It’s cherry and raspberry season here, and it would take a heart of stone (much like a cherry’s, now that I think about it) to resist their wiles. A few days ago I was waylaid, totally without warning, by a charismatic cherry-seller in my bank’s parking lot, and then I was assaulted by a giant, glowing display of raspberries at my grocery store. In both cases my wallet was sucked right out of my pocket and I dutifully brought the bags and clamshells home with me. I stuck them in the fridge, thinking I’d come up with something to do with them RSN (real soon now).
This morning I realized I’d better get on with it because they and I weren’t getting any younger. Freezing was the obvious (and quickest) option, but a look at the calendar — I usually have no idea what date it is and only a loose grip on the actual day of the week — told me that the fig and tomato seasons were right around the corner.
One moment, you ask. What do figs, tomatoes, cherries and raspberries have to do with each other? The answer’s in this bad boy right here:
That is The Beast, a Ball waterbath canner, the genuine article, about as unchanged over geologic time as a horseshoe crab and nearly as ugly. I got it as a Christmas present two years ago. Now before anybody gets all worked up about lousy Christmas presents (e.g., vacuum cleaners and the like), you should know that I asked for it and I was delighted when the gigantic box appeared under the tree. I can’t imagine that a medieval alchemist would have been any happier getting a brand-new alembic.
It came with the iconic Blue Book Guide To Preserving. “The Book.” THE 100TH EDITION of “The Book.”
This was like having Robert of Chester’s Book of the Composition of Alchemy (translated from Arabic circa 1144) delivered to your front door.
Over the next year I learned to make and can jams, jellies and syrups with The Beast and The Book, but without a doubt its premiere use for me is to preserve tomato puree. There is absolutely no comparison between the tomato puree/sauce you get in the grocery stores to the absolute elixir of joy and deliciousness you can produce at home. You can choose the variety of the tomatoes (I’ve produced several varieties of puree, from the chocolate beefsteaks to purple heirlooms to the classic Romas) and the texture of the sauce. There’s none of that strange overcooked taste from the commercial cans and even better, none of the bisphenol-A chemical epoxy that lines them. It’s just incredibly fresh puree and glass.
So this morning, with cherries and raspberries ticking like tiny bombs in the fridge, I realized that I had tomato season coming up. To add a little more pressure, our Mission fig tree has had some kind of divine revelation, and is producing more fruit than I have ever seen before or even believed possible. Fig preserves and jam were going to be very much a part of my life.
It was obvious that The Beast had to come out of the cave where it had been hibernating for months. Any alchemy relies on technique as well as theory, and technique in turn relies on practice. What better practice than a bag of beautiful ripe cherries and packs of glowing raspberries to start ramping up for the real work this summer?
I decided on a recipe in The Book, the Cherry-Raspberry Conserve (page 31). It’s pretty simple; you pit the cherries, push the raspberries through a sieve to remove the seeds, and add sugar. But I also decided to add two other ingredients. This year I started growing lemon verbena, an herb with an astonishing citrus blast as well as a grassy note that I thought would cut the sweetness of the conserve. And then, because I had more cherries than raspberries, I thought I’d add a little Framboise.Framboise is a raspberry wine with some grape spirits added, to give you that delicate smack upside the head you really need sometimes. It is rich, sensuous, and completely addictive. I have absolutely no historical evidence for this but I can imagine Roman emporers sipping it during banquets. I thought I had it all down.
The wisdom of the trial run became apparent pretty quickly. My pitter had disappeared, which wasn’t that much of a tragedy because it never worked very well anyway. But it also meant that I had to hand-cut and de-pit a ton of cherries. And then I had to smash raspberries through my chinoise strainer to produce pulp. During all this I forgot to put the lids into a pot to warm up, so there was some running around getting that done, and I had to make sure that the water level in The Beast remained high enough while the jars and rings were sterilizing, and then I had to rig up an infusion-bag for the lemon verbena because my cheesecloth had mysteriously vanished. I found that none of my tools ever ended up in the right place, that I had to constantly retrace my steps, and that my setups weren’t efficient. Handling and filling the hot jars felt clumsy. I’d been a smooth machine last summer, but I felt like I had blinders and oven mitts on this time. It doesn’t take long for technique to decay.
I managed to limp through the process and produce a few jars of Cherry-Raspberry Conserve, infused with lemon verbena and Framboise.
In the end, I was utterly convinced of the truth of Anthony Bourdain’s meditation on the cook’s mise en place from “Kitchen Confidential”: “The universe is in order when your station is set up the way you like it: you know where to find everything with your eyes closed, everything you need during the course of the shift is at the ready at arm’s reach, your defenses are deployed.” Thanks to the conserve, I’m a little more prepared for the figs and the tomatoes. Because they’re coming, and I’d better be ready.