RIPE FOR THE PICKIN'

BY CHEF JOHN BESH

Summer is in full swing and the delicious local produce reflects it. Trips to the local markets produce delicious, ripe figs, juicy peaches, watermelon, sweet blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries.

The fresh summer fruit reminds me of my maternal grandparents, Grace and Mitchell Walters. They came from warm, happy-go-lucky Irish stock, and their house in Mississippi became my place of refuge, where I was treated to much love and affection, not to mention the best food I’ve ever eaten.

Granddaddy had fig trees, pear, plum, and quince trees, and scuppernong and muscadine vines. Peaches we would buy from a nearby farm, and we’d pick blackberries and huckleberries, which would make their way into a jar or two. since we could not possibly eat it all, preserving was the best way to hold on to the essence of the fruit. In his heart of hearts, my grandfather believed cooking should be left to the women, but preserving was the man’s job. he wouldn’t let just anybody learn the process with him. If you committed to making preserves, it was not a 30-minute affair. You had to pick the fruit, clean it, cook it, and strain it and sterilize the jars, the lids. For me, even though it took way too long on the structured part to get to the eating part, preserving meant working with Granddaddy for the whole day, and that was the great thing.

Why not preserve the summer for use all year long? Here are some of my favorite recipes. Turn canning into a family activity to make create some great memories.

 

Old-Fashioned Fig Preserves

I love using my granddaddy’s favorite Celeste figs, the most common in our neck of the woods, for my Old-Fashioned Fig Preserves but just about any fig will work in these preserves. Larger figs should be quartered before the sugar is added.

 

Sugar Plums in Syrup

This recipe for Sugar Plums in Syrup is a very easy way to preserve sweet plums and then use them in many ways: I serve the tiny plums with everything from charcuterie to cheese and desserts, and I use the the syrup in a vinegar-based fruit reductions as a sauce for poultry.

 

Watermelon Pickles

Get a giant watermelon from the market and have no idea what to do with the rind? Don't throw it away! Turn it into Watermelon Pickles. Between the dark green skin  and its pinky flesh lies an often discarded, pale green rind that’s full of possibilities. Seasoned by aromatic spices in a quick boil, these pickles can be served the same way as other pickles, but they are especially fine with pork recipes.

In the Black Forest of Germany, this preserve, Berries Preserved in Red Wine, is commonly made with cherries and red fruit and called Rote Grütze. I’ve made this idea work with our delicious strawberries, blueberries and blackberries of South Louisiana. Wash but don’t peel or core the apples; the apples are where the pectin is, and you’ll need it to thicken this jam.

 

Preserved Meyer Lemons

Yes, you can use regular lemons for this Preserved Meyer Lemons recipe, but Meyer lemons are so much more fragrant. Preserved lemons can spark up roast chicken, fish, crab salad, stews, and any light meat such as baby goat, veal, and rabbit.

Our Louisiana mayhaws don’t have much juice, and so it takes an awful lot of them to make this Mayhaw Jelly. (Crabapples are a good substitute.) If you squeeze the fruit juices through the jelly bag or cheese- cloth you’ll have better yield, but the juice will be cloudy. Either way it’ll taste great. Cooking pears are those hard varieties that are better cooked than raw.

 

Peach Jam

Louisiana peaches are a sweet treat. To enjoy them year-round, my boys and I make this Peach Jam and slather it on French toast or roll it up inside a warm crêpe. Using liquid or powdered pectin is an effective shortcut.

 

Recipes are from “My New Orleans: The Cookbook”  by John Besh / Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC. To purchase this cookbook or any others, visit http://shop.chefjohnbesh.com.