Suburban Pioneers

The Adventures and Misadventures of Homesteading in 21st-Century America

Sarah: Jammin’ with You October 9, 2013

Little Bear helps with apple selection.

Little Bear helps with apple selection.  This blog is really just a great excuse to post adorable photos of my daughter.

The neighbor’s tree reaches over the fence and drops lovely apples into our yard.  Envisioning apple pies and applesauce, I picked all the ones I could reach.  Then I went next door to ask, “Can I pick your apples?  They’re all going to waste!”  The college boys who rent there graciously told me to just come through their gate anytime.

Little Bear and I went in search of apples.  She took care of sampling–one bite out of four or five different apples.  I started picking from the tree…and found a grape trellis nearby.



These grapes were incredible.  They actually tasted like grape jelly.  Unfortunately, they also had seeds.  Little Bear didn’t mind.  She just swallowed the seeds along with the grapes (she’ll probably have a grape vine growing in her stomach next summer). However, I always worry about smiling at people with seeds stuck in my teeth, so I figured a different route was required.

I  called my preserving partner (see my previous post on why I can with friends) and told her we were making a first foray into the world of jam.

The ground under the trellis was a grape graveyard...a grapeyard?  I couldn't let the rest go to waste!

The ground under the trellis was a grape graveyard…a grapeyard? I couldn’t let the rest go to waste!

We tried to follow three recipes at once, which was a bit confusing, but that’s what happens when neither person has jammed before and no one is sure whether the final product should be jam or jelly.  We called the result “jamelly.”  It’s somewhere in between the two, but it tastes delicious, so I’m satisfied.  We ultimately found this website’s directions the most useful, but I’ll write my own directions for the process at the end of this post in case you’re interested.

The end result netted us about 24 8 oz. jars from 3 batches of jamming and 2 rounds of grape-picking.

Finished jars cooling down.

Finished jars cooling down.

My preserving partner and I agreed that we should give a jar to the boys next door to thank them for the use of their produce.  I knocked on their door last night and handed them the jar.  “Here’s some jam we made from your grapes,” I said.  The two looked at each other.  “Wow.  We have grapes?” they asked.

I guess this is further proof that Suburban Pioneering may be out of step with modern America.

Jamelly Process (I hope you like jammin’, too…)

Ingredients: 1 box powdered pectin mixed with 1/4 c. sugar, 6 and 3/4 c. sugar, lots of grapes OR grape juice (Apparently you can make the recipe with bottled grape juice.  Whoa.  Just do Step 1 and then skip down to Step 4…even if you don’t have college renters next door, you, too, can enjoy homemade jelly)

Step 1: sterilize jars and bands in the dishwasher.  Put a pan of water on the stove, over low heat, and place your unused lids in to heat/sterilize.  Meanwhile, get the water heating in your canner (or in a large pot).  You’ll need it boiling by Step 8, and in our experience, it takes a loooong time to boil.

Step 2: while dishwasher runs, wash grapes, remove from stems, and put in a pot with a little water.  Boil them.  Then run them through the food mill to separate seeds.  You want to end up with about 5 cups of fruit/juice mixture.

–Note: We tried about three different methods for this and all of them worked.  We tried food milling the grapes first and then boiling them.  We tried boiling and then food milling.  And we tried boiling and then straining.  Do whatever floats your boat.

Use a food mill to separate seeds from cooked fruit.

Use a food mill to separate seeds from cooked fruit.

Step 3: If you want more of a jelly than a jam, let the fruit drip through cheese cloth for several hours (we tried both ways…personally, I don’t care if my jelly is translucent.  I kind of prefer it chunkier, and it’s faster, so you can omit this step if you’re aiming more for the jam end of jamelly).  Whether you use strained juice or the juice/fruit mixture, you still want to end up with about 5 cups of it.

Strain through a cheese cloth for a truer jelly.

Strain through a cheese cloth for a truer jelly.

