We Be Jammin’ (Specifically, Strawberry Balsamic Jam with Black Pepper)

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Itty bitty jars of sweet and savory goodness.

Itty bitty jars of sweet and savory goodness.

Ah, the joys of ADHD. I had planned on making a strawberry-cherry pie, then strawberry-rhubarb tarts, but when the steam had settled, my two pounds of luscious Driscoll strawberries found their way into a jam. Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of strawberry jam, because it tends to be both a little sweet and a little insipid for my taste, but I came across several recipes for a strawberry balsamic jam, and then the vision of serving it with an aged white Canadian Cheddar kicked in — no, wait; goat cheese! or maybe a stinky Roquefort! (see what I mean about the ADHD?) — so I committed to making a small batch.

Six ingredients. Six. No added pectin. Comparatively speaking, a fair amount of work for six four-ounce (118 ml) jars, but highly satisfying, especially when you give them away as gifts to a grateful palate (even if it’s your own).

STRAWBERRY BALSAMIC JAM (makes six 4 oz./118 ml jars)
Ingredients
2 lb./1 kg fresh strawberries
3 tbsp/45 ml lemon juice (fresh-squeezed, if you can get it)
1.5 cups/300 g granulated white sugar
4 tbsp/60 ml balsamic vinegar
1 tsp/5 g sea salt or kosher salt
1/2 tsp/1-2 g freshly ground black pepper

Berries and sugar, macerating nicely.

Berries and sugar, macerating nicely.

Rinse and hull strawberries. Place in a bowl with sugar and let sit for at least 1-2 hours (or overnight, if it’s convenient), mashing the strawberries after about 10-20 minutes.

Berries and sugar, all mashed up.

Berries and sugar, all mashed up.

Meanwhile, prepare jars and lids (which is to say, throw them in boiling water for a minimum of 10 minutes). [You have the option of making this a refrigerator jam if you don’t care to do the whole home canning thing; strictly up to you. I chose to preserve the preserve in the traditional manner. Otherwise, be sure to use it up within about 10 days.]

It may not be quick, but it does get thick.

It may not be quick, but it does get thick.

Place the strawberry and sugar slurry in a non-reactive saucepan, add the lemon juice, and bring to a boil on medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium and continue to cook until jam is at the jell stage, stirring frequently and watching at least semi-observantly. [For me, this was about 45 minutes, but your pan and stove may bring about a different result, timewise; one of the recipes I read said you could get there in 30 minutes.] Add the balsamic vinegar, salt, and black pepper the last five minutes of cooking, stirring continuously. Remove the pan from heat.

Jam and a few spare jars.

Jam and a few spare jars.

Pour jam into hot, prepared jars, leaving 1/4″ headspace. Refrigerate immediately or seal and process jars for 10 minutes in a water bath canner. If processing in water bath, remove and let jars sit for 24 hours, ensuring a good seal. Remove bands and store for up to one year… if you think you can wait that long before finishing it all off.

Boiling, but not mad.

Boiling, but not mad.

[Thanks to my pal Susan Park for the suggestion of adding the salt; it cuts the sweetness nicely, and plays well with both the strawberries and the vinegar. And thanks to my cousin Sheryl for the gorgeous cutting board that served as a tray for the jars.]

Fig Onion Rosemary, um… It’s a Jam! It’s a Conserve! It’s a Very Thick Sauce!

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Destemed figs await being destiny.

It’s figgy! It’s oniony! It’s rosemary-y! It’s… Supercondiment!

When it comes to a project like this, seems to me there’s only two ways to go: 1) You can make just enough for yourself, and let’s face it, a little goes a fairly long way, or 2) If you’re going to bother with it at all, you may as well make a bunch, and share it with friends, neighbours, co-workers, etc. After all, you’re committing the same amount of time in either case, and in the latter mode, you can share the wealth. Sure, your cost of ingredients doubles, but by a back-of-the-napkin calculation, that came to about $12 in this case, less if you use red onion rather than Vidalia sweet onions, a cheaper wine, and can find a better deal on fresh figs than Whole Foods‘, all of which are well within pretty much everyone’s reach.

Clostridium botulinum, or Botox in the wild.  (Photo Credit: Dr. Gary Gaugler/Science Photo Library)

Clostridium botulinum, or Botox in the wild.
(Photo Credit: Dr. Gary Gaugler/Science Photo Library)

I’m going to say this up front, because food safety is paramount: THIS MUST BE REFRIGERATED. You can’t really preserve it in a standard water bath as you do other jams, because the pH isn’t low enough (or, put another way, the acidity isn’t high enough) to guarantee that our old pal Clostridium botulinum won’t rush in and ruin the day. The spore that causes botulism — and turns actresses of a certain age into Stepford Wife-looking creatures — is given a perfect home to reproduce in a fairly low-acid foodstuff that has been canned in an anaerobic (air-free) environment. You could get around this by adding a healthy dose of lemon or lime juice (or citric acid powder), but that would muck about with the flavour in a way that I wasn’t aiming for, personally. That said, if you do want to adjust the recipe and can it in the trad fashion, I’d recommend getting a pack of pH test strips and make sure you have the acidity at a pH lower than 4. Then the nasty little beastie is banished from the kingdom.

Now that I’ve frightened you, let me say that this is the same advice you’d get for canning meat, or asparagus, or mushrooms, or wax beans, or pretty much any veg that isn’t a tomato (and yes, I know a tomato is technically a fruit).

