california in a jar

IMG_3406On my way back to Eugene, I was feeling a little bitter and sorry for myself because I couldn’t do all the things I wanted to do in California thanks to the funeral side trip to Michigan.  I had planned to take a longer route down, a solo road trip, that would allow me to visit colleagues and friends and explore a bit of California’s Central Valley, America’s bread basket.

The Central Valley, according to an NPR story, is “the greatest garden in the world” and reports that it produces 25% of the nation’s food.  As someone who lives in America’s former bread basket, the Willamette Valley of central Oregon, I view it with an amateur historian’s eye — fascinated and horrified by commercial farming practices that turn a fertile crescent of land into monocultures ruled by pesticides.  In particular, I was thinking of investigating a little farm or two that might be growing unusual olives to spite those black marbles we see on the grocery story shelves or those awful huge pyramid-shaped flavorless strawberries that weren’t meant for shipping.

The funeral dashed my hopes and free time, but I got lucky anyway, and stopped at a few local produce stands along highway 505 at Winters and I-5 near Williams.  And found what I was not expecting, including a nut wall made of shipping containers that separated an auto business from a popular taco truck in Winters.  (I snapped this shot while waiting for my lengua tacos for my friend John Mariani, no relation, and told him his detractors were at it again.)

IMG_3409Most notably, Royal apricots were up and running at the Double R Ranch produce stand in Winters, so a picked up half a flat with some olive oil from Knabke Farms.  I only found out later that Heath Ranch Organics in Orland grows fantastic and wonderful varieties of citrus fruits as part of a 30-some-year relationship with experimental research scientists needing a demo farm.  (That’s their gas pump and sign, above.) If I had known Ron and Melanie Heath were so cool, I would have stayed longer and asked to tour the farm, but we did have a quick chat about blood oranges and Sevilles as we snacked on the absolutely best Valencia oranges I’ve ever tasted in my life.  I managed to leave with some of those oranges, a blue star thistle honey bear, a pound of pistachios grown and roasted down the road, and a pound of red wine-marinated kalamata olives.

IMG_4653Of course, I needed to rush right home and bottle it all up.

The Québécois make a conserve called nougabricot that famed jammière, the Alsatian pastry chef Christine Ferber, has made famous.  With all due respect to my French-Canadian ancestors, I think nougabricot sounds like a mouthful of marbles, and a conserve made of apricots, almonds, pistachios, oranges, lemons, and honey is really a California thing, so I have taken the liberty to rename it:

California in a Jar

A conserve of apricots, almonds, and pistachios.  Yield 6 half pints.

  • 2.75 lbs. ripe but not overripe apricots (choose an heirloom variety like Royals or Royal Blenheims if you can)
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 8 oz. dark honey (Ferber suggests chestnut, I used avocado honey for the California theme)
  • 1 lemon, juiced and zested
  • 1 orange, juiced and zested
  • 1/4 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 2/3 cup slivered almonds, toasted
  • 2/3 cup shelled pistachios (unsalted or rinsed if they are salted)
  • few dashes rose water (optional)

Wash, pit, and quarter apricots.  Very large apricots should be cut in pieces.  Wash and sterilize your jars and prepare two-piece lids.

In a large pot, bring all ingredients to a simmer, then pour into a glass or stainless bowl, cover with parchment paper, as any apricots left exposed will oxidize to brown, and refrigerate overnight.

The following day, strain the solids from the liquids and place liquids in your preserving pan.  Heat the liquids until they are syrupy and reach a temperature of 220 degrees, which will allow some thickening to occur (but it will still be a loose-set product).

Add the solids to the syrup and bring to a vigorous boil, then keep at a boil for five minutes. Let sit off heat for five minutes and skim foam. Add a few dashes of rosewater if you like, and ladle product into sterilized jars.

For processing, fill to 1/4 inch from top, pressing down apricots and nuts under syrup to combat oxidization problem, and process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath canner.  Between you and me, I think this one really should be kept fresh and in the refrigerator, so I didn’t process the jars.  The hot conserve “sealed” the lids after I added the product, but it is a weak seal and I must stress a refrigerator is necessary if you don’t waterbath can the jars.

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concrete kiss: a czech classic cocktail with an apricot chaser

I’m excited to participate in Food in Jars‘ Drink Week this year.  It features various preservation bloggers putting their creations to use in brand new drinks, and every single cocktail is worth a try.)

My Drink Week post takes us far, far away from Oregon and all the way to the small spa town of Karlovy Vary in the Czech Republic, where they’ve been manufacturing Becherovka herbal liqueur since 1807, served as an apéritif or digestif usually straight up, like this:

At the Joyce symposium in Prague a few years back, we were served complimentary Becherovka shots as we boarded the boat cruise along the Vltava river.  A habit that would be charming imported to the Willamette and the McKenzie, if you ask me.

From Prague, I decided to take the waters in nearby Karlovy Vary, a spa town long known for such activities.  One bathes at spas (as I did, here, hilariously) and lazily strolls along the canals and through lovely nineteenth-century parks, stopping at the many public fountains with mineral waters from various springs.  And once the rather unpalatable water makes your stomach start to rumble, one stops at the Becherovka stand for some healing for the healing.

But one need not just drink Becherovka straight.  The second most popular Becherovka drink is an adaptation of the gin & tonic called “Be-ton,” and it combines, of course, Becherovka with that most British of healing liquids, tonic water. (The Beton is usually a rather herbal mix, but you’re looking for a gentler version of the classic, try this recipe from The Kitchn.)

