Putting Summer By -August 2009
Preserving Late Summer's Bounty
by: Sarah Lydon
August is Nantucket’s most glorious month, the ripe peak of summer. Growing up on the island, it felt deliciously long, By August, the braided white rope bracelets that we’d slipped on in June were grizzled gray and shrunk to fit our wrists, and we had settled into our summer routines: Swimming, sailing, playing haphazard games of badminton and croquet in the back yard, fishing for scup and flounder. With Labor Day waiting at the end, the month seemed even more pleasurable. We had biked up the hill of summer and were now coasting down, arms flung wide from the handlebars.
August was a month of celebration for us too. There were two family birthdays to observe and every year, our friends the Bermans came to visit for a long weekend. Of all of our parents’ friends, Edgar and Phoebe were the ones we adored the most. They lived on a rambling horse farm outside of Baltimore where they bred thoroughbreds and collected art.
Edgar was a retired heart surgeon who had worked with Schweitzer in Africa and managed Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign, a brusque charmer and an irascible tease. Phoebe was the most stylish, beautiful woman we knew, lithe and auburn-haired with cornflower-blue eyes, who would turn handstands on Madaket Beach when we asked. She had grown up on a farm in Pennsylvania and despite her glamorous exterior, was a practical, talented gardener and cook. During those busy August weekends on Nantucket, in between long beach picnics and strolls downtown, she and my mother would fit in a berrying trip or two and during cocktail hour, we would sit among the grown-ups while they read Cheever or Tolstoy aloud or argued about Ronald Reagan and pick through the buckets of wild blackberries that they had harvested, the glass jelly jars simmering in kettles of water on the stove.
The Bermans would go home with a jar or two of these Nantucket souvenirs and every year when we took the train to Baltimore to visit, Phoebe would send us back with a jar of raspberry jam or peach preserves from her own garden harvest, labeled in her elegant script.
Despite the perfection of the days, August could sometimes feel overwhelming – the month of too much. Too many ripe, splitting-at-the-seams tomatoes, too many filets of bluefish stacked in the fridge wrapped in paper, too many ripe berries to keep up with. Plates of sliced tomatoes appeared at every meal, flecked with torn basil leaves and drizzled with olive oil.
The prospect of so much late-summer bounty would send our mother into full-on pioneer mode. She was as eager as the rest of us to fit as much sun and sailing into every day, but more often than not, she would happily spend part of the day in the kitchen, chopping up peaches to conserve or slicing cucumbers for pickles. We would come home from the beach to find her making pesto, the kitchen table covered with bouquets of basil from the garden and heaps of walnuts. She would gather great bunches of mint and hang it upside-down to dry, later storing the dried leaves in a tin to use for the delicious Middle Eastern stews that we loved during the winter and for her chicken soup, which was tart and lemony and garnished with dried mint and a spoonful of butter. She smoked bluefish with a friend’s borrowed smoker and filled plastic containers with bluefish paté. She would make dozens of jars of jam and jelly, from July elderberries, blueberries and raspberries to August’s blackberries and rose hips and the tart Concord grapes that ripened after Labor Day.
We weren’t equally supportive of all her endeavors. To our dismay, she made emerald-green mint jelly to serve with roast lamb all winter and red-pepper jelly to have with scrambled eggs – a combination that made us gasp in horror. She made many jars of pale-red jelly from the sour little beach plums that grew wild all over the island. Having no appreciation for the challenges of salt and sweet together, we loathed its bittersweet taste, and the idea of roast pork glazed with jelly of any kind was utterly revolting. One year, having made enough beach plum jelly to last the winter, she found a new use for the fat little plums, adding a cup or so to a bottle of Tanqueray where they stewed for months. I never sampled this “Beach Plum Gin” but I do remember the dark plums rolling like marbles against the bottom of the fat green bottle. When the gin was decanted, it was tinted a deep rose pink and I can imagine that the beach plums added a mysterious, fruity, bitter note.
I think of those August days as so carefree – the pinnacle of the summer. But there was always a faint edge of urgency, the sense of time fleeting and the approach of that first haunting night when the wind would change and we would wake to a crisp blue day that tasted of fall. I think now of the practical grace of those two women, Phoebe and my mother, as they quietly worked away at the stove over the simmering kettles or sat around the table stemming green beans as the rest of us idled and drank limeade. Somehow they managed to enjoy every minute and still be plotting ahead, to make one blackberry pie for dessert and to tuck another one into the freezer to be enjoyed at Thanksgiving.
