Sunday, April 15, 2012

The first bloom of spring canning

To make room for the abundance to come, I have been faithfully working down the contents of my canning closet and sharing jars of last season's excess with friends and neighbors. I have been scouring recipes books and searching online for something new and different for my first batch. Of course I'd use strawberries - but what else?

I considered the heat of chiles, the sweet bite of balsamic vinegar, shreds of bright green spring basil. Then, with an appeal as enticing as its heady aroma, it hit me: rose petals.

We have a lovely rose bush that was planted years ago at the end of our driveway to mask an abandoned basketball pole, which itself is planted in an absurd amount of concrete. Tim decided to wrap the pole in black mesh and set about training the vines to climb. It resisted at first but is now a bona fide showstopper.

Its heavily perfumed blooms never last inside - the petals usually shrug off in a day -- but this made them ideal for a rose water infusion, which in turn he made a fine base for strawberry juice. It was a two-day process that likely could be condensed, but it was time well spent.

You'll need a jelly bag, an inexpensive and wise investment if you plan to make jelly or syrup more than once. If you don't have one - or have done such a good job of putting it away that you can't find it - you can jerry-rig one from a cheesecloth-lined chinois or colander suspended over a large measuring cup or mixing bowl. I prefer a measuring cup as it's encouraging to watch it fill.

Only use roses from a trusted source where you are certain they have not been treated with insecticide. Choose large, open blooms that pull loose with little effort. Be sure to inspect well for blemishes and travellers. My bowlful had two crawling visitors that I returned to the wilds of my side porch.

This recipe will produce enough juice for two batches of jelly, which eventually follows the basic directions found on the yellow box of Sure-Jel pectin. Combining to save time could result in a doubt batch of disappointment that will never set properly.

Strawberry Rose Petal Infusion
12-15 rose blossoms
6 cups water
3 tbsp. fresh lemon juice, divided
4 1/2 cup whole strawberries

Lightly pull petals from rose heads and place in water-filled pot. Bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer, lightly covered, for about 20 minutes. The result should be fragrant, rose-tinted water with color-drained petals that look like wet tissue paper. Move pot off heat, cover and steep 30 minutes.

While mix is steeping, clean and trim strawberries. I used a food processor to coarsely chop the berries. Add remaining lemon juice and pulse until still chunky but juicy. It should measure about 3 cups.

Add mashed strawberries to rose water and return mix to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, lightly covered, about 10 minutes. Let mix cool completely then cover and store overnight in the refrigerator.

Day 2
1 large lemon, juiced
1/2 cup white wine
2 yellow boxes Sure-Jel pectin
9 cups sugar, divided
1 tsp. butter
12 8-ounce jelly jars, or equivalent mix of sizes

Remove strawberry-rose mix from refrigerator and leave on counter until contents are at room temperature. Carefully transfer to jelly bag or cheesecloth-lined colander over a large measuring cup or bowl to catch juice. Resist the urge to squeeze the bag or press the contents to speed the process as it will release residue that will cloud the jelly.

Allow at least an hour to drip - or, better still, leave it on the table and go out to breakfast with a friend. By the time you return you should have about 6 1/2 cups juice. Don't worry if you have a little more or less.

Add the fresh-squeezed juice of 1 lemon, 1/2 cup white wine and enough water to measure 7 1/2 cups total. You will need 3 3/4 cups juice for each of two batches.

From this point on, you pretty much follow the Sure-Jel method detailed on the package insert. First, be sure you have sterilized jars in a large canning pot or stock pot, and place a set of fresh lids in a covered bowl of very hot water to soften. When jars are clean, set them upside down on a clean kitchen towel. Keep your canning pot at a simmer to be ready when you need it.

Pour 3 3/4 cups strawberry-rose petal juice into large, heavy-bottom pot with high sides; I use my pasta pot but others prefer a wider pot with more surface exposure. Using a long wooden spoon or silicon spatula, stir in packet of pectin while bringing to a boil over medium heat. Add 1/2 tsp. butter to reduce foam.

Surface foam is easily removed to reveal clear jelly.
When it comes to a rolling boil, add sugar all at once, stirring well to combine. The mix will take on a glassy sheen at this point, a beautiful sight that is one of the rewards of making your own jelly. Stir frequently until it comes to a roiling boil that cannot be stirred down, then let it rip 1 minute. Seriously, watch the clock or count.

Remove pot to a heat-proof surface and skim any scummy foam with a metal spoon or mesh strainer. I prefer the latter as it allows useful juice to drip back in. Using a canning funnel to minimize spills, quickly but carefully pour into canning jars, leaving about 1/2-inch head space. Wipe rims with a damp cloth to ensure they are clean, then lightly press a warmed lid on each jar. Add screw bands, tightening only until you hit resistance.

Carefully place jars in canning pot, ensuring that the water level is at least an inch above the jar tops. Bring to a full boil for about 10-12 minutes. I usually turn off the heat and leave jars in place for about 5 minutes to settle before removing to heat-proof surface, but if you can't resist, go ahead and pluck them out. Within moments, you'll start hearing pings as the jars complete their seals. If possible, don't move jars until they have cooled.

If a jar does not ping, or its lid does not appear slightly depressed - hallmark signs of successful canning - just put it in the fridge and enjoy it now. The rest can be saved and safely savored for up to one year. I feel obliged to say that for new canners, but no kidding, this stuff is too good to sit around that long.

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