Strawberry Balsamic Black Pepper Jam

My house smells fantastic! Which makes the fact that I am canning on a Saturday night more bearable. But I had to do something – my strawberries that have been threatening to take a turn for the worst for the past 48 hours. So, finally this evening I came home and went right to work hulling and quartering those strawberries. Some were already getting mushy (luckily no mold), so I set all but the most perfect ones aside.  You don’t want anything risking the integrity of the whole batch. Its never happened to me, but Grandma warned me to always cut off, or better yet not even use, any brown spots on your fruits and veg when canning or risk a mold overgrowth.

Side note: in noticing how quickly these strawberries started to rot mades me wonder what the heck they do to the berries in the supermarket! No wonder those giant strawberries most chains sell have no taste – they grown them that way on purpose so not even the fruit flies want them.

Anyway, back to the jam. I cut the tops off and quartered the strawberries – about three cups in total – and added them to a sauce pan with 5 tablespoons of balsamic vinegar (it doesn’t have to be super-nice balsamic, but it shouldn’t be the cheapest either) plus 1/4 cup white sugar and 1/2 c brown sugar. This can certainly be adjusted according to the sweetness of the berries. Then add about 1/4 – 1/2 teaspoon of black pepper. This adds a bite to the jam, and doesn’t translate quite like pepper does in savory dishes. Bring this all to a boil, skimming off the foam every so often.

Meanwhile, sanitize your jars and lids – I always err on the side of boiling  the (already cleaned) jars for 10 minutes and boiling the lids for two minutes, leaving them all in the water until you are almost ready to use. A special jar tong tool works well for the jar to water and back transference. (I found mine for $2 at a flea market a few years back.)

After the berries have simmered for about 20 minutes (and the liquid is clear and seems to be a bit viscous) you can fill your jars, leaving a half inch or so at the top. Wipe the lip of the jar, affix the disk of the lid, screw on the band and put the jars back in the water bath to boil for another 10 – 15 minutes to seal.

The results: ok I adapted this recipe from one I saw on epicurious.com, changing the amounts of ingredients to better emphasize the sweet/ savory aspect that drew me to this idea in the first place. The reviews all raved about this – no one mentioned the jam not setting. But I should have known! Every jam I make without adding extra pectin fails to really gel. Every jam I make with pectin ends up perfect. I read somewhere that there is more natural pectin in green berries, so perhaps the fact that all of mine couldn’t have been riper had something to do with it…. I guess I should just learn from my past mistakes and add half a packet of pectin to a jam batch of this size. Also, the jam was a bit chunky. I kinda like it this way, but do keep in mind that the berries don’t break down as much as you might think, so chop them smaller if you want a smoother jam. With this recipe I got 3 half pint jars – I had hoped for a bit larger batch, but about a fourth of the strawberries didn’t make the cut.

But don’t get me wrong – the taste is delicious! I love the complex sweetness of the chunky berry sauce and then the heat of the pepper that hits you at the end. This would be great with a mild soft cheese, but even better with something with a bite – like the locally made Berkshire Blue Cheese. In all this was almost a winner. It has a fantastic, complex flavor and nothing beats the feeling of hearing that satisfying pop of the lids sealing and you knowing you’ll be able to taste this summer day six months from now.

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