The Good Seed: Gourmet Gifts From The Garden

Lynn Coulter
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I confess: for a long time, cooking didn’t excite me. Maybe I’d rehashed the same old recipes for meatloaf and mashed potatoes too many times.

When Christmas rolled around, I gave homemade gifts, but I didn’t go near the stove. I pulled out bolts of fabric and skeins of yarn, but it didn’t occur to me to whip up gourmet treats from my own garden.

Until I took a cooking class from Nanette Davidson, that is.

Nanette is the Resident Artist in Cooking at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C., where she teaches classes in everything from baking artisan breads to preserving fruits and vegetables and more. Modeled after Danish schools that teach learning by doing, the folk school welcomes hundreds of adult students each year to the foothills of the beautiful Appalachian mountains, where they study traditional arts, crafts, music, and dance. (Image at left: Nanette Davidson, courtesy John C. Campbell Folk School.)

Jan Davidson, the school’s director and Nanette’s husband, once told me that the school’s not virtual, and “you can’t just watch.” Everything is hands-on, and during my visit, that meant I was up to my elbows (figuratively speaking) in pickling tender pods of okra with hot peppercorns and baby carrots; slow-roasting pears in vanilla syrup and brandy; and packing jewel-cut glass jars with peach-mango chutney spiced with ginger.

Did I mention that we also made fresh tomato salsa with cilantro, apricot-honey mustard, and dilly beans spiked with cayenne peppers? For anybody who loves the fresh flavors, colors, and fragrances of fruit and vegetable gardens–well, it’s enough to make you swoon.

When you recover your senses, you grab the nearest cooking pot, a wooden spoon, your canning supplies, and apron-up as you step to the stove top.

When I drove home a few days later, with glass jars filled with lovely jams, jellies, mustards, relishes, and pickles clattering in my trunk, I had enough to share as holiday gifts.

During my late-summer visit, the school’s garden provided some of the fruits and veggies we “put up,” and we purchased other locally grown foods like apples and berries. In most of the country, the harvest is already in, but if you’ve frozen any of yours, you’re in luck. Nanette says there’s very little difference in fresh versus frozen. This Christmas, use your frozen fruits to make jams, jellies, and other gourmet treats. Next year, plan ahead to grow more fruits and vegetables for gift-giving.

Be sure to visit The Good Seed in January, when we’ll have lots of ideas for you on dreaming up, and then planting, your 2013 garden!

Nanette’s Tips For Making Gourmet Gifts From Your Garden:

  • Experiment with the flavor of beer and ales in your jams. “In a jam class I taught, we  made a beery, black mocha-stout-jam with caramelized onions that’s great on hamburgers. We used a Highland ale from Asheville, NC, a kind of Guinness black beer,” Nanette said. She’s working on a cookbook now, and may include the recipe for this jam, but she’s not ready to share it yet. (Sigh. Yes, I asked for it.)
  • Try wine in your recipes. “Wine undertones can be very subtle, but they’re there, and they’re very good. We did a fig vanilla pear jam that was amazing. We also elevated the flavor of a jam made with local plums by adding dried sour cherries and pinot noir.”
  • “Remember there are different ways to use jam (other than giving it in gift jars). You can serve it with cheese, as a dessert, or bake it in thumbprint cookies. Try making jam tarts, or tiny, turnover pies filled with jam, like homemade Pop Tarts. There are savory uses of jam, too. Some are good with meats, like the onion jam we made with stout. It almost has a steak sauce flavor when used on hamburgers.”

  • “You can melt jam down to make an amazing sauce for ice cream or a fabulous syrup for pancakes. Dilute it with a little fruit juice, on top of the stove, if you need to.”
  • “Stretch the envelope of creativity and work with fun ingredients. A lot of our recipes are reductions, in which beer and beer are cooked down until they’re almost like syrup, and then worked in. With jam, you don’t want to add more liquid. You want to evaporate liquid from the fruit you’re using as quickly as you can, before you overcook it.”
  • “One great tool for making jam is a classic jamming pan, a big copper pan with a bottom that’s narrower than the rim, so moisture evaporates quickly. A copper jamming pan is not cheap. It’s a big investment, but it lets you cook in a much shorter amount of time.”
  • “Enjoy the colors of the produce you’re working with. Raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries are classics (for jam-making). If you don’t have enough of any one of these, combine them. The Europeans are amazing jam makers and they mix different kinds of fruit to make what they call ‘fruits of the forest’ or ‘bramble jam.'” (See Nanette’s recipe below.)
  • “Focus on what’s in season when you’re cooking from the garden. Apples are in season now, and they make good jelly. In the summer, it’s fun to make peach-rosemary jam and stick in a sprig of rosemary. With other jams, you could tie a circle of fabric around the neck of the jar, tie it with ribbon or raffia, and attach something that relates to what’s in the jar, like a cinnamon stick on apple cinnamon jelly.”

