Monday, May 7, 2012

Bread and Jamnation!

As a rule, I make an effort to shop small, local businesses rather than the national chains. My favorite thing about my local family-owned grocery is that, rather than throw out day-old or bruised produce, they sell it in paper bags off a shelf in the back of the store for drastically reduced prices. You might get four pounds of week-old parsnips for a dollar, or a bushel of slightly bruised apples for the same price. It is fantastic. Not only am I a fan of avoiding waste (in many other countries of the world, not only would these beautiful fruits and vegetables be unavailable, but folks would argue over them); I am an inveterate bargain hunter and can make something delicious out of the most overlooked of nature’s bounty.
            Thus, I have recently become addicted to jam-making. At first, this process seemed incredibly intimidating. Not so. Making jam is perhaps one of the easiest culinary adventures out there. The necessary ingredients are few and easy to procure, and the space to creatively riff on your product is infinite. Jam is the waste-free, backyard-farming individual’s answer to windfall produce—whether you grew it or simply acquired it cheaply. Here is really the only rule: simmer it down for a long time. Until it’s ready. Jam-making needs patience. You don’t actually need extra pectin or sugar if you take the time to make sure the mixture is boiled to almost solid. Keep on low heat and stir often.

Following are some of my favorite unique creations:

Pineapple Chipotle Jam
1 whole pineapple, finely chunked
1 cup brown sugar
4 cups water, plus extra
2 tbs crushed chipotle pepper

Boil the water; place the pineapple chunks and sugar in the water and reduce heat to medium low. Throw in hot pepper. Cook , stirring about every five minutes, until there is no water left and pineapple even burns a little bit on the bottom of the pan. Turn off heat and stir into a jam-like consistency.

Black Onion Jam
3-4 medium white onions, sliced very thinly
½  cup olive oil
½ cup maple sugar or molasses
2 cups water

Caramelize onions in olive oil. Add water and sugar; boil down until very thick.

Nectarine Brown Sugar Jam
2 lbs nectarines, pitted and diced
2 cups brown sugar
6 cups water
1tbs cinnamon
Bring water to a boil, then add nectarines, sugar, and cinnamon; reduce to a simmer. Simmer until a thick, jam-like consistency is achieved. This will take more than an hour (probably almost two).

Once you’ve mastered these, you can get a little fancy…

Smoked Vanilla Pear Jam
4 cups water
6 pears, any variety, chunked
4 medium apples, any variety, chunked
1 cup olive oil
2 tbs pure vanilla extract
1 tbs lemon juice
2 cups sugar

Rub a baking sheet with a little olive oil so the whole surface is coated. Spread fruit onto the sheet and drizzle with the rest of the olive oil. Bake at 400 F until soft and slightly browned (or even a little burned—this will only help the flavor). Bring the water to a boil and scrape in the fruit. Add the sugar, vanilla, and lemon juice; simmer until a jam consistency is achieved.

Sweet Jalapeno Jam
4 cups water
1 medium white onion, minced
¼ cup olive oil
1 tsp cumin (or more to taste)
2 cups brown sugar
½ lb jalapenos, diced
1 tbs lemon juice

Rub some olive oil onto a baking sheet and scatter jalapenos and onions on it; sprinkle with cumin. Bake at 400 F until onions are caramelized and you see black smoky spots appearing on the jalapenos. Boil water and add jalapenos and onions. Add sugar and lemon juice. Reduce to a simmer and cook until jam is achieved.

As you can see, there is a pretty predictable pattern involved here: fruit, sugar, water, boil. Acid (lemon juice) if you want to can anything. So easy and fun to deviate from the normal.

Making my own jam also appeals to me in the sense that I’m controlling the sugar content. Now, when I’m post-maple season, I actually use maple sugar, which is rich in minerals and amino acids, instead of refined and barren white sugar for all my recipes. (About a tablespoon equals a cup if making this substitution.) There is of course also the omnipresent aspect that I know (only to a better extent, of course—but control the controllable, right?) what is in our food and where it is coming from. I know it is natural, chemical and preservative free, and good for my family.

            With the same mindset, I also began making my own bread regularly about two years ago. At the store (yes, our same small-town local grocery) I had a strange tipping point: I looked at the labels on all of the breads that were advertised as “whole wheat” or “whole grain” or “heart healthy” or “no additives” and found that they all had ingredients that were not whole grain, or healthy, or natural. I make two loaves of bread twice a week, and have found that not only does my family like it better, but I am so much happier feeding it to them. Here is my favorite recipe:

1 cup oatmeal
2 cups boiling water
2 1/4 tsp. bread yeast
1/3 (or so) cup warm water
2 tbs olive oil, plus more
1 tbs natural maple sugar (or molasses or honey if you don’t have access to natural sugar)
1 tsp salt
4 cups whole wheat flour

Put oatmeal in a large mixing bowl. Pour boiling water over it and let it stand an hour, until all the water is absorbed by the oatmeal. Make a yeast starter with the yeast and water and let stand 15-20 min. Drizzle olive oil over top, sprinkle sugar and salt, and mix thoroughly. Add yeast starter. Mix in flour one cup at a time, until saturated. Let rise over night. The next day, grease two loaf pans with olive oil. Divide the mixture and let rise again over night. Bake at 350F for an hour or more, until a knife comes out clean.

I write this as a fresh pear jam batch comes off the pot—looking forward to breakfast!

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