It now seems like a lifetime ago that I took up migrant farming, my agricultural wanderlust no doubt caused by one too many Johnny Cash songs, the residual effects of Kerouac novels read at too young an age and a picturesque strawberry farm nestled into New Hampshire's White Mountains. The work, although as romantic as I'd expected it to be, was long and laborious. But the highpoint of each day was hulling. After a day in the fields, we'd have a family farmhouse dinner, and then retire to the barn with a case of Samuel Adams to begin the arduous process of hulling strawberries. It went like this: pick up berry, scoop out stems, repeat. This would go on for hours—until bedtime or drunkenness, whichever occurred first.
When the barn freezer was filled with berry totes, it was time to make the jam. The quaint farm kitchen would turn into a factory, complete with enormous cauldrons and conveyer belts rigged to transport the fresh jam out of the window, where we'd box it up and motor it off to the Boston farmer's markets. Fond memories of this time in my life are plentiful: the freakish Popeye-d forearms I developed from hours of hulling berries; the reddish tint that covered me from fingertips to shoulder for weeks afterward; the Red Sox games constantly piping through the radio. But the thing I remember most is that smell: fresh, homemade jam, still warm in the jar. There's truly nothing like that smell, but the taste of fresh-from-the-farm jam comes close. Fortunately for me, the Midwest excels in all things fruit-in-the-jar. My favorites so far:
Strawberry Rhubarb from Stover's Farm
Few things evoke summertime like fresh strawberries and rhubarb. They're the first fruits that poke their little heads out after a long winter, the ones that remind us that summer is, indeed, finally coming. At the time of this writing, we're at the very peak of strawberry and rhubarb season, but if you missed it, not to worry: Stover's Farm has you covered. Five generations of berry-picking, jam-making Stovers deliver on some of the best strawberry-rhubarb preserves around.
Fresh fruit, grown right on the farm, gets together with sugar and pectin in an old Stover-family recipe. Although they no longer make it in the farm kitchen (those days are long gone), this jam is the real old-fashioned deal. If you opt for the sugar-free variety, you can be sure there's nothing artificial in it; it's sweetened with white grape to keep it au natural. The Michigan-based farm peddles its delicious wares—from Dutch Apple and Boysenberry preserves to all sorts of fruit butters—at the Daley Plaza Farmers Market every week.
Sungold Tomato Preserves from Tomato Mountain
Raise your hand if you miss tomatoes. Yeah, me too. This whole salmonella upset has tainted the very essence of summer: slicing into a perfectly ripened tomato seasoned with just a dab of sea salt, freshly ground pepper and olive oil. What to do when the sun's blazing, and all you want for lunch is a slice of tomato on some fresh bread? You forgo the tainted stuff for some Sungold Tomato Preserves from Tomato Mountain. When most people think jam, they don't think tomato, but this unique preserve might change all of that. Organic Sungolds (those are orange cherry tomatoes), organic sugar and pectin come together in a spread that straddles the best of savory and sweet, with plenty of local cred. Fantastic on fresh bread, add a dollop to your omelet, or go to town with a spoon and a jar. Tomato Mountain, a Wisconsin farm, sells this dangerously addictive summertime treat along with other jarred goodies like pasta sauce, fresh salsa and soup at Green City Market.
Tart Cherry Preserves from Food For Thought
It took a long while for me to appreciate the merits of cherries; I always associated them with the pungent flavor of my grandpa's Swisher Sweets, or the acidic bit of artificially-flavored drugstore lollipops. In fact, the first time I tasted a fresh cherry I was well into my teens, and it floored me that cherries tasted absolutely nothing like their artificial counterparts. A flavor factory off the Jersey turnpike has some explaining to do. In any case, Michigan boasts some of the best cherries in the country, and with prime cherry season coming up I plan to put them on everything. A good start is picking up some Food For Thought Organic Tart Cherry Preserves. These whole-fruit preserves are made from local Michigan cherries, including the organic cherry pioneers at Kobernick farm and the fourth generation of Garthe farmers. Sweet, with a delicate streak of tartness, these preserves are perfectly suited to scoop on top of ice-cream, bake into a pie or simply spread onto a freshly baked scone. You can score some for yourself from Irv and Shelly's Fresh Picks.
Raspberry Preserves from 1st Orchard and Greenhouses
The Nettelhorst French Market may be one of the tiniest in the city, but the 1st Orchard and Greenhouses jam stand makes it worth checking out. Since it's only a stroll from my house, keeping my jam intake in check has been incredibly difficult, particularly when it comes to the simple pleasure of its raspberry preserves. You can opt for sugarless or seedless, but for my money I always go for the old-fashioned kind: fresh fruit, sugar and pectin, loads of seeds that pop when you bite into them, and flavor so fresh you'd think you were eating berries from the bush.
Since the jam stand at Nettelhorst is oh-so-conveniently located kitty-corner to the scone dudes, you can pick up an ideal weekend breakfast while you're doing the week's veggie shopping. These preserves are perfect for spreading over whole European butter and a fluffy scone, or go the low-carb route and add a spoonful to yogurt and stir. You'll have to arrive early to score a jar of raspberry, they're almost always out of it by noon, but fortunately for late-risers, 1st Orchard also offers cherry-raspberry, marmalade, blackberry and even pepper jams that'll tide you over until next week.