While recently doing a few posts on new and unique ways to use Thanksgiving leftovers, I had a thought; why not do a monthly post on the past month’s best use of leftovers? Hey, we all have them, and we don’t always want to just reheat last night’s excess – sometimes we want to create something that outshines the original! So why not do a monthly post on how well we did?
There’s also secondary motivation as well – I’m often guilty of not spending enough time in coming up with a more creative approach than simply micro-waving last night’s dinner again. I’m thinking that if I have to come up with a monthly post on doing something creative, I may force out a few more ideas than otherwise might happen – what’s the harm?
So, I’ve added a new blog category which I’m calling, ‘Best Leftover of the Month’, and we’ll see where it takes us. And without even asking for your permission, I’m going to define the term ‘leftover’ as any dish or ingredient that fulfills its initial purpose, but is not yet entirely used up. That’s broad enough so I won’t get caught in the trap of thinking of only entree dishes as candidates. OK?
Good! Let’s try it out.
I’ve got a good candidate for our inaugural leftover – let’s see if you agree. Ever since we started doing our winter Mexico sojourns, we’ve realized how much nice fruit is available during the winter – and much of that tropical fruit shows up here in our markets. Winter fruits are completely different than summer, and include, pineapple, papaya, kiwi, banana, and our own California/Florida grown, citrus, grapes, and strawberries. Add to that list, the stuff that goes into cold storage, and we also have apples and pears around for much of the winter as well.
We had a pretty bad local fruit year, just past – the spring was too wet and cold for ideal blossom development, and I noticed a drop-off in my own tree fruits here in my yard. I’ve also heard about -and noticed- that the local fruit in our markets is not at its usual quality level either. This is normally our prime pear season, but those I’ve bought this year are so fragile that they only last a few days after you bring them home – so it’s eat ’em or lose ’em. After losing a few, I came up with an alternative – and a quite delicious one at that.
I do a lot of summer canning – what’s known among serious canners as ‘big batch’ canning. This means, besides working with large amounts of fruits and vegetables, processing your production for long term storage. A home canner tends to think only in these terms, at least I do! But there is ‘small batch’ canning as well – and small batch canning is not intended to be processed, sealed, and stored at room temperature, but rather, quickly made and refrigerated. And our winter fruits that begin to lose their appeal for fresh eating are perfect candidates for a quick transformation into a jar of jam.
Another reason why I love the idea of turning my less than perfect fruit into a quick jam is that I don’t have to worry about all those rules and procedures that accompany big batch canning – yes, those rules are there to guarantee that you don’t let some bad bacteria slip into your jars and ruin your hard work, or poison your family – but when you’re just doing a single jar of jam for the fridge, forget the rules – your jam is perfectly safe.
So we’ve got a pear or two that’s going soft, and we’d like to make up a quick jar of pear jam – what do we need? Equipment wise, you’ll need a medium size sauce pan, and a wooden spoon – and of course, a jar to put your jam in when it’s finished cooking. Nothing wrong with pulling one of your old jars of almost used up jam out of the fridge, and using that jar – just mix the old and the new jam together at the end. And that’s it, equipment wise.
OK, now we chop up the pears – I cut out the core and the stem, but I don’t worry about the skins – they just cook away into little bits of brown specks in the jam – besides, the skins of fruit contain lots of nutrition, so don’t mess with skinning them. If there’s some nasty deterioration inside the pear, cut that out too – but if it’s just a browning of the flesh, there’s probably nothing wrong with that – taste it, and if it tastes just like the rest of the pear, throw it in the pot – if not, pitch it too. If your pear is super soft, no matter – it will cook up nicely – and surprisingly, even a soft pear cut into small chunks will hold its chunky texture after cooking – it won’t cook away to mush.
Now for the hard part – yeah, you knew there was a hard part, right? You need to decide how much sugar to put in your jam – actually, sugar is the only other required ingredient in our jam! At the end of this post, I’ll suggest a few additional amendments, but really sugar is the only other thing your jam needs to be jam. Here’s my recommendation: for every cup of chopped fruit you have, add one cup of white sugar. That’s it! If you want to fool around with your jam, you might want to use less sugar and see what happens – If using only a half cup of sugar – know that will affect your jam’s consistency, and may require longer cooking.
Put your saucepan on the stove and turn on the burner to medium heat. After it comes to the boil, you’re going to cook the jam for about 15 minutes. This is really the hardest part, because you’ll need to stir the cooking jam frequently to avoid it burning on the bottom of the pan – sugar is quick to burn, and once your jam burns, it’s no good! So, stir it often and don’t let it burn. But, you want it to boil, because a boiling jam is cooking away the water in the fruit, and creating a nice texture for your jam. If your jam will continue to boil at a lower heat, by all means, turn it down and continue cooking.
After about ten minutes of boiling, during which you may or may not see a lot of white foamy bubbles, your jam will begin to clear, and the bubbles will begin to get larger. This is good, because your jam is thickening, and the water is almost all cooked away. Keep stirring and you’ll notice it feeling thicker – let it cook for about 5 minutes more, and then stop cooking. Remove from the burner, and let the jam cool for about 30 minutes.
Now, there are many ways that real ‘Granny’ canners use to tell them that their jam is cooked enough to be spreadable (you want it to be thick enough to form a blob on the end of a knife, but not so thick that it won’t spread on your toast), but they are all tedious and I’m not going to bother you with them – this is just one of those skills that you have to feel your way into – so just do it, and see how it turns out. If, after 30 minutes of cooling, your jam is still not thick enough to hold on the end of a knife, put your saucepan back on the burner, and give it another 5 minutes or so of cooking. And if you err by thickening it too much, this is super easy to fix – just add a tiny bit of water (or liquor) and stir – keep doing that until your jam is the right consistency.
Once the jam is cool and has an obvious spreadable consistency, you can spoon it into your waiting jar (if you’ll be using a jar that has some old jam in it, don’t forget to add the old jam to the cooling new jam and mix them well). Don’t forget to keep your jam in the fridge – it’s OK to leave it out for a day or two, but not full time storage at room temp.
As you may have noticed, we aren’t worrying about sterilization with our small batch method, because our jam will be kept in the fridge, and will be used quickly – and if you were really observant, you also noticed that I didn’t mention pectin; why not? Because our small batch jam is more dependent on the syrupy nature of thickening sugar for its consistency, and not on the jelling nature of pectin as many jams and jellies are, we can ignore the problems pectin brings. Trust me, if we can avoid messing with pectin, we’re better off!
OK, as promised, what about making our jam even fancier? Easier done than said. Add a few chopped nuts at the tail end of your cooking, and your jam will become a fancy compote. Not a thing wrong with adding a small amount of spice as well – your choice. How about chopping up a tablespoon of candied fruits or ginger, or maraschino cherries to make it even more fancy. And, although my wife doesn’t like this next suggestion as much as I, consider adding a touch of brandy, rum, or bourbon during the cooking stage – or, if your jam is too thick, use one those liquors -or any other- to thin down your jam. I personally love this touch, regardless of what Sandee says.
This is such a simple idea that no recipe is needed – just keep the idea in your head until you notice you have one last pear that is just too soft for eating fresh – and now put that potential throw-away to an even better use as a delicious pear jam.