The arrival of California strawberries in the middle of Michigan's cold gray spring signaled the annual retreat of the University of Michigan Catholic parish, where I worked. The occasion was not an austere withdrawal to prayer and regimen, but rather a retreat from the school year's demands.
The dozen attendees were staff, including Jesuits, Sisters of Notre Dame and the parish dog. The site was a parishioner's loaner "cabin" located on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan -- with multiple bed- and bathrooms on two floors, a fully-equipped kitchen with self-cleaning oven, and a killer view of the lake through picture windows ringing the comfortable living room.
Our meal plan comprised a large pot of coffee and breakfast for all comers, a fridge with ingredients for make-your-own lunches, and shared dinners cooked in rotation. The rest of the day was given over to reading, in quiet indoor corners or under trees, and miles-long walks on the hard-packed beach.
We grocery shopped, and sometimes cooked, ahead. And always stocked up on strawberries, served simply but lusciously:
Take a washed and de-stemmed strawberry, dip it into a bowl of sour cream, and then into a bowl of brown sugar.
Looking for a farmers market? Go to post-gazette.com/food for our list and interactive map of more than 130 of them across the region.
Markets opening today are Vandergrift, from 3 to 6:30 p.m.; Verona, from 2 to 6 p.m.; and Wilkinsburg, 3 to 6 p.m. Others opening this week include:
• Bridgeville from 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays starting June 19.
• Carrick, 3:30 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays starting June 20.
• Coraopolis, 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. Mondays starting June 18.
• Lower Burrell, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays starting June 16.
• New Brighton, 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesdays starting June 19.
-- Bob Batz Jr.
Strawberry Vanilla Jam
Don't you wish strawberries always were in season? I know I do, which is why I was eager to test-drive this luscious jam recipe from "Food in Jars" by Marisa McClellan, a new and user-friendly cookbook geared to small kitchens and first-time canners. In it, summer's sweetest berry gets a delicate flavor boost with vanilla bean and fresh lemon.
I knew we'd eat this jam really fast, and not just on toast or English muffins: we'll also stir it into plain yogurt, spoon it on top of ice vanilla cream and brush it onto chicken the next time I fire up the grill. So I opted to make it more like a refrigerator jam, skipping the hot-water processing step. As always happens when I try my hand at preserved fruit, the final product turned out closer to a chunky syrup than a spreadable jam. But I'm taking Ms. McClellan advice, and not worrying (or apologizing) for my jam incompetence.
"Simply call it strawberry preserves and tell everyone it's exactly as you intended it to be," she writes, adding, "No one will be the wiser."
-- Gretchen McKay
8 cups hulled and chopped ripe strawberries, about 2 dry quarts
5 cups granulated sugar, divided
2 vanilla beans, split and scraped
Zest and juice of 2 lemons
2 3-ounce packets liquid pectin
In a nonreactive bowl, combine chopped strawberries with 1 cup sugar and vanilla bean seeds and pods. Let mixture sit at room temperature until sugar begins to pull the liquid out of the berries, about 15 to 30 minutes, then cover and refrigerate overnight. If you don't want to wait overnight, even just 1 hour of maceration is better than none at all.
When you're ready to make the jam, sterilize canning jars in a boiling water bath. Place lids in a small saucepan, cover with water and simmer over very low heat.
Remove macerated berries from refrigerator and pour everything into a large, nonreactive pan. Add remaining 4 cups sugar and lemon zest and juice and stir to combine. Bring to a boil over high heat (this jam will foam madly) and cook on high heat for 15 to 20 minutes, stirring regularly, until it takes on a thick, syrupy consistency.
Remove vanilla bean pods from mixture. If you have an immersion blender, use it as this point to puree some of the fruit. Alternatively, transfer about a third of the jam to a blender and puree, then return pureed fruit to pot.
Add pectin to fruit mixture and bring to a rolling boil. Insert candy thermometer into jam and attach it to the side of the pot. Let jam boil vigorously until it reaches 220 degrees.
Once jam reaches 220 degrees and remains at that temperature for 2 minutes, remove pot from heat and ladle jam into prepared jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. (A good way to check for doneness is to watch jam as it drips off the back of a spoon. If the drips run together and form a "sheet" as they drip down the spoon, set has been achieved.) Wipe rims, apply lids and bands and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
Remove jar form water bath, and gently place on a towel-lined countertop and let them cool. Jar lids should begin to "ping" soon after they've been removed.
After jars have cooled for 24 hours, remove bands and check the seals. Lids should hold fast. Once you've determined your seals are good, store jars in a cool, dark place (with rings off) for up to a year. Any jars with bad seals can still be used; just store them in the refrigerator and use within 2 weeks.
Makes about 8 cups of jam.
-- "Food in Jars: Preserving in Small Batches Year-Round" by Marisa McClellan (Running Press, July 2012, $23)
First Published June 14, 2012 4:00 AM