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Potent combinations

(article, Kelly Myers)

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Come late August, the cliché of saving for a rainy day has a literal, even urgent, meaning in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. While I could say it's the mortgage crisis, with its bankruptcies and foreclosures, that has moved me to squirrel away Mason jars full of ripe peaches, it was really the anticipation of a cloudy winter that made me want to preserve.

On a recent afternoon, the sight of the sun streaming into my kitchen and shining on glass jars packed with peaches and Italian prune plums made me feel content and self-satisfied. I had captured some of summer’s sugar, and I knew that I would dip into these stone fruits on winter nights to come. 

Canning is wonderful. Preserving fruits and vegetables links you to the cycles of the season and to the ingenuities of our agrarian and freezerless past. But I wasn’t canning, which uses heat or pressure to preserve; I was making brandied fruit. In other words, I was preserving the easy way: with alcohol and refrigeration. 

[%image "reference-image" float=left width=450 caption="Preserve summer fruits by soaking them in alcohol — an easy way to retain and enhance their warm-weather flavors."] 

I got the idea when a friend told me about the fruit jar that was always in the back of the refrigerator when she was growing up. It held locally grown stone fruit in booze, usually peaches or plums in brandy.

My friend says her mother put peeled and sliced or chopped fruit in a Mason jar, poured in “a jigger” of brandy, and that was it. Only a jigger? “She was being thrifty,” my friend diplomatically explained. Her mother had cooked in logging camps during the Depression and raised five children. In the winter she spooned the fruit and brandy over pork chops, chicken, pound cake, and ice cream.

My guess is that even though my friend’s mom remembers being careful with the bottle, her brandied fruit was probably also a private pleasure enjoyed after the kids had gone to bed, an adult compensation for the work of getting everyone through the day. 

I’ve started my Mason jar with enough brandy to thoroughly drown the fruit. My peaches and plums are covered by at least half an inch of 80-proof liquor — not because I need an adult treat, which I do, but because it's safer. I’m relying on the alcohol to kill anything that could hurt me. And, flavorwise, the brandy and the fruit embellish one another. 

I’ve added sugar to my brandied peaches, too, and I’m infusing the plums with cinnamon and lemon peel. Vanilla bean is another possibility. In a couple of months I’ll drizzle the sweetened, fruit-infused brandy over baked apples and serve the peaches with almond cake. Afterwards, I’ll add more brandy and dried fruit — prunes and cherries — to replace  what I’ve taken, continuing the cycle.

[%image "promo-image" width=400 float=right caption="Soaking fruit in 80-proof alcohol is a good way to ensure its purity after months in the refrigerator."]

Another easy idea for keeping summer fruit came when Culinate’s food editor, Carrie Floyd, told me she had puréed strawberries to get them into her freezer before they became overripe. She had been too lazy (her words) to wash and lay the berries out on a sheet pan to freeze separately before bagging them. 

But then she realized that, because her freezer was getting full, it was actually helpful to reduce the berries to their liquid form and freeze the purée in a Ziploc bag. She would turn the resulting purée into smoothies, trifles, cocktails, and sauce for ice cream.

By the time Carrie told me this, we were already in blackberry season. Chester blackberries, which are spicy, floral, and complex, have the latest season of all the blackberries. Where I live, you can often find Chesters well into September. 

When I thought about freezing a blackberry purée that could be used in a variety of ways, I knew I wanted to add red wine. I chose a young sangiovese for its acid, straightforward fruit, and uncomplicated manner. I knew it would complement rather than compete with the blackberries. Maybe, I thought, if you cannot preserve volumes of fruit for reasons of space or time, you can instead preserve a little bit of its vivid essence, as with Blackberry-Sangiovese Coulis.

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I made a point of spending money on a wine I would love to drink. I added sugar to the wine to make a syrup, which I then simmered very briefly with the berries. I did not want to alter the flavors of the wine or berries too much. I let the berries cool in the syrup before puréeing them in the blender and straining out the seeds.

I was rewarded with a rich, inky sauce in which I could taste the wine and the blackberries equally. It was moderately sweetened, making it fit on either side of the sweet/savory continuum. I’ll use it a number of ways: drizzling it over ice cream, crisps, and baked apples with mascarpone; making it into a cocktail with soda water and gin or Campari; swirling it into applesauce; and serving it with meats like duck, pork, and sausages. You could even use the coulis to baste grilled chicken or as a component of a barbecue sauce. One basket of berries makes about a cup and a half of sauce.

I was even happier to taste the blackberries after I had poached them in the red-wine syrup and they had cooled to room temperature. They were both ambrosial and Dionysian. I didn’t bother puréeing or freezing them. That night, I served the wine-dark berries and their syrup over chocolate brownies with barely sweetened whipped cream. Everyone at the table — from the preschoolers to the grownups — was stained and sated.

p(bio). Kelly Myers is a chef and writer in Portland, Oregon.

Elsewhere on Culinate: An article about alcohol-infused ice cream and a recipe for brandied fruit.


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