I’ve entered a funny down time in the kitchen. Except for half a box of lemons and seven quinces from November, the cooler is empty of produce. It’s winter. I keep counting cases of jam and marmalade in storage wondering if I made enough jam and the right flavors to keep wholesale accounts filled and farmers market shoppers happy until the early May rhubarb appears. When rhubarb does come, the preserving cycle begins again. Rhubarb to strawberries onto cherries, Apriums giving way to Apricots. Then a deluge of fruit, more than can be preserved, summer, summer, summer streaking by.
Raining days like this Monday in February are built for hatching May and June plans. It’s deciding how many jars to make of Rhubarb Vanilla Jam in May before moving onto cherry flavors. It’s writing new cherry jam recipes by closing my eyes, pretending the sun’s come back, the herb garden has re-grown and imagining what I want to taste in my cherry jam four months from now. I love this process. In the case of jam, product development can mean stepping out of season. Cutting up California rhubarb or defrosting frozen cherries to mock up flavor combinations can feel a little blasphemous. But the process of testing, assessment, and problems solving is so rich it makes up for the dampened flavors of frozen or faraway grown fruit.
On Saturday I picked up six pounds of rhubarb from Frank’s Warehouse in Sodo and biked back North four blocks to my kitchen on Airport Way. The kitchen was so cold from the freeze outside I washed the rhubarb in warm water to heat my hands. I plugged in the radio and started chopping rhubarb lengths for two different recipes. One, Rhubarb Plum Conserves, I first made two years ago with dried prunes picked from a friend’s tree in Mapleleaf and the other, Rhubarb Apple Vanilla, a new combination for me.
Wrapped into every fruit-chopping session is a conversation about the way fruit behaves when cooked. Rhubarb loves to splinter into fibrous striations and head towards mush. Is this ok? Do I want to make a Rhubarb Jam that revels in the fruit’s natural tendencies? Or I should employ more time intensive methods like multi day macerations, fine-chopping, or roasting which help rhubarb keep its original shape and potentially add complexity to the finished product? Coming out of marmalade season—its fine–slicing, the three-day processes, the blanching, long cook down times and firm sets—I’m excited for single flavors prepared simply. So I’m going for a rustic Rhubarb jam.
On its own rhubarb has virtually no pectin, a lacking more emphasized when jamming with honey instead of sugar. With a little apple added, pectin reappears, which will improve the jam’s final texture. Apples generally keep their shape when cooked so when I prepare the raw apples I’m deciding the mouth feel of the finished product. Should the apples be chunky, providing a counter-texture to the soft rhubarb? Or does that pull attention away from the rhubarb flavor? Should the apple act solely as a pectin booster, getting grated so it texturally disappears behind the rhubarb allowing the jam’s mouth feel and flavor to match and say one thing, RHUBARB? I settled on small chunks of apple, three inch lengths of rhubarb and half a vanilla bean.
The nice thing about product development is there is no ladling, hot jars or lids to be twisted. The preserve finishes cooking in the copper pan, I pull it from the stove and let it sit. After an hour, I scoop the jam into quart containers that get packed into my bike bags bound for home. In my notebook I jot down how many 6 oz jars the recipe makes and any first impressions of the preserve.
The note taking process continues at home. Yesterday, after I got back from the West Seattle Farmers Market, I ate nearly a cup of the Rhubarb Apple Vanilla, dirtying six spoons as I kept going back for more. The apple chunks I questioned the previous day now felt like a welcome contrast to the rhubarb’s texture. And today? I’m back up in my head wondering, wouldn’t it be nice to have a jam that was soft spoonful’s of rhubarb and apple interspersed with small chunks of roasted rhubarb checkered with vanilla bean? I’ll know for sure by May.