ATLANTA — During late summer, when the garden bounty is at its peak, there's nothing like a good, old-fashioned canning session.
When it comes to preserving food, elderberries immediately come to mind. They grew in our neighbor's yard, but the shrubs were so tall that the fruit dangled over the fence. Every year, my mom — who never turned down free food — would march back there with a big bucket and scissors and snip the umbrella-shaped purple clusters off the branches.
We'd spend hours separating the tiny orbs from the woody parts. I loved that feeling of rolling the berry off the stem with my fingers. Then it came time to extract the juice: steam the fruit in a bit of hot water, crush it, pour the pulp into a cheesecloth and squeeze it so hard that the cloth turned purple.
I was Little Miss Helper, who measured sugar, ripped open packs of pectin, stirred in lemon juice and got bored waiting for the sticky dark liquid to reach the gelling point. Meanwhile, Mom lit the flame under a pot filled with water; jars, lids and screw bands all needed sterilizing.
We didn't have air conditioning. You can imagine how hot that kitchen got.
Thanks to my mother, I appreciate the sound of popping lids that signal a properly sealed jar of goodness — the best present when opened during the barren months of winter.
By the time I had a house and family of my own, my mom was less energetic about "putting up." She gave me her equipment and canning cookbooks, but I still preferred to can with a co-pilot. The summer I grew a windfall of tomatoes and netted a bushel and a peck of peaches certainly belongs in our mother-daughter canning highlights reel. Pulling the skins off hot produce is laborious; done with family or friends, it's more like a gab session at the beauty parlor, like a scene straight out of "Steel Magnolias."
Canning is not just a girl thing. Hitch, my former neighbor in St. Louis, is a king at this stuff. On a recent trip back to visit my mom, I stopped by to say howdy to him. I walked away with a jar of green tomato pickles in one hand and watermelon rind, mango and papaya chutney in the other.
I lamented that I didn't have with me a proper exchange gift: one of the 10 precious jars of fig jam that I made a few weeks ago. After nearly 20 years of trying to grow figs, I finally had enough to cook with, instead of just eating them off the tree.
The lid of each glass jar is crowned with a gold seal bearing a Washington Farms stamp (a nod to my old street address) and a pineapple (symbol of hospitality). The embosser was a gift from my sister-in-law during our canning heyday.
The day I made that fig jam was one of the hottest August days in Georgia. Unlike my mom back in the day, I enjoy a kitchen with A/C. Still, the room was hot. I wished she was there to help turn pounds of fresh figs into preserves, rather than chopping and stirring by myself. It was just me, and the bubbling liquid that dared to burn my forearms.
When the jam was done and ready to pack, I made a point to look at the clock, just like my mom. It didn't tell me the time; it told me that I was home.
5 pounds figs
3/4 cup water, plus more for boiling
6 cups sugar
1/4 cup lemon juice
Completely cover the figs with boiling water. Let stand 10 minutes. Drain, stem and chop the figs. There should be about 2 quarts of chopped figs.
Combine the figs, sugar and 3/4 cup water in a large saucepan. Slowly bring to a boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Cook rapidly to the gelling point. To test for the gelling point, dip a cool metal spoon into the boiling jelly. Lift out a spoonful. Tip the spoon over a dish, so the juice will drop off. At first, jelly drops will be light and syrupy. As the mixture cooks, the drops become larger and show signs of sheeting. The gelling point has been reached when the jelly sheets off the spoon.
Another test is to spoon a little bit of jam onto a small plate and place it in the freezer for about 2 minutes or until the jam has cooled to room temperature. Touch the jam, and if it has a gelatinous consistency, it is done. If not, continue cooking.
As the mixture thickens, stir frequently to prevent sticking. Add lemon juice, and cook 1 minute longer. Remove from the heat.
Ladle the jam into clean, lidded jars. Let cool. Once cooled, store in the refrigerator for up to three weeks. Makes 5 pints.
Nutritional information per tablespoon: 40 calories (percent of calories from fat, 1), trace protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, trace fiber, trace total fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, trace sodium.
Adapted from "Ball Blue Book of Preserving" (Alltrista Consumer Products Co., 2003)