Even though we seem to be finally getting our summer, it really feels like fall. As I look out my window, I see the leaves on the dogwood are beginning to curl and look a little dusty mahogany as they always do as the tree signals it’s done with summer and preparing for its winter sleep. Oh, no…I’m not ready for this yet. I’m still picking blackberries! But I see the beginning of turning on some of the maple trees in the neighborhood. Even our giant chestnut trees are beginning to drop their fan-shaped leaf clusters. How can this be when my tomatoes are still green? Where has our summer been?
Yesterday was time to pick all the Japanese plums off the tree. Most were quite ripe, some were still tinged with green, but the birds or critters were beginning to pick at them and leaving the half-eaten fruit to rot.
Japanese Plums, ripe to ripening
There weren’t as many this year (must be the strange summer), but enough to eat and let the sweet juice run down my chin. And there were enough to make a few jars of jam.
We will have one jar now and save the rest to enjoy in deep winter when the sky is grey and cold and I want a little summer sunshine on my breakfast toast. As I’ve been picking the blackberries, I’ve been freezing most of them for the same reason. I want a taste of summer in January.
Making the Jam
Fannie Farmer, my go-to cookbook for basics, didn’t have a specific recipe for plum jam, but the instructions were there for making fruit jams and I learned something I had never paid attention to before. We all know about the sheeting test for soft-ball, hard-ball, or syrup. And a candy thermometer always has the different temperatures marked pretty clearly. But I have had uneven success with this method even though I have a very good candy thermometer. What I learned, when I read more attentively, was a method for accurately measuring these different boiling points. I had assumed (incorrectly, I know now) that if I went according to the indicator on my thermometer, everything would be fine. Not so. Fannie Farmer gives a simple test: add eight degrees to the boiling point of the water in your location for an accurate measure of the soft-ball stage for jam. Cool! I never have to guess again! I made four and a half pints of sunshiny golden plum jam.
8 cups fruit, pitted and cut up but not peeled
6 cups sugar
Boil fruit in tall stock pot, adding a little water to prevent sticking, until fruit is soft, about 5 minutes.
Add sugar and stir to dissolve. Boil rapidly, stirring to keep fruit from scorching, until fruit reaches soft-ball stage.
Meantime, in large pot with insert, sterilize jars and lids.
Fill jars with hot fruit to within ¼” of top of jar and seal.
Return jars to boiling water and boil for 20 minutes.
Filled jars, boiling for 20 minutes to preserve
I am beginning to have daydreams about the tomatoes. So far, only a few cherry tomatoes have ripened. Every day, I visit the hoop house.
The Hoop House
All closed up to stay warm
I have to take my glasses off before I go in because it’s so hot and steamy. The scent of the vines, singularly pungent, is almost overwhelming—or at least intoxicating to this passionate tomato lover. A quiet drip gently waters the leaves as the roof of the hoop house sweats in a misty rain over the plants.
My camera lense fogged up
Not so much out of focus--just the mist!
But the tomatoes are still green. I’m impatient to have my first salad of sliced tomatoes and basil in a balsamic vinaigrette. I’m anticipating the lovely joy of roasting the quartered Romas in a toss of olive oil and herbs to put in little jars that I can open in January. Every year, I’ve put aside a couple of dozen jars of tomatoes to use in a quick sauce in the middle of winter.
But I’m encouraged by the success of the hoop house. Even if it gets cold, the tomato plants won’t shiver and be done. The cool breezes and dropping temperatures that tell the tomatoes that their time is up may be forestalled a bit this year. Even with such a late start, they may have a late finish. Who knows? Maybe I’ll have a tomato for Thanksgiving, the way we had one last lovely fruit the first year we lived up here in the cool grey Puget Sound. At the time, I thought that was normal. Fifteen years later, I know better. Fifteen years of tomato challenge and I won’t give up!