Sunday, July 15, 2012

For Paul Bowles

The Obsession

Another Sunday passes, and I’m looking forward to a week of resolving problems with building inspectors and plumbers, obtaining my UPC and working out the final packaging details with my designer, thus taking a few more baby steps toward the business launch. It’s become one very long summer, but at least I’ve been able to enjoy it. With a dream about to come true, and many “slow days” that I can spend ice skating, mountain biking or swimming, these are memorable months. 
But they are still  s l o w months. Which is why I can spend an entire blog describing a fascination with apricots. 
When apricots appear in my local supermarket I grab some even though I know they come from far away and were picked green. They are the one stone fruit that has to be consumed at the single ripe moment of perfection. Too green and their alum knocks you down. Too ripe and they’re squishy as a hot banana. I let them sit on my kitchen counter, eating two and three at a time as they reach that crest. Their perfume fills the house.

Apricot-Sumac jam on Greek yoghurt
I think, however, that my fascination comes from literature. I recall scenes from the Middle East, described perhaps by Paul Bowles or Lawrence Durrell, of lunches served in shade-cooled courtyards with almonds, mint tea and sweet ripe apricots. That I can't remember the love affairs and political intrigues in these great works is a bit perverse, but, hey, in my world it's food that conquers all.
I've never traveled east of Turkey, but the last time I visited that country I did enjoy some wonderful apricots. They were a hybrid I'd never encountered at home; smooth-skinned and juicy and seemingly half-plum, but with a classic apricot pit. Their provenance I couldn't discern, since I speak no Turkish.
(An aside on apricot pits: they were the prime ingredient of a quack "cancer cure" in the 1960's, laetrile. They also contain traces of cyanide.)
It is in the arena of hybridization that apricots really shine. I'm not enough of a botanist to know why, but they cross-pollinate well with plums, resulting in plumcots and pluots. They've also been hybridized into luscious little black fuzzies and (I'm told) heavenly pure whites.
My efforts...
New Jersey, where I live, is not known as an apricot-producing state. However a former student grows them on her truck farm, and when I learned, three weeks ago, that her crop was due to come in, I began plotting ways to use them. "Use" because, except for the juiciest black fuzzies, I now prefer my apricots cooked. With space in my home freezer severely constrained, I didn't want to do what first came to mind: making and freezing a batch of oven-ready tarts. Jams are terra incognito to me, so I decided to make some.
As it turns out, wild sumac was throwing out a first crop of red ripe berries the day I drove to Race Farms. I stopped to slice a few "candelabras" and a thought hit: why not incorporate Middle Eastern spices into the jam? After all, just plain apricot jam can be had in a grocery store. I’d never seen apricot+sumac jam, or apricot+mahlep, or apricot+mastic.
Alas, Race Farms’ apricots were not very pretty. They'd been hit by hail when still green and had suffered unusual cold as well as a premature hot spell. As a result they were speckled with discolorations and warts, widely varied in size, and equally widely varied in taste. I bit into a large one and salivated from sweetness, but a tiny one made me pucker and drool. I bought a couple of quarts anyway, figuring the flavors would blend acceptably, and the "exotic" spices would conceal all sins.
Indeed, the addition of mahlep and mastic made for pretty interesting flavors. Sumac worked too, but I made a mistake in that department: tossing the berries in whole. They're tiny and tough, requiring careful work with tongue and tooth to avoid broken fillings or crowns.
Ready for toast
As I mentioned above, I'm a novice at jam making. You don't want my recipes - they're not mine anyway, but recipes from other sources that I've "decorated" with weird spices. Probably you don't have access to mahlep or mastic either, so those options are out. But sumac grows wild in many places, and I can share a thought about it. 
First of all, don't harvest sumac unless you are certain of your plant ID. There is a poison sumac and it's nasty stuff. There's also plenty of wild red berries which novices might think are sumac, but aren’t - and will give you the trots, or worse. Note also that red staghorn sumac - the good stuff - prefers the exact same environment favored by deer ticks, poison ivy and hungry snakes. 
Sumac berries are small, hard-centered, fuzzy-surfaced and sticky. They're sour as lemons, which turns out to be a good thing for two reasons: most jam recipes are  cloyingly sweet, and the truth about fruits is, the more sour they are the more flavors are released by cooking. 
If you scour the internet for sumac recipes you'll mostly turn up ways to make beverages, and formulas for za’atar. The former gives you kind of a pink lemonade; the latter, a spice blend. To add sumac to jam, it's best to make a little bag of cheesecloth, bruise the berries, put them in the cheesecloth sack, put the sack into the completed jam and stir things around, then remove the sack after about 5 minutes and taste the results (the jam, that is, not the sumac). You might need to adjust sugar.
I've decided that sumac could make an interesting basis for curd, which is my next project. But more on that when it happens - let's go back to jam for a moment.
Again I'm a novice here but I do have taste buds and as I've said most jams are too sweet for me. Which is why, when my three test jams were done, my preference lay with  apricot+sumac.
Finally, many jam recipes produce so huge a yield they're only suitable for families of 8. However, jams are built upon a weight ratio, which can vary from 1:1 (equal parts fruit and sugar) to 3 parts fruit to 2 parts sugar (3:2). Armed with an inexpensive kitchen scale, any home cook can make small quantities of jam by simply weighing the harvested fruit then calculating the amount of sugar. The big advantage of making small quantities is a single half-pint jar can store safely in the refrigerator for several weeks and you don't need the hassle of hot-bath canning.
OK - I know there are excellent jam-makers out there just waiting to correct the mistakes I’ve made, so let's hear it. I'd like to get good at this preserves thing and you can help. In the meantime, I've got a ton of apricot jam to eat (which is great on GF sourdough toast, btw) and a sumac curd project in the wings.

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