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(post, Marjorie Taylor)
I woke up this morning to the church bells ringing and a quiet summer rain falling on the trees just outside my open window and thought about how I would spend my Independence Day. It is Saturday so first on the list of course, was the market. Sometimes when I visit the market, I end up with far more fruits and vegetables than I can possibly use. I'm like a kid in a candy store, I'm drawn to the beautiful colors and the smells of the produce that fill the baskets of the market vendors' stalls. It's real food and it's in season right now. The markets in France make it easy to shop with the seasons. Just by looking at the rows of tables lined up at the market, you can quickly see what is at its peak and in season. It's unfortunate that our industrialized food system in the states has blurred the natural seasons of fruits and vegetables. For the sake of convenience of produce year round, we have forgotten about the importance of cooking with the seasons and are left with fruits and vegetables that lack the fragrance and taste of perfectly ripe produce, picked in season. Apricots are at the their peak in June and will be gone before you know it. So to take advantage of the season's bounty before it slips away, I'll be making jam. One of my very favorite tasks when I studied under Anne Willan at LaVarenne, was making jam. Anne and I would walk around her 2 hectare garden in the mornings to plan the menus for the day and if the fruit was ready, the task of making jam was added to the to-do list for the day. Apricot jam is one of the easiest jams to make because apricots have a medium amount of pectin so they do not tend to underset or overset. Jam making is a tradition well worth keeping when produce is in season to extend a little bit of summer all year long. There will be no firework displays, no backyard barbecue for this American in France, but in keeping with the celebration of our Independence, I am thankful for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Enjoy your weekend everyone. Jam-making equipment Jam pan Although you can prepare fruit in an ordinary large saucepan, a special jam pan will make the process easier. Jam pans are wider at the top than the bottom, which makes the evaporation process much quicker than a normal saucepan. The key to making great jam is to cook the fruit quickly so the fruit retains its bright color. Jars You will need mason jars in suitable sizes. I particularly love the sweet miniature versions of the "Le Parfait" spring-lidded jars. The jars and lids (but not the screw on bands) must be sterilized before use - either in the dishwasher or submerged in a large saucepan full of water brought to a simmer. Leave the jars and lids in the hot water until you are ready to fill them. Water canner You can use a large stock pot that will accommodate several mason jars. It should have a lid and a rack for the jars to rest on. Other equipment A wide-mouth funnel is helpful for pouring preserves into the jars. You will also need tongs, to remove the hot jars from the water canner. Depending on the number of jars, it is also helpful to have dishtowels at the ready to slip between the jars while in the canner to prevent them from banging together while they process. Processing Remove the sterilized jar from the hot water and fill it with the preserves, leaving 1/4 to 1/2 inch space at the top. Remove any air bubbles with a spatula. Place a lid on top, and screw on the band (not too tightly). Repeat with the other jams, and place them in the stock pot. Fill the stock pot with water to cover the jars by at least 1 inch. Cover the canner with the lid, bring the water to a full boil, and leave for 15 minutes. Remove the jars from the water using the tongs, and place them on a folded towel. Leave them for at least 12 hours and the test the seal by removing the band and attempting to lift the lid. If you cannot lift the lid with your fingers, the seal is secure. Replace the bands, label the jars, and store them in a cool, dark, dry place. Note: The canning jars in the states have an bubble in the center of the lid. When the jars are sealed properly, it will indent. Apricot confiture (kawn-fee-TYOOR) French for "jam" or "preserves" 1 kg apricots, just ripe 700 g granulated sugar 1/4 cup of water 1 lemon, juiced Place a few small saucers in the freezer to use to check the setting point. Cut the apricots in half and remove the pits. Reserve four or five pits, and discard the rest. Cut the apricots into 1-inch pieces. Wrap the pits in a kitchen towel, and hit them with a hammer to break the hard outer shell, but keeping the soft inner seed, which resembles an almond, in tack. Note: In France, the apricot pits are used in confections and confiture for flavoring. Remove them from the jam before ladling them into the jars as the are poisonous if eaten. In a large heavy-bottomed pot or jam pan, combine the apricots, sugar, soft inner seeds and water. Stir to combine. Bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Cook, stirring occasionally with a long wooden spoon and skimming foam as necessary, until reduced and thickened, about 15 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice. Test the jam when the juice has thickened and the bubbles are large. The setting point has been reached when a drop placed on a chilled saucer forms a skin that is visible when lightly pushed. Remove from the heat and ladle into dry, warm jars and process as normal.