Sweetening the Pot

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Right about now I start thinking about preserving the sweetness of summer throughout the year. And that means fresh fruit preserves. You may envision making preserves to be a lot of work requiring canning equipment, crates of fruit, and a counter full of jars and lids, but by making small batches of whatever is in season, you can have a never-ending supply made to order without all the fuss.

I like to my preserves scoopable, so I can spread it around my toast with the back of my spoon. If strawberries are in season, I use strawberries. If apricots are at their prime, I use apricots. If the fall rhubarb crop has just appeared in the farmers' market, I use rhubarb. I want it fresh and I want it simple. To sweeten or not depends upon the condition of the fruit in question and my mood at the time.

True fruit flavor depends upon a balance between the "acid" bite of almost-ripe fruit and the sweetness of the fruit as it ripens. You need both for the best tasting preserves. If possible, pick or buy your fruit just at that moment when the two are in balance. How will you know? Let your taste buds be your guide.

Here's how to do it:

Pick or purchase fresh seasonal fruit. An abandoned apricot tree, some wild blackberry bushes on a country road, a neighbor's under-appreciated grape vines, not to mention mounds of nectarines and berries at the farmers' market right now, or apples in the winter, all can supply the raw materials for a batch of rich, ripe, flavorful seasonal preserves.

Don't make preserves from spoiled fruit or fruit that is past its prime. Try to get fruit in perfect condition and at the perfect moment of ripeness.

Cook it up. Clean your fruit thoroughly, chop into bite-size pieces, then put it in a pot on the stove. Gently simmer on medium low heat until the fruit has softened, and is slightly runnier than your desired consistency. (It will thicken somewhat as it cools.) There may be an occasional fruit to which you will have to add a tiny bit of water (apples, for example), but usually just the fruit alone is enough. Add sugar to taste or not. I am a fan of fresh fruit flavor and often leave additional sugar out of the equation. But there are some fruits, like rhubarb, that absolutely demand some sugar.

Save it for a rainy day. As soon as your fruit is ready, you can spoon it into jars and let it sit on the counter to cool down a bit before you refrigerate it. Share a jar or two with friends and save a jar for yourself. Use lavishly. And when you run out, make some more!