I could blame it on not enough sleep, too much stress, or the natural result of living in a place that can comfortably fit 3 million people, but has 8 million people squeezed into it, but I think I’ll blame the internets instead. Jo and Billy Boy and Realgurl and Pam are all coldridden, and now I am, too. As Richard Dreyfuss did not say, but would have if the opportunity had presented itself, “We’re going to need a bigger pot of soup.”
“I was driven to canning by the wreck of my heart,” Debby Bull writes in the opening sentence of Blue Jelly: Love Lost and the Lessons of Canning. You can read wonderful books about putting food up, and wonderful books about how to heal a broken heart, but this is the only one I have that addresses both. Debby Bull turned to canning after her boyfriend broke up with her in the midst of a dinner party to celebrate the publication of his novel; as part of the effort to get his stuff out of her house, she made huckleberry jam out of the huckleberries he had picked and stashed in the freezer, and from there she saw the means to get better. She says that canning works its magic in two ways: 1. You have to pay attention to what you’re doing. You sterilize your jars and lids, you cut up fruit (or vegetables, if you’re making pickles), you weigh, you measure, you boil everything like mad, you test for a set. There is a certain level of tedium involved, but you can’t let your mind wander off to contemplate the things you usually contemplate when your mind wanders, for therein lies the way to bad burns and scorched fruit on the bottom of the pan and jelly that has crossed the fine line between a firm set and a jujube. 2. When you’re done, you have something you can give away to other people, or put up in your pantry. This is what makes canning separate from, say, baking: when you bake, you pretty much have to eat what you’ve made right away, or give it away immediately, whereas jam or jelly or pickles will wait patiently for the right moment and the right recipient.
It has been a (thankfully) long time since I suffered that kind of wreck of my heart, but I can, and will, vouch for the calming properties of putting food by. Of course, I can say this now that I’m done, and have seven jars of crabapple jelly sitting in the kitchen. If I really wanted to put my money where my mouth was, I’d be back in the kitchen, slicing the blossoms off the six pounds of crabapples I bought yesterday, or cooking down the cherries and sugar I took out of the freezer yesterday morning, instead of consigning them to the fridge with a vague promise to turn them into sour cherry ice cream. Even at my most industrious, with the most abundant market haul sitting in my kitchen and the most abundant coffee-fueled energy reserves at my disposal, there comes at least one moment in every canning session where I decide I can’t cut up one more piece of fruit. The thought of washing all those jars and lids, the thought of filling up the canner, the thought of scrubbing sugar syrup off the kitchen table yet again, it is almost enough to get me to put everything away and write the whole damn thing off as a loss. Then I remember how much I like the moment where I bring fruit juice and sugar to the boil, and how neat it is when the excess water evaporates and you can see the point at which the sugar and fruit and their various acids and pectins kick in and do their stuff, and how good it feels when you do the plate test, pulling a plate from the freezer and dropping a little blob of syrup on it and nudging it with your finger and seeing it wrinkle obligingly, and thinking that’s it, it’s jelly! Then you pull the jars from the canner, you begin to ladle the jelly into the jars, and if your hands weren’t so busy, you’d be patting yourself on the back for how nice and clear the jelly is, the result of all the careful skimming you did during the boil, to get the sugar scum off the top. This is always a fun moment, but it’s particularly fun with crabapple jelly, which turns a beautiful shade of light seashell sunrise pink. You wouldn’t think that something so pretty, so fragrant and so delicious and tart and appley could come from such an unpromising package. Crabapples are pretty enough, but you don’t want to eat them. “Sour! Sour!” warns the stand at the market, but it’s not just the sourness that’s the problem. If they were merely sour, I’d be popping them into my mouth, pressing them against my cheek and biting down just enough to release the juice and send my tastebuds into shock, the way I do with those salty-sweet tamarind candies I bought at the Asian market in the Strip District in Pittsburgh. Nope, they are sour and dry and mealy, not what you want in an eating apple at all. Much like the damson is brought into its own with the careful application of sugar and lemon juice, so is the crabapple, albeit with a much different result.
I keep telling myself I’m going to try using crabapples in my absolute favorite jelly recipe, paradise jelly, a mix of apple, quince and cranberry that my parents fall over when I bring them a few jars at Christmas. Every time I have the opportunity, though, I shy away. Because the apples in paradise jelly share the stage with two other, more assertive fruits, it would probably be a waste to take such a singular jelly and bury its subtle charms beneath the louder ones of the cranberry and quince. Nope, I’ll keep making apple jelly until the crabapples are all gone, and then it will be time to stock up on Winesaps and Golden Russets, pounds of cranberries and bag after bag of fuzzy yellow honey-scented fuzzy quinces, the kind that compel me to pop my face inside the bag and inhale deeply and sigh out loud, loudly enough to cause my subway neighbors to move a seat or two and mutter about the drug problem.
Spinach plus sweet potatoes equals more, please: For the first three years I lived in New York, two of those years were spent in a predominantly Ukrainian neighborhood on the Lower East Side, where I put away a staggering, unhealthy but soul-satisfying quantity of pierogies: potato and onion, please, boiled, served with fried onions and applesauce. (I know people who think that a boiled pierogi is just a ravioli of a different color, and a pierogi isn’t a pierogi until it is fried and served with sour cream. That’s as may be, but as it is I can barely take a nibble without a frisson of guilt; add more fat to the mix and I’ll be too neurotic to eat the damn things.) In general, I am a purist about pierogi fillings: there is potato and onion (with maybe some mushroom thrown in), there is cheese and onion, there is sauerkraut. Then I hosted a friend from out of town, and we went to a restaurant that served a sweet potato and spinach pierogi. I did not have high hopes for this combination; I was afraid that the sweet potato would be afflicted by that common sweet potato affliction, too much added sugar in the form of maple syrup or brown sugar, but no, it was nice and savory. Ever since I tried them, I wondered how hard it would be to replicate them in my own kitchen. Yesterday I found the answer: not at all. It is not a good recipe for a harried after-work weeknight dinner, but it *is* good for a weekend, particularly if your cooking is—as mine frequently is—of the “cook it, throw it in the fridge, finish it later” stripe.
I probably know the answer to this, but I’ll pose it anyway...dear friends, are you interested in the recipe?