A couple of years after we got to Minnesota we joined a CSA—the excellent Open Hands farm, just outside our town. Our CSA is different from most in that it gives us a lot of flexibility. Rather than receiving a random box packed by the farm, we go to the farm on our pickup day and make our own selections from different categories of greens and veg: if you don’t want kohlrabi (as I never do), don’t take any kohlrabi. The other great thing about Open Hands is that they have a bunch of stuff for “U-Pick”—things that we can pick ourselves in the fields (over and above the rest of the stuff). The amounts and selections vary over the season but peas, beans, cherry tomatoes, tomatillos, herbs, flowers, and, most excitingly, strawberries and raspberries are all available for picking. And it’s not just a handful or two—this past week I picked 4 quarts of strawberries on our pickup day.
Our joining the CSA led in very short order to my turning into a very enthusiastic jam maker and canner. I started out with strawberry jam, moved on to raspberry jam (their raspberry crop comes ripe later in the summer), then to blueberry, peach, plum, pluot, currant, and apricot, and from there to various chimerical combinations. The great thing about homemade jam is you can keep the sugar levels low and actually taste the fruit. And, of course, you can make your own recipes (the boys love my triple-berry jam—blackberry, raspberry and strawberry).
My jam making season for 2015 kicks off today, but, as always, the first thing I make is this simple strawberries in syrup. This is a short-cut version of my old pal George’s recipe for “sun-cooked” berry preserves. George is an amazing gardener and cook and I’ve learned a lot from her over the years. She had a wonderful blog called “A Cooking Life” that went silent a few years ago—it was replaced by another blog, “A Quieting Life“, but that’s been quiet too now for a couple of years. But I always have her on call on for gardening and other country-life emergencies.
Her recipe for “sun-cooked” preserves was featured in the New York Times some years ago, and this stove-top version may be their adaptation, and not hers: she’s the kind of person who takes even fewer short-cuts than me with food. We just don’t get enough hot, sunny days in a row during our brief strawberry season here to be able to pull off the sun-
cooked version (or rather we don’t get enough sun on our deck). Anyway, this yields a very lovely result as well: we love it over vanilla ice-cream or with brownies or chocolate cake (just a couple of berries plus a tea-spoon of syrup). And it’s very easy too: I don’t even can it—I ladle it into clean jars and freeze them once they’re cool. Give it a shot.
- 4 quarts strawberries, rinsed and hulled
- 3-4 cups sugar
- 2 tblspns lemon juice
- Place the rinsed and hulled berries in a large glass bowl, add the sugar and carefully mix it all in. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and leave out overnight.
- The next morning, or afternoon, stir the berries and the syrup that’s already formed and add to a large pot along with the lemon juice.
- Bring to a high boil and keep it there for a few minutes—and watch out for major foaming action.
- Reduce to a gentle simmer and cook down slowly for 1-2 hours.
- Ladle into clean jars and either freeze or process in a hot water bath for 10-20 minutes (depending on how paranoid you are).
- Don’t stir the berries too vigorously during the simmer—you want them to stay whole.
- 4 quarts should yield about 3.5-4 pints. It’s hard to predict exactly when this will happen on your stove, but I’d suggest a 1 hour simmer is the minimum and 2 hours is probably the maximum. Sneak some tastes as you go—once the strawberry flavour is intense and the syrup has thickened some, you’re ready: how thick and sticky you want the syrup to get is up to you.
- If you end up with some extra syrup you can just pour that over some ice-cream or, as I did on this occasion, add it to a vinaigrette and use it with an arugula and blue cheese salad.