Sweeter than Strawberry Jam

Some people start to frenetically clean their house, scrubbing grout on their hands and knees with an old toothbrush, and making decisions like today is the day that I’m going to peel the gray fur out from underneath my stove.  Other people chew carrot sticks until their fingertips are stained and even their eyeballs have that watery and vaguely liver diseased look. I quit smoking four (4) weeks ago, and as of yet I have had neither the compulsion to clean or even a passing interest in carrot sticks.  What I have been doing, however, is canning.

Compulsively.

Every time that a friend excuses him or herself to hack a quick butt on the deck, tendrils of smoke slipping in through the screen door and hanging heavily in the air of my kitchen, the pantry swells by another 5 jars.  Watching Becky and Steve puff away on Coronation Street led to 14 jars of salsa, and a short stop at the pub one Friday night resulted in 6 quarts of spicy pepperonata from a bushel of peppers. Yes, I have become the kind of person who buys produce by the bushel.

Spicy harissa pickled carrots are sandwiched between jalapeno cucumber pickles, garlic dills, sour dills, pickled beans, pickled radish and tequila poached onions. Blackberry balsamic vinegar is currently holding court alone until I can tell you all about the vodka infusions we’ve been playing around with, because let me tell you, when you quit smoking? Vodka is a friend. Lavender and honey canned peaches sit beside cinnamon spiced peaches and rummy plums at the front of the fruit shelf, while fig and rose jam nudges up against plum jam, tomato basil jam, maple onion “jam”, apple butter (it could be that we picked 139 pounds of apples last weekend), and my new Most Favorite In The World recipe for strawberry jam.

You know how there are some people who can just pick up smoking casually for a few months and then toss the habit aside when the weather gets cold? That wasn’t me.  I was the other kind of smoker; the one who really, really liked smoking.  I loved the first cigarette on a winter’s morning when it went down cold and harsh.  I loved my precious daily “last smoke” on a balmy summer’s night, lounging in the backyard as the world went still.  For thirty three days, I have been gnawing angrily on pen tops, glowering at packs of uniformed teens sharing a butt in the school parking lot, and eating everything within striking distance, whether it is digestible or not.  For thirty three days, I have amassed such a vast compilation of pickles and preserves in a crawlspace that spans the width of our house, we are running out of space.

This is a problem, because a month into this whole non-smoking business, and I would still claw my way out of a coffin if I knew there was a lit cigarette waiting for me on the other side.

If you know somebody who is trying to quit right now (even if they are on Failed Attempt # 28572), just give them a hug and then back away quickly before they bristle and bite.  You can be supportive, but for god’s sake,  give them space because the one guarantee is that the next few weeks will not be easy for anybody.  Oh, and most importantly, if you have successfully quit smoking within the last 25 years, congratulations! That is an excellent achievement of which you should be proud!!!  Now shut the hell up.  The only thing more irritating than a smug non-smoker is a smug EX-smoker.  Your nicotine craving buddy who is doubled over with nausea really doesn’t want to hear about how chewing on cocktail straws really worked for you, or how it was a cake walk after day three.  Tell her that she’s doing well, tell her that you admire her effort if you must, but please, for the love of bacon, leave it at that.

Throughout this process, Mike has been a rock (although pillow, battering ram and flashing target have also been accurate at times).  He never pressured me to quit, but I know that he’s proud of me and that means a lot to me in my brief moments of sanity when I’m not standing listlessly in the living room, staring at the floor for 45 minutes, or trying not to leap over a rack of knit tops and throttle the CSR who had the balls to ask me if I was really, really sure that I didn’t need help finding anything in my size.  Mike held my hand as I sobbed deliriously on the couch, he slowly backed away without comment when I accidentally threatened him whilst brandishing a carving knife (yes, it happened, but I swear it wasn’t as bad as it sounds), and he has written me thirty three Daily Affirmations that have kept me going each morning, a constant reminder that this too shall pass.

That’s my husband.  Even when I am so unbearable that being in my own skin gives me a headache, he’ll just duck and weave, then send me an email to say that he thinks I’m awesome.

Most of the canning that I’ve done this year has either been through a depressed fugue or a frenetically urgent need for distraction.  This recipe, however, was focused and made with love for a man who really is just sweeter than strawberry jam.  Strawberries are his favorite fruit and I had to add my own little bit of zing with a smattering of fresh thyme and a drizzle of balsamic. Now, we have five pints of summer to spread on toast through the winter as we look back and laugh at this whole tedious and frustrating non-smoking escapade.  At least, I hope we’ll laugh.  At this rate, even a Canadian winter may not be long enough to soften my anxiety.

