While summer preserving produces batches of jams and jellies that are delicious in their own right, they are predictable. Tending a simmering kettle in winter, on the other hand, means jars filled with a mixed bag of unexpected special treats.
Dreaded leftovers turn into silky fruit butters; sweet-sour, chutney-like concoctions made from dried fruit and root vegetables; fruits and nuts layered in spirits, and sauces made from the workhorses of the winter kitchen, apples and pears.
Fruit butter is a smooth blend of ripe fruit that is simmered in some flavorful liquid, pure'ed, sweetened, and cooked very slowly until just thickened. My very favorite method for achieving the silkiest butter is not to boil it down until it masses like glue, but to simmer the liquidy spiced fruit for an hour or longer over the gentlest heat, stirring occasionally.
And, contrary to some old and new books on preserving, I don't cook fruit butter until it holds its shape "in a mound" on a spoon. By that time, certainly, you'd have fruit paste, not butter. Even more so, as the butter cools, it thickens up considerably; refrigeration, too, creates a slightly firmer butter. The apple and pear butters that follow are soft and shimmery, and can be refrigerated with great results.
Butters make delectable spreads for any hot bread, be it biscuit, muffin, toast or scone.
For the apple butter, apples are simmered to softness in cider, building up the flavor of the fruit considerably. The pears are merely cooked in water, as the pear flavor intensifies on its own during the final simmering with the sugar and spices. After the fruit is broken down completely (about 30 minutes), fruit and liquid are pure'ed together, then cooked again with sugar and spices.
Fruit butter can also be the basis for a nice glaze to top meat or fowl destined to be roasted or grilled; it makes a great thin filling when spread over the bottom of a pastry shell before filling it up with sliced fruit; thinned down with fruit juice or cream, fruit butter makes a quick dessert sauce.
My recipe for apple sauce (and the variation for pear sauce that follows) is fragrant with many spices. Those spices -- cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and cloves -- make the sauce at home alongside roast chicken, roast pork or duck. Warm apple sauce, served as a comforting side dish, is a delight. Apple or pear sauce freezes very well, but on defrosting it does thicken up. It can be restored to its proper consistency by adding a little fruit juice.
One of the easiest ways to use up the assorted dried fruits and nuts at season's end is to preserve them, beautifully layered in rum sugar syrup. Once refrigerated, the fruit-and-nut mixture may be stored for many months, and is always ready for use in custards, mousses, bavarians, poundcakes, assorted springtime puddings and summer ice creams (thinking way ahead).
Sweet and Hot Pears, Dried Apricot Chutney, and Red Onion Relish are sweet-sour spice condiments that may be eaten as is, or combined with other ingredients for making sauces and glazes.
The pears are cooked in a hot pepper-laden syrup made out of vinegar and sugar. The slices of pear taste good and sharp, and so they become the perfect foil for rich meat, a fine side dish to grilled food, and oddly enough, are an unconventional but delicious relish for curries.
Dried Apricot Chutney is an intense and heady blend of mustard seed, vinegar, sugar chilies, apricots and currants. The flavor of dried apricots is concentrated and potent, but it is offset nicely by the vinegar and spices. A spoonful of chutney is perfect relish to grilled food; makes a perky glaze for chicken or cornish hens when thinned out with a little orange juice; a chopped quarter cup uplifts any stuffing for fowl, pork or beef.
Red Onion Relish is a mixture of sweet onions that have been simmered with sugar, vinegar and vermouth. Use it by spoonfuls to stir into the pan juices of saute'ed pork chops or chicken breasts, or spread it over a leg of lamb just before roasting. Serve it with smoked meat, especially ham or turkey.
Following are the ways to take full advantage of winter's produce and dried fruit for savoring in the months ahead: SPICED APPLE SAUCE (Makes about 4 cups)
A wholesome sauce that should be made from flavorful apples, such as granny smith, stayman, or macintosh.
2 cups apple cider
10 apples, peeled, cored, and cut into small chunks
1/2 cup light brown sugar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
In a large nonmetallic pot, preferably of enameled cast iron, combine the cider and apples. Cover and cook over moderately low heat for about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally, or until the apples are very tender. Uncover the pot, add the remaining ingredients and stir well.
Simmer the sauce ingredients, stirring 2 or 3 times, until the sugar dissolves completely, mashing down the apples to make the sauce softly chunky.
Serve the sauce warm, tepid or cool. If storing, refrigerate in an airtight container. If freezing, pack the sauce in sturdy containers to 1/2 inch of the top, cool, cover, and freeze.
VARIATION: Spicy Pear Sauce
Substitute 2 cups water for the cider and increase the brown sugar to 3/4 cup. Continue as for the apple sauce. LEMON-PEAR BUTTER (Makes about 4 cups)
Sparked with lemon rind and juice, the butter is a good way to make use of overripe pears no longer perfect for poaching or fruit salad.
4 pounds very ripe pears, peeled, cored, cut into chunks, and tossed in 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 cups water
3 cups sugar
Finely grated zest (yellow part only) of 3 lemons
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
Place the pears and water in a large casserole of enameled cast iron (or any other non-corrosive pot). Cover and set over moderate heat. Simmer the pears for about 30 minutes, or until completely cooked down. Pure'e the pears with the liquid, in batches, using a blender or a food processor fitted with the steel knife.
Return the pear pure'e to the rinsed out casserole and add the remaining ingredients. Cook, uncovered, over low heat, stirring often, until the mixture has thickened into a smooth and silky butter, about 1 hour.
