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Winter jelly

February 26, 2012

It is a lovely time of year to make jelly. The gardens are still and patient. The goats have yet to drop kids, and we’ve no chicks or ducklings to fuss over. The homestead is enjoying a pregnant pause. It’s a perfect time to thaw some frozen fruit and berry juices and prep the water bath canner and jelly jars. If you like to make jellies but weren’t industrious enough last summer to squeeze and freeze some extra fruits, this may serve as a reminder to try it in the coming growing season. I froze juice not out of forethought, but because I wanted to pick and was lazy to can.

Most of my jellies are wildcrafted, or made from local, uncultivated plants. The only exception is the gathering of apples and pears from long-abandoned antique properties. I pick delicious berries from highly invasive autumn olive shrubs; climb up trees and tug vines for wild grapes and try to beat the cat birds to the blueberries, black raspberries and blackberries. Some of those treats make it to the jelly jar, but most get eaten straight, fresh and tart. Not so for the chokecherries.

Chokecherry jelly is a no-brainer. The fruits tend to be extremely plentiful and the trees withstand the insults of drought, spring cold snaps, harsh winds and most everything else. The fruits are also nearly inedible straight off the tree. They taste something like an unripe blackberry macerated in ink. While it is reasonable to assume the “choke” in chokecherry refers to the relatively large pit, I wouldn’t be surprised if it referred to the off-putting flavor. This little nasty needs to be tamed. And with a dash of lemon, a handful of pectin and heaps of sugar, those fruits yield a terrific dark jelly whose wild roots are reined in but not abandoned. It is equally delectable asserting itself in a pairing with soft goat cheese on a cracker or partnering with a roasted duck.  In our case, both the goats and the ducks spend some of their summer feasting on chokecherry leaves and berries, respectively, which makes it even more fun to add to the plate. I love to serve an animal for dinner with what it ate for dinner.

Out of the backyard and down to the beach, we find the Asian import rosa ragusa, or beach rose. It is also known as the saltspray rose, as it thrives on sandy dunes close to the ocean, and that’s where we pick its scarlet and vermilion fruits. A rose hip is fine plucked right off the spiky plant and gnawed down to its fuzzy seed core. Kids enjoy them, thorns and all, but after playing chipmunk for a while grown-ups tire of them and that’s where the jelly comes in.

Rose hips have been described as one of the richest plant sources of vitamin C. However, vitamin C is also one of the most easily destroyed vitamins and cooking causes its chemical decomposition, as does freezing. It is also a water soluble vitamin. As jelly is made of the cooking liquid itself, at least you are not tossing ascorbic acid down the drain. Rose hips also contain lycopene, the antioxidant tomatoes are famous for, as well as vitamins A and B. With this in mind, my advice is to go ahead and chew a few in the field before taking them home and sullying them with sugar. My four-year-old had his own bag of hips picked on an outer beach gathering day last fall, and he ate them all the way home, throwing the cores out the window “for the coyotes.” Children are naturally smart this way; they forage well, without exception, and they munch away without ever thinking of adding sugar or cream. Fruits taste so much better out in the shrubs, anyway.

If you happen to go foraging and want to make some jelly this summer, I’ve included a few links below that I have used as a guide or that are closest to the way I make jelly. If you pick too much and want to freeze some fruit for later use, simply follow the recipe up to the straining part and freeze the juice. I use a FoodSaver vacuum sealer and it preserves food quality beautifully. I’ve also included some photos at the bottom so you can experience visually what we are our taste buds are experiencing as we continue to enjoy the fruits of our labor. A dab of fresh jelly on a cold day brings memories of lush summer and warm autumn rushing to the brain.

Rose Hip Jelly  (Wonderful if you have plenty of hips, but if you want to stretch a small amount, check out the next link and add apples – it’s really delicious.)

Rose Hip and Apple Jelly

Chokecherry Jelly  (I second the comment here about using butter to reduce foaming and also sometimes use almond extract.)

Autumn Olive Jam  (Just for fun, check out Autumn Olive Fruit Leather from the same blog. This one I haven’t tried, but I’ll be sure to this summer.)

chokecherry fruits

rose hips

a friend enjoys the remnants

super-dark chokecherry jelly

with chevre, s'il vous plait

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