I've fallen perilously behind on production of jam, etc., owing to
stacked up deadlines that just keep pressing. I completely missed out
on summer raspberries (the reds, that is) and will have to wait for the
fall crop to make jam, and hope that the sun in September is hot and
plentiful. Loyal patrons have been begging for hot dog relish – my
hairdresser takes it in trade for lopping my tresses – and I've been
sold out of artichoke tapenade for over a month. There were gorgeous
figs at a local farmstand last week (brought in from California) and I
couldn't help ordering up two cases for making fig conserve (another
late summer bestseller). I delivered another big project on Thursday,
so I had a window in which to get sort of caught up before the next
book hits. Friday was a 12-hour day in the kitchen; I put up 32 jars of
fig conserve, 20 of artichoke tapenade, 16 of hot dog relish, and 10 of
an experimental fig mustard that will age for several months before I
pass judgment on it.
I started early; the dog woke me up at 6 or so, and by 6:30 I knew there'd be no getting back to sleep, so I got up and got busy in the quiet of the morning. My husband's sister Carolyn was visiting with her two boys, and they were gung-ho to help, but I couldn't wait and started in on fine dicing of cucumbers, onions, and jalapeños for the relish. The recipe (essentially the piccalilli recipe from Joy of Cooking, but with the vegetable profile rejiggered) calls for brining the vegetables for 12 hours; I figured if I got them into brine by 8 AM, I could at least give them close to 10 hours. By the time everyone else was up and ready for breakfast, the chopping was done – and I'd even found time to sharpen my knives. I took a quick break for coffee and eggs, then got back to work grinding the artichokes with lemon juice and some pristine olive oil a friend just brought back from Napa.
We took another break to drive over to the Vermont Country Store (just up the road from here) – great entertainment for out of town guests, plus we needed a wedding gift, and they carry beautiful turned hardwood salad bowls, which we thought suited the couple in question nicely. After stopping for a quick lunch on the way home it was creeping up on 2:30, and I needed to drive over to Manchester and pick up the figs. I stuck some garlic in the oven to roast (for finishing the tapenade), then hopped in the car and was back just in time to pull 10 perfectly roasted heads from the oven. Carolyn and her younger son, Matt, were happy to be put to work cutting up figs while I zested and juiced lemons, and by 4:30 I had two large stock pots of figs simmering away. While everyone else went for a dunk in the river, I started washing the first few cases of jars for canning. (Is this starting to feel a little like the denouement to Goodfellas to anyone else?)
TJ (my husband) offered to make dinner on the grill while I monopolized the kitchen. He and the boys and Carolyn put together a lovely summer dinner of grilled pork tenderloin and corn on the cob, with mixed greens from the garden dressed with lemon and olive oil – all without stopping me from filling jars with tapenade, consolidating the fig conserve, draining the vegetables for the relish, and starting the vinegar brine for same.
My small and low-tech kitchen was operating at full capacity and then some:
I managed to get the tapenade into the pressure canner before we sat down to dinner. After we'd cleaned up, I got Carolyn to play funnel jockey while I filled jars with relish and TJ washed more of them for the fig conserve. Around 10, I started to get punchy and fumble the ladle, the lids, the canner seal – anything I could get my hands on, really. TJ was excused to go to bed around 10:30; he'd spent most of the day laying massive stones for stair-steps up the hill on the side of the house. I think Carolyn turned in around 11:30.
All the jars were filled and it was just a matter of processing. I treated myself to a 21-qt. pressure canner back in the early spring; it can process up to 24 jars at a time. Even so, it takes better than half an hour per batch including the loading, waiting for depressurization, and unloading. I finally climbed in bed at 12:45, but couldn't fall asleep. I think I managed 4 1/2 hours' sleep before I had to get up and get ready to set up at the farmers' market at 8.
This is adapted from Hilaire Walden's Sensational Preserves, one of two canning/preserving recipe references I rely on heavily (the other is Edon Waycott's Preserving the Taste). I use half the amount of sugar she recommends, and even so this conserve is very sweet.
Use ripe, but not overripe, figs. For every pound of figs (450g), you'll need:
1 whole clove
1.5 cups (10.5 oz or 300g) granulated sugar
1/4 cup water
Grate the zest from the lemons, then squeeze the juice from them, reserving the seeds and inner membrane. Tie the seeds and membrane with the cloves in a square of cheesecloth (or one of those drawstring muslin bags – the kind Gold Nugget bubble gum used to come in; the bags are available at most good kitchen supply stores or here online) and suspend it in the pan you intend to cook the figs in. Remove the stems from the figs, quarter the fruit, and add them to the pan with the lemon juice and the water.
Bring carefully to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 15 or 20 minutes, until the figs are tender and there is a lot of liquid bubbling in the pan. Turn off the heat and remove the cheesecloth sack, squeezing lightly to extract the rendered pectin.
Add the sugar and lemon zest to the pan and stir over low heat until the sugar is dissolved. Raise the heat and boil until the jam is thickened and syrupy (about 40 minutes), stirring frequently to prevent scorching. Remove from heat.
Can according to your preferred method.
Fig conserve is delicious on toast, biscuits, croissants, etc., or over ice cream, and is a lovely accompaniment to a cheese plate.