For a long time I was not into canning, pickling, jarring or any related activity. While I was growing up we canned and pickled religiously, and quite frankly, I got a little bit tired of it. Unlike a weekend project when you decide to make a jam or jelly and post a pretty picture on your blog, production canning is a lot of effort. In my impoverished farming country pickling was a matter of self-preservation, deeply rooted in the fear of being hungry in the winter. Winters in central Balkans are long and harsh, and the ones who did not can were doomed to a many-month-long diet of potatoes, beans, sauerkraut and prunes. And that is not fun. Take my word for it.
When the time of plentiness finally arrived to my little country in the Balkans, when we could finally eat strawberries and cream for the New Year’s Eve dinner, or buy peas in January, we still continued to preserve. The fear of hunger was gone, but it was replaced with nostalgia, for we realized that the little jars of sunshine are the very part of us, they preserved not only the precious produce but the history of our farming lands, the traditions of our folk, many lifetimes of family memories and a lot of love. I still remember the trips to market with my dad in late August, when tomatoes are at their sweetest, reddest and ripest. Sun beamed directly into our heads, and scorched from heat, we stood there for hours, as my dad had to hand pick and personally inspect every single tomato, for every single bottle of tomato pure we were about to make. We usually made 40 bottles. That was a lot of tomatoes.
The Great People’s Cookbook, also known as Pata’s Cookbook, the most extensive compilation of dishes from Serbia and neighboring territories, offers 269 recipes for food preservation. It is a lifetime of recipes. We typically stuck to about 16 to 20 of our family staples. Pureed tomatoes were the must; try cooking without tomatoes for six months and you will understand why. Ajvar was the must too, a trademark spread from Serbia and Macedonia, ajvar is the soul of a pepper preserved; try a spoonful of homemade one and you will understand why. An occasional jar of pickled peppers and green tomatoes would sometimes sneak into our selection; we were never much into acidic foods, but we did it anyhow, for the sake of completeness. But we were always into the booze, hence another must in the pantry were the sour cherry liquor and blackberry wine. The first was known to lift up the spirits, the second prevented iron deficiencies. To support the baking department efforts throughout the winter, we made jams and jellies in every variety known to mankind. On top of that we also made “slatko”. Slatko in Serbian means sweet; translated into English incorrectly as jam, slatko is whole fruit preserved in sugar syrup. Slatko means a lot to our folk, we take it in the morning with a sip of cold water to start the day, we offer it to our guests as they enter the house, slatko is our sweet good morning and the sweet welcome. Sour cherry slatko, white cherry slatko, apricot slatko, plum slatko, rose petal slatko, watermelon slatko, and my favorite, slatko from wild strawberries.
Come September our pantry would become the Land of Preserves. Following the months of work, every square inch of the space was taken. The pantry shelves were painted white and lined with lace, and when the pantry door opened the jars would hug you, welcoming you into their world, all the colors and flavors of summer glowing in the darkness. That moment in late September, the initiation of the pantry, when you take the first look at the walls lined with the season preserved, that was a breathtaking moment. A moment of great beauty, as in the opening of the second act of the Nutcracker at the Met, when the curtain goes up and you see the Land of Sweets for the first time. As in making the very first step into the Hall of Mirrors at the Versailles. As in standing at the edge of precipice on the Kauai northwest coast and catching the mirage of the Na Pali shore...
... as in a bouquet of fresh flowers, straight from the market.
Despite all of that, having canned through my entire childhood and a great deal of adolescence, I decided to take a break when I moved to the States. It was a long one, almost a decade. After all, we live in the 21st century and in the Time of Abundance, especially here, on this big island! Until on a visit to Belgrade a couple of years ago, I realized that there are fewer and fewer folks who know how to make slatko and even fewer ones who can pickle a pepper. The once who knew are no longer around. I realized that the pantries were gone too, they made space for subzero refrigerators and wine coolers. Or they stood empty, like the pantry of my childhood, now housing boxes of pasta and industrially produced ajvar.
