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The Humble Gardener

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Preserving Summer's Sweetness

Posted by Amanda Christenson -

The end of the actual growing season this year, although much later than usual, still left tasks undone. But the tasks are such that they can mostly be done when we get around to them.

Case in point: we have dried beans to shell. Technically a task, I enjoy shelling them while sitting on the deck watching the geese come into the lake or seeing the two neighborhood herons vying for a tasty fish for dinner. This year we had an added bonus of shelling beans while watching the Cubs' post season games, which meant that normally idle hands were busy shelling rather than stuffing our faces with high calorie treats. The only problem was getting so excited during some comeback wins that the shelled beans went flying instead of being contained, but we Cub fans are prepared to make sacrifices.

Another post gardening season task concerned a watermelon that had been broken off its stem and, although small, had been brought into our kitchen before it rotted in the garden. I believe some large dogs were the culprits in the premature separation, but what happened, happened, and assigning blame was not going to net us a larger melon. I was all for throwing it on the compost pile, but Chip had grown it from a seed and had a paternalistic attitude that I didn't have the heart to thwart. I cut it open, sure it would be awful, but the inside flesh wasn't too bad, so I used a melon baller and we had it for dessert. As I was preparing to compost the rind, Chip came into the kitchen clutching a recipe for watermelon preserves and watermelon pickles. This involved several ingredients that we didn't have on hand. I hoped this would discourage him, but my intrepid husband was happy to wait until the next day when I could drive the 52 miles round trip to the nearest store. It seemed churlish on my part to refuse so I dutifully went off and returned with lemons, various spices, and a pessimism that I chose to keep to myself. We peeled and diced the rinds, made syrups, added spices, and sterilized jars. Chip likes using everything and wasting nothing, and while I agree with him, somehow making pickles out of rinds seems like the exertion of a lot of energy for little payoff.

The next day, after all the work, we ended up with two pints of watermelon rinds. Yes, pints. The watermelon flesh that had been in a syrup and lemon brine turned out to be inedible and we pitched it. I was grateful that we weren't trying to feed a family on the end product of our two-day canning session.

We defrosted gallons of juice from the black raspberries we had picked for several weeks in the summer. We always make jelly in early fall for two reasons: we have the time to make it and the added humidity in the house with the furnace keeps the house more comfortable.

I measured the juice, a rich purple, an obscene amount of sugar, and pectin into the jelly pot. The pints were sterilized and waiting. The difficult part of jelly making is the mixture has to be stirred constantly until it comes to a rolling boil (a boil that cannot be stirred down), and that boil has to be maintained without the whole mess boiling over the top. It is way easier to do on a gas stove. Our stove is electric.

I finally got to the part where the jars were filled, topped with a lid and a band, and plunked into a kettle filled with water. The jelly stays in boiling water for only five minutes to seal the lid. After the jars are removed, the fun part is listening to the "ping" as the lids are sealed. Despite the work, eating the jelly is-well, the greatest thing since sliced bread. Eating it on sliced bread is also pretty great.

The jelly is supposed to set. That means you can remove it from the jar with a knife or a spoon. Our first batch was perfect. The second batch would best be removed with a straw. Back into the jelly pot went the seven pints of unjelled stuff and we tried it again. As I was adding the pectin (the stuff that makes the juice gel), Chip shared that his mother always used apples as a source of pectin in jelly. "Really? Did it work?" I asked. "Her jelly turned out like this," he said, pointing to the liquid in the pot.

At the end of the week, we had 14 pints of black raspberry jelly, two pints of watermelon rind pickles, and a freshly baked loaf of Chip's bread. And snowy, cold days to eat it all.

Knox Master Gardener
Sandra DePalma-Odell

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