Based in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest gardens, cooks, writes, teaches, and speaks on the issues of food security and justice. Her book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe, was published in fall 2010. She is currently working on a new book and curriculum guide for teaching householding and householding economics.
I am annoyed by pectin. Well, not all pectin, and certainly not the type that occurs naturally in fruit. Rather, I’m talking about the stuff that comes in boxes. You think you need it, but you don’t. Those boxes look so important, but they’re not. In fact, boxed pectin belies the process of jam making, which for much of its history in the kettle has had no such addition.
Just read the introductions in the older editions of the Joy of Cooking on the subject of jams and jellies. They tell it like it is. Using boxed dry and liquid pectin requires tons more sugar then you should really ever use. The reason has something do to with how industry has translated large-scale systems into home-scale systems and, in the process, created a product no one really needs.
Evidently the process of cooking up large vats of fruit to render the greatest quantity of juice requires high temperatures. Those temperatures destroy natural pectin and so industry, always clever in the lab, came up with a solution: added engineered pectin and LOTS of extra sugar.
Of course, there’s the low-sugar pectin that folks find a miracle of modern science, but that product, when added to your fruit, lends a strange texture, and I’m not sure what’s in it. I have another solution: Use less sugar.
Some folks choose to make jams (as opposed to jellies) without any pectin (homemade or otherwise), suggesting, as I have heard them, that pectin destroys the natural flavors of the fruit. This has not been my experience, but I have not done a side-by-side tasting.
And some say that, depending on the fruit you use, no pectin at all will result in a runny product which, again, some suggest is the only way you can get that fresh flavor. Again, I disagree. Of course there is nothing inherently wrong with a little pour of jam; it works nice in yogurt and as a sauce. It even makes its way nicely in the crevices of an English muffin. But generally speaking, I want the stuff to sit obediently on my toast.
So what do I do? Well, I’ve already posted a ton on my site about making your own natural pectins and will, in a few days, add a few updated recipes for using natural pectins in jams. Sorry, I’d like to give it to you right now, but I did a stupid thing: I went on vacation.
You’d think vacationing would be a good thing, and it is, but for backyard farmers it can be a little daunting. I thought I timed it right. With my preserving classes to consider and the kid’s schedule to pencil in, I had only a few weeks to choose from. I knew taking time off in August would be devastating to the tomato crop. I did that last year and learned my lesson.
This summer I would be smarter. I would leave after I’d harvested the backyard strawberry crop and before the much-awaited (and then damned) heat got underway. But no such luck. We didn’t have consistent sun till the day we left. So while we were bundled up in no-sun San Francisco, my strawberries were peaking behind the garden gate. And that makes me mad. Make mental note: No vacations in late June.
Which brings me, once again, to how urban farming constantly changes your life and perspectives. I can assure you, my strawberry crop was and is more important then San Francisco. I certainly put more work and anticipation into them. As anyone who grows them knows, seeing the first white blossoms is a thrill. Keeping the slugs at bay and hopping for good sun is a ritual. Seeing the green tight jewels turn to red is a tribute to the incredible good taste of the natural world and we, their willing slaves, do whatever must be done to encourage the graces of the bounty.
And so, when I suggested to my husband that he and son go on vacation without me, he gave me that you’ve-got-to-be-kidding me look which, given his total non-confrontational stance toward life, had the equivalent power of a screamfest. I relented without another word, since even I realized that not going would be a bit much. But I did think about it, and not just once.
So here I am, posting on this chilly morning on my last day of vacation, dreaming about my backyard. Hopefully the strawberries, currants, and raspberries I walked away from will not be too mad and will leave something on the bush, vine, and cane for me to relish. And it will be with those loyal soldiers that I will create the recipes I have been dreaming up during the trip. Strawberry-thyme with balsamic vinegar, maybe. Raspberry-currant with mint, perhaps. Be patient, my lovelies. Momma’s coming home.
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