Beton is a play on words — it means concrete in Czech, so I thought I’d try to soften up the concrete with a little apricot kiss from the remaining jar of brandied apricots I put up last summer.  Don’t have brandied apricots?  Try poaching apricot halves in a simple syrup instead, then use the syrup for the drink.

The syrup and the apricot mellow out the herbs in the bitter tonic, and the apricot garnish smiles up at you like a sunny-side-up egg until you slurp it up and it slides, icily, down your throat.  The perfect summer drink.

Concrete Kiss

  • 1.5 oz. Becherovka
  • 5 oz. tonic water (I used Schwepps but a finer, less harsh tonic would be much better)
  • 1 oz. syrup from brandied apricots, or substitute a sweet apricot brandy (like Hungarian Fütyülos)
  • 1/2 brandied apricot

In a highball glass filled generously with ice cubes, add the Becherovka and tonic, then mix gently.  Pour the apricot syrup on top and garnish with a perfect brandied apricot half.

mine! all mine!

We’ve read the glut of preservation blog posts about all the wonderful things an enterprising individual can put up to share with family and friends.  And yes, I’m pretty much on the sharing bandwagon.  I love the pleasure my food gifts bring to others, and knowing that it’s a continuing pleasure — that they open that jar of jam many mornings and feel the endorphin rush of deliciousness more than once — is honestly one of the greatest joys in my life.

But blah blah blah, summer of love is over, ya hippie.  This post is about the food I make that I DON’T share, the stuff that’s too good for others…or maybe too good for everyone except the one friend whom I deem might be able to sufficiently appreciate it. This is the selfish, food-hoarding side of the preservation movement, and I embrace that, too.

And it has a name in my house: brandied apricots.

These slightly tart, tangy, sugar and booze saturated little pillows of fiberous goo make even plain goat milk yogurt taste good.  On crepes, with similarly brandied cherries, they are divine.  When I eat them during the day, I feel naughty, as if I just slammed down a Manhattan in my kitchen at noon.  Just now, I was eating them, plotting to drive to eastern Washington as soon as the apricots hit the market, buying up a huge box and stuffing them in jars.  More jars!  More for me! Brandied apricots! All! Winter! Long!

I also, for the record, feel this way about my loganberry jam, my green tomato pickles, and my dill pickles.  So don’t even ask.

What do you make for yourself and hoard?

apricot ménage-à-trois

When I saw a lug of pristine Eastern Oregon apricots on my way back from Montana, I knew I had to have ’em.  In short order, they became:

Orangette’s version of Zuni’s apricot tart.  I *love* this recipe.  And the crust is excellent for all pies, by the way.  I substituted plain distilled vinegar, being out of cider vinegar, but I wonder if some of my fruit vinegars might be nice with, say, a blackberry pie.  It would tinge the crust a pleasant mauve.  I think. And the apricots really do soften up and lend a juicy glaze.  It’s almost better to use slightly underripe ones, and don’t go more than a pound.  Restraint, unbelievably, is good.

Apricot jam, two kinds.  The plain jam is tart, sweet, and bursting with summery fruit.  The Czech apricot is flavored with Becherovka, a cinnamon-y bitter, and a bit of cinnamon stick.  Both have a shot of Hungarian palinka, an apricot brandy.  These rely on natural pectin and the softened fruit to thicken the gel.

Brandied apricots.  With a quick boil and sterilized jars, they’ll keep for a few months in the refrigerator.  The brandy can be used for cocktails, and the apricots for ice cream or baked goods.

And the leftover brandy, slightly flavored with apricot, I used for this year’s brandied sour cherries.  The pitted sour cherries are available for a very short window each year.  I usually buy mine pitted by Hentze’s Farm in Junction City by the 5# bag.  Makes life so much easier.  I love the Hentze folks, and they scored some equipment when the local canneries went out of business, so you can save time by purchasing very high quality cut beans and corn, pitted cherries, and shelled nuts that they grow on the farm.

They also have lugs of apricots, another ephemerally short season.  If you want to make any of these treats, the time is now!

some like it hot: a canning tradition

Seems I always/only have time + excess produce during the one week of summer that the Oregonian deities deem Let’s Scald the Lily White Flesh of Those Fragile Mud Creatures with Scorching Temperatures after a Year of Rain Week.  So let’s just make it a tradition: I can when the temps hit the 90s.   If I lay these plans bestly, maybe they will go awry?

So this time, I managed to snap up some achingly fresh, machete-cut fat asparagus spears and a lug of apricots on special at a glorified farm stand, pickle and chocolate factory, tamale and salsa industrial complex, and tourist mecca in Eastern Washington — Country Mercantile, off I-395. (Their line of preserved foods is impressive — I almost succumbed to the Old World Cabbage pickles and a big jar of preserved mixed fruit, given their rarity, and I tasted about 2 dozen fresh and canned salsas, each excellent.)

That meant I had 5 pounds of perfect asparagus and 20 pounds of perfect apricots to dispatch with…and quickly.

I’m down to 0 pounds of asparagus, thanks to my lightening speed pickling skillz, and 7 pounds of apricots, thanks to the powers of jam and tarte.  Will post more later.  Produce, like all ripe bodies, on the rot.  With miles to go before I sleep.

But before I get back in the saddle, check out this awesome vintage can lifter I bought in an antique store in Helena, Montana.  One-handed lifting, bitches.  I’ll never use one of those clunky two-handed Kerr things again.  If you find one, pick it up.  Highly recommended.