August is a month of overwhelming bounty. Garden plots that seemed to eke along for weeks are finally bursting forth with produce (and weeds!). If you're lucky enough to be blessed with an overabundance of sun-kissed tomatoes or peppers, putting up a few jars of preserves or jellies is a fun and creative way to bottle up that summer sunshine for months to come.
It's important to follow recipes closely when canning, as the specified proportions are often required to properly preserve and/or set whatever it is you're making. Avoid the temptation to make double batches of jams, jellies or preserves. Preparing smaller batches allows the mixture to come up to temperature quickly, resulting in a product with a fresher taste and superior texture.
Herb-infused vinegar or vodka is another delicious project that is perfect for gifting. Good candidates include dill, oregano, basil, thyme, chives, sage, lemongrass, rosemary and tarragon. Wash the herbs well and remove any wilted leaves. Remove large woody stems from herbs and pack the herbs into clean glass jars. Pour in cider vinegar to cover, then top with a plastic lid (metal jar lids can corrode) and store in a cool dark place for four to six weeks. When the vinegar has finished steeping, strain out the solids and transfer to a clean corked bottle for longer storage. This method also works well with berries or stone fruit. Use the same preparation method as you would for leafy herbs. In addition to making vinaigrettes and sauces, fruit vinegars can add a surprising depth of flavor to pies and other desserts. You can also swap out vodka for vinegar using the same process.
Thai Basil Pepper Jelly
2 cups Thai basil-infused vinegar, divided
12 ounces chopped jalapeno peppers, the riper the better
6 cups sugar
2 3-ounce pouches liquid pectin
Combine the chopped jalapenos with half of the herb-infused vinegar in a food processor or blender and puree until smooth. Transfer the vinegar-pepper mixture to a nonreactive pot and add sugar and remaining vinegar. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, then continue to boil for 10 minutes, stirring continuously. Squeeze in the pectin, then boil hard for one minute, stirring constantly. Pour the hot jelly into clean, hot half-pint jars, leaving 1/2-inch of headroom at the top. Wipe the rim and screw on the lids. Process the jars in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.
Cherry Tomato Preserves
These preserves were one of my great-grandmother's favorites. I found the original recipe, clipped from a newspaper, in an old family cookbook. Serve it with crackers and a block of warm cream cheese for a super easy old school treat.
2 quarts cherry or grape tomatoes
3 cups sugar
1 teaspoon salt
cup diced candied ginger
Wash and dry the tomatoes, then cut a thin slice from the blossom end and press out the seeds. Put the tomatoes in a large nonreactive pot and sprinkle sugar and salt over the top. Bring to a simmer slowly over low heat, then continue to simmer for 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Wash and cut the lemon into paper-thin slices, removing the seeds. Add the lemon and ginger and continue to simmer for 10 minutes more. Pack into clean hot jars, leaving ½-inch of headroom at the top. Wipe the rim and screw on the lids. Process the jars in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.
Prize Chili Sauce
Another one from great-grandma, Esther Stevens. This chili sauce is like a chunky ketchup, and is an essential component of our summer dinner table. Mix it with equal parts garlic mayonnaise to make a delicious salad dressing or "special sauce" for burgers or fries.
3 quarts chopped ripe tomatoes
5 red bell peppers, diced
3 cups diced onion
cup pickling salt
4 cups cider vinegar
1 tablespoon whole cloves
1 tablespoon whole celery seed
3 cups sugar
Combine the tomatoes, peppers, onions, salt and vinegar in a large, nonreactive heavy-bottomed pot. Tie up the cloves and celery seed in a piece of cheesecloth (a paper coffee filter works also). Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce heat to a simmer and cook until thick, stirring occasionally to prevent it sticking (about three hours, or until the mixture has reduced about one inch down the side of the pot). Remove the spice sack, then stir in the sugar. Bring back up to a simmer and continue to cook for an additional 20 minutes. Pack the hot chili sauce into clean, hot pint jars, leaving ½-inch of headroom at the top. Wipe the rim and screw on the lids. Process the jars in a hot water bath for 10 minutes.