Category Archives: Canning & Preserves

Rhubarb and ginger jam

Rhubarb and ginger jam on a cracker. Rhubarb from our garden is green, and so is the jam made from it.

Rhubarb from our garden is green, and so is the jam made from it.

I have a lot on my mind right now with changes coming at work that are likely to affect G.’s and my lifestyle. It’s odd, you would think that I couldn’t have a worse schedule. I work Friday to Tuesday and most holidays. Typically, I go to Wisconsin on Tuesday nights and then return to Chicago on Friday mornings.

That’s actually not so bad. But, on Sunday afternoon, as soon as I get off work, I hop on a train that takes me part-way to Milwaukee, G. picks me up at the station and then we drive the rest of the way so that we can get to our dance class that night. After class, we turn around and drive 45 minutes back to G.’s. I spend the night there, and then in the morning, I get the train back to Chicago. So, on Sundays, I spend three hours on a train and in a car to get to dance. On Monday mornings, I spend another two hours on the train. That sucks.

But, I am afraid to give it up. We dance at a bar in Milwaukee every other Wednesday, and we have dance class. If we lost class, how much would we dance?

In theory, we should be practicing a lot at home because G. built the dance floor in the barn, but we haven’t. I think that’s partly because he was sick for almost a year with sinus infections. Finally, he seems to be doing better after this second surgery. It’s also because we often have errands we have to run together at night because I don’t have a car to run them during the day. I think I need to get a car. It’s been three years since I sold mine, and I don’t need one at all in Chicago, but being in Wisconsin without one is a pain in the ass.

The other issue is that we need dance lessons to get better. If we scrap group lessons, we will need private ones, and our teacher has been doing less and less of those. We will have to convince her that she needs to work us into her schedule.

I also worry we will no longer be able to go to Saturday dances in Wisconsin. We initially gave those up when I moved to Chicago, but then we were so sad after a year, that we started going again. Getting there also involves crazy commuting: I get off work on Saturday afternoon and hop a different train, Amtrak, to Milwaukee. G. picks me up there, and we drive west to the dance. After the dance, he drives me back to Chicago so I can be at work at  7 a.m.

The thing is, though, there’s only six of those dances a year, and we can get to them. If my schedule changes, we might not be able to. And I worry we will be sad like we were the first year.

And so, with all of this on my mind, I spent yesterday morning making rhubarb and ginger jam. Cooking is good when you’re worried because you can think while doing something, so it doesn’t seem like you are obsessing, even though you are. Rice pudding is a great thing to make during fretful times because it involves a lot of stirring, which provides plenty of thinking time.

Jam is a little more complicated, but I had rhubarb to use, and there was a decent amount of stirring and waiting to be done while it cooked down and got ready to set. If  you are worried and need to spend some time in the kitchen, here’s the recipe, slightly adapted, from Sally Cameron’s Grow It, Cook It:

Rhubarb and Ginger Jam

1.5 kilograms rhubarb, chopped
1.5 kilograms sugar
juice of 2 lemons
60 grams ginger, peeled and chopped
25 grams butter

Combine rhubarb, sugar and lemon juice in a stock pan and bring to a slow boil. Cook, stirring until the fruit releases its liquid and begins to break down.

Add ginger. Continue to cook over medium to low heat until the jam has cooked down, stirring as needed.

Test to see if jam has set. I do this by stick a dollop on a plate and setting it briefly in the freezer. If the jam then wrinkles when you touch it, it’s done.

Stir in butter. Skim any foam off the top.

Seal in a rolling water bath, leaving 1/4-inch head space in the jars and boiling for 15 minutes. This makes 9 half-pints with some leftover.

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Grapefruit Honey Jam

Grapefruit jam

The recipe for grapefruit honey jam uses Pomona's Universal Pectin, so you don't need as much sugar.

I had four bags of grapefruit in the refrigerator, and I was describing to G. the process of segmenting the fruit to make jam. Cut off the ends. Peel the skin. Cut off the white membrane with a very sharp knife (which G. had just sharpened) and then remove the fruit from the membrane.

“This should take me about six hours,” I summed up.

“Well, that just shows you’re weird,” he said.

I thought he was kidding. But the next day, after about six hours of work on my part, he dug his spoon into the jam and pronounced it delicious.

“I thought you were just being weird, but this is really good,” he said. “I’ve never tasted anything like this.”

I couldn’t decide if that was a compliment or not. Then G. launched into a rhapsody about trying new things and how you never know what you’re going to like.

