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Friday, May 6, 2011

Strawberry Jam

There is an art to making food beautiful. Some people know how to arrange a plate just-so. They know how to combine colors and textures, portion sizes and ratios.  I have never been to any sort of culinary school... as a matter of fact, I haven't even taken a single cooking class (although I would LOVE TO). I believe, though, that there are courses just on plating the food. It is definitely an art form.

And then there are those who can bake beautiful creations. They not only bake a level, beautiful cake or cookies, they are then able to frost it smooth, without a wrinkle or drip. On top of that, they know how to make it beautiful, with just the right amount and combination of color, decoration, shape, texture. Those people are simply amazing, and occupy a space in my esteem where I will admire, but probably never aspire to join their class of artistry.

I was in Oxnard the other day. If you aren't from Southern California, let me give you a little background. Oxnard has traditionally been a manufacturing and agricultural center in California. Which means that it is largely populated by laborers from both factories and farms. In other words, its a working town, not a vacation destination. In the mid-2000's, the city decided to get ahold of its growing gang problem and invest in development. Suddenly, people began to notice that Oxnard, despite its name, is actually a beautiful location. It's hard not to be, only about 30 miles or so down the beach from Santa Barbara. Lately it has gained some beautiful neighborhoods and commercial areas, and is becoming a destination for relaxing beach weekends and wonderful retirement homes.

At any rate, there is still plenty of agriculture surrounding Oxnard, and it is considered to be the main supplier of strawberries and lima beans in the state of California. While I won't hold the lima beans against Oxnard, I will luxuriate in the strawberries.

It has been gloriously hot the past few days, and all of this early summertime means that the strawberries are ripe for the picking. I stopped at a farm stand to pick up a half-flat of the freshly ripened berries, and now I wish I had gone for the whole flat. After letting the kids have their fill, I made a batch of strawberry jam, and there are only a couple left! Oxnard is a bit too far for me to drive just to get berries, (I calculate that the 50 miles each way must take about $732 in current gas prices). 

I went ahead and made my jam using pectin. I know the world is divided into two types of people:
Those who add pectin to their jam, those who feel adding pectin isn't authentic, and those who buy their jam already made.  Pectin is a natural ingredient, derived from apples, that helps the jam to set, which decreases cooking time. The way I see it, using pectin isn't that different than using a stove hooked up to a gas line. Both methods have been developed since my great-grandmother made her jam, and both help out a lot in the kitchen. If it tastes good and helps with consistent results, I'm all for it.

We very much enjoyed strawberry jam on our toast this morning. And now you can too:

Strawberry Jam

5 cups of mashed strawberries (about 7 cups whole)
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 packet pectin (available in the grocery store right next to the mason jars and lids)
7 cups sugar

1. Rinse and hull the strawberries.

2. Using a potato masher, mash enough strawberries to make 5 cups.

3. Mix together the strawberries, lemon juice and pectin in a large pot. Bring it all to a rolling boil (so that even while stirring, the mixture boils). Add the sugar, and bring it back to a rolling boil.  Continue to boil for one minute, scraping off the foam.

4. Ladle into hot jars (The jars need to be hot so that the glass doesn't crack when the hot jam is poured in.) Fill each jar to 1/4 inch from the top. Wipe the edges of the jar clean. Place a lid on each jar, and screw on the band until it is finger-tip tight. Place the jars into a large pot of water, and boil for 15 minutes. The water level needs to be 1-2 inches above the top of the jars. After 15 minutes, remove from the water using a jar lifter (or tongs). Let them sit, undisturbed for 12-24 hours. You will know if they are properly sealed if you press on the lid and it doesn't give at all.

5 Enjoy your strawberry jam! If properly sealed, it should be good for up to a year.