Strawberry Thyme Jam

Makes 5 pints

  • 2.5 kg (5.5 lb) strawberries
  • 8 cups granulated sugar *
  • small handful fresh thyme (1/4 cup minced)
  • 2 packages light fruit pectin crystals
  • 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp butter
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
* Sure, that looks like a lot of sugar. It is.  But that is also a lot of strawberry, and remember people, you’re making jam.  This isn’t about a healthy after-school snack, it is about the bit of luxury you can spread thinly on buttered multi-grain toast in the morning.  Also, as far as jam goes, I promise you that this one will not be too sweet.
Wash the strawberries well to remove any dirt or residue.
Hull and chop the strawberries into large quarters.  Put them in a pot that is large enough that your strawberries will only fill it approximately 3/4 full.  This prepping step is far and above the most tedious part of the jam making process, so if you have any friends hanging around and drinking beer on your couch as you chatter away about canned goods, this would be a good time to solicit their assistance.
Put the pot over medium heat and let the strawberries break down, stirring frequently.  Add the dollop of butter to your pot because apparently that mitigates the frothing and foaming of the berries as they cook.  I have no idea if this is true, of course, but I’m willing to bow to folklore and village wisdom if it helps me to make better jam.
If the berries start to scorch on the bottom of your pot, turn the heat down immediately and let them simmer more gently.
When the strawberries have been simmering away for approximately 20 minutes and they’re starting to look soupy, mash them down using a potato masher.  Break the strawberries down until you like the consistency.  I’m a fan of a relatively smooth jam with some variable chunks of fruit, but you can leave it coarse or smooth as is your preference.
Strip the thyme leaves off the branches and run your knife through the herb until it is coarsely chopped.
Add the pectin and half of the sugar to the strawberries.  Stir it until the sugar is dissolved.  Add the thyme and stir in the balsamic vinegar before bringing the mixture up to a rolling boil.
Add the remaining sugar and boil hard for one (1) minute, stirring constantly.  Basically, this just means that you should bring the mixture to a rolling boil and as soon as it is, time one minute before taking the mixture off the heat.  Quickly skim the froth off the strawberry mixture. Discard it as waste.  Try to remove as much foam as you possibly can, even if you have less than surgical precision and a tablespoon or so of jam falls by the wayside.  You do not want any of that foam to end up in your final jarred product.
Ladle the hot jam into sterilized jars, leaving 1/4″ head space in each one.  Carefully wipe the rims and lips of each jar so that there is no debris or stickiness left before placing on new sterilized lids and ring molds.  Screw the ring molds on until they are fingertip tight .  Place the jars in a hot water bath where they are covered with at least one (1) inch of boiling water for 10 minutes.  After heat-processing, remove the jars from the canning pot  and allow them to rest undisturbed (ie, don’t tip them, push them, shake them up and down or let your cats get anywhere close to them) for at least 12, but preferably 24 hours.  If a lid has not “popped”, or formed a vacuum seal, you will want to use it as your Immediate Consumption jar in the fridge. Because believe me, you will want immediate consumption.
The thyme is very subtle, just adding a touch of herbal intrigue and earthiness to the strawberries.  The balsamic tempers some of the sugar with a hint of tang which saves the saccharine jam from being too sweet.
When summer berries are at their plump and juiciest in August, this is where you want to go.  Shortcakes and pies are grand, of course, but do stockpile a good five pints from the farmer’s market because in the cold of winter you will be glad that you did.
As of this morning, I have given away over 4 dozen jars of pickles, chutneys, confits, sauces, fruit butters, and canned fruits, amassed over a hundred jars for storage, and washed every pot, Dutch oven, and mixing bowl in my house at least 17 times each.  I have also celebrated 33 days without smoking, which for me is a far greater accomplishment.  If it takes me another hundred jars to get through this, well, that’s just going to have to happen.  But in the mean time, I thank the heavens every day for my patient, loving, and long suffering husband, because, thankfully, his love makes even this just a little bit sweeter.
  • elsewise

    I’m a sympathetic (…smug) ex-smoker. I’m sorry. It SUCKS, dude. I’m laying off the advice, ’cause it’s different for everyone, but I believe that quitting smoking is totally like a bad breakup. Even down the road, there will still be moments when a certain type of weather (sunny summer afternoons for me) or atmosphere (the bar, the beach, the coffee house) or the right song comes on the radio (don’t ask) and you’ll have fond and wistful memories of The Good Times You Had Together. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a lying liar. So take as long as you need, just don’t go back to that asshole. (You can always start pickling things.)

