Jam-ming to a theme learned at grandma’s knee

Terry Sweeney making jam

Terry Sweeney has tried a variety of ways to get the tarragon flavor into his pear jam. / Photo by Reem Baroody

It’s mid-winter 1969 and I’m toasting an English muffin in our avocado and sun-gold kitchen in Denver. English muffins are new to me, but that’s not the exciting part. As a 9-year-old, what’s really got my saliva glands going is that I have a new vehicle for my Grandma Stehly’s red currant jelly, which I’m also happy to eat straight from the jar. Equal parts sweet and tart, it’s reddish orange and melts more than it spreads across the muffin’s warm, crusty surface.

Flash forward to mid-winter 2013, and I’m in my kitchen in Los Angeles. I’ve taken up jam-making and am working to get certified as a “cottage food operation,” taking advantage of a new California state law that enables foods made for resale to be prepared in a home kitchen. I’m not making currant jelly; I’m working on a pear-tarragon jam, and the tarragon part isn’t going so well.

What I wouldn’t give right now for even 15 minutes of “jam chat” with Grandma Stehly. I wonder about her opinions and standards regarding consistency, color, commercial versus homemade pectin and ensuring a good jar seal — she often used about a quarter inch of sealing wax on some of her jams and jellies. The “jam gene” apparently skips a generation, so my mom and her siblings don’t have much advice (“Mother always used ‘The Joy of Cooking,'” they said). They swore off canning after too many childhood summers were ruined with prepping huge quantities of fruit or vegetables.

My grandmother, Blanche Anne Kratochvil Stehly, immigrated to the U.S. from Prague in 1904. She raised five children in Elgin, Neb. (“vetch capital” of the nation), and was a ferocious baker and a master preserver (before there was such a term), “putting up” jams, jellies, soups, relishes and vegetables. Every time she’d visit Denver, we were the happy recipients of some combination of her jam repertoire—strawberry, crabapple and currant. There was a crabapple-currant combo once or twice, but I think my fuss-pot grandfather complained. The strawberry patch and two mature crab apple trees in her yard gave her plenty to work with. She’d scour the town’s back roads for currant bushes. What we now call foraging she’d shrug off as practicality. She died in 1983.

Blanche Stehly (seated), she's surrounded by her four oldest children (left to right): Alice Sweeney (my mother); Jeanne Sloan; Richard Stehly; and Betty Cantrell. / Photo courtesy of Terry Sweeney

Blanche Stehly (seated), is surrounded by her four oldest children in a 1930s photograph. Alice Sweeney, the author’s mother, is to the left of her mother. / Photo courtesy of Terry Sweeney

Grandma Stehly made jam with us on one of our trips to Nebraska. I was too young then to care about sugar-fruit ratios, boiling point and pectin production. But 12 years ago, I made apricot jam with a group of friends (all of us first-timers). It was fun—and incredibly satisfying. The results were so encouraging that I’ve made a batch every year since and given it away as Christmas gifts. So when California joined 30 other states in permitting cottage food operations, I wanted to create something more than just another iteration of fruit jam; Smuckers (and many others) already do that sort of thing well. A few years ago at a Los Angeles restaurant, I had a dish that paired chocolate and tarragon in a gelato-like dessert. It seemed an unlikely combination. Not only was it delicious, it got me thinking about tarragon and other herbs in new ways — ways my grandmother would never have dreamed of.

Pear is a delicate flavor, but also a good medium in which to blend other flavors. I’ve tried vanilla and pear, but I found out the hard way a little vanilla goes a long way (and may have put me off vanilla in jam for good). I’m also doing strawberry-basil preserves, which has been a lot easier to work with and more consistent in its flavor durability than the pear-tarragon. Finally, I’ve just about perfected a pink grapefruit marmalade with whole pink peppercorns and ground black pepper that serves some pretty big notice to the palate. While its flavor tiptoes up to the chutney realm, its viscosity and citrus flavor keep it grounded in the marmalade category.

