The thermometer might have said 90° last Saturday, but I swear it was much hotter. Maybe not so hot as humid. Stepping outside I needed to forcefully push myself through the thick, hot air, each step forward needing complete attention and concentration. And this was at 9am. My husband lay in bed, comfortably bundled under the covers in our over air conditioned bedroom. But I was on a mission. Perhaps my last free weekend to get cherries, I wanted to make sure I had plenty to last through the winter.
When I arrived at Grand Army Plaza, the sun seemed to have gotten significantly hotter and pull closer after just a short 20 minute train ride. Grand Army is one of my favorite markets and the most convenient “big” market to my apartment, but it offers no shade other than the flimsy popup farm tents. I tried to stay under cover but it was a lost cause. I was surprised to see that in just one week the market had come alive with summer produce. Sweet corn, juicy peaches and heirloom tomatoes seemed to be everywhere. I collected a few of each but stayed true to my plan. Sweet bing and sour cherries both beckoned to me. Both equally delicious but drastically different. The heat left me with no energy to choose favorites so I did what anyone in my situation would do. I went home some of each, a little more than 4 pounds each.
I was probably about 6 the first time I encountered mulberries. We pulled into the parking lot of our town’s fitness center for my weekly swimming lesson. We had an outdoor pool but I was too delicate to be plunged into the icy cold water. A warm, over chlorinated pool was the only way I’d learn to swim. As my mom negotiated a parking space, I peered out the window at two middle-aged Spanish women standing on ladders in the middle of the lot. The ground below them was stained bright purple and they stretched to pick berries off the tree above, barely out of their reach. They had buckets filled to the brim with deep purple berries and occasionally would pop one into their mouths. I remember asking my mother what they were doing, but I don’t recall much of the conversation as we scurried into the building, late as usual. But that scene still plays vividly in my mind today and it was then I realized that there were plants you could eat not grown in a traditional farm or garden.
The combination of strawberry and rhubarb is nothing short of genius. Food needs to be balanced–salty, sweet, spicy, tart. The combination of sun warmed fresh strawberries and blood-red crisp rhubarb is the ultimate combination of sweet and tart. For me , it’s the perfect dessert. I LOVE dessert and would never skip it if I could. BUT, I’m also not a fan of super sweet things. I stay away from many pies, often laden with extra sugar. While a small square of dark chocolate is perfectly satisfying, I want nothing to do with milk chocolate. Strawberry rhubarb pie is pretty much my ideal dessert. But of course, its something only so perfect in season. A strawberry rhubarb pie in winter, filled with California strawberries and rhubarb from who knows where just isn’t the same. When I can’t enjoy something fresh year round, I preserve it. And my beloved pie now takes the form of jam.
With June comes berries. First the strawberries trickle in, slowly followed by blueberries, raspberries, blackberries and cherries. By mid July we’re practically swimming in berries–certainly not a bad problem to have. But as quickly as they arrive, bursting from every stand at the greenmarket, they soon disappear, leaving us with regret. Wishing we had just one more piece of strawberry shortcake, another bite of that raspberry cobbler or another scoop of blackberry sorbet. We try to fool ourselves with California berries during the winter months, but it’s just not the same. While we might not be able to get fresh local berries year round, we can preserve them. A jar of homemade strawberry jam is beyond perfection. You’ll never glance at those Welch’s jars again.
I’m always a little hesitant when it comes to making jellies. (A) they’re a lot more work than jam. You need to collect the juices of whatever fruit (or in this case flower) you’re using, then cook the liquid then add the pectin, then reduce it… It’s just a lot of steps. Where as with jams, you mash the fruit, cook it for a bit, and there you go. (B) I’ve had a lot of failures with jelly. It took me some time to get the hang of using pectin. The jelly isn’t supposed to be totally thick when you’re canning it, it thickens as it cools. I’ve ever ended up with over jellied jelly, so thick, it’s practically a soft candy, or under jellied where after canning, I can turn the jar over and it’s like having canned a syrup. Somehow with this recipe I got it right, a well jellied consistency that moves a bit in the jar but still holds firm.