Plum Preserves

It’s my favorite season again – autumn! As temperatures cool, the trees begin dedicating their energy to two imperatives: survival and generation. As they pull sugars from their leaves for winter storage, they leave behind the lovely pigments that we so enjoy. And as they channel sugars into their many wonderful fruits, it is time for us to harvest.

For the sustainable homesteader, this is a busy time. A wealth of food abounds, but we know it is short-lived. And so begins the season of preservation.

This week I have begun to feel a bit like a ping-pong ball, bouncing back and forth between regular daily activities and the stove. In the contemplative moments spent at the latter location, I offer up my grateful thanks to the historical innovators who contributed to the simple but essential technology of Mr. John L. Mason’s easily sealable home canning jar.

A few nights ago, I discovered two stands of plum trees, for whose presence we can thank an anonymous university landscaper. The fruits of these trees are tiny, but wonderfully sweet. I have not yet identified the variety by name. The first stand is a tangle of branches, apparently representing both purple and yellow plum trees. This is where I went to fill my bicycle baskets yesterday. Needless to say, today’s preserve will be a plum jam.

If there is anything that goes naturally with the preserving season, it is companionship. Rinsing, chopping, and stirring quickly become natural and thoughtless processes, busying your hands but leaving your mind free for other endeavors. Sharing the experience with friends makes it go very quickly, and gives rise to rich and wonderful conversations, like I enjoyed yesterday over the tiny plums. Other times, I prefer solitude while I peel, chop, and stir – enjoying the company of my own thoughts, a book on tape, or the “random” function on i-tunes.

These plums were so tiny that it would have been inefficient to remove the pits by hand. I just halved each one and cooked them until mushy. Then, realizing that I was without a Foley mill (a brilliant though technically simple kitchen tool that enables the super-efficient separation of fruits from their seeds), I searched the cottage for an adequate tool for straining out the many tiny pits. I found, to my delight, that my stainless steel flatware drainer had just the right sized holes. Resourcefulness gold star!

Fruit jams essentially have two ingredients – fruit and sugar. (Another few moments of contemplative gratitude, please, for sugar refining technology.) The process is remarkably simple. Chop the fruit, remove unwanted components (seeds, stems, etc.), cook (usually until soft or translucent), mix in sugar, add pectin, and put in jars. It’s nice to give the jars a hot water bath for maximum sealing and sterilizing power, but I’ve even had success without this step.

The rule for most fruits is equal weights of fruit to sugar. With sweeter fruits, I cut back on the sugar. As far as pectin goes, there are proportion recommendations on the box. But especially tart fruits, like crabapples, have naturally high levels of pectin, and require little to no additions. You can even mix crabapple bits in with other jams if you can’t find any pectin around the house, or want to reduce your reliance on processed products.

For this plum jam, I used a sugar with pectin already mixed in. (This appears to be the norm in Sweden. Swedes love to make berry jams, and I can’t find plain pectin in the stores.) I cut them into smallish bits but left the skins on (I think it’s a waste of time and good nutrients to remove skins, and besides – the jam looks more interesting with purple flecks floating about…). I boiled the plums until they were a nice homogenous mush, and then dumped in what I considered to be slightly less than an equivalent weight of sugar and simmered for another 20 minutes or so. I ladled the mixture into jars, leaving ¼ in of headspace, placed the caps on, and submerged them in boiling water for ten minutes. I sat quietly afterwards, reading and listening for that ever-so-satisfying *pop!* of each lid seal as the jars cooled.

For the easily worried, take note: in canning, EVERYTHING is inexact. And no matter what the books say, so are temperatures. All my life, I was deterred by precise measurements, references to candy thermometers, and water bath times based on altitude. Until I read a recipe for “easy bread and butter pickles” online, stumbling upon the following confidence-inspiring words: “If the seal doesn’t pop, don’t worry! Just remove the lid, microwave it for five minutes, and put the lid back on. This usually does the trick.” This woman’s pickle recipe ushered me gently into the world of canning, and the encouragement of two wonderful friends, made me a permanent resident.

There is a pile of peaches on the porch that are starting to get brown spots… So, stay tuned for more preserving adventures later this week!