ve gotten loads of plums — significant amounts of 3 or 4 varietals. There were Shiro Plums and black plums and Italian prune plums and “I don’t know, they’re just plums” plums. (There have never been Damson plums, to my tremendous disappointment. This might be the lamest bucket list item ever, but I really want to make damson plum jam.) This year, we got Italian prune plums once! Not nearly enough to turn into jam, either! So I made at least three fewer batches of plum jam than in previous years. I even repeatedly went to farmer’s markets looking for plums and found NADDA. Apparently plums aren’t hip. But man, they make delicious jam. I may yet break down and buy (shudder) supermarket plums and turn them into jam. We’ll see how big the rebellion in the troops is before we take such a drastic step.

Also on my weirdo bucket list: crabapple jelly. I can’t find a source of crabapples, and of course nobody but nobody sells crabapples. So if you have a crabapple tree (or know of an unloved one) and live in the greater Boston area, let me know. I pay in jam.

Also also: one of these days I’m going to make rosehip jelly. Slightly easier to find than crabapples, but require the chutzpah to go to some random shrub and start harvesting.

What did I make this year? I made:
2x Strawberry jam (a perennial favorite)
1x Strawberry rhubarb (which tastes identical to the strawberry)
1x Concord Grape jelly (check that one off my bucket list!)
1x Blueberry jelly (no on in my family likes it, but the farmshare gives me blueberries by the bucket and it makes a nice gift)
1x Peach butter (a labor of love!)
1x Apple butter (makes a huge amount)

I’d been thinking about making hot pepper jelly, but my neighbor made some and I figured that was enough hot pepper jelly for one street for this year.

I was thinking about making some of the more unusual recipes from my beloved “Ball Book of Home Preserving”. There’s a curried apple chutney that would help if I only get 45 apples next week, which sounds fascinating and exotic. Oh, and I think I’ll preserve some Pomegranate molasses, because I need it for my favorite cranberry sauce, and it’s a pain to make during Mocksgiving, and I only need a bit of it… so it would be a good candidate for canning.

Then again, if I never peel and core another apple it might be too soon.

Oh, also, for those following the drama… I did get to remove my brace yesterday. Yay!

So tell me… which one of my jams sounds best? Why are there no plums to be had this year? What should I find a way to make happen

Breaking news

So rumor on the street is that there’s a worldwide shortage of FUDGE dice caused by the emergence of a Dresden Files game using the mechanic.

I’m happy to say that I was cool and using FUDGE dice years, YEARS before the bandwagon fans did. My house is well supplied with FUDGE dice, as well as enough D12s for a whole HORDE of barbarians.

D6 gold, baby
D6 gold, baby

We have an unreasonable amount of dice. Grey could correctly conjugate die/dice by age 2.

Ahem.

In slightly less geeky news, batch 3 of plum jam is popping away on the counter. It still looks darker than last year’s magic batch. I wish I knew what varietal it was. I’m pretty sure these aren’t damson plums, and from what I’ve read I may have to track down some damsons for yet another batch, because they sound awesome.

Grey brought one of his Star Wars books to school today and read it to his class. I wonder if he pronounced the “r”s? It’s funny what even an open-minded parent like myself won’t put up with.

OK. Dice shortages and yet another jam update. That’s a sign that I should leave you all to your sweet dreams!

Enjoy your week of summer!

It’s hot here in the greater Boston area. The last three days it’s been in the low 90s during the day, high 70s at night with the standard miserable amount of humidity. It has been a very cold summer so far. This has been our first real heat wave, and given that we’re in the middle of August, there isn’t a whole lot of really hot possibilities left. We don’t have central air conditioning — instead we have four really big, really have box ACs that we usually put in the windows — cursing and sweating — somewhere in early July. They’re so obnoxious to install and then remove that we don’t put them in until we HAVE to. And now it seems a little late. All that effort for the remaining two or three weeks where it MIGHT be that hot? Turn on the overhead fans, and suffer, says I.

Then on Saturday in his good-night nursing, Thane seemed hot. Really hot. To the touch. All that night he seemed really hot. When we finally got around to taking his temperature, even after we’d administered Tylenol, it came in at 102.4. Ouch. 90 outside. 102.4 in your body. So you’d think that Thane would be super fussy and uncomfortable. Nah. He’s mellow and going with the flow, although he is a touch fussier than usual and is completely uninterested in food. (That’s ok — you don’t need to eat a ton all the time. I do, however, wish he was more interested in beverages. I think he’s at high risk for dehydration.)

So my helpful brother installed the AC in Thane’s room. It’s already one of my favorite rooms in the house. Now, however, I am trying to talk my husband into moving our bed there.

I’m working from home with Thane today. My brother took Grey to and (will) from daycare, and is pinch-hitting with Thane while I work. His temp was down to an unmedicated 99.9 this morning and 99.4 this afternoon, so he’s clearly on the mend. I might’ve sent him to daycare this time last year, but with the swine flu rooting around, it seems like the better thing to do to keep him home. My only regret is that work has AC.