I knew I wanted to make grapefruit honey jam as soon as I saw the recipe in Tart and Sweet. I love grapefruit, but I’m a little turned off by the idea of rind in marmalade. There’s no chunks of rind in this jam. Also, I’ve learned that I prefer jams that aren’t too sweet. The recipe uses Pomona’s Universal Pectin to foster gelling, so you don’t have to use as much sugar. In this recipe, you use only 1 cup of sugar and 1 1/2 cups of honey to 16 cups of grapefruit.

I’m not posting the whole recipe on my blog because it contains a lot of directions _ for segmenting, using Pomona’s pectin and for actually making the jam. This is not an easy recipe, and it takes quite a bit of time. It took me twice as long as the recipe said to get the jam to the gel point.

If that last sentence freaked you out, don’t even try it. If you thought, OK, bring it on, then you’re probably an experience canner and committed enough to it to buy the book. If you do, I’ll just mention that I’m also a big fan of the spiced pear butter.

My mom is getting preserves for her birthday

Today is my mom's birthday, and this is her present.

I think my mom was a little mystified when I started canning. Actually, I think she didn’t realize at first how much canning I was doing. And then when she did, I think she thought I was a little crazy.

I think I’m a little crazy sometimes. I mean, I work, I dance and I commute two-hours one-way to Wisconsin to see G. And then on top of that, I can and freeze all the food from our garden. From August through October, that’s at least 20 hours of work each week, all squeezed into my two days off. During those months, I sometimes feel like I’m going to work to rest. And I can in other months too, just not as intensely.

But I feel like so much is out of control in my life right now, with my job and my inability to sell my condo in Milwaukee or move back to Wisconsin to live with G. Canning and gardening give me control over something. I can control what I eat.

And, as it turns out, I’ve started to influence what my mom eats too. This year, all she wanted for her birthday — which is today — was food.

G. and I packed up 16 jars of jam, salsa, pasta sauce, pizza sauce, pickled beets and other items and shipped them off to her before Thanksgiving. And now, I’m in North Carolina celebrating with her. Happy birthday, Mom!

Easy and awesome pear butter


I brought some jars back from Wisconsin, where I can, to Chicago, where I eat, and when I opened the cupboard to put them inside, I had this moment where I felt like the jars were breeding. There just seems to be so many of them, here and in Wisconsin.

I know how many there are, of course. I put up 257 jars this year, and we gave 54 away so far. We’ve eaten some, but probably not more than a dozen or so yet. Well, maybe more than a dozen. G. eats a lot of salsa.

When I added it all up, it kind of blew me away. The canner fits seven jars at a time, so that means I made at least 37 batches. Really though, I made more because not every recipe produced seven jars.

That’s hours and hours, days and days of canning. I think it must be like childbirth. After you do it, you kind of forget how much labor it was, or you’d never do it again.

Of the more than two dozen jams, sauces, pickles and chutneys I put up, I think my favorite is pear butter. It makes my morning oatmeal taste amazing and gives me a good start to the day. It makes me happy.

I use a very simple recipe from Tart and Sweet by Kelly Geary and Jessie Knadler. Here it is if you want to try it. It makes seven half-pints, or seven cups.

Pear Butter 

6 pounds pears, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2-inch chunks

1 cup sugar

juice of 1 large lemon

Combine pears and sugar in a pot and cook over medium-high heat until the pears become soft and start to break down. Stir as needed to prevent burning.

When pears are soft, remove pot from heat and puree with an immersion blender.

Return pot to stove and continue cooking on low heat until butter thickens. Again, stir as needed to prevent burning.

You will know the butter is done when you put a dollop on a plate and it doesn’t seep. Stir in the lemon juice.

Can in half-pint jars with 1/4-inch head space, processing for 10 minutes.

Note: You can also add cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom and other spices. “Tart and Sweet” has a wonderful recipe for Spiced Pear Cardamom Butter with five spices. Also, the book has much more detailed cooking instructions. I recommend it.

At my aunt’s request: Zucchini and apple relish


I took a jar of this zucchini and apple relish to my aunt last winter, and she’s been asking me for the recipe for a couple of months now so that she can make it. I actually didn’t make a batch this summer. We didn’t have as much zucchini as last year, so it went to other things. And, I’m not a big relish fan. Maybe if I grilled more, like my aunt does, that would change. The relish is really good with grilled meat.

The recipe came from a cookbook I bought in New Zealand, so you’ll need a kitchen scale to make it. Doing a weight-to-volume conversion to figure it out in cups is way too hard.

It will make about six cups. I canned it in half-pint jars, leaving 1/4-inch headspace and submerging in a rolling water bath for 20 minutes.

