The first hint of autumn wafting outside the door always seems to coincide with my involuntary urge to gather things in and stock up for winter. I start making preserves about now and continue until January when I finish the marmalade.
The shelves groaning with jams, jellies, chutneys and pickles gives me a sense of security. I blame it on all those harvest festivals we went to as kids. That, and watching the Waltons.
An afternoon of chopping, stirring, potting and labelling – plus the resulting messy, sticky kitchen – are all worth the sight of my creations sitting securely in their jars and bottles. If the contents were home-grown, then it’s a jackpot.
Why bother making preserves?
But surely there are already great preserves to buy, so why go to all that effort? True, for a couple of quid you will find some excellent ready-made offerings out there. They can even be cheaper to buy than to make yourself.
What you won’t find, though, is that sense of self-satisfaction when you pop open the jar of jam ready to slather on a scone, or the smug pride as you hand over a hunk of cheese with a dollop of your home-made relish on the side.
Home-made preserves are not as complicated as some like to make them out to be, especially if you begin with an easy, trusted recipe such as the rhubarb chutney below. (This is the chuck-it-all-in-the-pan method and they don’t come any easier.)
And there are some great books out there, such as Jams & Chutneys: Preserving the Harvest, which is chock-full of great recipes from renowned cookery writer Thane Prince.
Pickled onions secret
The rite of passage as a ‘preserver’ comes once you are willing to tackle the pickled onion. It isn’t complicated but will test your patience both in the time it takes to peel the onions and how long you have to wait for the first crunch of your home-made pickle. (Making them now means they will be bang-on, come Boxing Day.) But boy, is it worth it.
I will let you into my secret: to speed up the preparation of the onions, top and tail them, place them in a large heat-proof bowl, and pour over boiling water to cover. Leave to cool and – hey presto – the skins will just rub away. But don’t leave them in the water once cool, or the onions will start to go mushy…
Recipe: Perfect Pickled Onions
1 kg pickling onions, peeled
4 tsp pickling spices or ½ tsp coriander seeds, ½ tsp mustard seed, ½ tsp black peppercorns, ½ tsp dried chilli flakes
1 litre malt vinegar
Sprinkle the salt over the peeled onions, stir and leave overnight. Next day (do not leave longer than overnight if you want your onions to be crisp) rinse the onions and dry with kitchen towel.
Place the spices, vinegar and sugar into a large stainless steel pan. Heat to dissolve the sugar but do not boil.
Pack the onions into clean, sterilised jars. Pour over the vinegar and spice liquid to fill the jars, make sure each jar has pickling spices in, and check there are no air pockets. Seal the jars and leave to cool.
The onions will be ready to eat after about a month to six weeks, but better if kept for three months. Once opened store in a refrigerator.
Recipe: Plopping Away Chutney
This super easy rhubarb chutney was given to me by my good friend Irene Myers for my rhubarb book. The recipe belonged to her mother-in-law, Anne Smith, and making the chutney is now a Smith family tradition, passed on to granddaughters Annabel and Abigail as well as to Irene.
900g outdoor rhubarb
500ml malt vinegar
25g powdered ginger
1 onion, finely chopped
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon white pepper
Bring all the above to the boil. Reduce the heat. Let it plop away until thick and dark brown, stirring now and then.
Pour into clean sterilised jars, put the lid on and store. This has a long cupboard life.
Now, how easy is that?