Mincemeat and Chutney

Fall feels like the time to make mincemeat and chutney.  Spicy scents of cinnamon, ginger, and cloves, sweet and sour flavors of sugar and vinegar, savory overtones of onion, garlic and cayenne are all welcome on these cooler, darker days. And the season’s apples, pears and even the last green tomatoes lend themselves to long, slow simmering.

My mother made green tomato mincemeat every fall, canning it in quart jars and using it through the winter for pies and cookies.  I have a slip of paper on which I copied her recipe years ago, and those falls when I have green tomatoes I pull it out and make a batch or two. This fall I had enough green tomatoes for a double batch.

Amy’s Green Tomato Mincemeat

 1½ pints chopped tart apples

1 pint chopped green tomatoes

2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp each: allspice, cloves, and salt

3 cups sugar

1 pound raisins

¼ cup vinegar

1 cup suet

Peel and chop apples, chop tomatoes, grind suet, mix all together, bring to rapid boil and simmer until thick.  Pour into sterile jars and seal.

The green tomatoes are the last of the Brandywines and Cherokee Purples picked from the very top of the indeterminate vines.  The apples are Melrose, our latest season apple, a great keeper and possibly our favorite.   Raisins and unrefined cane sugar, cinnamon, allspice, cloves and vinegar follow the list of ingredients.  The variation this year is leaf lard instead of suet.

I had some leaf lard from a recent pig purchase so I decided to substitute it, pork for beef.  The melting point of lard is just a little lower than the melting point for suet (95 to 113 degrees F compared to 115 to 122 degrees F http://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipe/fats.html) so I think the substitution will work fine.  I could also simply leave out the fat.  My friend Debbie has left it out of her green tomato mincemeat sometimes and she says the mincemeat is fine.  Still, one of the best things about a mincemeat pie is how the small amount of suet in the mincemeat absorbs into the butter-based pastry to create a wonderfully flakey crust.  I’m trusting that the leaf lard will have the same effect.

I used the Cuisinart to chop the apples and tomatoes and grind the leaf lard and mixed them and all the other ingredients into a kettle and set it on the stovetop to simmer.

Very quickly, the fragrance of cloves, cinnamon and allspice rose from the pan and I was back in my mother’s kitchen and all the other kitchens where I’ve made green tomato mincemeat.  The mincemeat simmers for about three hours, reducing and thickening with occasional stirring until the moisture from the apples and tomatoes evaporates and the rich, dark mixture is ready to can.  I used pint jars this time because that’s what I had, processing them for twelve minutes in a boiling water bath. The jars all sealed and by the next morning, the mincemeat looked lovely, the dark tomato, apple, raisin mixture lightly marbled with fat.

My mother never made chutney and I didn’t start to make it until a few years ago when I discovered how delicious it is with so many winter foods. It took a while to find a recipe that I liked enough to make again, but finally last year a Google search led to this simple pear ginger chutney recipe, now my favorite: http://homecooking.about.com/od/condimentrecipes/r/blcon41.htm I made it again this year.

Pear Ginger Chutney

3 pounds fresh pears (about 7 cups), unpeeled, cored, and diced

1 pound brown sugar

2 cups cider vinegar

1 medium onion, chopped

1 cup golden raisins

1/4 cup diced, preserved ginger

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon cloves

2 teaspoons mustard seed

Combine brown sugar and vinegar in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the pears, onion, raisins, ginger, garlic, cayenne pepper, salt, cinnamon, cloves, and mustard seed. Cook slowly, stirring from time to time, until the mixture is thick.

The pears are Conference pears, an heirloom English variety that produces well in our small orchard.  I’ve also used Orcas pears and even Comice pears in this recipe.  Instead of preserved ginger, which I didn’t have, I used candied ginger and increased the amount to about a cup.

I peel the pears and chop by hand before adding them, onions, ginger, garlic and spices to the sugar/vinegar mixture.  The chutney takes two to three hours of slow simmering to reach the thickness and rich dark color I like.

Then I can it, usually in pints but sometimes in half-pint jars. It makes a lovely gift.

Chutney pairs well with any food that needs a little zing of sweet/sour/spicy/hot flavor. One of my favorite ways to eat it is with a baked potato topped generously with grated cheddar cheese, a great lunch or easy dinner.  Chutney is also delicious with savory tarts.  Last night I served it with cauliflower cheddar pie.  It’s wonderful with roasted meats like pork or chicken.  And, of course, it’s classic with curries.

As for mincemeat pie and cookies: I just made both, eager to try this year’s mincemeat.  The pie is lovely with a flakey crust and rich, spicy filling.  And the cookies, called Mincemeat Goodies in my mother’s recipe box, are soft and spicy and perfect for bringing back memories of people and places from autumns past.

Amy’s Mincemeat Goodies

1 cup butter

2 cups sugar

3 eggs, well beaten

1 cup mincemeat

about 3 cups cake flour

1 tsp soda

1 tsp ginger

1 tsp cloves

½ tsp nutmeg

½ tsp salt

(½  cup chopped nuts, optional)

Mixture should be almost stiff enough to stand. Bake 350 for 13 minutes.

