I find that strawberries turned into jam need a companion ingredient to keep them from being cloying. Over the past two weekends, I’ve made Strawberry and Roasted Rhubarb Jam (pictured) and Strawberry Jam with Pinot Noir. For the final batch of this session, I decided to add vanilla beans to the strawberries, reminiscent of a successful Nectarine Vanilla Jam from past summers. My timely decision worked well on two fronts: it made a very tasty jam and it used the remnants of whole vanilla beans and vanilla sugar before the cycle of vanilla extract begins anew.
That’s the ecosystem part. I’ve always thought of the process that uses every viable part of our food ingredients as “waste-not-want-not.” Eugenia Bone characterized this phenomenon more aptly in her recent book, The Kitchen Ecosystem. The phrase struck a chord when I first heard it. Eke out nutrients from even the most unexpected parts of a plant, compost the rest to feed the garden, and start all over (if you grow your own).
Vanilla beans are a luxury. They’re exotic and expensive. I buy a pack of plump Tahitian or Bourbon beans online every summer and soak a few rods in vodka or bourbon (not to be confused with the moniker of one type of bean) for 6-8 weeks to obtain delicious vanilla extract. As I use fresh beans throughout the year, after scraping out the tiny black seeds, I insert the shells in the pool of extract or bury them in a jar of sugar to produce an aromatic and lightly flavored confection. At the end of the cycle this year, I combined the remaining, slightly shriveled fresh pods from my stash with strawberries macerating in vanilla sugar. I also scraped drunken seeds from the pods in the extract jars into the mix.
I made the jam in my normal way, by letting the fruit macerate in sugar for several hours, boiling the mixture for 3-4 minutes and, once cooled, letting it sit in the refrigerator overnight. I drained the liquid from the berries and boiled it until the gel starts to set, and then added the berries, cooking until it tests for a good but not too hard gel. This method promotes gelling and keeps you from overcooking the berries. Also, I jam only 1-2 quarts of berries at a time since the small batch allows me to minimize cooking time.
This was a good experiment. Now it’s time to order beans for vanilla extract. I typically soak 3 vanilla beans, split vertically but not separated from the stem, in 1 cup of alcohol, and scale up from there. The mellowest is bourbon but vodka is fine. Keep tightly capped in a dark spot (cupboard) and shake daily at first and then weekly for about 2 months. I do not add sugar, which is actually an ingredient in the vanilla extract most commonly found on the market. This keeps a long time (years unless you use it up) and is a little stronger than what you buy in the grocery store.
Strawberry Vanilla Jam
1 heaping qt strawberries
1½ c sugar
1 tbsp lemon juice, seeds and peel reserved
2 vanilla pods
Clean and hull the strawberries, cut them into ½-inch pieces and place them in bowl. Toss with sugar. Add the lemon juice. Tie a strip of lemon peel and reserved seeds in a small muslin sack and add it to the mixture. Halve the vanilla beans crosswise and lengthwise and scrape the small black sees into the strawberry mixture. Toss the scraped pods into the strawberries. Stir, cover and let sit for about 6 hours or overnight (if overnight, transfer to the refrigerator).
Pour the ingredients into a wide, shallow pan and bring to a boil, cooking rapidly for 4 minutes. Remove to a heatproof glass bowl and let cool. When cooled, cover the bowl and let the mixture sit overnight.
Prepare the canning jars and set a saucer in the freezer for testing the gel.
Drain the juice from the berries, reserving the fruit. Remove the muslin sack and vanilla bean pods. Bring the liquid to a boil in a wide shallow pan over medium-high heat. Boil for 4 minutes (it will have started to gel), add the reserved fruit, and boil for another 2-3 minutes or until a small drop placed on the frozen saucer tests for gel.
Ladle the jam into the prepared jars and process in a water bath canner for 10 minutes after the water returns to a boil. Turn off the heat, remove the canner lid and let sit for 5 minutes before removing to the counter to cool, undisturbed.
Makes 4-5 four-ounce jars.
Vanilla Extract, Homestyle
Use plump vanilla beans, 3 per cup of alcohol. I use Grade B Bourbon beans (named for the island where they originate, not the liquor) or Tahitian. Split the beans vertically but do not detach the halves. Place them in a clean jar with a tight fitting lid. Cover them with the alcohol: bourbon will give a mellow flavor, vodka works fine but is a little harsher. Store in a dark place for 2 months before using. In the first few weeks, shake the jar daily, then every so often. Store in a dark place or dark bottle. I do not bother to decant this (unless giving it as a gift).