Peasant food: Making summer last

When I was four years old, my family moved from a small house in Fairfax, Virginia to a huge place a few miles outside of town. Although the geographical distance was minor, it led to some major changes in our lives. One of the biggies was farming.

We lived down the street from a formerly active farm. My parents made friends with the owner, Mr. Winfield, and he used to "loan" us a plot of farmland in which we would plant our own vegetable garden. For my parents, who had grown up in New York and Boston, it was perfect: they could get the family out in the sun, pretend that they were farmers, and provide us with fresh food. For the kids, it meant long hours weeding row after row of peas and gaining a much greater understanding of the wonders of the modern supermarket.

A few years later, I grew my own vegetable garden and gained a deeper understanding of my parents' excitement. Unlike the dull, flavorless produce in the supermarket, my peas, cucumbers, corn, and tomatoes were bright, fresh, and delicious. I realized that the vegetables that I was used to eating were only a pale reflection of the produce that I could grow. It was amazing.

Unfortunately, gardening takes up a lot of time, and I realized that, with the cost of seeds, fertilizer, soil, and equipment, I was paying a small fortune for every precious tomato. For a while, I was resigned to suffering through the bland produce of the supermarket, until I discovered the wonders of farmer's markets, which once again gave me access to fresh, flavorful produce. The trouble, however, was that farmer's markets only offered a limited selection and it was only available for a small part of the year.

I realized that I had become spoiled by my supermarket. Although the produce was not as delicious as the food at the farmer's market, it was plentiful and varied, and I was able to get it year-round. Because of greenhouses, the low cost of shipping, and the increased use of genetically "enhanced" plants, there was almost no limit to when I could get a fresh tomato or cucumber. However, all this advancement came with a steep price: in addition to their lack of flavor, these foods were really expensive.

One day, I remembered my mother's solution. Every year, she would can or freeze a huge portion of our summer produce, pulling it out of the refrigerator or pantry whenever winter started to get us down. Her specialties were tomato sauce, homemade pickles, and peach daiquiris, all of which would give us a little taste of summer in the middle of the winter, when we needed it most. In the process, she also saved a lot of money, as we didn't feel a need to pay a premium for flavorless tomatoes in January.

When I got older, I experimented with canning vegetables, but discovered that my real joy was in making jams, jellies, and preserves. My favorite guide was Frederica Langeland's A Passion for Preserves. Filled with fun recipes and great pictures, it inspired me to spend an entire Spring break making preserves. I ended up with 117 jars, many of which I passed off to my friends. While some, like the cucumber jelly, weren't all that good, her recipe for coconut jam is one of the best things I've ever had, and her apple date preserves are truly incredible.

If you're interested in trying to can fresh food, you might start by seeing what is available. The Food Network has a basic list of seasonal foods, so you can plan ahead. Right now, for example, oranges and grapefruits are in season, which means that you have the basic makings for marmalade. In addition to Langeland's book, you might want to take a peek at The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, which has tons of interesting and bizarre recipes. Alternately, you might want to try your hand at lemon curd. In spite of it's repulsive name, it's incredibly delicious. Plus, lemons are currently in season!

I adapted this recipe from Langeland's book. I like my lemon curd really tart, so I use three lemons. However, if you prefer more of a custard flavor, you can use fewer. Alternately, you might want to try making this with limes--it's a little more bitter, yet really delicious. Lemon curd is great on English muffins, in tarts, or straight out of the jar.

Lemon Curd

1 cup sugar

3 lemons

1/2 cup butter

6 eggs, beaten

Wash and dry the lemons. Using a very fine grater (a microplane works best), finely grate the zest, or outermost layer, of the lemon rind. Juice the lemons. Strain the juice and pour into the top of a double boiler and add the sugar, zest, sugar, and butter. Place the top of the double boiler over a saucepan with simmering water. Make sure that the top pan isn't touching the hot water. Cook, stirring constantly, until the sugar is dissolved and the butter is melted, then remove from the stove.

Allow the mixture to cool for a minute or so, then stir a little bit into the beaten eggs (this will raise the heat of the eggs and keep them from solidifying when you add them into the double boiler). Combine the eggs with the remainder of the mixture in the top of the double boiler, stirring constantly. Return the double boiler to the stove and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens. This will take about 10-15 minutes.

You can either let the lemon curd cool and eat it while fresh, or you can can it. If you decide to can it, ladle it, while hot, into hot, sterilized jars, leaving 1/4 inch of head space. Shake firmly to remove air bubbles. Wipe the rims clean, put on the lids, and tighten down. Let cool completely.

Word to the wise: as the jars cool and seal, they will make a clicking sound. If they don't click, they're not sealed, and will go bad. In other words, put the non-sealed jars in the refrigerator and eat them first!

Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. He's feeling a little tarty right now.

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