Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Blueberry Season

The smell of dehydrating blueberries is something magical and hard to describe. It's rich, and sweet, and tantalizing; the kind of thing that wafts through the house, and makes children and guests stop what they're doing and ask, “Are you cooking something?” and “What is that amazing smell?”

It started with a case of blueberries from the farmer's market. You see, though we definitely grow lots of our own, they usually get eaten fresh, gobbled by big juicy handfuls while my back is turned, leaving only a purple smear on an all too innocent face. And then there's the kids. So this year, I decided that if I wanted jam, I was just going to have to supplement. It's not a hardship. Our friends Jess and David Ripley over at MapleCorner Farm grow plenty every year, and their family has been farming that same rich patch of earth for 200 years. It's just down the road a ways. If you're going to have to buy berries, in my opinion, that's the way to go. They're also responsible for every drop of maple syrup we use, and I've never tasted finer.

I sent Shawn to the market to buy me at least 10 pounds of blueberries. That plus what we picked off our own bushes, I figured, would be plenty to last me the whole year. A batch of jam, and a little fruit leather. Perfect. He returned with an entire case of blueberries. 12 pounds of sweet, thin-skinned, floral-smelling, juicy delectableness, like a hoard of edible treasure. And let me tell you, I was like a mother dragon guarding those little purple gems. “No, you may NOT have any of these blueberries. Have some of THOSE blueberries we picked this morning. THESE are for jam and fruit leather.”

So I started what was to be a surprisingly long adventure. I filled the sink with cold water, and poured a good healthy slug of white vinegar in it (to remove mold spores and any residues), stirred, and in went 12 beautiful pounds of blueberries. A few minutes to soak, a couple of gentle swirls of the hand, and they were ready to pick through. Do you know how many berries there are in 12 pounds? Thousands. Maybe tens of thousands. I know it sure seemed like it, because I picked over every one of them. It took hours, and when I started to flag, Shawn jumped in and started to sort with me. We filled 3 bowls; one for the best berries, one for those that had to be used today, and one for duck food. Normally, most of what went into the duck food bowl could have been used for jam, but because of my mold allergies, I have to be a bit more careful. Anything with broken skin goes to the birds, but it's not a waste, because we just eat them as eggs. After everything was washed and sorted, all the berries were rinsed, and the best berries were spread out on towels to dry before being frozen for jam. They took up every square inch of counter space in the kitchen.

The second quality blueberries, once rinsed, went straight into the food processor, along with some maple syrup, lemon juice, and a little cinnamon. Then I spread them out on non-stick sheets, and put them in the dehydrator. Oh my goodness, the smell. That fruit leather slow roasted under my bedroom window all night. I'm pretty sure I drooled on my pillow. When I got up in the morning, my trusty dehydrator had worked its magic, and there were 4 sheets of finished leather, waiting to be cut up and put away. 784 square inches of oh-my-goodness. And I can say right now, the grocery store has nothing like this. Sweet, intense blueberry with a hint of lemon, the smoky backnote of the maple syrup, and the delightful tiny crunch of the blueberry seeds. Yum. I have to admit it, it set off a kind of blueberry mania in my house. And I wasn't immune.

Unfortunately, like much of the Northeast, we had a heatwave last week, and so my lovely blueberries languished for six more days in the freezer, waiting for more humane jam-making conditions. I swear, I was twitching, and that twitching fed the mania building within me. The following Saturday, I sent Shawn back to the farmer's market with instructions to buy two more cases of blueberries, despite the fact that I still hadn't managed to make jam.

Now, I'm no stranger to jam making. I grew up picking wild raspberries in Northern Maine with my aunt every year, and coming home to transmute them into pies, jam, and anything else we could think of. But you see, that was traditional jam, made with cane sugar and traditional pectin. The kids and I are allergic to cane sugar and all of its derivatives, so honey and maple syrup are the order of the day. The problem is, traditional pectin requires a lot of sugar in order to jell. A LOT. Traditional jams can often be 85% sugar, which is just ridiculous even to contemplate with honey or maple syrup. So I was going to have to use Pomona Pectin, or do without. Ever a fan of simplicity, I decided to try my hand at a low sugar, no-pectin jam.

Sunday dawned, cool and clear. Jam day. And the fiasco began. The kitchen was naturally a bit of a mess. The canner was in the basement, the berries still in the freezer, and there seemed to be three times as many kids underfoot as I had given birth to. It was 10 o'clock before I even got started. My waterbath canner had been used by persons who will remain nameless to dye leather, so I hauled my enormous aluminum pressure canner up onto the stove, filled it with water, and started the jars to sterilize. I poured the frozen berries, lemon juice, maple syrup, and cinnamon into a heavy bottomed pan (are you sensing a flavor theme here?), and set it on the stove to cook. And cook. And cook. And cook. Using a liquid sweetener significantly extends the time it takes jam to cook down as it turns out, and by 11 o'clock my kitchen was a fabulous smelling steam oven, and I was working hard not to drip into the pot as I stirred. When the jam finally stuck to the back of the spoon, I did a little dance of joy right there in the kitchen, spoon in hand. Out came the jars, one by one, to be filled with beautiful dark purple... jam? Because you see, it didn't really jam. I know that no-pectin jams are soft, but this, well, this was more like really thick syrup. Syrup with chunks. I shrugged my shoulders, and thought, “Ok, fine, it's not like we won't enjoy syrup just as much as jam.” So I filled the jars, measuring head space, and wiping rims, carefully putting the lid and band on each jar. Then I put them back into the canner, put the lid on, and started bringing it to a boil. Almost done.

