Late summer is the biggest fruit time - a good time to talk about preserving all that wonderful taste. If you take some of my suggestions, you can keep part of your refrigerator stocked with a few containers of simple easy-to-do preserves made from your own trees in your own yard. The first time you treat your partner or friends to brunch with hot muffins and a fancy glass serving dish of homemade marmalade, you won't regret a minute of the effort.
Every year in the U.S., the amount of backyard fruit that goes to waste would probably feed a small country. I see this waste in Los Angeles especially, where citrus and loquats and other varieties of fruit trees have been planted everywhere in the city as ornamentals. So they bear abundant crops that simply fall on the lawn, unnoticed except by urban birds and rats. The yard guy rakes up the spoiled fruit and throws it in the trash.
But with food prices soaring, more people are suddenly discovering what money-savers these neglected trees can be. In some L.A. neighborhoods like mine, some homes (including mine) do fruit swaps so we can spread around that bounty. In Ohio or New York, a homeowner might notice that old weedy apple tree in the corner of the yard. With a little expert care (a job for your local arborist), it can be pruned and fertilized and brought back to fruit-bearing vigor.
You can plant your own fruit trees too. Even the smallest yard might have room for one or two dwarf varieties of fruit tree, if grown in the ground. Some dwarfs also do well in a large container on a patio. I have several container-grown citrus trees along a sunny east wall of my garden. They don't get very big. But hey -- my six-foot Key lime tree gives me enough of the tiny gourmet limes to make a couple of those fabulous pies every year.
Baby fruit trees don't cost much -- maybe $20 or so. And growing a fruit tree is pretty easy. Trust me. The Web abounds with information on how to plant, grow and care for fruit trees.
The challenge with a crop of fresh fruit is that it lasts only for a short time -- and it comes once a year. So you have to rush around and preserve what you can't eat.
But today not everybody has the time or the experience for the elaborate routines of canning and making jams and jellies that our grandmothers used to do -- all that boiling of glass jars so they're sterilized, etc. My own family used to do this during the Depression and World War II, and I used to help, so I know how much work it is. They knew the technology so well that they could store all their products in a cool place in the basement, where the jars of pickled peaches and other stuff would keep for nearly a year.
Today my Los Angeles corner lot has four mature fruit trees -- santa rosa plum, black mission fig, loquat and Japanese pear. They went in the ground in 1996, and are now big enough to inundate me every year.
So how do I deal with four fruit crops the easy way?
The French Solution
For me, one solution is an updated version of an old French process called the confit.
The French, especially country people, are universal geniuses about food and storing food - and they used this method for centuries before they had refrigeration. The word means "to conserve." A confit (pronounced cone-fee) essentially preserves a produce item by keeping it infused in, and covered by olive oil, or vinegar, or brine. Those little jars of capers or olives that you see in the supermarket are a type of confit.
Cooked meat can also be preserved this way, but you have to know what you're doing. In southern France, they make wonderful confits of duck and pork, which are kept from spoiling due to airtight-covered in lard or goose fat.
In a fruit confit, sugar is the preserving medium. Those little jars of crunchy candied fruits you buy at Christmas time are a type of confit. But fruit confit can also be syrupy - as long as you keep the fruit well-covered with the syrup so oxygen doesn't get to it.
For fruit confit, all you need is sugar, a lemon, a saucepan, a big container - and a few minutes every few days.
At mid-July my plum tree was literally bending double with dark-red luscious plums.
Our household can only eat so many fresh ones. I might do a couple batches of cobbler, or a fave French fruit dessert called clafouti. But it's hard to stay ahead of the landslide of ripening fruit, and there are always windfalls hitting the ground behind my back.
So the rest of the plums went into my annual confit. Every couple of days I picked the ripest plums and gathered up a couple dozen windfalls. These may be a little bruised, but that doesn't spoil them for confit.
Wash them gently and keep them whole and unpitted. Put them in a large saucepan with a little water, granulated sugar to cover them, and 2 tbsps. of lemon juice. Bring them to a boil slowly, so the sugar dissolves without scorching. Let the plums simmer gently for 30 minutes, or more, in the ruby-red thick syrup that develops, till the juices have reduced. Don't stir, so the plums keep their shape and are totally infused with the syrup.
When they're tender, set the saucepan aside to cool. Then add the batch to what's already in your confit container.
The French used to store confits in big glazed wide-mouth pottery jars. Today the antique ones are highly collectible, and cost hundreds of dollars. Me, I use a large 1-gallon glass jar, or a big plastic container with a good lid. To be on the safe side, I store my confit in the refrigerator. It keeps a lot longer that way.
When my plum tree is done bearing by the end of July, I have a gallon of plum confit that will keep for several months. As a midwinter treat, it brings back that magical taste of warm summer days. Serve it over waffles or pancakes, or vanilla ice cream, or a custard. Or use it as a base for cobbler, even a pie or tart filling (just remember that the plums still have the pits in).
