Friday, January 16, 2009

Lady Marmalade

I never liked orange marmalade. We never had it in our refrigerator growing up, but my grandparents did. It was my grandfather's favorite, but he ate a lot of gross food - things I've come to categorize as "old man food" meaning that only old men, like my grandfather would eat them. He liked black licorice, liver and onions, trout. Every Christmas we had a mincemeat pie just for him because no one else would touch it. He even liked fruitcake, so it wasn't a big surpise that he'd forgo my preferred strawberry jam for orange marmalade which he liked spread on toast with margarine. He liked the toast burned, the toaster's dial turned all the way over to four or five. I've never understood my grandfather's tastes, but now that he's gone I miss his quirks.

When I was looking for something to make out of the calamondins I'd harvested I read that they make a spectacular marmalade and apparently not much else. I found a few pie recipes, but nothing appealed to me. I figured if I made marmalade maybe I could use it in recipes or give away the jars as gifts. Plus, I've always wanted to can my own jam.

I didn't grow up with grandmothers in farmhouses who preserved their own fruits and vegetables. Lord knows I wanted them to, but my grandmothers smoked and played cards and avoided the kitchen as much as possible. They had a few specialties but they weren't the home preservationists one thinks of when imagining grandmas. One of my grandmothers though, had a sister who made jellies and preserves. Aunt Thelma was the cook in the family and she had married an Italian man, actually from Italy, whose mother taught her to cook. My grandmother used to say that she could never make cookies as well as Aunt Thelma who could consistently turn out sheet trays of identically round, evenly baked chocolate chip cookies. Aunt Thelma also had a blackberry bramble behind her house and her own grape vines, so we always got our jelly from her. She used to seal her jars with a quarter inch of paraffin that I liked to chew on once we opened the jars. Now, my grandmother says I remind her of Aunt Thelma with my love of all things food and kitchen related, so I figured it was time I learned to can some jam (which almost sounds a little dirty when you say a few times).

I bought some jars and borrowed a big stock pot from my parents. Living in a small apartment, stock pots are a luxury. I don't have the space to store one, so whenever I want to cook something in mass quantities I do it at my parents' or swipe a pot from their pantry to use temporarily. For the marmalade project I needed the stock pot to boil the mason jars in order to sterilize them and seal them. Normally home canners use a special canning kit that has a rack for the jars to fit in, a funnel to fill the jars and special tongs to lift the hot jars out of the boiling water. Again - big luxury. I don't have room for all that crap, so I decided to wing it. I don't really recommend winging it, especially with things that can cause third degree burns and botulism, but I am an advanced cook, and I knew I could manage. Maybe one day I'll get the canning kit, but for now I'm ok without it.

I boiled my jars for ten minutes and left them in the hot water. Then I washed, sliced and seeded the calamondins, tossed them in the food processor and chopped them roughly. The recipe said to add water and boil, which I did. At first I didn't realize why it would be necessary to add a large amount of water but I realized that the marmalade takes so long to cook that the water reduces down and without it, the fruit and sugar mixture would burn before it was ready to be canned.

Then I boiled half of the calamondin stock with sugar. Since I wanted my marmalade to be completely local I chose Florida Crystals Sugar. They're a good company. Check out their website. I felt good using their sugar, especially when the sugar industry is normally exploitive and destructive to the environment.

Once the stock and sugar had boiled down and had reached 220 degrees I removed my sterilized jars from the water, wiped them dry and filled them with the boiling marmalade. Then I put the lids on and boiled the filled jars for ten more minutes to seal them.

My OCD kicked in at this point. If the jars don't seal you can really make someone very ill. I couldn't live with myself if I made someone sick, including myself. It seemed strange to imagine that I could actually make a jar of marmalade and seal it up and be able to store it in the pantry, unrefrigerated until I decided to open it and eat it. I don't know what that seemed so bizarre to me - that I could do something like that, but it did. I think it's because I'm just so used to always buying everything in the store that it's almost like I've been brainwashed into only trusting big industry products with commercial labels, made by machines instead of real human beings. I'm sure I'm not alone in this. It's like, in the past fifty years we've come to trust and value the work of machines over the work of people.

Luckily, my jars all sucked shut, perfectly vacuum sealed. I was amazed. I had about a quarter cup of marmalade left that wouldn't fit in the jars so I decided to taste it.

I liked it! It didn't resemble the bitter, runny marmalade that I remembered from my grandfather's burnt toast. The homemade version was bright and citrusy and not at all bitter. I believe this is because the calamondin's peel doesn't have a thick layer of bitter pith like larger citrus fruits. The bitterness I disliked was caused by orange pith (the layer of white spongy stuff under the zest). Calamondin marmalade is great and I found that I prefer it paired with savory things best. It's good with cheese and crackers, spread on a sandwich or as a glaze to grilled chicken or shrimp. I'd also like to stir it into a homemade barbecue sauce.

I wish my grandfather were still alive because I know he would have loved my marmalade. I would have sent him a jar.

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