Pear-tarragon has provided the biggest challenge: How to infuse the tarragon in a way that complements the pear and doesn’t dissipate after it’s been cooked? I’ve made several runs at this to get it right. First I tried burying the tarragon in the sugar to infuse it with the herb flavor (a technique I heard about on the radio). That would have been fine for the marshmallows Lynne Rosetto-Kasper was describing on The Splendid Table, but the medium of fruit jam is less delicate, and all that tarragon-y goodness got lost in the simmering fruit.

I then tried boiling several sprigs with the jam once it was close to be being done. Again, not much infused flavor. Time to exert a heavier hand.

Into the blender went about 10 sprigs of fresh tarragon, with a couple ladles of hot jam. I pureed it for 20-30 seconds, dumped it into a wire-mesh sieve and then used a spatula to push the green mush through into a separate bowl. Finally, big tarragon flavor – so I stirred it spoonful by spoonful into the jam mix until I got a flavor concentration I thought was right, then processed the jars in the boiling water bath.

But I wasn’t out of the woods. After opening this new batch, I noticed the tarragon flavor dissipated quickly. It was definitely more subtle after opening than at the processing stage. What medium could I use to suspend that herb flavor? I recall some jam recipes suggest using butter to reduce the foaming that often occurs when fruit is on the boil. So I sautéed some tarragon in butter, added it to the jam and found the flavor didn’t fade.

The author think he's getting closer

The author has finally found the solution to his jam question. / Photo by Reem Baroody 

Feeling pretty smug, I recounted my solution to the “it” girl of jams in Los Angeles, Jessica Koslow, proprietor of Sqirl LA. “You know that’s going to take you out of the vegan market, right?” she said. Of course. What’s abundantly clear in southern California and other parts of the country, I suspect, is that while the average consumer may not be a strict vegan (or even a vegan at all), they’re looking for vegan friendly products, assuming that they’re healthier. Back to the pear-shaped drawing board.

My final solution? Increasing the amount of the blended tarragon, without the butter. I still add the herb-fruit puree back to the jam slowly, to where it seems a little stronger than I might want it. I then raise the heat on the pot. When it starts to boil, I turn off the heat and let it sit for 5 minutes, pour it into the jars then process it in a water bath.

It’s fun to imagine what Grandma Stehly might have said about pear-tarragon jam. What I don’t have to guess at is how it tastes on a toasted English muffin – the fruit-herb complexity is a welcome antidote to commercial jams and holds its own quite well. I hope Grandma Stehly would approve.

 

Makes five to seven 8-ounce jars

Pear-Tarragon Jam

Terry Sweeney of Los Angeles has been working on a pear-tarragon jam as part of his project to get certified as a cottage food operation in California, taking advantage of a new state law that enables foods made for resale to be prepared in a home kitchen. This recipe is an adaptation of his current efforts.

Ingredients

  • 3 1/2 - 4 pounds pears, cored and peeled (8-10 pears)
  • ¼ cup lemon juice
  • 4 cups turbinado sugar
  • 1 1/2 ounces fresh tarragon (2 packets, available commercially in .66-ounce portions)

Instructions

Chop the pears and combine with lemon juice in a pot. Simmer over low heat until pears are soft, but not mushy, about 15 minutes.

Process pears through a food mill, or puree in a blender or food processor. Return the processed pears to the pot.

Add the sugar and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Cook the jam for 15-20 minutes. It should turn a nice golden-amber color. Using the “done” test, see if a small spoonful of the cooked jam can be made to mound on a chilled saucer, with a wrinkly skin forming as you push a spoon or finger through it. If it does, it’s done.

Place the tarragon in the bottom of the blender and cover with approximately 2 cups of hot jam. Puree. Empty the blended fruit and herbs into a fine wire-mesh strainer. Push contents through, and incorporate back into jam, slowly, adding tarragon-fruit puree to taste.

