The Cookbook Addict: Summer Cooking
The first summer I moved to Chicago was a scorcher. Living in an apartment without air conditioning, I stayed cool by spending a lot of time wandering through the used bookstores that once lined Lincoln Avenue. It was there I met the British food writer Elizabeth David in the yellowed pages of a paperback titled Summer Cooking and immediately fell for her eloquent, opinionated voice and the unabashedly sensual pleasure she took in simple, fresh food. Published in 1955, when Britain had only recently shaken off the privations of wartime rationing and shortages, abundant fresh food had returned to the markets but the culture of tinned baked beans and powdered junket remained deeply ingrained in the country’s collective habits. “My object in writing this book,” she declares, “is to emphasize . . . the pleasure of eating the vegetables, fruits, poultry, meat or fish which is in season, therefore at its best, most plentiful, and cheapest.” “Summer cooking,” she continues, “means appreciation of treats such as new peas, fresh little carrots, the delicate courgettes now home-produced and as delicious as the finest asparagus.” Mrs. David, it seems, was an early adopter of the local, seasonal, food movement.
The recipes in this idiosyncratic, personal collection are made for leisurely outdoor meals—cold terrines and pates, charcuterie, egg dishes, and simple salads and vegetable dishes with flavors rooted in Provençe, Italy, India, and the Middle East (all places David lived and worked before returning to England during the war). She devotes a short chapter to picnics, which she adored, and another to “Improvised Cooking for Holidays and Weekends” where she offers strategies for cooking in a vacation-house kitchen where “the equipment will probably consist of a tin frying pan, a chipped enamel saucepan, one Pyrex casserole without a lid, and a rusty knife with a loose handle.” (We’ve all spent a long weekend in that cabin.”)
For me, the chapter that captures the soul of Summer is “Jams, Jellies and Other Preserves.” Every August I pull this book off the shelf for the sheer pleasure of reading through recipes that introduced me to the splendid larders of Victorian-era country houses, French maison de ferme, and Mediterranean palazzi. I’m mesmerized by the romantic descriptions of nineteenth-century ladies stoning plums for “Damson Cheese” or stirring pots of “Gooseberry Jelly Flavored with Elderflowers.” Mrs. David’s rendering of the Ionian Count who “busied himself with manufacture of mustalevria, the sweet wine jelly of Corfu” or an Italian housekeeper who dried tomato paste on the rooftop terrace of a Tuscan palazzo, “carefully turning it under the blazing sun until it thickened into a rich, brick-red paste” sparked my imagination and sent me daydreaming on those hot, sticky evenings so many years ago.
Although I learned to make preserves in my teens, it wasn’t until the move to Chicago that I fully embraced that art. To my delight, I realized that I’d stumbled into a preserver’s paradise and quickly set to work turning the season’s waves of local berries and stone fruit into jams and jellies. The familiar ritual and colorful jars lining my pantry—luminous as the Arts and Crafts glass in my apartment—helped me to feel at home in my new city.
From Mrs. David’s slender volume, I learned about the magical affinity between blackberries and rose geranium and I’ve perfumed my jam with it ever since. A variety of scented geranium, the plant’s intensely fragrant essential oil is hidden in its velvety leaves. I so coveted this uncommon (at the time) treasure that I took an hour-long bus ride one sweltering August weekend to buy a pot from the only city nursery that sold the plant. It was worth the effort in so many ways! That foray to a far-flung quarter was the first of many adventures I spent exploring the rich mosaic of Chicago neighborhoods. Soon I felt completely at home wandering the exotic markets and shops on Devon Ave., Argyle St., and Milwaukee Ave. Sitting on a sunny kitchen windowsill, the pretty plant cheered me with its tiny pink flowers through my first Chicago winter. I’d brush the leaves to release the heady rose fragrance and dream about a garden of my own, filled with the vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers I’d read about in Mrs. David’s vivid prose. Decades later, I live minutes from that nursery, and my garden is a reflection of all that she, and the jam-making muses who followed her, taught me.
This year we have a bumper crop of blackberries and although delicious eaten fresh or in fruit tarts (toss a big handful of blackberries with a dozen halved apricots, dust with vanilla sugar, wrap in a flaky pastry envelope and bake until bubbling and browned—heaven!), most of our harvest will go into this jelly.
Blackberry Jelly with Rose Geranium
Inspired by Elizabeth David’s Summer Cooking
yields 5 half-pint jars
2 quarts blackberries (about 8 cups), including a good handful or two of under-ripe berries
6 cups sugar
Juice of one lemon, strained to remove pulp and pits (about 2 tbsp)
6 rose geranium leaves, washed and dried
Sort the berries, discarding any that are overripe, damaged, or moldy. Gently rinse with cold water, turn into a nonreactive pan with a heavy bottom. Over medium heat, warm the berries until they soften and begin to release their juices, adding a bit of water if the amount clinging to the berries doesn’t keep them from sticking to the pan. Simmer for 10 minutes, mashing them with a wooden spoon or potato masher. Spoon the pulp and juice into a jelly bag and strain for several hours, or overnight.
Preheat oven to 250 degrees. Wash jars in hot soapy water, rinse and drain, place on a heavy sheet pan and warm in the oven for at least 15 minutes. (This sterilizes the jars as well as a bath in a pot of boiling water.) Boil a small saucepan of water and drop in new jar lids, simmer 5 minutes, turn off heat and set aside for later use. Place sugar in an ovenproof container and warm in the oven for 10 minutes.
Put three small saucers and teaspoons in the freezer (for testing the set of the jelly). Bring strained blackberry juice to a simmer in a deep, nonreactive pan with a heavy bottom. Add the warmed sugar to the juice, stirring to dissolve, then the lemon juice and geranium leaves. Bring to a boil, skimming foam as it rises, and boil until the temperature registers 8 degrees above the boiling point (220 degrees at sea level). Test that the jelly has set properly by spooning a small amount on one of the frozen saucers. Return it to the freezer for 1 minute, then remove saucer from freezer and check the puddle of jelly. If it wrinkles and it holds its shape when nudged with your finger, it has set properly. If not, return the jelly to a boil for a few minutes longer, repeat the test with the remaining frozen saucers and spoons until the jelly has set.
Turn off heat, allow jelly to settle, remove rose geranium leaves and skim carefully one last time. Ladle into sterilized jars, leaving ¼-inch head space, carefully wipe rims and seal with screw caps. Process filled jars on a rack in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Carefully remove hot jars to a rack to cool. Store in a cool, dark cupboard. Consume before the next blackberry harvest.