I came back home to New York City, bought a set of jars and went back to canning.
Roasted Heirloom Tomato Jam with Cardamom and Vanilla
Funny as it may sound, but although I made jams most of my life, I never made a jam of roasted tomatoes. Until I saw Amanda Hesser's wonderful recipe on Food52. It gave me all kinds of crazy ideas. The recipe is so good and so bulletproof that most of the crazy ideas actually worked. This is one of my favorite spin-offs.
* 5 lb ripe heirloom tomatoes
* 2 1/4 cups sugar
* grated zest of one large lemon or two small ones
* 1/4 cup lemon juice
* two inches long piece of vanilla bean
* 2 cinnamon sticks, each about 2 1/2 inches long
* 25 cardamoms
* 1 tsp salt
Using a pestle or mallet break the cardamom pods and release the dark seeds. Keep the pods, seeds and all the debris.
Cut the vanilla bean in half lengthwise.
Measure out 3/4 cups of sugar. In a small saucepan combine sugar and 3/4 cups of water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the cardamoms and vanilla, reduce the heat to medium low and simmer for about five minutes. Remove from the heat and leave for half an hour to develop flavors. Strain, discard the cardamom and keep the vanilla bean.
Heat the oven to 400F.
Divide the remaining sugar roughly into three parts.
Cut the cinnamon sticks in half lengthwise
Core the tomatoes and slice them as thin as possible (1/8-1/4 inch thick).
Pour the third of the remaining sugar over the base of a 12-inch braising pan or other baking dish. Layer half of the tomatoes, overlapping the slices, in the pan. Sprinkle with the second third of the sugar. Top with the lemon zest, lemon juice, cinnamon and vanilla. Sprinkle the salt all over. Top with the remaining tomatoes, followed by the rest of the sugar. Pour the cardamom syrup all over. Leave the tomatoes for about 30 minutes.
Place the pan, uncovered in the oven and let the tomatoes cook for one hour. The tomato juices should simmer actively. Check from time to time, spooning the juices over the top tomatoes. After one hour stir the jam and break the tomatoes with the spoon.
Continue roasting, checking and stirring every 20 minutes -- the tomato juices should begin to gel at about 2 hours and fifteen minutes (it might take a little bit less or a little bit more time and will also depend on the amount of jam you are making). To test if jam is ready, spoon a little bit on the plate and let it cool. It is done if it holds the line when you run your finger through it. Remove the jam from the oven and let it cool.
If you would like to eat the jam right away, store it in the fridge.
If you are preserving the jam, you probably know what to do, but for the sake of completeness: Wash the jars and lids well in hot soapy water. Place the lids in a small saucepan with water to cover, bring to a simmer (180°F/82°C) and maintain the simmer until you are ready to use them. Do not boil. To sterilize the jars, fit a large pot with a rack, or line with a folded kitchen towel. Fill the pot two thirds with hot water and bring to a boil. Fill the jars with hot water and with tongs gently lower the jars into the pot, making sure that they are covered by at least one inch of water. Bring the water to a boil over high heat and boil for 10 minutes. Ladle hot jam into jars just up to the base of the neck, leaving 1/2 inch room at the top. Run a chopstick around the inside edge of the jar to release any air bubbles trapped inside, then adjust the headspace if necessary. Wipe the rim with a clean, damp cloth. Use tongs to remove a hot sterilized lid from the simmering water and dry with a clean kitchen towel. Close the lid tightly. Arrange the filled jars in the pot with hot water. Make sure the jars are covered by at least 2 inches of water. Cover the pot with the lid and bring to a boil. After the water has returned to a rapid boil, boil the jars for 10 minutes. Transfer jars to a folded towel and allow them to cool for 12 hours. Test the seals by removing rings and lifting jars by the flat lid. If the lid releases, the seal has not formed. Unsealed jars should be refrigerated and used within a month, or reprocessed. (Rings and jars may be reused, but a new flat lid must be used each time a jar is processed.)