Bring jam to a boil again, then turn off heat and let stand for 5 minutes.

Fill 8-ounce jam jars and cover with lids and rings. Process in a hot-water bath for 10 minutes.

Enjoy the weirdly gratifying “POP” of the metallic lids, letting you know they’re harnessing thermodynamics to form a good seal.

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34 Responses to Jam-ming to a theme learned at grandma’s knee

  1. Profile photo of Steve Webb
    Steve Webb April 29, 2013 at 1:56 pm #

    Amazing,

    Thanks for this great story and recipe, I just made my first ever jam yesterday. I say jam, I made marmalade. After discovering commercially available marmalade was just a kind of orange jelly I yearned for some proper old English Seville orange marmalade. But the Seville orange is a tricky customer, one of those fruits that still has a season and if you miss that late January, early February couple of weeks you’re out of luck. But the wonders of the international supermarket stepped in and I found “sour oranges,” which made an excellent substitute. For a first try it turned out great, a dark amber color, bitter, sour and sweet all at the same time with a lingering peppery afterglow.

    I tried adding ginger and lemongrass for something different. The lemongrass got completely lost but the ginger had a small impact and the shreds gave a nice additional texture. I’ve got to try the pear and tarragon now; it sounds great and the pink grapefruit marmalade with pepper sounds incredible.

    And you’re right about that pop, it’s very satisfying. One question. Is it always this messy? Everything in the kitchen is sticky now.

    • Terry Sweeney May 1, 2013 at 11:00 am #

      Thanks for your great comment, Steve — yes, I admire you for diving in with the classic fruit for the classic marmalade. The ginger sounds like a great complement to the orange, and a nice counterpoint to the Sevilla’s bitterness.

      Yeah, jam making is messy, and who makes just one batch? The spattering is not fun to clean up but the sooner you get to it, the easier it is. I also recently saw someone who recommended using one of those anti-spatter grease screens for frying bacon that sits on the top of the pan for jam making.

  2. Jeff Jacobson April 29, 2013 at 9:26 pm #

    great article! i found myself vacillating between imagining you and your grandmother canning together in a comfy kitchen somewhere, and running off to make some of the pear-tarragon jam myself.

    • Terry Sweeney May 1, 2013 at 11:01 am #

      Gracias, Jeff… glad you liked the article and that you’re thinking of cooking up your own batch!

  3. Amy Nazarov April 29, 2013 at 9:38 pm #

    What a beautiful read. Terry’s memories of his grandmother and other relatives infuse this piece just as the tarragon flavor infuses the pear jam. I would give my right arm to taste it.

  4. Mary Jander April 30, 2013 at 1:32 pm #

    This splendid little view into Terry’s kitchen popped the lid off my curiosity about jam. I must have some of this pear-tarragon concoction! Since I’m not about to undertake the making of it myself, I’m going to have to wait to order it from the chef himself.

  5. Susan April 30, 2013 at 1:35 pm #

    Great story beautifully told. Well done, Terry. Can’t wait to taste the final product.

  6. Hailey McKeefry April 30, 2013 at 1:38 pm #

    Thanks for sharing! We are, to an extent, where we come from…I shared this with my facebook friends… Maye it will inspire them to make jam. For me, it made me glad that you are there making it for the rest of us. 🙂

  7. Profile photo of Tom in Marin
    Tom in Marin April 30, 2013 at 2:01 pm #

    If granny only knew….
    Sounds like a great recipe. Please share others!

  8. Michael Steinhart April 30, 2013 at 2:28 pm #

    The whole process sounds exhaustive and exhausting, but I’m happy you found a solution that satisfies the broadest potential consumer base. As soon as you mentioned butter, I thought, “Dairy! Lactose! Animal byproduct!” But that’s just because my filters are tuned to that frequency more so than others.

    Best of luck with this venture! It sounds absolutely delicious.

