On my ferry ride into the city Friday night, one of the drivers came on the loudspeaker announcing, “No we do not have air conditioning. No, the city isn’t any cooler. Have a lovely evening.” Yikes. Well, to his credit, we were all a bit grouchy. This past weekend, a heatwave descended on the Bay Area. The ferry was stifling hot and the air was stagnant. Not exactly the perfect night to stand around a simmering pot of strawberries for two hours making jam. But we don’t always have a choice in these matters. So in a tank-top, flip-flops, my hair pulled back, and extra-large water bottle in tow, I walked into Urban Kitchen SF excited to begin.
There’s a part of me that’s always felt like maybe I was born in the wrong era. I loved Little House on the Prairie (I still have the boxed set up in my closet somewhere), and always fantasized about what it’d be like to live off the land. I despise wasting food, and will eat the same meal for days to avoid doing so. So I’m actually surprised I haven’t gotten into canning sooner. I’m not sure what inspired me to take this course initially, but after meeting Jordan Champagne from Happy Girl Kitchen Co., I know it will not be a waning interest.
Jordan and her husband Todd started their company after working in California’s Central Coast and seeing the enormous amount of fruit that goes to waste during the harvest. This, combined with Jordan’s dislike for the overly-sweet jams on the market…and Happy Girl Kitchen was born. Today they’re based out of Oakland, CA and they make some pretty awesome products. I was lucky enough to get the recipe for their infamous strawberry jam during the workshop and I’ll share it here with you.
When we walked in, there were tables overflowing with organic, local berries. We had so many leftover that we each got to fill up jars of berries to take home. The raspberries were perfectly delicate and the blackberries, soft and tart.
Since we only had two hours, we got going quickly, getting the strawberries cooking right away. Although most of her recipes are naturally low in sugar, Jordan utilizes the old-fashioned or “slow” method of jamming relying mostly on sugar rather than pectin or other stabilizers. This means more time stirring at the oven. In my particular case–as we were working in an outdoor kitchen right outside of the Ferry Building–this meant lots of stirring while watching a naked biker, “Critical Mass” (a common impromptu bike parade, intentionally blocking off streets to make a statement about our over-reliance on automobiles, among other things), and an aristocratic looking gentleman proposing to his leather-clad boyfriend. Ah, San Francisco. And it wasn’t getting any cooler over that stove. But I kept stirring. It was pretty easy to escape into the smell of sweet, warm strawberries. And I was very focused on the end-product, on toting a few jars of homemade jam back onto the ferry for the next morning’s breakfast.
I brought home two jars of jam, one jar of preserved berries, and a jar of honey syrup for future preserving. While sweaty and a little overcrowded, I can’t imagine a better way to spend a Friday night. And while I know each time I make jam probably won’t be filled with new friends, naked folks, and sweaty limbs, I’m excited to jump into this hobby head-on and capture some of late August for those dark January evenings when we all forget what summer tastes like. Jordan’s recipe follows.
Strawberry Lemon Jam
This recipe calls for macerating the strawberries overnight, essentially pouring the sugar right over the top of them, allowing it to soak in while the strawberries slowly release their juices. Yes, it’s an old-fashioned technique but it results in a lovely, subtly sweet, special jam. You can let them macerate in their sugars for 48 hours if you need to, but 18-24 hours should be plenty. If you would rather skip this step, you certainly can. But you may face difficulty getting the jam to gel. You’ll notice a much lower sugar content in this jam than others–try it, you won’t miss a thing. The natural sweetness of the berries is on display.
14 cups strawberries
4 cups sugar
1/3 cups fresh lemon juice
Wash and de-stem the berries and allow them to drain thoroughly.
Place berries and lemon juice in a pot and scatter the sugar evenly on top. Don’t stir or disturb the berries–the sugar will filter down and capture all the juices. Leave at room temperature for 18-24 hours.
After gathering all of your canning equipment, mash the berries by hand or with a masher. Add the contents to a non-reactive pot and bring to a hearty boil. Boil until gel point is reached (10-30 minutes).* Process in a hot water bath canner for 5 minutes.
