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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apple pectin stock jelly

This year, I was gifted with a bag of just underripe Gravensteins, so I decided to make French jam maven Christine Ferber’s recipe for apple pectin stock jelly. This is one of those nose-to-tail recipes that please me greatly, like corncob broth or overgrown cucumber mustard pickles or Japanese spinach crown salad, because it emphasizes how one can keep costs under control when cooking with high quality fresh produce.

I’ve been making a quince pectin stock for the past couple of years, and the apple pectin stock is similar — you just boil down the fruit with its peel, core, and seeds, until it is mushy, then gently strain out the fruit and boil it down again by a third or half before freezing in 1/2 cup chunks. Tigress in a Jam has a good, free-form recipe for apple stock pectin with no sugar if you need it.  I prefer quince stock pectin, because I find apple juice unpleasant and like quince, but keep in mind that quince has a very unique and persistent flavor that will be evident in your jam.

But Ferber takes the simple boiled apples or quinces to the next level with her jelly, which is shelf-stable and can be used to glaze a fruit tart or roast as well as to fortify jam with low-pectin fruit.  The flavor is extremely mild, so it’s not really your go-to morning jelly for toast; it’s more about the texture and pectin powers.  Plus, mine turned a pretty salmon pink, slightly oddly given the green juice.  (You’ll also notice that there are hundreds of tiny bubbles in mine — this is due to not letting the jelly sit for 5 minutes before canning.  Not a big deal unless you are sending it off to the fair.)

To make the pectin stock jelly most potent, use underripe fruit.  Any apple will be high in pectin, but you’ll get the most bang for your buck if you use “green” apples, not Granny Smiths, but underripe apples of any variety.  Hence, it’s a good use for apples that need to be thinned early to encourage good fruit on your own trees.  In the Willamette Valley, you can start as early as June with our early-ripening ‘Transparent’ variety.  Northern Californians might try Gravensteins, which have short stems that want to abort young apples anyway.  Dunno if the variety alters the taste.

Ferber uses a cup per kilo (about two and a quarter pounds, or one batch) of fruit for her preserves, but I’ve seen reports of using anywhere from one to one-half cup on the Internets.  Do keep in mind that this jelly has sugar in it, and it’s intended for a full sugar/French-style preserve.  It’s also beautifully natural and dependent upon the ingredients and seasons, hence relatively unreliable, so you should plan for softer or firmer sets when you experiment with adding it to recipes.  For low-sugar jams, I’d stick with Pomona pectin.

We’ll be using it with our lavender fig preserves on Monday.  I’ll let you know what happens!  Edited to add: Worked like a charm.  We added 1/2 cup to a double batch after it was boiling heartily, and the gel set rather quickly — I might try a full cup next time.

Interested in a full-flavored apple cider jelly that’s the essence of autumn, made with the season’s first crisp cider?  See my award-winning recipe here.

Ferber’s Green Apple Pectin Stock Jelly

Slightly adapted and annotated.  Makes about 4 half-pints.

  • 7 cups water
  • Juice of one large lemon, with one tablespoon separated out
  • 3 1/2 pounds underripe apples
  • 4 2/3 cups sugar

Fill a large, squat stockpot with water and one tablespoon of lemon juice.

Wash apples, remove stems, and pare away bad spots.  Cut each entire apple into quarters and drop it immediately into acidulated water in pot.

Bring apples to boil and simmer for about 40 minutes, occasionally mixing to break up apples.

Strain apple pulp in chinois or sieve lined with a double layer of regular cheesecloth.  Do not press down on apples if you would like a clear juice (not important if you will be using it for a dark jam).  This may take several hours.

Add 4 1/4 cups of the juice into a preserving pan with the rest of the lemon juice and  sugar.  Bring to a boil and cook, stirring frequently, for 10 minutes or until it is set.  Let sit for 5 minutes and skim any foam, if necessary.

Ladle jelly into hot, sterilized canning jars with 1/4 inch headspace, and fit with properly prepared two-piece lids. (Refer to a canning basics guide if you don’t know what this means.)  Process for 5 minutes in a waterbath canner.