Thursday, September 5, 2013

Fig Preserves

Late August always brings an abundance of fresh figs to Chateau Gilbert.   The house we bought some years back was formerly occupied by some people who were serious gardeners; it is both a blessing and a curse, for while we have something flowering in our yard every season of the year, we know nothing about gardening, and the upkeep can feel like a labor of Sisyphus.  One of the plants that we inherited when we bought our house was a mature and amazingly large fig tree.  It is easily two stories tall and has a diameter of better than 30 feet at its widest.  To give you some idea of scale, you can see our rain gutters cutting into the frame, about halfway up in this picture, and at the bottom is the top of an Adirondack lawn chair.. 

In a particularly productive year (as this one was) we can pick gallons of raw figs from its lower branches, without even attempting to pick what is at the upper reaches.  I'm sure that every bird, squirrel and assorted other critters in the neighborhood enjoy this bounty of fruit, and frankly, they're welcome to it.   While I eat them raw, use them in appetizers and salads, and even throw them into smoothies, it is impossible to eat the figs fast enough, as they have a limited shelf life once picked. 

Thus, fig preserves.  Since we have started making these, I have not had to buy a single jar of jam or jelly.  I can easily put up enough preserves for a year, and have plenty enough to give away as gifts.  They're pretty easy to make, too.  I have a canning pot and a set of canning implements that I picked up at a garage sale, so my start-up costs were pretty low, and mason jars and lids are widely available at grocery stores and big box retailers here. 

What You Need:
A mess of fresh figs                                
white granulated sugar
lemon juice
fresh lemons

Mason Jars and new lids
a potato masher
a hot water bath pot, preferably with rack
canning tools: magnet probe, wide mouth funnel, jar tongs, etc
clean dish towels
large, nonreactive pot

One thing I reckon I should point out here is that this is a noticeably unscientific recipe.   The amount of sugar, lemon juice and lemon peel that you will use here is entirely dependent on the amount of figs you are turning into preserves.   You'll have to adjust the level of sugar to your individual taste, but please remember, sugar is an antimicrobial agent; a high sugar level is one of the HUGE factors in preserving your preserves.  If you just want to make fig paste, refrigerate it, and eat it soon after production. 

Also, if this is your first experiment with home canning, I highly recommend that you consult some other sources before attempting this.  A spoiled, canned product can be one of the most lethal things in your home, and one of the least obvious.  Sanitation and bacteria control are deadly serious subjects, and I urge you to read up on the subject before undertaking this endeavor.  On the other hand, we are not engaging in a tech-heavy project here: this is stuff that was done safely a hundred years ago by people of less education than ourselves.  If you learn the basic rules and follow them, you can do this with an easily achievable level of safety, and can confidently enjoy safe preserved foods.

First, wash the figs well.  Make sure that there are no insects clinging on.  Next, slice the stems away from the fruit, and place the fruit in a large nonreactive pot over medium heat.   Add a substantial amount of sugar, and a good squeeze of lemon juice.  I use the kind that comes in the little plastic lemon, but if you want to use fresh squeezed, well then, get down with your bad self.   As the heat begins to cook the figs some, they will begin to render up a little fluid, so mash them into a pulp with your potato masher (be careful not to scratch your nice pots). 

Meanwhile, remove the zest from a couple of lemons, chop it up, and add that to the mixture.   After removing the zest, use a sharp paring knife to cut the pith away from the lemons, and slice the lemons into wheels.  Using the tip of the paring knife, remove the seeds, and add the lemon wheels to the preserves.  They won't hold their shape, so don't get your hopes up.

It will take a fair amount of time on the stove for the fig mixture to cook and reduce.  The figs will render a lot of water, so be patient, keep the fire at a moderate to low temp, and stir frequently, so they wont stick and burn.  Taste, and adjust the sweetness.  Using a large silicon spatula, squish the remaining whole figs, and as they break apart, the heat will help them break down.   Some people use pectin to thicken the mixture and produce a tighter end product, but I don't.   Figs have a naturally high level of pectin, and I don't like my finished product to be too tight.  Again, depending on your level of patience, you can end up with a juicier or tighter preserve all by controlling evaporation  and cook time. 

While things are cooking, place your lids in a boiling water bath, and have your pre-cleaned jars in a separate boiling water bath as well.   When the preserves have reached your desired level of sweetness and the desired consistency, remove a jar from its boiling water bath and ladle preserves into the hot mason jar.  Quickly retrieve a lid from its water bath, and after making sure that the rim is clean and has no preserves on it, secure the lid on the jar.  Using a kitchen towel to keep from burning yourself, tighten down the lid.   Repeat until all your jars are full. 

When all the jars are full, load up the rack on your canning pot and carefully place into the boiling water bath.  Return the water to a boil, and keep all the jars submerged for a half-hour.   If you have a pressure cooker rig, that is even better, but for sweetened or acidified items I find that the hot water method suffices.  After a half-hour, remove from the boiling water, and retighten the lids.  Set them out on the counter and allow them to cool overnight. 

This batch made one quart, three pints and nine cups of preserves.  I hope the casting directors from Doomsday Preppers don't call me. 

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