Potent combinations

Preserve summer fruits with alcohol

August 30, 2007

Come late August, the cliché of saving for a rainy day has a literal, even urgent, meaning in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. While I could say it’s the mortgage crisis, with its bankruptcies and foreclosures, that has moved me to squirrel away Mason jars full of ripe peaches, it was really the anticipation of a cloudy winter that made me want to preserve.

On a recent afternoon, the sight of the sun streaming into my kitchen and shining on glass jars packed with peaches and Italian prune plums made me feel content and self-satisfied. I had captured some of summer’s sugar, and I knew that I would dip into these stone fruits on winter nights to come.

Canning is wonderful. Preserving fruits and vegetables links you to the cycles of the season and to the ingenuities of our agrarian and freezerless past. But I wasn’t canning, which uses heat or pressure to preserve; I was making brandied fruit. In other words, I was preserving the easy way: with alcohol and refrigeration.

Preserve summer fruits by soaking them in alcohol — an easy way to retain and enhance their warm-weather flavors.

I got the idea when a friend told me about the fruit jar that was always in the back of the refrigerator when she was growing up. It held locally grown stone fruit in booze, usually peaches or plums in brandy.

My friend says her mother put peeled and sliced or chopped fruit in a Mason jar, poured in “a jigger” of brandy, and that was it. Only a jigger? “She was being thrifty,” my friend diplomatically explained. Her mother had cooked in logging camps during the Depression and raised five children. In the winter she spooned the fruit and brandy over pork chops, chicken, pound cake, and ice cream.

My guess is that even though my friend’s mom remembers being careful with the bottle, her brandied fruit was probably also a private pleasure enjoyed after the kids had gone to bed, an adult compensation for the work of getting everyone through the day.

I’ve started my Mason jar with enough brandy to thoroughly drown the fruit. My peaches and plums are covered by at least half an inch of 80-proof liquor — not because I need an adult treat, which I do, but because it’s safer. I’m relying on the alcohol to kill anything that could hurt me. And, flavorwise, the brandy and the fruit embellish one another.

I’ve added sugar to my brandied peaches, too, and I’m infusing the plums with cinnamon and lemon peel. Vanilla bean is another possibility. In a couple of months I’ll drizzle the sweetened, fruit-infused brandy over baked apples and serve the peaches with almond cake. Afterwards, I’ll add more brandy and dried fruit — prunes and cherries — to replace what I’ve taken, continuing the cycle.

Soaking fruit in 80-proof alcohol is a good way to ensure its purity after months in the refrigerator.

Another easy idea for keeping summer fruit came when Culinate’s food editor, Carrie Floyd, told me she had puréed strawberries to get them into her freezer before they became overripe. She had been too lazy (her words) to wash and lay the berries out on a sheet pan to freeze separately before bagging them.

But then she realized that, because her freezer was getting full, it was actually helpful to reduce the berries to their liquid form and freeze the purée in a Ziploc bag. She would turn the resulting purée into smoothies, trifles, cocktails, and sauce for ice cream.

By the time Carrie told me this, we were already in blackberry season. Chester blackberries, which are spicy, floral, and complex, have the latest season of all the blackberries. Where I live, you can often find Chesters well into September.

When I thought about freezing a blackberry purée that could be used in a variety of ways, I knew I wanted to add red wine. I chose a young sangiovese for its acid, straightforward fruit, and uncomplicated manner. I knew it would complement rather than compete with the blackberries. Maybe, I thought, if you cannot preserve volumes of fruit for reasons of space or time, you can instead preserve a little bit of its vivid essence, as with Blackberry-Sangiovese Coulis.

I made a point of spending money on a wine I would love to drink. I added sugar to the wine to make a syrup, which I then simmered very briefly with the berries. I did not want to alter the flavors of the wine or berries too much. I let the berries cool in the syrup before puréeing them in the blender and straining out the seeds.

I was rewarded with a rich, inky sauce in which I could taste the wine and the blackberries equally. It was moderately sweetened, making it fit on either side of the sweet/savory continuum. I’ll use it a number of ways: drizzling it over ice cream, crisps, and baked apples with mascarpone; making it into a cocktail with soda water and gin or Campari; swirling it into applesauce; and serving it with meats like duck, pork, and sausages. You could even use the coulis to baste grilled chicken or as a component of a barbecue sauce. One basket of berries makes about a cup and a half of sauce.

