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Locally Preserved: Canning and Preserving on a Modest (Yet Delicious) Scale + A Recipe for Jam

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Valerie Confections' seasonal preserves (Photo by Megan Westerby/used with permission)
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It's June, and while sultry summer weather has yet to make an appearance, we're more than ready for the tastes and treats of the season. Farmers' markets are full of strawberries and stone fruits, gorgeous cucumbers, succulent squash blossoms and bright berries. It's impossible to resist the temptation to overindulge. So what do you do when your larder overflows and these fresh fixings look ready to wilt? You preserve them of course. It's easier than you might expect, and the process is no longer something done out of pure necessity--stocking up for a frigid winter. Instead, preserving has become about the art of simplicity and economy, as well as taking advantage of local options.

Valerie Gordon, of Valerie Confections, is an expert on reaping the benefits of the market. In addition to producing gourmet deserts and chocolates, Valerie also creates a collection of sweet and savory preserves and pastries that utilize ingredients straight from the markets where they’re also sold. “What seemed to have started as part of the hipster craft movement has really expanded,” says Valerie, of the growth of canning and preserving as a more routine part of home cooking. “The recession has had a lot to do with it. Plus, people realize just how good simple, homemade things are, how the quality is so different and they don’t want to give that up.”

Expanding the shelf life of fresh produce fits the definition of living locally that many of us are striving for, even in small ways. Canning and preserving are two ways to take advantage of and support the tastes that it would be so easy to take for granted otherwise. But what about the amount of effort involved?

The taste of my own great-grandmother’s raspberry jam is bittersweet. I still have the jars she’d make it in: old Ball jars with the vacuum seal top. And I remember equally the hours of work in sweltering summer heat. Fruit everywhere and tempers as hot as the pavement outside. It’s not something I’ve ever been inclined to replicate. However, the rise of new approaches and techniques is making even me rethink my attitude.

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“All you need is the fruit, the sugar, a pot and a spoon,” explains Kevin West of Saving the Season. “Jam doesn’t have to be something you attack by the bushel. You can make three or four jars of something. You can make it a kitchen project for an afternoon, not an all day endeavor.”

Both West and Gordon are doing extraordinary things with preserves, both luscious jams and equally remarkable savories. I bought a jar of meyer lemon and fennel marmalade the other day that was perfect on a heavy fish as well as a buttery cheese. West remembers fondly a romanesco chutney who’s bright flavors filled him with surprise and took a summer vegetable straight into a fall curry. He encourages experimentation and it seems that the possibilities are endless.

It’s important to think small - a pasta sauce that uses the extra cherry tomatoes you grew in the garden; a cherry nut preserve; pickled vegetables to have for your next afternoon party. All of these ideas can extend the life of the food you buy and learning how to preserve them isn’t just a trend, it’s a lifelong kitchen skill. Getting started is easy, canning supplies are available at Surfas in Culver City, or any of the Smart & Finals scattered throughout the city. I’ve even seen Ball jars at Target. And you don’t need to go to the farmers' market; fruit from Costco is still fruit.

“We don’t want to give up the tastes of really good things as our budgets change,” Gordon elaborates. “As we learn to appreciate the simplicity of truly good things, we crave them over the store bought versions full of extra things we don’t need.” She sees the preserving movement as a natural outgrowth of other foodie discoveries that reflect a return to a more simple, cyclical life and lifestyle. “Just like we’ve done with past foods - wines, cheeses, jams, we’re going to do with vinegars and mustards in the future.” (For the record, the idea that I could make mustard sold me on this whole idea).

So follow the directions on the jars, make sure everything is clean, and above all use basic, good ingredients. There’s a satisfaction in learning an old skill, one that can combine frugality with foodie aspirations. I ended up with a rich, decadent, delightfully simple jar of Valerie’s strawberry jam. I plan on spreading it over toast for the rest of the summer.

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Stan Weightman, Jr. mans the Valerie at the Market stand at the Hollywood Farmers' Market (Photo by Megan Westerby/used with permission)
To undertake your own canning or preserving endeavor, check out the following locations for classes: Gourmandise School, Sur la Table, Hollywood Farmers' Market Farmer's Kitchen.

Ball offers excellent video tutorials as well as info on their products online. And to see what some of the amateur experts in the field can do, attend the LA County fair in late summer.

Valerie Gordon's Recipe for Strawberry Jam
(Makes 4-12 oz jars)

Ingredients:
6 pints strawberries, prepared
2 1/2 cups sugar

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1. Wash the fruit thoroughly.
2. Cut the stems off the strawberries and slice the fruit into quarters. Mix with 3 cups sugar and macerate overnight in a large bowl.
3. When you are ready to finish the jam, place two small ceramic plates into your freezer.
4. Pour the strawberry mix into a large sauce pot and turn the heat to high. Using a large wooden spoon or heat proof rubber spatula, stir the fruit at a consistent pace.
5. If the jam bubbles up too high to control, lower the heat to medium.
6. Taste the jam for sugar levels, if you crave a little more sweetness add sugar in 1/4 cup increments until you are satisfied.
7. After the major bubbling subsides, the jam will begin to thicken and a consistent texture will begin to appear. Begin checking the set of the jam by dipping a teaspoon in the jam or placing a small amount of hot jam on a frozen plate. If the hot jam streams off the teaspoon and appears very watery, continue cooking. You want to see the jam cling to the spoon a bit. If you are testing with a frozen plate, place a dollop of jam on the plate and run a finger through it...did the movement create a straight line? if yes, you are ready to can. Follow the canning instructions provided by the jar manufacturer.