  • “The trick to making jam is to cook it as long as you need to get it to set and thicken the juices. Don’t cook it so long it destroys the flavor of the fruit. I like a bright-tasting jam that hasn’t been cooked forever.”
  • “A delicious combination to try is pear mincemeat with crystallized ginger, walnuts, raisins, and brandy. It’s almost like a pie filling in a jar, but it’s all fruit and brandy, with no suet.”
  • “Think about making jam throughout the season. You can tuck away a few jars for gifts, then in the Christmas scramble, pull them out for hostess gifts or other presents.”

Nanette’s “Fruits of the Forest Jam”

Makes about 6 cups

“Wash well, drain and pick over 9 cups of mixed berries (can be blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and/or grapes). In a large preserving pan, warm over medium heat 6 cups sugar.

“As the sugar begins to heat up and melt slightly, add the berries to the pan and crush with a spoon to release their juices. After the mixture comes to a boil add the juice and zest of 1 lemon.
Cook the mixture, stirring constantly over medium high heat, until it reaches 218°F on a candy thermometer and gels properly. This can take 20-40 minutes depending on the size of your pan. Check the set by spooning a bit of the mixture onto a small chilled plate. If you can drag your finger through the jam, and the trail it leaves doesn’t close up immediately, then it is probably ready. It will thicken considerably as it cools down. Allow it to rest in the jam pan for about five minutes off the heat, so the fruit will distribute more evenly in the jar. Ladle into sterilized jars. Seal and process in hot water for five minutes. Note: For complete instructions on how to process and preserve food, Nanette recommends the University of California’s “Complete Guide To Home Canning”.

“The jam should gel properly when it reaches a temperature that is 8-9 degrees greater than the temperature of boiling water.  At our altitude (in Brasstown, N.C.), at 1800 feet above sea level, that should be 218 degrees F. If you are closer to sea level the right temperature is 221 degrees F.”

~From Jamming It/ Homemade Jams and Inspired Uses, by Nanette Davidson, Resident Artist for Cooking at the John C. Campbell Folk School, Sept. 2012

For Gardeners In Apple-Growing Country: Make An Apple Bourbon Cake

This moist cake can be baked ahead of time and wrapped in plastic wrap and freezer foil. It should keep for a few months when frozen.

Apple Bourbon Cake

Ingredients:

4 c. coarsely chopped, peeled New York State apples
1 c. bourbon
2 c. sugar
1/2 c. vegetable oil
2 eggs
2 c. flour
2 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. grated nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1 c. coarsely chopped walnuts
Put apples in a large bowl and pour bourbon over them. Cover tightly and periodically tip upside down to mix. (If preparing apples in a food processor, quarter, core and peel apples, cut each quarter in half and add to processor bowl fitted with steel blade. Do 2-3 apples at a time and cover and chop with short on-off pulses. Do not over process or apples will shred and give off too much juice.)

Beat sugar, oil and eggs together with a wire whisk or rotary egg beater. Sift together flour, soda, cinnamon, salt, nutmeg and cloves. Stir into egg mixture. Add bourbon to the nuts and apples. Stir until well mixed. Turn batter into a greased 9X13 inch baking pan. Bake at 350 F for 45-60 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Serve warm or cold with bourbon-flavored whipped cream or cream cheese, if desired.

Recipe courtesy of New York Apple Association.

Images of assorted jars: Shutterstock/ANCH

Image of blueberry jam and toast: Shutterstock/Isantilli

Image of cookies: Shutterstock/David Smith

Image of jar with red top: Shutterstock/Margoe Edwards

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