Step 4: For one batch of jamelly, put fruit/juice in the pot on the stove and heat to a full boil.  Once it’s boiling, add one box of pectin (mixed together with about a 1/4 c. sugar…the website we used recommended this, and I think it’s to help prevent the powdered pectin from clumping when you stir it in…it seemed to work well, and our jamelly jelled, so I figured it was a good tip).

photo copy 3

I know, I know. You can use the low-sugar pectin and make it healthier. But why deny yourself the sugar rush?

Step 5: Return the mixture to a boil and then add 6 and 3/4 c. sugar (these ratios are determined by the type of pectin you use.  If you just use the regular Sure-Jell powdered pectin, that’s the amount of sugar and fruit/juice prescribed on the box).

Step 6: Stirring frequently, return the sugar/pectin/fruit/juice jamelly mixture to a boil and boil thoroughly for one minute.

–Note: the website I mentioned above has a great test for making sure that your jamelly is jelled enough…anything that keeps me from ruining an entire batch of jam and wasting a lot of time is good; I don’t want to end with runny jelly!  That website suggests pouring a little bit of your boiling water on a cold spoon (you can keep in freezer or in ice water until you’re ready to use it).  Let the mixture cool on the spoon.  If it’s not thick enough, just add a bit more pectin from another box.

Step 7: Remove jars and bands from dishwasher.  Pour the hot jamelly mixture into jam jars, leaving 1/4 in. room at the top.  Wipe the rims, put the hot lids on, and screw the bands on (not too tight…you don’t want to interfere with the lids “popping” to vacuum seal).  If you have extra jamelly mixture in the pot that won’t fill a whole jar, you can just put it in a glass container for your fridge and eat it first (or just consume it all right there on the spot, which is what we did).

Step 8: Place jars in the boiling water in the canner or large water pot.  If you live in Colorado, boil for 10 minutes.  Anywhere else (that’s not at altitude), your jamelly process will be 5 minutes instead.

Step 9: Remove jars from canner; listen for pop that indicates seal (you can check them later after they’ve cooled to make sure that the little button area on the top is depressed).

Yum, yum.

Yum, yum.

Step 10: EAT JAM.  Grapes are good for you.  Sugar is, too, right?  Right?


Sarah: In a Pickle March 24, 2013

Curry Pickles!  See recipe at the end of the post.

Curry Pickles! See recipe at the end of the post.

I’ve been afraid of canners since reading John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.  For those of you who weren’t English majors and might have missed out on this beautiful masterpiece, there is a small part in the book in which one character, Cathy, sneakily murders the mistress of the brothel where she works by suggesting that the brothel can its own vegetables as a way to save money.  Cathy then makes sure that the owner eats a bad jar of green beans and dies of botulism.  Soooo, there you have it.  That was enough to put me off canning.


However, a few years ago, I decided I couldn’t claim pioneering status if I didn’t can things.  Armed with a few pounds of garden cucumbers and two pickling recipes from my friend Mark, Keith and I canned about 20 jars of pickles one night.  The great part of these recipes is that the pickles were hot packed, which means there was no time necessary in the pressure canner; instead, the jars (hot from being run under hot water–we poured the boiling kettle over them in the sink) are packed with sliced cucumbers and boiling brine is poured into them.  The heat from the jars and the brine is enough to make the cans seal.  Somehow, not having to use a canner got me past my fear of botulism.  I know that doesn’t make any logical sense, but it worked.

Sterilizing the jars: a very important step for avoiding an unpleasant food poisoning experience.

Sterilizing the jars: a very important step for avoiding an unpleasant food poisoning experience.


Having had gratifying success with that first round of canning, I decided last summer to try again.  On my own.  While my 3-month-old hung out in her little bouncer in the kitchen.  It was an ill-fated endeavor from the get-go.  Little Bear began screaming in the middle of what my father would call “a critical stage” in the process–while I was pouring boiling brine into the jars.  She continued to scream as I wiped all the mouths of the jars and sealed them.  By the time I was able to pick her up, she was hiccoughing for breath and my nerves were frazzled.