I was even happier to taste the blackberries after I had poached them in the red-wine syrup and they had cooled to room temperature. They were both ambrosial and Dionysian. I didn’t bother puréeing or freezing them. That night, I served the wine-dark berries and their syrup over chocolate brownies with barely sweetened whipped cream. Everyone at the table — from the preschoolers to the grownups — was stained and sated.

Kelly Myers is a chef and writer in Portland, Oregon.

Elsewhere on Culinate: An article about alcohol-infused ice cream and a recipe for brandied fruit.

There are 14 comments on this item
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1. by Ashley Griffin Gartland on Aug 30, 2007 at 1:17 PM PDT

Kelly you’ve set my mouth watering. Thank you for sharing this great perspective on canning.

2. by thisKat on Aug 30, 2007 at 1:47 PM PDT

This is fabulous! I’m all about the quick and easy preserving this year. And this will make for quick and easy and FANCY dinners this winter! Thanks!

3. by Joanna on Aug 30, 2007 at 3:09 PM PDT

Kelly - I did some (traditional) pickling a few weeks ago with a friend, but the ones I liked the best were the simpler, refrgerator pickles. So much easier, too. I am taking your cue to try brandy-preserving some late summer fruit.
BTW: Sorry for walking away from you mid-sentence last night. I really was interested in what you were telling me - just had a little A.D.D. episode.
Nice seeing you...

4. by birdseyechili on Aug 30, 2007 at 5:44 PM PDT

This sounds great, but do you need to keep the jars in the fridge? Do you know of any way I can do this and just put them in the cold room? Thanks for the idea :)

5. by Kelly Myers on Aug 30, 2007 at 7:46 PM PDT

As far as refrigerating the brandied fruit goes, my research shows that the French make something similiar called Vieux Garcon. The recipe I have for this does not require refrigeration, but the fruits are cooked briefly in a brandy and sugar syrup and then packed into sterilized jars. The jars are then to be “burped” every few days to allow fermenting gases to escape, for four weeks. I don’t have any experience with this, but it sounds kind of fun. Then again, maybe these steps are a modern recipe writer’s precaution.
I should add that my friend’s mom that made brandied fruits seemed to have a relaxed attitude about refrigeration: she left her brandied fruit out on the counter for a few days after she made it, and then refrigerated it.
Next summer I’ll can, with all the boiling water and accessories, but I found this was a good soft start for me to get in the preserving mindset.
Joanna, have you seen little cucumbers at the market? At work we’re making our own cornichons.

6. by Jim on Aug 31, 2007 at 8:43 AM PDT

Got here via tastespotting, wanted to tell ya this is a fascinating article. I wonder, though--could I use vodka? I’m not a brandy fan, but I love flavor-infused vodkas.

7. by Kelly Myers on Aug 31, 2007 at 6:34 PM PDT

I’m thinking, why couldn’t you use vodka? It would pair well with plums. Instead of sweetening the mixture with sugar, you could make a simple syrup (1:1 ratio of water to sugar, simmered until the sugar dissolves) flavored with orange or lemon peel. Or an herb. Or fennel seed.
With vodka, the possibilties are endless.

8. by Weasel on Sep 12, 2009 at 5:01 PM PDT

This is also similar to what they call “Rumtopf” in German. The fruit possibilities are endless and you just keep adding throughout the summer.

9. by anonymous on Sep 20, 2009 at 10:28 PM PDT

i have some dried fruit that has been soaking in rum for 2 years is it safe to use.

10. by Susiewrx on Jan 13, 2010 at 11:15 PM PST

If frozen berries are added to an alcholic drink do they become the most alcholic part of the drink?

11. by anonymous on Jul 31, 2010 at 4:47 AM PDT

Sherry, sugar, cherries - FANTASTIC

12. by tony jackson on Sep 2, 2010 at 9:07 AM PDT

could you help i went for plums in randy and filled jar filled with randy to top ut today today hae found large gaps in jar what hae ``i done wrong sorry my and hae een lost on key pad

13. by margaret ellis on Sep 8, 2011 at 10:40 AM PDT

hi , how about some weights & measures, instructions, i am just starting out on this food adventure at 62y i have been too busy earning a penny, now a whole new world has open’d since retiring, take care margaret

14. by anonymous on Sep 24, 2011 at 1:00 PM PDT

Same here Jim. I just bought some dried jujube fruits for the 1st time at my local farmer’s market, was going to make tea, but I’m not into tea all that much, for health reasons ~ then I read an article about using the booze to preserve and I have iced tea flavored vodka that just might be the ticket...I wondered too about whether refrigeration is necessary ~ should I boil the fruits first or what? Anybody?

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