The first day of summer is an ever mutable date in my home -- a moveable feast, if you will.
While the calendar specifies June 20, 21, or 22 (depending), many people consider the Memorial Day weekend the start of summer. Having lived my life according to the academic calendar, in some respects I regard mid-May as the beginning of summer, because once the students have slogged through finals, packed up their belongings, and headed home, the daily atmosphere settles into one of languid enjoyment and relative peace.
But according to my palate, the first true sign of summer is the arrival of fresh, juicy strawberries.
Normally, in northern Ohio this occurs around mid-June. Some years, there has been great concern that strawberries would actually be ready for picking by the weekend of the local strawberry festival. This year, though, the berries have given us a jump start on the season by appearing at the farmers' market right at the start of the month.
And who am I to deny them?
When I was much younger, the Chef Mother and I would head out to a local farm one sunny morning shortly after school let out, and we would spend the morning hunched over the rows of berries picking basket after basket of those precious jewels. Then we'd head home, wash the berries, remove the caps, slice them, mash them, and make a big pot of strawberry jam. We'd skim off the foam with a big spoon, saving it in a dish, and we'd usually make fresh bread that same day so that I could call my Dear Papa at work and tell him that he could look forward to toast and strawberry "scum" when he came home in the evening. (That never failed to brighten his day.)
Thanks to the farmers' market, I don't have to head out to a you-pick farm to get my berries. (Though Loren over at Ceres' Secrets plans to do so, and she's listed a number of web sites that can help you find a local farm.) This morning I indulged myself and bought three quarts of beautiful berries and hauled them upstairs.
Because in recent years I've enjoyed taking simple jam recipes and making slight variations in flavor by adding different herbs, I've become fond of making "micro-batches" of no more than 2 pints' worth of jam. So I didn't cap and slice all of those three quarts of berries at once. I simply filled a sturdy saucepan, added my favorite rose geranium sugar and some local honey, and let it cook.
If you're a die-hard, by-the-book jam maker, or you're new to jam-making and follow the instructions precisely, you might stop and say, "Wait a minute. No pectin? Very little sweetening? What gives?"
And I say, over the years I have gotten progressively more comfortable and more lazy with my jam making, and I really do prefer my jam to be on the sloppy, not-too-sweet side. I wholeheartedly concur with Lynn Alley, author of Lost Arts, who writes:
I want fruit, not sugar. I want texture. No straining out the seeds and skins for me. And I want a lovely, spoonable consistency, not rubbery goop that I have to dig out with a knife. (p.152)
So I cooked the jam until it came to a boil and started to foam, let it simmer a while, then skimmed off the foam and packed the jam into small jars and ran them through a hot-water bath to seal them one by one. (Using my dutch oven, of course, since it's hardly worth pulling out my giant canner for three small jars.)
And there you have it: a few half-pint jars of an intensely strawberry-flavored preserve, with a faint hint of roses and just enough sweetness to enhance the flavors without making your teeth ache... a satisfying result for a couple of hours' work.
Or, as Alisa Smith points out in Plenty: "Making jam had taken all afternoon and evening, but the last thing I'd call it was work. It was living" (p.158).
If there are more strawberries at the market again next time, I'm sure I won't be able to resist, and perhaps I'll even try a new improvisation on an old theme.
So stay tuned to find out!