Friday, September 18, 2009

Yes, We Can . . . with Spices and Lemon Peel

Two of the most beautiful words in the English language, in my opinion, are “peaches” and “honey.” Thus when a group of local food and farm organizations teamed up with Storey to sponsor a series of canning workshops, I had no trouble choosing the one for me. According to its description, each participant would take home a jar of Honey-Spiced Peaches and another of Lemony Pears. Seriously, who could resist?

Others clearly agreed, and the workshop filled up early. Fifteen workshop participants and several helpers met in the big catering kitchen owned by Mezze Bistro in Williamstown, Massachusetts. We were of all ages, and two of us were men. Although we didn’t go around and introduce ourselves, it was soon obvious that everyone was remarkably interesting. One young woman, for example, was just leaving for Sicily to work in the grape harvest — with no idea where she’d sleep or how long she’d stay. I was envious.

The pear-peeling brigade. At some point it registered on all of us how deeply pleasant this was — the cozy kitchen, the simmering cauldrons, the sweet juicy glory of the fruit, the conversation about peaches and food and life -- and we all got a bit giddy.

Our guide, Lauren, ran through the steps we’d follow. Most of us had canned a fair amount in our day, but it’s been a while. Phrases like “half-inch of head room” and “boiling-water bath” were deep in our bones, evoking mothers and grandmothers tending large, steamy kettles.

Some of us started by sterilizing pint jars and screw rings in big pans of boiling water on the industrial gas stove. Others peeled fruit with nifty little restaurant devices that work much better than the peelers in your kitchen drawer.

Pears emerged in tender Botticelli nakedness, while lemon skins curled in transparent yellow strips. The peaches each received an “X” cut on blossom end and then were plunged into boiling water to loosen and slip off their skins. Sliced or quartered, each fruit then dove into a hot bubbly new concoction — honey syrup for the peaches and lemony water for the pears.

Cutting an X into the blossom end of each peach before blanching and easy peeling

Concocting the honey syrup

Eventually, we lined up to assemble the parts. Clean jars stood next to metal bowls of hot fruit. For peaches, we stuffed each jar with quartered fruit and honeyed juice, a cinnamon stick, a few allspice berries, and a couple of cloves. Pears went into their jars with lemony water, a bay leaf, a sliver of lemon peel, a sprig of thyme, and a splash of white wine. Lauren suggested we arrange the herbs and lemon peel carefully along each jar’s inner wall to look beautiful.

Last step: spiking the lemony pears with a splash of white wine

Into the boiling-water bath!

We set the caps on top and screwed on the rings, and the jars went back into the boil to process for 20 minutes. We’d run out of time, so we were to collect our jars that evening at Mezze Bistro, after they’d sealed and cooled. And just before we dispersed I snapped a photo of those of us still there.

A portion of our group. Second from left is Lauren Gotlieb, our canning instructor, and at right is Nancy Thomas, owner of the Mezze Bistro, the main sponsor of the workshop.

Fast forward to evening. I stopped at Mezze and rummaged through the jars, choosing the ones with the prettiest arrangements of thyme and lemon peel. At home I unscrewed the outer ring on one and the inner cap slid right off, not sealed at all. Hmmm! I tried the other, and it came off easily as well, instead of being stuck fast.

Tough, to have to open those golden jars and consume their contents within days. My son and I sampled the peaches with vanilla ice cream. How to describe it? Succulent, sweet, delicious, creamy, fabulous.

But in fact you’re preserving more than peaches on a morning like this. Ultimately, it’s the best possible (or, at least, the tastiest) way to cling to summer as it insists on turning into fall.


If you are in Berkshire County, here’s information about the remaining “Preserving the Bounty” workshops:
Other communities might like to organize similar workshops to preserve local bounty this fall. FYI, the partners in this enterprise included:

— Deb Burns, Acquiring Editor

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