Nowadays, our family time on the island is busier and more compressed. My sister Amanda and her fiancé Gabriel run the Straight Wharf Restaurant and Provisions so the summer is no longer a leisurely time for them. And the rest of us visit the island as we can, condensing a summer’s worth of activities into a string of weekends and a week or two in August. But we still manage to enjoy the gifts of summer, savoring the immediate joys of sun and salt water and putting away, whenever we can, memories to carry us through the long winter.
Sarah Lydon grew up spending summers on Nantucket and is still a frequent visitor to the island. She works as a communications consultant from her home in Boston.
Garlic Green Bean Pickles
These tart, garlicky pickles are adapted from Marian Morash’s “Victory Garden Cookbook,” a wonderful resource to cope with an avalanche of garden produce.
2 lbs. fresh green beans
12 cloves of garlic
4 heads of dill or 4 tsp. dill seeds
21⁄2 cups white vinegar
21⁄2 cups water
4 tbs. kosher salt
Wash and stem beans and peel garlic. In each of 4 sterilized pint jars, put one or two garlic cloves, one head of dill or one tsp. of dill seeds. Fit beans into jars, allowing half an inch headroom at the top of each jar (trim beans to fit if necessary). Tuck remaining garlic cloves in among the beans. Bring vinegar, water and salt to a boil. Pour over beans, filling to within a quarter-inch of the rim. Fasten jar tops according to manufacturer’s directions and place in a boiling-water bath, covering lids with two inches of water. Process at a hard boil for 5 minutes. Remove, cool and store.
Beach Plum Jelly
Nantucket beach plums are harder to find than they once were, but it’s worth seeking out a source to make this unique bittersweet jelly that, after years of resistance, we’ve come to love. Make sure when you pick the beach plums that at least a quarter of them are underripe. This will provide enough natural pectin to make them jell more easily.
- Clean and sterilize enough jars for the amount of beach plums you have. Pick over the beach plums, rinse well and put them into a 6- to 8-quart pot, covering with water. Simmer just until the fruit is soft. Drain and put the fruit into a jelly bag or tie it in cheesecloth and let it strain overnight or for several hours. If you want a completely-clear jelly, do not squeeze the bag. Measure the extracted juice and bring it to a boil, cooking it for 10 minutes. Add one cup of sugar for each cup of juice and stir just until the sugar is dissolved. Let the mixture boil until it reaches the jellying point. The easiest way to determine this is to chill a saucer in the fridge. Dab a generous drop of the jelly onto the saucer and let cool for a minute or two. When you push the drop with your finger, it should form a “skin” in front of your fingertip and the jelly should not flow back easily to cover the track of your finger.
- When the jelly is finished, skim off the foam and carefully pour the hot syrup into prepared jelly jars and seal as directed.
Our grandfather’s refrigerator was never without a tall jar of these crisp, tart pickled vegetables. Nowadays, my sister Amanda makes these at Provisions – They make a wonderful garnish for sandwiches or a snack throughout the year.
2 yellow bell peppers, diced
2 red bell peppers, diced
8 fresh jalapeno peppers, sliced
1 celery stalk, diced
1 medium carrot, diced
1 small onion, chopped
1⁄2 cup fresh cauliflower florets
1⁄2 cup salt
Water to cover
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 small handful fresh oregano
1 teaspoon red-pepper flakes
1⁄2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup white vinegar
1 cup olive oil
- Place into a bowl the yellow and red peppers, jalapenos, celery, carrots, onion and cauliflower. Stir in salt, and fill with enough cold water to cover. Place plastic wrap or aluminum foil over the bowl, and refrigerate overnight.
- The next day, drain salty water, and rinse vegetables. In a bowl, mix together garlic, oregano, red-pepper flakes, black pepper and olives. Pour in vinegar and olive oil, and mix well. Combine with vegetable mixture, cover, and refrigerate for 2 days before using. Keeps indefinitely in the refrigerator.