Cool the butter, then store airtight in the refrigerator. APPLE BUTTER (Makes about 4 cups)
Soft, spicy, and rich with the concentrated flavor of apples.
3 1/2 pounds apples, such as granny smith, stayman or macintosh, peeled, cored, and cut into rough chunks
3 cups apple cider
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 1/2 cups dark brown sugar, firmly packed
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon cloves
Combine the apple chunks, cider, and lemon juice in a large casserole, preferably enameled cast iron (or use any pot that is non-corrosive). Cover and set over moderate heat. Cook the apples, stirring often, until they have softened completely, about 35 minutes. Pure'e the apples with the liquid in batches, using a blender or food processor fitted with the steel knife.
Return the pure'ed apple mixture to the rinsed out casserole and add the remaining ingredients. Stir well. Simmer the butter mixture on the lowest possible heat unitl thickened but not stiff, about 1 hour 15 minutes, stirring every 10 to 15 minutes.
Cool the butter to room temperature, then store air-tight in the refrigerator. DRIED APRICOT CHUTNEY (Makes about 3 cups)
Sweet and sharp, and very good eaten with grilled pork, roasted lamb, or a casserole of braised short ribs of beef.
1 1/4 cups apple cider vinegar
1/3 cup water
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 teaspoon whole yellow mustard seed
2 jalapeno chilies, slit down the center
1 small jalapeno chili, minced (use rubber gloves to protect your hands)
1 1/2 cup dried apricots
1/4 cup dried, but moist currants
Combine the cider vinegar, water, sugar, lemon juice, mustard seed, and both chilies in a 4-quart casserole, preferably of enameled cast iron (use a noncorrosive casserole if enameled cast iron is not available). Cover and cook over low heat to dissolve the sugar completely.
When every last granule of sugar has dissolved, uncover the pot, raise the heat to high, and boil the liquid for 4 minutes or until a very light syrup. Add the apricots and currants, and simmer, partially covered, for about 10 minutes, or until the apricots are tender but not mushy. Remove the fruit from the syrup with a slotted spoon to a side dish. Boil the syrup for 2 minutes, then pour over the fruit.
Cool the chutney to room temperature, then store airtight in the refrigerator. RED ONION RELISH (Makes about 3 cups)
The mixture of vinegar, sugar, and vermouth gentles any strong onion presence. This compote-like relish may be used to enhance beef, chicken, pork or duck, and is delicious when a tablespoon or two is whisked into mayonnaise-based dressings and sauces.
3 pounds red onions, peeled and thinly sliced
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon whole yellow mustard seeds
1/2 cup red vermouth
Combine the onions, sugar and oil in a large casserole, preferably made of enameled cast iron (or use any non-corrosive casserole). Cover and set over moderately low heat. Simmer the onions until very tender and soft, about 40 to 50 minutes, stirring now and again.
Uncover the pot and stir in the remaining ingredients. Cook slowly, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, or until the mixture has thickened slightly. Cool the relish, then store airtight in the refrigerator. E SWEET AND HOT PEARS (Makes about 5 cups)
Bosc pears, relatively firm even when ripe, are my first choice for use in the following recipe. Jazzed up with hot pepper flakes and chilies, this is a relish-type side dish that will please those who love spicy food.
8 firm but ripe pears, peeled, cored and thickly sliced
1/4 cup freshly squeezed and strained lemon juice
2 cups apple cider vinegar
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon hot pepper flakes
3 whole small jalapeno peppers, slit down the center but left intact (use rubber gloves to protect your hands)
1 teaspoon whole yellow mustard seeds
1 teaspoon whole allspice berries
1/2 teaspoon whole cloves
Toss the sliced pears in the lemon juice, then simmer them in the vinegar, covered, until just tender, about 5 minutes (or longer depending upon the ripeness of the pears), using a noncorrosive casserole.
Carefully remove the pears with a slotted spoon to a side plate. To the vinegar, stir in all of the remaining ingredients. Cover the pot and cook slowly until every granule of sugar has dissoved, about 15 minutes. Uncover the pot and boil the liquid for 6 to 9 minutes, or until a light syrup is formed.
Cool the syrup for 5 minutes. Transfer the pears, draining off any juice that may have accumulated, to clean glass jars and fill to the top with the syrup. Cover, cool to room temperature, then refrigerate for up to 3 months. LAYERED FRUITS AND NUTS IN RUM SYRUP (Makes about 7 cups)
A colorful mingling of fruits and nuts which keeps for many months in the refrigerator. Different fruits and nuts may be substituted for those listed below, but do so discriminatingly, alternating light and dark fruit with at least 2 kinds of nuts.
FOR THE FRUIT AND NUT MIXTURE:
1 cup dark raisins
1 cup dried apricots
1 cup pitted dates
1 cup golden raisins
1 cup pecan halves (or pieces)
1 cup dried peaches
1 cup walnut halves (or pieces) FOR THE SYRUP:
2 cups water
1 cup dark rum
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 cinnamon stick (optional)
In the order given, layer the fruit and nuts in a wide-mouth glass jar; set aside.
In a large saucepan, pour in the water and rum. Sprinkle over the granulated sugar and drop in the cinnamon stick. Cover and cook over low heat until every granule of sugar has dissolved. Uncover the pot, raise the heat to high and boil the syrup for 5 minutes, or until very lightly thickened. Discard the cinnamon stick. Cool the syrup for 3 minutes, then carefully pour it over the fruit and nuts, making sure that it seeps into all of the layers. Cover the jar, cool to room temperature, then refrigerate.