Drying Orcas Pears

We have half-a-dozen different varieties of pear trees in our kitchen garden orchard. Red Clapps and Ubileen are early season pears good for eating soon after picking. Comice, Conference and Highland are late season storage pears, creamy and full of pear flavor by Thanksgiving and Christmas.  And mid-season there’s Orcas.  If I could have only one pear tree, it would be Orcas.  We actually have two.

This variety originated on Orcas Island, hence the name, and is listed in the Slow Food Ark of taste with this description: “A fall pear suitable for fresh consumption, canning, and drying. Discovered on Orcas Island, Washington, by Joseph C. Long in 1966. Roadside seedling of unknown parentage.”

What good fortune that horticulturist Long noticed this tree.  Perhaps he was drawn to it because the pears are so beautiful.  Or maybe he took some pears home and let them ripen and found how delicious they were, juicy with a mild pear flavor.  Perhaps he watched the tree over several years and saw how vigorous and productive it was.  All of these qualities are true of the descendants that grow in our garden and I’m grateful that Long shared his discovery with other orchardists and nurseries.

Each year since they started producing, our Orcas pear trees have set a heavy crop that’s ready to pick by mid-to-late September.  Scott thins out about half of the pears in June, leaving a tree that’s still loaded with fruit.  Over the years, yields have ranged from sixty to one hundred pounds. This year Scott picked them on September twentieth, filling three boxes with sixty-six pounds of fruit.

Deciding when a pear is ready to pick is challenging.  We rely for guidance on a tattered page saved many years ago from Sunset magazine.  There’s a harvest calendar based on Mt. Vernon, Washington research, but the writer adds this useful advice: “You can double-check the harvest dates by seeing how easily your pears come off the stem.  Lift them and tug.  If you have to twist and pull hard, as if breaking a green twig by hand, you’re too early.  If the pears snap off cleanly, they’re probably ready to harvest.  If they’ve begun to drop and you haven’t started picking, you’re probably on the last side.”  Scott starts checking early for that clean snap.

The pears are still hard but that’s because like most pears, Orcas pears ripen off the tree.  We put them in a cool, dark room and in a week or two they start to ripen, but not all at once, fortunately.  They are ripe when they turn yellow and the area at the stem yields to light pressure.  I check on them daily and find a couple dozen ripe pears each day, just the right amount to peel, slice and put in the dehydrator to dry.  We enjoy them fresh, too, but drying has become our favorite way of preserving the flavor of these lovely pears.

To dry them, I cut each pear in quarters, remove the core from each quarter, peel off the skin, and then slice each quarter into thirds or fourths and lay the slices on the dehydrator tray.  (I have a NESCO Gardenmaster food dehydrator model FD 1010 that takes up to thirty stacking trays; I have eight trays.)  They dry in about eight hours and are ready when they are still supple but no longer moist. Each dry slice is full of concentrated pear flavor.  I store them in gallon jars and use them throughout the winter for snacks.  Scott also cuts up a cup or so to add to each batch of granola.  And along with apples which I’ll dry later, they make a Christmas gift my family looks forward to.

Drying pears is labor-intensive but only for about an hour or so a day for a week or two.  And there’s a pleasant rhythm to the task.  Pick up a pear and admire its shape, each one a variation on the classic pear shape, some more elongated, some squatter, some a touch asymmetrical. Notice the color.  The skins of ripe Orcas pears all have a warm yellow undertone with a very light stippling of green and brown but differ one from the next in the amount of red/orange blush. Decide where to cut and move through the steps of coring, peeling, slicing, arranging and then move on to the next pear. Each task takes some attention but the mind can also wander.

I think of fall as a time for this kind of work.  Shelling beans is another task that takes a little attention but leaves most of the mind free to contemplate the beauty of the fruit or vegetable, perhaps take in the view from where you’re sitting or standing and enjoy the end of the busy summer season while anticipating the quieter days of fall.

Melons

This past spring, I talked with my friend Ona Blue about growing melons.  Ona is a passionate melon grower and her enthusiasm is catching.  To read more about our conversation, link to my article about her: https://lopezislandkitchengardens.wordpress.com/melons-ambrosia-we-can-grow/

Inspired by Ona, I grew melons for the first time this year, selecting varieties she recommended and following her instructions for starting the seeds and nurturing the plants.  I set them outdoors in a low plastic house in mid-June and even with our non-melon-friendly summer, I started harvesting melons on Labor Day and have been enjoying both their flavor and their beauty in the weeks since.

Here are some of the first week’s harvest.  The oblong melon is Sweet Granite, the green is Eden’s Gem and the deeply ribbed melon is Noir des Carmes.

A week later, Minnesota Midget, the smaller melons in this photo, ripened and this past week Charentais the largest melon was ready.

Except for Eden’s Gem, which remained green when ripe, all the others turned from green to yellow when ripe.  Most dramatic was the Noir des Carmes which turned from dark green to bright yellow.  While each is sweet, some are sweeter and others are spicier.  I’m still learning their flavors.  Each seems better than the last until I go back to the one that came before.

It hasn’t been a big harvest; in fact a warm-climate melon grower would find it laughably small, both in individual melon size and overall yields, but how many melons can two people eat?  There have been enough for breakfasts, their sweetness matching perfectly with yogurt.  And enough to mix with fall raspberries and late blueberries for desserts.

Small yields but still ambrosia as Ona says and enticing enough that I will plant melons again next year.  They are lovely to grow and to eat.