If, on the other hand, you have a pressure cooker/canner, you could do this no worries, so long as you get the canning temp above 240° F/115.6° C for a specific period (there are online guides), and it makes sense to err on the side of caution. Otherwise, you’re just going to have to treat it the same way you do pretty much everything else: put it in the fridge, and use it within 10 days or so. [Since it isn’t going to be in an anaerobic environment, botulism isn’t an issue, but as you well know, nothing in the fridge keeps forever… except that box of baking soda that doesn’t really absorb the odors the way it’s advertised to do.]

On to the good stuff.

This jam/conserve/very thick sauce is most excellent when served with stinky cheese, or as a glaze/condiment for a pork tenderloin, chops, or chicken. [Of course, since it’s vegan, it’s also good with crackers and flatbreads, not to mention garden burgers.] I tried to keep the sugar content as low as practicable, favouring the umami as much as possible.

Destemmed figs, awaiting their destiny.

Destemmed figs, awaiting their destiny.

FIG ONION ROSEMARY JAM/CONSERVE/VERY THICK SAUCE
INGREDIENTS:

45ml (3 tbsp.) extra virgin olive oil
3 large Vidalia sweet onions, sliced (about 1kg) (any onion can be substituted here)
5g + 1.25g (1 tsp. + 1/4 tsp.) sea salt or kosher salt
15g + 250g (1 tbsp. + 1 cup) turbinado sugar (white sugar works also)
1.25kg (2.75 lbs.) fresh Kadota figs (or whatever variety is convenient)
30ml (2 tbsp.) fig balsamic vinegar (or other balsamic vinegar or wine vinegar)
500ml (2 cups) red wine (2/3 of a standard bottle)*
15g (1 tbsp.) fresh rosemary, finely chopped

DIRECTIONS:

[Mise en place notes: Slice the onions and set then aside in a bowl; wash and destem the figs, then cut them in half (north/south) and set aside in a separate bowl. Chop the rosemary and set it aside. You can measure out your other moist and dry ingredients at this time if you want to, but nothing here is so time-sensitive that it’s really necessary.]

The only time the Sweet Vidalia onions made me cry was at the checkout counter.

The only time the Sweet Vidalia onions made me cry was at the checkout counter.

Heat pan on high and add the olive oil; when oil begins to shimmer, add the sliced onions, 5g/1 tsp. salt, 15g/1 tbsp. sugar, and stir briskly, to coat onions with the oil and mix in the salt and sugar. Reduce heat to medium high and allow onions to caramelize, about 20 to 30 minutes. [Note: If you haven’t done this before, it’s a little tricky. Stir them too often, and they don’t brown up. Stir them too infrequently, and they can burn. Don’t freak out if a couple of the onions look overdone; not a big deal. Timing is approximate depending on the amount of onions, your pan, and the heat of your cooktop.]

Onions, rosemary, and figs! Oh my!

Onions, rosemary, and figs! Oh my!

When the onions are browned, add the balsamic vinegar and wine to deglaze the pan, being sure to scrape any brown bits off of the bottom of the pan. Add figs and simmer until tender, about 20-30 minutes, stirring occasionally and pressing the figs against the side of the pan with a wooden spoon to break them up. Add the remaining turbinado sugar and salt (to taste) and simmer for an additional 20 minutes. If jam/conserve/very thick sauce gets too thick, add more liquid (either wine or water) as needed until the desired consistency is reached.

Jam, condiment, or very thick sauce? We report, you decide.

Jam, conserve, or very thick sauce? We report, you decide.

Allow to cool until it is safe to handle, then spoon into clean jars and refrigerate. Makes approximately 1.5 liters/just over 6 cups. Should be just fine for at least 7-10 days.

Fancier than it needs to be?

Fancier than it needs to be?

* A note on wine: I used Kendall-Jackson 2010 Vintner’s Reserve Summation Red, a blend of 28% Zinfandel, 27% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Petite Sirah, 3% Grenache, and 2% Petit Verdot. Why? I’d like to tell you that I did because it was the perfect match for the Brix (sweetness) level of the figs, but in fact it was around, I wasn’t particularly interested in drinking it at the time, and it wasn’t so expensive that I’d feel bad about having used it for making jam/conserve/very thick sauce. Any dry red will do; I may try a Pinot Noir or some other wine for the next batch, just to see how that works. You’ve probably heard this before, but you should avoid using any wine in cooking that you wouldn’t drink. So-called “cooking wines” are about as appetizing as Drāno®.

ADDENDUM:
I gave away a pint of the you-know-what to my pal Lisa Jane Persky, who is an actress, writer, artist, and a damn fine cook in her own right; here’s the chop she made with it. Nice.

Mmmmmm.

Mmmmmm.

ADDENDUM #2:
The other week, I attended a food festival at which restaurateur/radio host/generally cool individual Evan Kleiman was speaking about preserving tomatoes, and she said that (given the comparatively high pH of some newer varieties of tomato), she sometimes adds straight citric acid (which can be purchased either online or at many fine markets) to acidify the solution rather than adding lemon or some other citrus juice. The reason is that, while citric acid will make your jam/conserve/really thick sauce lower in pH (and hence, more sour-tasting), it won’t introduce any new flavour. You can buy pH strips or litmus paper to check to see if its pH is below 4. Alternatively, as noted above, you can pressure can the conserve/jam/really thick sauce. Or just stick it in the fridge. You’ll probably go through it faster than you thought.