    • Emmly

      This recipe is a home run, pure and simple! It wasn’t too sweet and I loved the hint of savory with the thyme. Absolutely fabulous.

  • Kristie

    Poor Tina. I, too, am going to flout your request to keep my mouth shut about my own personal experience with quitting smoking. But not to give you advice. Only to say it gets better, and that winter becomes far more enjoyable after you quit and get past the post-quitting trauma. Because you don’t have to stand outside, freezing your ass off, snot coming down your lip in frozen rivulets. Trust. Anyway, virtual hugs to you, and I’m proud of you. A month is a good portion of the way through the process.

  • Mel

    Congratulations. I quit 8 months ago, but have, alas, no jam to show for it. Mainly because it made me very, very, very tired & lazy. Also incoherent and incapable of normal thought. Just now starting to get my groove back.

  • Kathrine

    first of all, congrats on attempting to quit! I’m trying to convince myself that this would be a good time to stop as well, since -40C weather is daunting on all its on, without attempting to light a cigarette in the wind, or hiding between cars to finally freeze my face off for the short term relief of inhaling nicotine. I am also like you in the sense that I love that first smoke in the morning and enjoy those precious get away moments from the family where I can hide with all righteousness on the deck so as to have my cig.
    Good luck with keeping with it and hopefully you will still have room for more FABULOUS jams!

  • Sugarpeep

    Good luck! It isn’t easy, but you’re on the right track. Don’t give in to the temptation! Oh, but keep giving into the temptation to make jam, because this looks great.

  • Ilona

    We’re rooting for you all te way from the Netherlands Tina! Tryong to quit a smoking habit BITES, but remember this kickass reward: an improooooved sense of taste and smell! Yay! 🙂
    -x-

    • Ilona

      Bah, typo! 🙂

  • http://www.choosy-beggars.com Tina

    You guys are awesome. All of you, seriously, kick ass.

    Elsewise – YES to the bad breakup!!! The guilt, emotional turmoil, knowing that it was bad for you but still…..missing it. A lot. I totally get the song thing, too, because if your life doesn’t have a soundtrack then it must be pretty dull!

    Kristie – thanks, lady. Although, to be honest, I *loved* the frigid winter smokes when the wind was howling, you were getting drenched by sleet and you had to alternate hands to avoid getting frostbite. I will actually miss that.

    Judy – thank you for the support! I’m trying 🙂

    Mel – Congratulations!!!! That is awesome, and I totally commend you! I hope that I make it to 8 months too. YES to the tired and lazy! Seriously, that’s something that I was never warned about. I would have been far more prepared for The Nastiness if someone had just once said, “Oh, by the way? When you quit smoking, you actually lose your short term memory indefinitely, and it may be a challenge to string together more than 4 words in a sentence.” It is like a glimpse into senility, getting frustrated and eventually yelling by the end of, “I need that thing! The….you know, with the points and the ring! The CAR thing, the thing that goes in your CAR!! I NEED THE CAR THING THAT IS SHARP AND NOT QUITE A TRIANGLE THAT MAKES IT *VROOOOM* OR I CAN’T GET TO WORK!!!” “Um, honey? Do you mean….do you mean the key??”

    Kathrine – oh dear god, I haven’t been to a party or family event yet, but it IS Thanksgiving so we’ll see how I do when I lose my excuse to hide and get 7 minutes of time-out. I love entertaining and having people over, but my favorite part is where they’re all in the kitchen drinking wine and laughing, and I’m out on the back deck alone but listening. That’s…that’s kind of creepy, actually. Huh. Whatever, it was awesome.

    Ilona – thank you for the support! But hey, the improved sense of smell? NOT A GOOD THING SO FAR. I can smell *lots* of things that I couldn’t smell before and they all make me nauseous. I can’t go to the mall because the smell of the food court makes me want to hurl. Oh, and public bathrooms? The likelihood that I will need to start wearing adult diapers if I leave my house for more than an hour has just increased by tenfold.

  • Replicaberry

    But in the end it’s still so lonely…