I also do a confit with my black mission figs. Again, the secret is to simmer the figs very gently in the syrup, and avoid stirring so they don't lose their shape.
I knew a California guy who loved figs so much that he collected dozens of different rare varieties. He kept them growing in 20-gallon pots, and fertilized them well. So he had several rows of magnificent potted fig trees filling his patio. It was a very unusual "orchard," and the trees never got very big. But every year he got a couple dozen fruits off each one, and enjoyed his edible symphony of different tastes.
Fruit Butters Are Easy Too
Another easy way to preserve backyard fruit is the kind of "butter" that doesn't come from cows. Apple butter is the classic, but you can make a butter with pears, peaches, apricots and many others. This year, butter is where I'm going with my Japanese pears and loquats.
For those who know the loquat, it's a wonderful rugged-but-easy-to-grow tree. Once it was native to south China, but today it's popular in subtropical climes all over the world. The loquat is a contrary spirit - it puts out its honey-scented sprays of ivory-colored blossoms in the fall, and sets its tangy yellow clusters of fruit in spring. The taste is somewhere between apricot and pineapple.
Fruit butter is a little more work, since you have to puree the cooked fruit pulp and add spices and such. Our grandmothers had to push fruit butter through a sieve to puree it. But today there are blenders and fancy gourmet food mills that turn puree-making into a breeze. And you can still store a quart of fruit butter in the fridge in a clean glass jar or plastic container.
Google can be searched for good recipes for fruit butter.
Marmalade Isn't Just for the British
For those very fortunate Bilerico readers who have citrus trees in their yards, a few jars of marmalade aren't too hard to make either, if you are a bit more ambitious. Motivate yourself by checking the price on a jar of your better American-made brand of marmalade at Trader Joe's. Then go online and look for the world's most expensive marmalade, made by the British firm Duerr's. Ingredients: Seville oranges, 62-year-old whiskey and Pol Roger champagne. It costs £5,000 for a 1kg jar.
The operational ingredient of marmalade is sugar, of course, and very thin slices of the whole fruit. So you're including the fragrant oily skin (called zest) as well as the bitter rind along with the sweet pulp. This combination of flavors is what gives marmalade its unique texture and tang. Any type of citrus will do - lemons, limes and grapefruit as well as oranges. I've made them all.
The thing that distinguishes marmalade from other jams is a little of that natural fruit jelling substance called "pectin." There are two types of jelling stuff in nature. The kind used in jello and other desserts is a clarified animal product, from bones and such. But pectin is a plant jell, found in apples and some other fruits. It's what makes the fruit mixture "set up."
Search on Google to collect recipes for home-made marmalade. There are lots of them - including a fabulous roster of recipes here.
Last But Not Least...
You're probably wondering about berries. They do deserve a brief mention. But they are so fragile that they're best preserved in jams and jellies (see Google for recipes).
For urban gardens, berries are seldom practical, because a patch of raspberry or blueberry or gooseberry plants takes up a lot of room. Some berry plants are thorny or prickly too, not fun to deal with as they start throwing those long arching canes. But if you're a rural gardener and have the room, knock yourself out on berries.
In my urban garden, I do have a corner for alpine strawberries. They're a fun variety called "Fragissimo," with fragrant pink blossoms and a hanging-plant kind of habit. The fruit has that intense wild-strawberry flavor, and there's enough to put in a bowl of granola now and then. Worth having, but never enough for preserves.
Back to trees, and the bigger picture.
Planting a few fruit trees will not only enrich your own life and your own environment, but it will make a wonderful legacy for oncoming generations. Fruit trees can live to a great old age. The globe is dotted with some famous and historic ones. In Spain, the orange trees of Seville, especially those in the patio of the great mosque, are centuries old. In England, some sweet chestnut trees have got up to 1000 years. In northeast China, there is an ancient sacred pear tree that is said to be 3000 years old.
My personal tree-legacy story comes from the Montana ranch where I grew up. We inherited several crab-apple trees at an abandoned homesteader site on the west side of the river. They'd been planted in the late 1800s by a family named Keating. Nothing was left of the Keating house but a few foundation stones - but these hardy trees had weathered on, year after year without any care, even through the worst winters and the great drought of the 1930s. They always bore a heavy crop of the sweetest rosy-red crab-apples I've ever eaten. Every year at preserve-making time, my grandmother and my mom would drive over there and collect a bushel of fruit to make crab-apple preserves.
Not long ago I checked that part of the ranch on Google Earth, and those trees are still there. Hail to Pomona, great goddess of fruit trees!
Okay, okay - if you're a little nervous about planting trees, you can take the shortcut to your city's farmer's market. There you can buy inexpensive, locally-grown sun-ripened fruit in season. So you will still have that dish of homemade confit or marmalade that will make your brunches famous in the whole LGBT universe. And you'll still save money.
Best of all, you'll help transform the human regions on Earth into a greener and thriftier place.
Photo by Tyler St. Mark