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Preserves for the Pantry

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I'm not temperamentally suited for canning. A certain optimism and unwavering outlook are necessary, because all the articles and books on the subject start off with pages of warnings about spoilage, botulism and potential death. That's right -- death by pickles in three to 10 days. Maybe what's really needed before you open a book or boil some water, is an egotism that says, "Hey, I'm perfectly willing to risk your life to feed you because I happen to know what I'm doing," even if you don't.

I, on the other hand, obsess about salmonella on my countertop, noroviruses on doorknobs, and the ubiquity of germs that cause the common cold. I don't know why I felt compelled to add botulism to my all-star phobic line-up, but it has something to do with the sheer beauty of the German jars I found. Round and graceful, gently swelling in the center and ending in a clear glass lid, Weck jars (www.weckcanning.com) are a design junkie's daydream, and for those of us who like to cook, these little containers scream (tastefully, of course) for something wonderful to go inside.

But don't tell the Ball Corporation I was seduced by their German counterpart. The company states that its screw-top jar system (using the Mason jar) is the only one on the market that's truly safe. But over at the J. Weck Co. they point out that Europeans have been using (and surviving just fine) with their more aesthetically pleasing clip and rubber gasket system for more than a hundred years now. The dire warnings from Ball gave me pause, but I just couldn't get excited about the squat, familiar jars that always lined the shelves of my grandmother's kitchen. So I instead made the decision to risk my family's life because the other ones were just prettier.

After I bought the jars but before I went to the farmers' market and picked out my produce, I needed to buy the necessary equipment to get the job done. Kits — available at Pleasants Hardware — consist of a big, deep pot, a jar rack, a jar lifter and a funnel. The rack, made for Ball jars, doesn't exactly fit the Weck jars (nor does the funnel), so the next time I order more jars, I'm going to order the Weck rack too. The one I had would work well enough, though, and soon I brought home my first batch of strawberries to try.

Because I forgot to buy pectin, I decided to try a labor-intensive no-pectin recipe that involved macerating the strawberries overnight with sugar, then adding lemon juice the next day, cooking the berries to the jelling point and then setting it all aside in order to "plump" the berries — overnight again. Unfortunately, I misread the recipe and added the lemon juice along with the sugar, so my preserves never jelled no matter how long I boiled them. I'd bought extra strawberries, though, and determined to try once again.

If my first important lesson was "Read your recipe carefully," the second one was "Can the day you buy the produce." Strawberries in particular are fragile, and most of the leftover fruit was already getting a little moldy. Fresh produce is just that — fruits or vegetables that have spent as little time as possible getting from the field to your kitchen. You need to use them immediately to get the best possible results.

After I successfully made a batch of deeply colored, intensely flavored strawberry preserves (just like the book said I would!) that ended up looking like little jars of liquid jewels, and despite the fact that my preserves boiled over and adhered like blackened enamel to my stove (not to mention the multiple burns to my hands and fingers), I decided to branch out and try something more unusual.

Really unusual. Lemon ginger zucchini marmalade involves no pectin (I still hadn't bought any) and is an innovative way to use a vegetable that can take over your life if you garden in the summertime. (I substituted Zephyr squash for the zucchini after a zealous buying trip to the farmers' market.) I sterilized my jars and lids by boiling them for 10 minutes, then carefully poured the hot marmalade mixture into the jars, clipped on the lids and put them back into the hot water. Ten minutes later, I lifted them out and was gratified to see the vacuum seals still in place.

After a few days and a few hours in the refrigerator (insurance for jelling), I popped open a jar of marmalade and out wafted a richly gingered, lemony-laden scent that only hinted at the luscious, almost candylike preserves inside. I immediately envisioned Christmas packages filled with jars of marmalade and perhaps a loaf of fruit-and-nut bread for all of my friends and family. Of course, that's going to mean more jars, more burns and, perhaps for them, a little risk. But not really. Now, of course, I actually do know what I'm doing, and besides, what's a little botulism if you really love someone?

For technical information and dire warnings, see the J. Weck Co. pamphlet included with its jars or the "Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving," edited by Judi Kingry and Lauren Devine. The recipe for lemon ginger zucchini marmalade can be found in "The Complete Book of Year-Round Small-Batch Preserving" by Ellie Topp and Margaret Howard ($19.95, Firefly Books).

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