That, that very moment, is when disaster struck. Sparks shot out of the stove from beneath my fully loaded canner. I'll admit it, I jumped and squealed. Shawn ran to the basement and shut off the breaker, as I tried not to cry, as I stared at my canner, loaded with syrup and hot water, now too heavy to move by myself. Syrup that there was now no room for in the freezer, that had taken me hours to wash, sort, and boil down. Shawn came upstairs and helped me move the canner to the other side of the stove. We checked the burner and decided, under the circumstances, to risk turning the breaker back on. No sparks. So I finished processing my syrup jars on the other burner, and turned off the stove. I pulled each jar out of the hot water, and set them gently on a cooling rack on the island. I had done it. 12 whole jars of yumminess. Three quarters of a gallon, in all.

But why was my kitchen still so hot? I started to move the canner off the stove and realized – the scary burner was hot, despite not being turned on. I panicked, just a little, and very quietly. Shawn ran back down to the basement, and turned off the breaker. Further investigation revealed that one of the hot leads in my electric coil burner was fused on, and the other was arcing to ground. And it wasn't tripping the breaker. I had to sit down for a few minutes. The worst of it is that this was the second time this burner had fused and shot sparks. We had repaired it the first time, but this time I decided I was just done. I wasn't willing to risk a third try. We would just have to get a new stove. After all, I knew what I wanted, we had just been trying to keep this one limping along for one more year. It was not to be.

So Monday morning, bright and early, I called up my appliance guy and ordered my new stove. Induction cooktop, double oven (one of them convection) that can be set anywhere from 85 to 550 degrees, and more bells and whistles than you can shake a stick at, including a setting to proof bread. Score. I'm psyched. But wait, I've got that big aluminum pressure canner, right? No big, I'll just order one of those steel interface disk things, and be just fine. Only, as it turns out, reviewers were complaining that the disks got so hot the stove shut itself off, and a few folks said that it cracked their cooktop. Ouch! After my recent adventures, I want nothing to do with an unreliable and possibly damaged stove. But what's a girl to do? There's no such thing as an induction ready pressure canner, and I have to have a way to can soup, stock, and veggies. Eek! This realization set off another panic, this time full-blown. I've just ordered and paid thousands of dollars for a stove that I can't can with... and I've still got 24 pounds of fresh blueberries sitting neatly in their pints on the counter. Precious little room in the freezer too. Now I'm sick to my stomach. What have I done? Shawn to the rescue once more. He found a 30,000 BTU single burner propane camp stove at L.L.Bean. Not only can I still can, I can can OUTSIDE. Brilliant. However, naturally it is backordered, and not due to ship out until Thursday at the very earliest. Sigh.

So, here I am, 24 pounds of fresh berries, no stove until Thursday, and once it gets here, no way to can the jam I can then cook. In the meantime, my schedule for Monday was already shot. I was supposed to wash, sort, and store the blueberries, make a batch of baked beans (which had been soaking quietly on the counter for WAY too long), get a batch of cucumbers in the pickle crock (which would involve cleaning out the fridge), and get a batch of blueberry leather into the dehydrator. I also had the regular farm chores of picking, weeding, and tending the flock, and I had to clean the house and do laundry to get ready for our regular Tuesday playdate. Queue circus music.

Time to reassess. The berries and the beans wouldn't wait. Every day the berries didn't get washed, there would be more spoilage, and the beans were already starting to bubble. So I rinsed and picked through the beans, the sink was filled again, and the berries went in to soak. The beans went into the crockpot, and I went to get my bean recipe out of my cookbook. The recipe was nowhere to be found. “Well, ok,” I thought, “I'll just check my typed copy, it's probably in there.” I will skip the now predictable complexity involved in getting to the electronic copy of my recipe book, because my laptop is dead (which is why there are no pictures). Suffice it to say it took me almost an hour to realize that I had never written my baked bean recipe down, and had to now start over from scratch. Ugh. So I made my best guess, and threw it in the crockpot.

Then we started in on the berries. And I mean WE. I had a short heart to heart with my eldest, which involved phrases like, “Do you intend to eat any of these berries this winter?” because after the first case, I realized that this simply has to be a family venture. It is otherwise entirely too time consuming. So over the course of the day, all of us at one point or another sat down at the table to sort berries, with me as the constant participant. It took all day, and by the end of it, at about 2 o'clock in the morning, I looked at my husband and I said, “I never want to see another blueberry as long as I live.” But we sorted them into bowls for drying whole, fruit leather, and measured baggies for jam. The jam berries were shoe-horned into the freezer, the bags for fruit leather went into the fridge, and on Tuesday morning the whole berries went into the dehydrator. Where they still are. On Wednesday. Yeah, I just want to say, 135 degrees for 8-10 hours my Great Aunt Fanny. We're at more than 24 hours, and some of those little suckers are still squishier than raisins. But still, it makes the house smell divine, and I'm going to have something on the order of 3 quarts of dried whole blueberries for my cereal this winter. It felt really really good to fill that first quart jar, I imagine much the way a squirrel does about nuts in the fall.

So the two cases bought last Saturday have been dealt with to the best of my current ability. Though I cannot yet breathe a sigh of relief until the blueberry leather is in the dehydrator. The first of the blackberries started coming in yesterday, and I started to mentally switch gears and think about how I wanted to use them. And then my husband (curse the man) asked, “So how many of these blueberries are you saving for blueberry mead?” and my head just about exploded. Of course, how could I forget to make blueberry mead??? Well, I thought, I wouldn't really have to pick through them, just wash them and pull out any that were really bad. Then I could just run them through the juicer and throw them in the carboy with honey, water, and yeast. Maybe we'll get just one more case...

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