Jam recipe yields roughly enough for 1 case (12, 6 oz. jars).
*After canning numerous time, you’ll be able to eye whether or not your jam is at the gelling point or not. I’m not there yet. Jordan taught us a trick where you freeze a plate and put a little spoonful of jam on the frozen plate, bringing its temperature down quickly so you can see what it would look like at room temperature. It should look like the consistency of jam. If it doesn’t, keep on heating and stirring. Sidenote: I will say, after just one night of making jam, you do get a sense for the foam that forms, and how the foam settles after a while, and the strawberries really cook down…a
nd then it’s ready. Experiment. Have fun. Don’t take it too seriously: envision naked bikers and gay proposals.
The Thanksgiving Table
Today is a different kind of day. Usually posts on this blog come about with the narrative and I manage to squeeze in a recipe. But sometimes when you really stumble upon a winning recipe, it speaks for itself. We'll likely make these beans for Thanksgiving this year. They're one of those simple stunners that you initially think couldn't be much of a thing. And then they come out of the oven all sweet and withered and flecked with herbs. You try one and you realize they are, in fact, a pretty big thing.
I always force myself to wait until after Halloween to start thinking much about holiday pies or, really, future holidays in general. But this year I cheated a bit, tempted heavily by the lure of a warmly-spiced sweet potato pie that I used to make back when I baked pies for a living in the Bay Area (way back when). We seem to always have sweet potatoes around as they're one of Oliver's favorite foods, and when I roast them for his lunch I've been wishing I could turn them into a silky pie instead. So the other day I reserved part of the sweet potatoes for me. For a pie that I've made hundreds of times in the past, this time reimagined with fragrant brown butter, sweetened solely with maple syrup, and baked into a flaky kamut crust. We haven't started talking about the Thanksgiving menu yet this year, but I know one thing for sure: this sweet potato pie will make an appearance.
It has begun. Talk of who is bringing what, where we'll buy the turkey, what kind of pies I'll make, early morning texts concerning brussels sprouts. There's no getting around it: Thanksgiving is on its way. And with it comes the inevitable reflecting back and thinking about what we're thankful for. And about traditions. The funny thing about traditions is that they exist because they've been around for a long time. Year after year after year. But then, one Thanksgiving maybe there's something new at the table.
I didn't expect green beans to bring up such a great discussion on traditions, sharing of poems and how a piece of writing can linger with you. So thank you for that. Your comments pointed out how important people and place are and how food takes the back seat when it comes right down to it. Even if you feel quite warm towards Thanksgiving and are looking forward to next week, reading about recipe suggestions and meal planning online and in magazines can start to feel tiresome right about now. Why? Because I suppose when it all comes down to it, in the big picture it doesn't matter what we all serve anyway. Next year, you likely won't remember one year's vegetable side dish from another. What you'll remember are the markers that dotted the year for you: whom you sat next to at the table, a toast or grace, and the sense of gratitude you felt for something -- large or small.
I got a text from my mom the other day that read: demerara sugar? I responded back with a question mark, not sure what she was referencing. It turns out she was experimenting with a new pie recipe that called for the natural sugar and wasn't sure why she couldn't just use white sugar as that's what she's always done in the past. A few days later we talked on the phone and she mentioned she'd let me take charge of the salad for Thanksgiving this year as long as there was no kale. No kale! And I wanted to do the mashed potatoes? Would they still be made with butter and milk? In short, we're always willing to mix things up in the Gordon household. Whether it's inspiration from a food magazine, friend or coworker, either my mom or one of my sisters will often have an idea for something new to try at the holiday table. But what I've slowly learned is that it can't really be that different: there must be pumpkin pie, the can of cranberry sauce is necessary even though not many people actually eat it, the onion casserole is non-negotiable, the salad can't be too out there, and the potatoes must be made with ample butter and milk. And while I was really scheming up an epic kale salad to make this year, there's a big part of me that gets it, too: if we change things too much we won't recognize the part of the day that comes to mean so much: the pure recognition. We take comfort in traditions because we recognize them -- because they're always there, year after year. And so today I present to you (mom, are you reading?): this year's Gordon family Thanksgiving salad.