Knowing the people who grow your food is a beautiful thing. Learning from them is even better. I have been particularly fortunate in that respect lately.
When we originally paid for our CSA (community supported agriculture) share, we’d vowed to pick 50 dollars’ worth of fruit during its duration. Since it is, after all, strawberry season, we decided to pick 30 dollars of strawberries and make preserves with them. The woman who runs the farm we have a CSA share in, Mrs. Miller, had sent out her recipe for strawberry preserves with one of our latest CSA boxes, and I decided to try it.
We drove to the farm, and I spoke with Mrs. Miller there. She shared how she used to bike over to visit her grandmother every day after school, and they would cook together. They made those strawberry preserves often in the warm days of May and June, over the years. She makes them still.
And so, after all these years, the preserves found their way to me.
The most important thing to bear in mind when picking strawberries for the preserves, Mrs. Miller said, is to use small berries. Since preserves use the whole berry, not cut as they are in jam, you can’t have berries bigger than a mouthful.
You can imagine how happy this made me. If we were only using small strawberries in the preserves, after all, I was allowed to eat some big ones, which I’m not usually With thanks to Mrs. Miller, we set off to pick in the dewy, muddy fields.
There is a certain joy that comes from plucking a shining ruby strawberry off its plant and biting into it. It tastes of rain and leaves and an almost unbearable sweetness, throbbing in your jaw. By the time we returned to the farm buildings to pay for our strawberries, I must have looked like I’d taken part in the murder of Caesar.
As soon as we got home I began to cook. The berries paled as they cooked, from almost black to pale pink, and the steam billowing off the pot smelled of strawberries’ warm fruity sweetness. When it was time to can the preserves, we immersed each faceted glass jar in the pot of steaming water we’d prepared, and then waited for the tock each lid gave as it sealed. One jar, which hadn’t sealed, I put in the refrigerator.
Recently I pulled that jar out again, scooped out a lump of strawberries, and stirred them into a bowl of cottage cheese. The preserves were less homogenous than jam, made up of a smooth, thin sauce between chunky berries. The strawberries no longer burned along my jaw, but they still had that tangy sweetness. They were the essence of strawberry.
Even though it’s still June, I can imagine that jar in the middle of winter. When I put on slippers and sweatshirt and hat and am still cold, I’ll go down to the basement and take out a jar of strawberry preserves, and with just one bite, it will be summer again.
If you’d like to make jelly out of the leftover juice from the preserves, you’ll need to boil it down a good deal first, since this recipe waters the juice down. Yield 3 pints.
16 cups whole strawberries, rinsed and hulled
8 cups water
5 cups sugar
Measure the strawberries and water into a large pot, and bring the mixture to a boil. Watch carefully, as it will boil over very fast. Once the berries have come to a boil, remove the pot from the burner. Set a colander atop a bowl and pour the contents of the pot into the colander. The berries in the colander will be used in the preserves; the juice that is caught in the pan below will not. This whole procedure should yield approximately 5 cups of cooked berries.
Measure the drained strawberries back into the big pot and add the sugar. Stir until well-combined. Place the mixture on the stove and cook over moderate heat for about 20 minutes. Stir often. The preserves will naturally thicken, and upon cooling will be thicker yet.
Ladle the preserves into hot, sterilized jars and seal.
Mrs. Miller suggests making the juice that you’ve drained out of the berries into jelly, or using it in homemade smoothies. I haven’t tried the latter and so can’t vouch for its success, but as long as you cook the juice down before making it into jelly, you’ll be fine.