By Mat Rogers
Recently my wife and I took a day trip to the cherry and apricot orchards of Enos Family Farms in Brentwood, California, which offers pick-your-own-fruit harvesting. We drove through golden hills dotted with oaks under deep blue skies. We wandered though the shaded, quiet, picked-over center section of the orchard, away from the riotous sounds of all the families with kids -- where finding the cherries left on the trees was an enjoyable scavenger hunt. We had a basket and blanket for an après picking picnic and nap.
All of this set the mood for the madness to come.
The walk to the end of the orchard and back was sufficient to fill our picking buckets two-thirds full. Despite knowing we already had too much, each tree had a few cherries that demanded to be picked, and by the time we reached the pay stand, I knew we had way more than the 15 to 20 pounds we could handle. Our haul weighed in at over 30 pounds, but that didn't stop us from also picking 10 pounds of Royal Blenheim apricots, a beautiful small, blushed apricot that has the most alluring floral aroma when ripe. At $3 per pound, the certified organic fruit was a steal compared to what you'd pay at the farmers market and was quick to pick, but now I was obligated to do something with every single last bit.
The apricots fortunately could sit out and ripen for a day or two. The first five pounds of cherries were frozen individually on a sheet pan until solid, then bagged for storage. After washing all the rest, and filling every large bowl and vessel in our kitchen, we set to pitting. Luckily, we had invested in a German-made, high-output cherry pitter for fear that our single-pliers-style pitter just wasn't going to get the job done in a reasonable amount of time. As long as I concentrated on lining up the cherries on the center trough of the fruit reservoir, where the thrust of a cross-shaped plunger sent pits flying into the reservoir below, the splatter radius was reduced to less than 10 feet, and the fruit and most of the juice dropped into a waiting roasting pan.
I endured the grocery checker's strange look when, my hands and forearms sticky and stained with cherry juice, I bought two bottles of Everclear for the liqueur.
We pitted six more pounds and made a double batch of jam. Many traditional jams recipes use as much or more sugar as they do fruit. But with a family history of diabetes, I opt for a low-sugar recipe modified from the Ball "No Sugar Needed Fruit Pectin" package. (Pomona pectin is another good option, but is a two-step process with calcium activator.)
Packets of powders are not a usual component of SOLE food cooking, but before you get grossed out, remember that pectins are just long-branch sugars found in plant cell walls that create a gel structure when released into a sugar solution. The no-sugar needed pectin is just a reformulation of pectins used by jam makers for years (originally derived by boiling up a mass of immature apples, whose peels have high pectin levels, and straining off the liquid) to ensure a set in a low-concentration sugar solution. The ingredients are dextrose (a single sugar), fruit pectin, citric acid (the acid in lemons), and calcium ascorbate (the mineral form of vitamin C).
The next day, I pitted a couple mixing bowls' worth for berry-cherry jam with blackberries I had frozen last summer. Inspired by the cherries soaked in bourbon a friend gave us last year, I took a pint jar full and poured in the whiskey. I canned six pints of whole cherries, cold packed in light syrup. We put cherries in plastic berry baskets and opened a "farm stand" to foist onto neighbors and friends whatever they could handle.
Now desperation was setting in. I had filled every jar in the house and our freezer was nearing capacity. I remembered cherry cornmeal scones with dried cherries, so I halved some and placed them on trays. The trays went outside during the day to sun dry, and I cranked up a dehydrator at night. When researching the cherries in bourbon, I had found a kirsch recipe, started by soaking unpitted cherries in high-proof alcohol for a few weeks. I endured the grocery checker's strange look when, my hands and forearms sticky and stained with cherry juice, I bought two bottles of Everclear for the liqueur.
We saved all the cherry pits, fermented and boiled them to remove pulp, then dried them on sheet pans. The pits have a large heat capacity and when sewn into a sack and heated, they make an excellent bed warmer. It takes 40 or more pounds of cherries to get enough pits to make a bed warmer, so with this batch and savings from previous years, we have just enough. (Cherry pits contain cyanide, but this toxic compound is released only when the pits are crushed, a plant-defense mechanism to discourage animal grazing.)
At last, we were done.
Everything we picked was somehow utilized. I didn't get to branch out into lacto-fermented fruit preservation, nor five-spice cherry pickles, but this experience was a good sampling of traditional preservation techniques. The ripening plums down the street and an about-ready secret blackberry patch have me scurrying for more canning supplies. Regardless of what else I get around to during the rest of the summer, it's nice to know that, come winter, we can pull out a jar of our own private-label cherries and remember the sun-drenched day we went a little U-Pick crazy.
Notes: Putting aside summer's bounty with your own hands, whether from your garden, foraging, the farmers market or a U-Pick, is a cooking project everyone should tackle at some point. If you want to start canning, be sure to use safe practices outlined at such sites as UC Extension or Canning USA, which has simple recipes and even videos with correct canning procedures. The Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book has a section on freezing and canning procedures with handy tables; the go-to source for canning info is the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving; and don't miss the Ethicurean's round-up of essential preserving books. You can also download free PDF files of the USDA's Complete Guide to Home Canning.
Mat Rogers is a doctoral candidate in ecological engineering at the University of California at Berkeley studying vegetated natural water treatment systems. He is the co-executive director of Agrariana. Mat lives in Oakland, where he spends time on traditional food preservation projects, develops a micro-farm and food forest, Hidden Alley Ranch, and blogs at matrogers.com.
Low Sugar Fruit Jam
3 pounds of fruit
1 cup of unsweetened apple juice
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
Approximately half* of a 1.75 oz. package of Ball No Sugar Needed Fruit Pectin
1 cup of evaporated cane juice (or to taste) or a sweetener of your choice.
Place the fruit, apple, and lemon juices in a saucepan and bring to a boil.
Add the pectin a bit at a time, stirring constantly, and bring the mixture to a boil that cannot be stirred down.
Add the sugar and bring back to a boil that cannot be stirred down. To test the set of the jam, put a dab of jam on a small plate that has been placed in a freezer for less than five minutes.Place the plate back in the freezer for one minute, then remove the plate from the freezer. If the jam will not flow when the plate is held at a steep angle, the jam will be set at room temperature. If the jam remains liquid and still flows, add half of the remaining pectin, bring back to a boil that cannot be stirred down, then test the set again and repeat as necessary.
Boil the jam in sterilized half-pint jars following safe home-canning guidelines from one of the books above.
*Using an entire package of pectin will make a jam that will set without fail but is unappealingly gelatinous.