The jars sat on the counter for two weeks with Keith eying them doubtfully.  I kept trying to convince him (and myself) that it was merely the heads of dill in the jars that were making the jars cloudy.  Cucumbers are actually one of the safest things to can because the brine is almost all vinegar and salt, which is not a conducive environment for growing food contaminants.

What NOT to eat: cloudy liquid = bad juju.

What NOT to eat: cloudy liquid = bad juju.


However, cloudy liquid, weird fizziness, or lids that don’t seal are immediate grounds for disposal because they indicate that something has gone wrong with the process.


Unfortunately, my jars were showing signs of all three, and Keith is especially cautious when it comes to bacteria and food illness (he also has read East of Eden).  Finally, he tested all the lids, “Honey, I don’t think these sealed.  We need to pour them out.”

I had just sat down on the couch with Little Bear after she refused to go down for a nap.



That was when I realized that it wasn’t just about the pickles because, after all, my fear of food poisoning should have triumphed immediately.  Instead, this was about my identity before and after kids.  I didn’t want to be one of those moms who stopped doing and being all the things that she had been and done before having kids.  I wanted to be a good mom, but I also wanted to be me, and that meant still doing the projects and cooking that I love.

Canning with friends is great.  Canning with cats, however, is counterproductive for sterilizing jars.

Canning with friends is great. Canning with cats, however, is counterproductive for sterilizing jars.


That day after my crying and screaming subsided, I admitted to myself the sad truth that, despite my intentions of continuing to cook and create, some things don’t mix: three-month-olds and complicated kitchen processes that take intense focus are just two examples.  I also admitted that my pride in accomplishing kitchen tasks wasn’t worth the risk of food poisoning.  Then I got on with the sad job of composting several pounds of pickles. 


Now I can with friends instead.  Besides the bonus of having someone else to continue stirring the boiling brine when I have to rescue my screaming child, it’s much more fun to talk and laugh while chopping and mixing.  Also, who needs 20 jars of pickles?


For anyone who wonders, here are two great pickle recipes.  One is a personal favorite (I can’t reveal the actual recipe I use because it’s a friend’s family recipe, but it’s very similar to this one from for curry pickles.  Yes, that’s right.  Curry pickles.  As one of my youth group kids put it, “These taste like a dill pickle and a sweet pickle had a baby and this was it.”  She’s right.  The other is the recipe for dill pickles that I use (with this one, you can actually put the pickle jars into the pressure canner after you pack them if you want to be sure they seal…I’ve now tried it that way with much more consistent results.  Just follow the canner instructions after you use this recipe).

Dill Pickles

Ingredients: cucumbers, dill, garlic, alum, canning salt, white vinegar

1. Clean cucumbers (~2-3 pounds), slice, and let stand in cold water several hours.

2. Wash heads of dill (1-2 for each jar) and peel garlic (1-2 cloves per jar)

3. Sterilize jars (dishwasher or hand wash and then pour boiling water over).

4. Mix brine: heat to boiling 6 quarts water, 1 tsp. alum (to keep crunchiness), 2 scant c. canning salt (make sure you do scant cups…or cut back a bit to 1 and 1/2 cups–ours were a bit salty), and 1 quart white vinegar.

5. Drain cucumbers and pack into jars along with one or two heads of dill and 1 or two cloves of garlic.

6. Fill jars with boiling brine, wipe jar mouths, and seal with (new) lids and bands.

7. Let pickles cure for 2 months.  If the jars don’t seal (test by pressing the lids gently), store in the refrigerator immediately–they can’t be kept in the pantry.

Stirring the curry pickles in their syrup.  Yum!

Stirring the curry pickles in their syrup. Yum!


Curry Pickles from

16 med. unpeeled cucumbers, sliced
2 1/2 c. vinegar
2 1/2 c. water
4 c. sugar
4 tbsp. curry powder
5 tbsp. mustard seed
Directions: Let cucumbers stand in 1 cup salt and 16 c. water for 5 hours. Rinse. Bring syrup to a boil and put cucumbers in until they change color.  Then pack in jars,  pour syrup over and seal.

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