I spent most of the weekend making jam. Ok, that’s not ACTUALLY true, but it feels true. On Saturday, after swimming lessons and before our trip to the pool I made a batch of strawberry jam from $2/pint organic strawberries from the Farmer’s Market outside the YMCA in Melrose. Then I made blueberry jam from our farmshare blueberries. Then I realized I’d totally underestimated just how much sugar jam takes and my paltry 5 lb bag was completed wiped out.

Sunday, my husband and Grey picked up more sugar and pectin for me after church. I put in a second batch of strawberry jam from the farmer’s market strawberries (strawberry is the jam of choice in our household). I have plans for two to three more batches. I have peaches, but I didn’t buy QUITE enough and I’m likely to get some from our farmshare tomorrow. Also, the peaches aren’t quite ripe, so they can stand another day or two of sitting around. I’m also planning on farmshare apricot jam. I got only about half the apricots I needed, so I processed them and will hopefully get another 20 apricots this week, which should be enough. My husband has requested marmalade, which I’ve never made before, so I may give that a shot, too.

So my jam count:
2 strawberry (completed)
1 blueberry (completed – unless I get a lot more farmshare blueberrries)
1 peach (fruit obtained)
1 apricot (50% fruit obtained)
1 marmalade (speculative)

I find jamming intensely satisfying. There is something about capturing the moment – about your hard work turning these ephemeral items into the durable, delicious product that I will eat for the rest of the year, share with friends, give as gifts, and feed my family with.

It’s also something I’ve done since I was a girl. My mom has been making raspberry jam every summer since well before I was, er, 6? I know we had raspberries in Prosser, and I think she planted them in Bonner’s Ferry. Fresh homemade jam plus fresh homemade bread is one of the great delights of summer.

When I stand stirring the dark jam, the hot sugar and fruit smell permeated the kitchen, with sweat beading out and darkening the small curls on the back of my neck, hearing the “pop” of the previous batch of jam setting. Well. Those are the moments that are the last to leave you when you look back on your life.

Daydreaming of Raspberries

This was a weekend of two daydreams — although the weekend was a wonderful dream in it’s own right.

Raspberries — wherever we’ve lived my mom has planted raspberries. (Man, it sounds nostalgic when you say it like that). My parents have a huge plot of raspberries where they are — which is constant need of weeding. It’s the only thing mom ever remembers to water. Every year, there are massive amounts of raspberries to be gathered. Mom and I would make raspberry jam together — even if we could only do so in the very brief vacations I came home. I would often go out and pick the raspberries in the cool of the morning, where the dew still clings to the part of the lawn not yet touched by late-rising sun. It’s impossible to pick raspberries without eating some, and they are always bountiful in flavor and soft on the tongue. It’s also impossible to pick them properly without getting your arms scratched up and berry-stains on the knees of your jeans… with sad berry corspes caught in your toes. But that’s another story. Once I’d worked my way down the line of raspberries and back, I’d usually have more than enough for a batch of jam. The amount I’d pick in a morning costs about $20 here, probably because raspberries are hard to pick and transport.

I’d bring them inside, and we’d rinse them. Then we’d start to squish them with the back of forks in glass pie plates. This is a tricky manuever, since the goal of a raspberry is to turn you red with a permanent stain. But unlike strawberries, it’s highly satisfying to squash raspberries with a fork. They go splat very easily.

4 cups crushed raspberries
7 cups sugar
1 teaspoon margarine (to keep a skin from forming)
1 packet CERTO pectin

The sugar/raspberry combination becomes liquid almost immediately. The margarine floats on the top of the mix for a long time, until the the mixture becomes hot. You have to stir for a long time — always longer than you think. And then things all come together at once. It hits a rolling boil and you dump in the Certo and stir like crazy for 60 seconds. Then you take off the heat. A brief fast moment to skim any skin that did happen and then I would pour into the jar (still hot from the dishwasher) with a big ladle, and then transfer the funnel to the next jar. Mom would wipe the jar lid with a hot dishcloth (attempting not to burn herself), and then pull a jar lid from the boiling water with two forks (attempting not to burn herself), put the lid on the jar and screw it tight with the threaded lid-holders (attempting not to burn herself), and then turn it upside down (attempting not to burn herself).

And then you’re done. You pour any that’s left over into a bowl for dad to have with his toast. You start to clean up from the carnage of fast-moving jam splatters. You sit at the kitchen table talking about something, or maybe getting bread started. And then you hear the first one… ^pop^. Jam makes a distinctive noise when it seals, cooling enough to contract and make the lid convex instead of concave. The pop is the sound of success — of jam that will sit in the cupboard and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Jones camping cookies. I love the sound of jam sealing.

I would really like to make raspberry jam this summer. Raspberries cost more than gold, unfortunately, when purchased commercially. I planted raspberries, but they are still small, weak things — and probably will never thrive before I have to move. I called some u-pick places and there are very few summer raspberries — mostly they have an autumn pick here. But hopefully, come mid July, I will be able to live out this fantasy (with my husband ably standing in the place of my mother in the trying not to get burned department).