    • Terry Sweeney May 1, 2013 at 11:08 am #

      Thanks for your note, Michael… in hindsight, the butter thing was really pointless, and as my friend Jessica pointed out, pushes people away needlessly. Thankfully, there were other options for getting to the flavor profile I was hoping to achieve.

  9. Curt Franklin April 30, 2013 at 3:20 pm #

    These sound like amazing jams — supported and enriched by a wonderful story. I’m looking forward to being able to try some of the results — my mom’s cornbread is looking for something exciting to keep it company!

    • Profile photo of Domenica Marchetti
      Domenica Marchetti April 30, 2013 at 5:38 pm #

      Curt…any interest in sharing your mom’s cornbread recipe?

    • Terry Sweeney May 1, 2013 at 11:11 am #

      Thanks, Curt… far be it from me to discourage you from using good, old-fashioned butter and honey on your favorite cornbread, so slather away with the jam!

      Like Domenica, I too am interested in a good, hand-me-down cornbread recipe.

  10. Maren Martin May 1, 2013 at 3:12 pm #

    I so enjoyed your article, Terry! Yes…memories of those grandmothers whose food we loved and are who are no longer around; I miss mine too! I love your persistence and creativity with working that tarragon in. Thank for the recipe.

    • Terry Sweeney May 2, 2013 at 9:00 am #

      Thanks for your note, Maren… as a friend recently remarked to me, there’s at least one conversation we’d probably all like to have with someone who’s passed on. This one just happens to be about jam. Continued success to you in your jamming endeavors!

  11. Michele May 1, 2013 at 4:47 pm #

    Wonderful story and inspiring! Thanks for sharing. It makes me want to get a bit creative this summer and fall when the fruit is just right for jamming.

    • Terry Sweeney May 2, 2013 at 9:03 am #

      Than you, Michele… the fruit-herb thing seems to be very a la mode with jam makers these days. Lots of friends and taste-testers have suggested teas, liqueurs, and other herbs and spices to try. I’m loathe to mix anything with the apricot jam I make — it remains just about the perfect fruit, in my opinion. Which is your favorite to make?

  12. Clark May May 2, 2013 at 9:23 am #

    I visited Terry in March and was treated to some of the early renditions. I liked the pear-tarragon (i have no doubt Grandma would run screaming out of the kitchen…who even knew what tarragon was back then!) but what really blew me away was the pink grapefruit-pink peppercorn marmalade. Now before this the only marmalade I enjoyed was Lady Marmalade and this tops even that. Congrats on the new venture! One other thought…I used to eat applesauce sandwiches as a child…how about a apple/ginger/cinnamon concoction?

    • Terry Sweeney May 2, 2013 at 9:29 am #

      Ha! Maybe I’ll call the grapefruit concoction Lady Marmalade! Thanks for a fun note, Clark… yes, apple is just sitting there waiting to be worked with/complemented by some additional flavor(s). I’ll keep you posted!

  13. Cayo May 2, 2013 at 10:56 am #

    What a wonderful narrative. I love the twinning of your memories of your grandmother with your search for the perfect infusion of tarragon into pear. While Mr. May would like you to consider apples, I wanted to put in a bid for blueberries. Blueberries with ginger, perhaps. The colour would be so lovely. I look forward to the day when your jams are available for purchase. All the best to you and to your kitchen.

  14. Terry Sweeney May 2, 2013 at 11:54 am #

    Thanks, Cayo… great to hear from you! I’m working on a blueberry-Meyer lemon combo that will be less spicy than the ginger, but I’m a bit of a sucker for the brightness of citrus.

  15. Carol Guensburg May 3, 2013 at 7:40 pm #

    Terry, nicely done. I’ve made five batches of grape jelly over the years, experimenting with additions of orange peel and even peppercorn. But I have a smaller grape harvest these days, given that our current house’s yard and grapevines border an alley, from which strollers fortify themselves by nibbling on grapes. Besides, now that that my two sons are grown, I can’t con them into picking and prepping with me. I like the idea of a preserves party — much better.

