Wednesday, September 2, 2015

How to get food for free

The simplest thing to do is ask for it.  When I lived in Alaska, most people I knew had gardens, and were willing to share at least some of their bounty.  Need rhubarb, or potatoes, or carrots, or zucchini?  You could find someone willing to share theirs with you.
Just as good, wild blueberries, cranberries, and raspberries were abundant and fairly easy to find.  Each year in August I'd spend a fair amount of time out with friends, picking berries.  I will always miss the taste of wild Alaskan blueberries, which are just so much more flavorful than cultivated ones.
But that was Alaska.  People are just so friendly with their neighbors there.  The frontier mentality of helping each other out is still very prevalent.  I worried that in the Pacific Northwest we'd have a harder time finding forage.  But you know what?  It's even easier.  Food here, quite literally, grows on trees!  (Except in a very few specific microclimates where small apple trees grew, I don't know of any fruit trees in Fairbanks.)  Quite often, the people who own these fruit trees don't have the time or the inclination to harvest their free food, or at least not all of it.
Just for this year, I've received about 100 pounds of apples from friends who just had a baby (like, five days ago just) and weren't going to get around to harvesting them.  All we had to do was pick the apples, a fun task which even the Munchkin was perfectly capable of helping with.  She collected the fruit which fell while we were picking and put them in the buckets, and her reward was getting to eat an apple.  She loved the arrangement.
We also grabbed a bunch of their tomatoes, some ripe and some that need to ripen on a windowsill, and a few hot peppers.  All with permission, of course, and we will be good neighbors and share the bounty with our friends once we've transformed it.  The tomatoes will be sauced, the peppers preserved in a way still to be determined, and many of the apples will be pressed to make apple cider, both hard and non-alcoholic.  Whatever's left will be made into applesauce, and I'm rather tickled by the idea that my friends' new baby might be eating sauce I made from their apples before the tree ripens again next year.
Blackberries grow wild around here, which again, they don't in Fairbanks, so I enjoyed going berrying with my best friend.  We spent a bit over an hour talking and laughing and occasionally shouting, "Ouch!"  She gave me all the berries.  I froze some and used some to make blackberry-lemon zest jam (recipe from the book "Canning for a New Generation" by Liana Krissoff), which will be shared out as well.
Lastly, we were gifted well over 10 pounds of ripe Italian prune plums from a neighbor who mentioned that she just had too many to deal with.  She was giving them away to her kids' friends, had over ten pounds of them in her freezer, and had eaten plums until she was sick.  As you can imagine, I was very happy to go harvest some of them with her and take them home.  My daughter and husband ate their fill of them fresh, and the rest were added to some plums I'd purchased at the farmer's market to go into either Chinese plum sauce or cinnamon-vanilla plum jam.
This jam is a revelation.  I don't usually like plum jam because it's just too sickeningly sweet.  I've made it before and was thoroughly underwhelmed.  However, I was turned onto the idea of ditching boxed pectin and reducing the sugar content of all jams and hoped that that would solve the problem.  It did.  With boxed pectin, you need a certain amount of sugar to get the jam to set properly.  Without the pectin, you won't be getting the stiff jam you might be used to, but it's infinitely more flavorful because the sugar doesn't overpower the fruit taste and I actually prefer the softer texture.  Beside which, pectin can get rather expensive!  I'm making all of my jams pectin-free from now on.
Adding the cinnamon and the vanilla was an experiment.  I didn't think it could go too horribly wrong, but I wasn't actually prepared for it to be as delicious as it is.  I thought my peach jam would be my favorite for the year, but this easily overtakes it.  My dad calls it a "cardboard sauce".  As in, "You could put this sauce on cardboard and I'd happily eat it, cardboard and all."

Cinnamon-Vanilla Plum Jam

Wash the plums, cut in half and remove stems and pits.  Weigh the fruit.  (I hate weighing, but this step is important!)

Dice the plum halves and place in a large shallow pan.  For every 3 pounds of fruit, add 1 cup of sugar.  Mix thoroughly and place on medium-high heat until it's bubbly and beginning to thicken.  The sauce around the fruit chunks should go from a light-ish purple to a slightly darker purple color.

Put a small plate in the freezer at this point.  You'll need it later.

When the chunks of fruit are beginning to really soften up, add 1 teaspoon of cinnamon per 3 lbs of fruit (I just eyeballed this rather than measuring--err on the side of less; it should be there but slightly understated in the finished jam), and 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract per 3 lbs of fruit*.  Stir in thoroughly and continue cooking over medium-high heat.

What the jam looks like just before being mashed.

If you like a chunkier jam, like I do, use a potato masher to smash the fruit a bit.  If you prefer a more jelly-like jam, you can use an immersion blender to puree it.  I will add, though, that the potato masher is far less likely to spew hot, sticky jam chunks out at you.

Stir frequently so it doesn't burn.  Cook it down until it seems fairly thick and turns a very dark purple.  The bubbles should look a bit syrupy.  Pull that plate out of the freezer and spoon a small amount of the jam onto the plate, then return it to the freezer for about 30 seconds to a minute.  Pull it out and run your finger through the jam.  If it doesn't start running back together, you're good to go.  If the edges do start running together, keep cooking and check it every five minutes or so.

That's it!  Go ahead and lick the spoon, I won't judge.  Either can the jam (I processed mine for 10 minutes, erring on the side of caution; 5 would probably be enough), or freeze it.  If you've done just a small batch, you could stick most of it in the fridge.  If your family is like mine, it won't last long.  We've discovered that it's amazing on waffles, mixed into plain yogurt, on toast, on vanilla ice cream, or even just eaten with a spoon.  I'm certain there are plenty of other uses for it.  We've only had some in the house for three days, though, so give us some more time to get creative with it.

*My vanilla extract was homemade, just sliced vanilla beans in a mason jar with spiced rum.  Best vanilla extract ever, especially now that it's aged over six months.

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