Zucchini and Apple Relish

750 grams grated zucchini

1 1/2 tablespoons sea salt

600 grams apples, peeled and chopped

4 medium white onions, peeled and chopped

500 milliliters white wine vinegar

250 gram raisins, chopped

150 gram brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon garam masala

1/2 teaspoon ground coriander

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

Place the zucchini in a strainer, sprinkle with salt and let it drain for 2 hours. Then rinse zucchini under cold water and drain and dry on a paper towel.

Combine zucchini, apples, onion, vinegar and raisins in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil and simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes or until mixture is pulpy.

Stir in sugar and spices, stirring over heat until sugar is dissolved.

Bring to a boil again and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, for another 20 minutes or until mixture is thick.

Wordless Wednesday: Pickled vegetables

Three kinds of pickles: carrot, eggplant and zucchini.

What I learned in a year of serious cooking

Shortcake coming out of the oven.

Today marked one year since I started The Back 40. It’s been a big year with big changes: My grandmother died, as did G.’s dad.

And then there’s the things that remain the same: G. and I still live in separate states. I still can’t sell my condo in Milwaukee because the housing market is bad. We’re still waiting for the economy to turn around and hoping we’ll eventually find work in the same area.

I think I have changed, in no small part because of this blog. I feel more confident now, as a writer, a gardener and a cook. First of all, I am delighted that people actually read this blog and even more delighted when someone tells me they are going to try a recipe or do some cooking of their own.

Second, I am now confident in what a gardening instructor once told G. and I: Plants want to grow, and if you don’t do anything really bad, they will. There have been many days when that thought has given me much comfort. And the plants do grow, they really do. G. and I thought this year’s garden was done after the storm on Memorial Day weekend, but it has bounced back and once again we have more food than we can eat.

And then there’s the cooking. I feel like I’ve improved a lot, although as in most things, the more I know, the more I realize how little I know. But I have a few tips to offer, the things I’ve learned from a year of serious cooking:

_ Gardening and cooking at home saves you a lot of money. I buy the groceries for G.’s home and mine, and between the two, I probably spend about $40 a week on groceries. No joke. And that’s covering breakfast, packed lunches and dinner.

_ Buy a kitchen scale. It’s worth whatever you pay for it, whether it’s $25 or $55. Recipes done by weight are more accurate, and it’s quicker, when baking, if you can just dump in the flour, zero the scale, dump in the sugar, zero the scale, and so on. Also, most European recipes are by weight, and there are good ones readily available online, so having a scale will let you take advantage of that.

_ Taste the chili pepper before you add it to the pot. Otherwise, it might be too hot and your boyfriend will cry.

_ There are several ways to turn fresh pumpkin into “canned” pumpkin for baking purposes. The easiest is to roast the pumpkin in the oven until it’s soft and then scrape the pulp into a food processor. Process until you have a smooth puree, and then strain that for at least an hour to remove the excess moisture. Then you can bake with it or freeze it for later use.

_ Buy an immersion blender. It makes making soups and other purees much easier because you can blend them in the pot and don’t have to transfer hot food to a blender or food processor.

_ You can never have too many dish towels. They get damp and dirty fast.

_ Do your prep before you start canning. That means have the vegetables or fruit cleaned, chopped and ready to go, and you have all the ingredients for your recipe set out. You can’t stop once you start, so if you are missing or short an ingredient, it’s best to know in advance.

_ The bugs that ride into your kitchen on vegetables from the garden won’t hurt you, but they’re still scary and disgusting.

_ Don’t put containers of hot soup right into the freezer. The soup will expand as it freezes, the containers will explode and that’s  a mess.

_ Chocolate chips are good in almost any baked item imaginable.

_ If you have onions, garlic and tomatoes, you have a base for dozens of different dishes, from pasta sauce to salsa and Indian curry.  Those are the three most useful things you can grow.

_ If  you have a good library, you can save a lot of money by checking out cookbooks, trying the recipes and writing down the ones you like. If you’re reading this blog, the chances are that you, like me, have more cookbooks that you know what to do with.

_ Read the whole recipe before you start cooking. Sometimes, there are unexpected twists.

_ Salt is a good thing. Most home cooks don’t use enough of it, which is why our food tends to taste bland. And, if you are worried about sodium, the best way to lower it is to avoid processed foods, not homemade ones.

_ If a recipe doesn’t turn out, the problem might be with the recipe, not the cook. Not all recipes are good, so don’t beat yourself up about it. Just move on to a better one.

_ Cook foods you like. When I get a new recipe,  I scan the list of ingredients. If I like them individually, I make it. But if it calls for foods I don’t like on their own, there’s a good chance I won’t like them combined, and I skip it.

_ Cooking is a skill, not a mystery, and you can improve with practice. So just do it.