Rose Petal Jelly
Our mother made jelly from rosehips, but my sister Amanda makes this beautiful blush-pink jelly from Nantucket beach roses. Any fragrant old-growth rose will do as long as it hasn’t been sprayed with chemicals, but a dark pink or red rose will produce the prettiest color.
3 packed cups rose petals, clean and free from dirt or insects
3 cups water
3 cups sugar
3 tablespoons lime juice
1 box powdered pectin
- Bring water to a boil and remove from heat. Add rose petals. Cover and steep for 30-60 minutes. Pour through sieve and discard rose petals, keeping juice.
- Make sure you have 3 cups of juice. If not, add water to make 3. Place in a pot, then add pectin. Stir until dissolved, then bring to a hard boil. Add sugar and lemon juice, stir and bring to a hard boil again for 1-2 minutes. Skim off foam and pour into jelly jars, sterilized. Seal according to manufacturer’s directions.
Red Pepper Jelly
Another classic, perfect with scrambled eggs and toast or with cream cheese and crackers.
11⁄2 lbs. red or yellow bell peppers (about 3), cut into 1-inch pieces (6 cups)
2 teaspoons dried hot red-pepper flakes
3 tablespoons Sure-Jell for Less or no-sugar-needed pectin (from a 13⁄4-oz box)
31⁄4 cups sugar
1 cup white-wine vinegar
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3⁄4 teaspoon salt
Sterilize jars and lids according to manufacturer’s directions.
To make jelly, pulse bell peppers with red-pepper flakes in a food processor until finely chopped. Mixture will measure about 21⁄2 cups.
- Whisk together pectin and 1⁄4 cup sugar in a small bowl.
- Stir together pepper mixture, vinegar, butter, salt and remaining 3 cups sugar in a 5- to 6-quart heavy pot. Bring to a vigorous boil over high heat, then continue to boil vigorously, stirring occasionally, 5 minutes. Gradually add pectin mixture, whisking constantly. Return jelly to a vigorous boil, stirring constantly, and boil, stirring constantly, 1 to 2 minutes (mixture will thicken slightly). Remove from heat. Immediately ladle hot jelly into jars, leaving 1⁄4 inch of space at top (the last jar may not be full – Do not process this jar and just refrigerate and use). Run a clean plastic spatula between jelly and sides of jars to eliminate air bubbles. Wipe off rims of filled jars with a damp, clean kitchen towel, then firmly screw on lids with screw bands. Seal and process jars according to manufacturer’s directions.
Summer Fruit Torte
The simplest and most forgiving of all cake recipes, adapted from The New York Times. A combination of nectarines and blackberries may be our favorite.
1 cup sugar
1⁄2 cup (1 stick) sweet butter
1 cup flour, sifted
1 tsp. baking powder
1⁄8 tsp. salt
Approximately 2 cups summer fruit – halved Italian prune plums, diced rhubarb, sliced peaches or nectarines, blackberries, etc.
Topping: sugar, lemon juice, cinnamon
- Cream butter and sugar until light. Add flour, baking powder, salt and eggs and beat well. Spoon the batter into a 9-inch spring-form pan. Cover the top of the batter with the fruit, skin-side up if using plums, peaches or nectarines, press in lightly. Sprinkle with sugar and lemon juice, then cinnamon. Bake at 350 F. for one hour. These tortes freeze beautifully wrapped tightly in foil. To serve, defrost and reheat briefly at 300 degrees.
Phoebe’s Maryland peach trees made beautiful conserve, but good, ripe peaches or nectarines from the market can work just as well. This recipe from The New York Times’ “Heritage” cookbook is possibly the easiest preserve I have ever made and captures the very essence of summer.
4 cups ripe peaches or nectarines
11⁄2 cup sugar
- The day before, dip the peaches into boiling water for 20-30 seconds and remove skins. Chop into half-inch cubes and remove pits. Place fruit in a large bowl and cover with sugar and let stand overnight.
- The next day, pour the fruit and juice into a heavy, wide-bottomed pan and heat very slowly over low heat for about an hour or until the sugar is dissolved and the fruit is tender. Stir gently to prevent sticking. Pour into hot, sterilized jars. Seal, cool and store in a cool, dry place. Makes about two pints.