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.
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.
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.
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.
- 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)
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.