Tengrain’s Little Cooking School: The Herb Challenge

Click for tigress can jam food blog challengeThis month’s challenge was to incorporate herbs in a canning project, and of course I know that herbs play a huge role in developing flavor for any food product. Used correctly, an herb can build a subtle foundation for the rest of the item – it can lift the ordinary to make it extraordinary; used incorrectly, an herb can overpower, wrestle the food to the ground, and rip out its still-beating heart and… oh, wait. that was a movie. Or Liz Cheney. I forget which.

I went out to the yard to see what was in season and all I had was rosemary and lavender. Rosemary is a terrific herb, and it is often used in Italian desserts, and it is especially well-matched for apricots and other stone fruits. The problem, of course is that stone fruits will not be in season for another couple of months (if at all – the late rains this spring are knocking all the blossoms off the trees before the bees have a chance to do their thing). Lavender, on the other hand, is a very tricky herb to use well. Too little and no one notices it and if you use too much, it is like having a mouthful of soap.

Recently lavender has been of interest in the food world in a sort of quasi-British high-tea revival. I’m not convinced that the Brits really cook with lavender, I think that it is some sort of Disney-esque notion we Americans have of the old sod, and I did not find much to support a long-standing lavender tradition. As a gardener, I know that lavender wants to be in a sunny and dry place that does not get too cold – and you tell me where in the UK exists those conditions. Wet feet will kill a lavender bush faster than anything I can think of, hence my thinking that lavender is not a traditional British ingredient. The French, however, do cook with lavender, especially in the sunny south.

Anyway, my research lead me to Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg’s excellent The Flavor Bible, where I stumbled upon a quote from Jerry Traunfeld, the chef at the Herbfarm outside of Seattle, about how lavender can tame rhubarb (and it was not in the Lavender section nor in the Rhubarb section, and of course, I cannot find it now.) A few small trials later and I am happy to report that we have a winner:

Rhubarb Jam with Lavender

I am here to free the Rhubarb from being held hostage by the Strawberry.

This jam is sweet, but not too sweet, and you don’t get the screaming neon magenta color and the unctuous glop mouth feel of a chain diner’s strawberry-rhubarb pie, that you know some wretched food scientist chained to a wall in the factory made before committing ritual sepuku.

The lavender is introduced in two ingredients in the jam – both as flower buds and with lavender honey. This layering of lavender flavor gives the jam a definite lavender essence and scent, but it is not so strong that you think you have spread Yardley’s finest soap on your toast.

The color, I am pleased to report, is a soft pink – sort of like faded chintz, the photograph at the top of the post doesn’t do it justice. There is nothing in the final product that will make you think of Marie Calendar.

This recipe made three pint jars.

Ingredients:

  • 2 pounds of trimmed rhubarb
  • 2 ¾ Cups of granulated sugar
  • 7 oz. Lavender honey
  • Juice of 2 Myers Lemons (or regular lemons if Myers are unavailable)
  • 2 Tablespoons of organic lavender flowers

Make It:

  1. The night before you plan to can the jam, dice the well-washed rhubarb into ¼ or ⅛ inch dice, whatever you can best manage, the smaller the better to reduce the fiber factor of the rhubarb. Put the rhubarb into a non-reactive bowl with the sugar and the juice of one of the lemons. Cover the bowl and leave it at room temperature. You will be amazed at the amount of juice that this creates.
  2. Put some ceramic plates into the freezer to do the jelling test. You need to let these plates get really cold so that the jam will cool instantly when you dab a little on them during the cooking process. I use saucers, and because I am still new to canning, I put 5 in the freezer.
  3. The next day, strain the juice and pour it into a non-reactive pan.
  4. Put the lavender flowers into a tea ball infuser or a little cloth bag. I used a tea ball. The point is that you will want to remove the lavender blossoms – you do not want them to remain in the jam, so you need a way to remove them all.
  5. Bring the juice with the lavender ball to a boil over high heat. When the juice reaches 220 on a candy thermometer, remove the lavender and add the rhubarb and the lavender honey.
  6. Return the mixture to a boil, skim any foam off the surface. Add the juice of the second lemon and return the jam to a strong boil. When the jam sets to your liking (using the plates you have put in the freezer before you started), then it is done.
  7. Water Process the jam as usual. I processed it for about 10 minutes.

Notes:

  • If you want to play along at home, you must read the Tigress’ instructions on canning before you begin.
  • I’ve never cooked with rhubarb before, it is a new ingredient for me. My only experience with it has been those nasty pies, so this took a leap of faith for me to tackle. I hope someone tries it, because it will change your view of rhubarb. It certainly changed mine. I am even starting some rhubarb seeds so I can have this plant in my garden now. That’s commitment!
  • I served this jam on Easter Sunday for brunch with some of the home-made ciabatta as toast. It was a smash hit – I’ve never had guests ask for more toast and jam before – they usually go after the Eggs Benedict. Ah, Hollandaise!
  • If you do not have access to a lavender plant for the blossoms, you can find them at well-stocked organic food stores. Please do not substitute anything that has been sprayed with pesticide. If you do not know the safety of the product, don’t use it.
  • I’m told that the leaves of the rhubarb are toxic, so please be careful when trimming (unless, Gingrich-like, you have plans for a new spouse). Leave no traces of the leaves on the stalk.
  • Click the image to download some full-sized jar labels I made for the jam.

    And a last note: I don’t make purchase recommendations often, but if you have the extra bucks to buy The Flavor Bible, I highly recommend it. It is not recipes – in fact there are none – but it is absolutely the place I go the most often when I am trying to work through something new or trying to update an existing recipe. I’m surprised how often I just flip through the pages and get ideas. So for you creative chefs, it is a worthwhile investment.

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