I’ve tried canning exactly once. It was back when we lived in Manhattan, and had a whiskey-barrel garden on the roof of our building. One year we ended up with a nice crop of red peppers, both hot and sweet, so I thought we’d try hot pepper jelly.
We picked, we chopped, we processed. We followed the instructions to the letter. We even had little labels printed up: Rooftop Red – Hot Pepper Jelly. We ended up with about twenty little jars. Those were twenty little jars I was very proud of, what with this being my first canning attempt.
I’d read quite a bit about hot pepper jelly, and several experienced canners warned that it might take time to set – even a couple of weeks. So we weren’t worried when the contents stayed liquid for the first day or two. We just put our jars in a corner and checked their beautiful red-gold contents every morning, waiting for the day we finally had jelly.
Hope is said to spring eternal but, in the case of jelly, it peters out after about a month. That was when we resigned ourselves to being the proud possessors of twenty jars of unset hot pepper jelly. We took our labels, crossed out ‘Jelly,’ wrote in ‘Syrup,’ and made the best of it.
Turns out, hot pepper syrup is a very useful ingredient. It can go in sauces and stir-fries, particularly those with an Asian bent, to add both sweetness and heat. I started using it regularly, and even gave some jars to friends.
One went to Kevin’s friend Dave, a serious cook. Although Dave lives in Vermont, he is a dyed-in-the-wool southerner, as is his wife, Bonnie. Although I have never actually met Bonnie, I am given to understand that she has mad canning skills, and can turn just about anything even distantly related to fruit into a jam that’s worth getting up in the morning for.
I didn’t witness what happened when Dave took our jelly home and showed it to Bonnie. I only have it second-hand, but I can see it clearly in my mind’s eye.
Bonnie took it and held it up to the light. She tilted the jar, and saw that the contents didn’t tilt with it. She sighed, and put it down on the counter. And then, in a honeyed Southern drawl, in pity rather than censure, she said, “Damn Yankees can’t can.”
Is there something in the water south of the Mason-Dixon line, so that you grow up just knowing how to fry chicken and bake biscuits and can anything that isn’t tied down? I’m generally opposed to bottled water, but if they could bottle some of that and ship it up here, I’d stock up.
Being as that’s unlikely, I thought I’d move on to Plan B.
Fortunately, it turns out that canning skills aren’t the exclusive province of Southerners. My friend Mary, Yankee though she be, can most certainly can, and she was willing to take me on as an apprentice.
September is canning season on Cape Cod, and it wasn’t long before we got our opportunity. Our friend Dianne (who is editor of Edible Cape Cod, a fine publication for which Mary and I both write) has a robust berry patch that left her with more blackberries and raspberries than she knew what to do with. Could we harvest the berries in return for a couple of jars of the resulting jam, we asked. Yes, we could!
Over the course of two morning sessions, we picked about eight pounds of fruit. Of course, we had the help of Mary’s two small children, Sophie and Alasdair, who, unlike children the world over, actually put more berries in the basket than in their mouths.
(Sophie and Alasdair are two of the most photogenic children on the planet, and the berry-picking incident made me a little afraid that their behavior might be as angelic as their appearance, a circumstance that would make them too insipid for words, like something out of Dickens. I have since learned, to my great relief, that they both hold their own in the mischief department, and Alasdair may even be ahead of the curve.)
We brought the fruit to Mary’s house, washed it and picked it over, and combined it with the other ingredients (specifically, 2 ¼ pounds fruit, 3 ¾ cups sugar, juice of one lemon, 6 pieces star anise – a variation on a recipe out of Mes Confitures, by Christine Ferber). From there, it was all about the boiling.
In fact, I don’t know why they call it canning at all. They should cut to the chase and call it boiling, because that is the only thing that’s involved.
You boil the ingredients until the mixture coats the back of a wooden spoon. Meanwhile, you boil the jars, lids, and rims. When the jam’s ready to go, you pull a jar out of the boiling water, fill it (leaving headspace) with boiling jam, wipe the rim with more boiling water, and then put on a lid and a rim. Once you’ve got a bunch of filled jars, you submerge the lot of them in boiling water and boil them for fifteen minutes.
Mary made it look easy; she’s got the equipment, the expertise, and the can-do attitude. I just hung out in her kitchen, did what I was told, and walked away with eight lovely jars of blackberry/raspberry jam.
As a token of my appreciation, I was thinking about giving her a jar of red pepper syrup, but I’ve been down that road, so I gave her tomatoes from our garden instead.