  16. Terry Sweeney May 4, 2013 at 7:59 am #

    Interesting post, Carol… I’ve never worked with grapes, but I love that you’ve tried orange and pepper with them. And amen to more hands when it comes to canning/jamming — there’s plenty to keep everybody busy, and turning into a party makes it more fun and less work (especially if you promise the attendees some jars of jam!).

  17. Keith Kresge May 4, 2013 at 8:16 pm #

    Thanks Terry for stirring wonderful and muscle-twitching memories of “pick your own” strawberries, grapes, cherries, peaches, and pears that my mother would magically transform into jams, jellies, and quart jars of preserved fruits that would last through long, cold winters.
    I recall the cooked concord grapes being pressed through the sieve, the melted paraffin being poured over the grape jelly, the jars of jam and peach and pear halves boiling in the water bath, and listening for the pops of the lids to make sure they sealed.
    While my mother was a purist who used just the fruit and sugar, I’m sure she would have been intrigued by the herb infusions. I know I am.
    And I’m fortunate enough to have been an early taster of your pear tarragon-jam and can only offer rave reviews.

  18. Terry Sweeney May 5, 2013 at 12:36 pm #

    Thanks for the kind words and review, Mr. Kresge… didn’t know you were part of the child labor force that invaded Tonawanda, NY every summer. And a concord grape jam veteran? Maybe you can instruct me and others on this board about the ins and outs of that fruit.

    • Nancy Kresge May 15, 2013 at 1:32 pm #

      Keith Kresge’s sister Nancy here and I was a member of that child labor force in Tonawanda. We all got so excited when the post card came from the orchard that the fruits were ready to pick and would pack into the station wagon for our trek to Niagara County. Those pies Mom made with the cherries we picked were out of this world!! Sampled some of Terry’s apricot jam while in CA this winter and it was delicious.

      • Terry Sweeney May 16, 2013 at 1:18 am #

        Thanks for the post, Nancy, and the kind words… the narrative slowly gets filled in! I love that the growers sent postcards that said “Come and get ’em!”

        Any idea what kind of cherries they were?

  19. Judy Jacobson June 8, 2013 at 7:20 pm #

    Sweet, sweet memories of your Grandma. I so enjoyed reading your story. I do look forward to trying the pear tarragon jam. It sounds wonderful.

    • Terry Sweeney June 10, 2013 at 5:07 pm #

      Thanks for your comment, Judy! Yes, Blanche was very special, but I bet every grandson says that.

  20. Leza Danly August 17, 2013 at 12:23 pm #

    HI Terry! I loved reading this account and I am salivating over the imagined delight of pear tarragon jam! Two of my absolute favorite flavors… I would love to buy some when it is for sale. And your writing is just as delicious and evocative. Thanks for taking me on the ride. It made me think of my maternal grandmother, Anna, who arrived from Yugoslavia in 1909. I spent some summers with her in Seattle where 90% of her food came out of her yard. I remember steaming plates of Romano beans that tasted unlike any store-bought vegetable I’d had. She had abundant fruit trees and made yummy preserves as well. Good luck with your certification!

    • Terry Sweeney August 17, 2013 at 2:30 pm #

      Hey Leza! Thanks so much for your kind and generous note. One of the really interesting offshoots of this article has been hearing from readers how much grandmothers influence our palates; they’re pivotal in creating memories like those steaming Romano beans but also laying the groundwork for what will become many of our comfort foods decades later.

      This is such a fertile field for exploration and remembering. This hasn’t been lost on the editors of American Food Roots, who recognize how the generations impact each other, especially where the kitchen and the table are concerned.

      And thanks for asking about when the jams are for sale; you can order from the Paragon Jams website, which is newly live: http:www.paragonjams.com

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