I don’t think I ever truly understood the importance of neighbors until I built a house in the middle of Nowheresville.
And I don’t mean ‘important’ in a hoity kind of way like, “Honey, let’s do have the neighbors over for cocktails sometime!” I mean IMPORTANT, like when your tractor’s stuck in the mud down by the Frazier’s, or when a tree falls on your house in the middle of a storm and you suddenly find yourself without a roof. I mean IMPORTANT like the well has run dry or the kids are out on The Machines and it’s getting dark and you have no idea where they are and no one else is home to go looking.
So when the summer was getting sweltry-weltry beyond belief and my neighbor Kelli came by and asked about what happened to the air conditioner that we’d put in then immediately replaced with central air conditioning last summer, I said, “OMG!” (Well I didn’t really say ‘OMG’ I just like to imagine that the conversation went that way) “It’s in the basement! Take it!” Then Kelli said, “Can we pay you? Something? That thing’s brand new?” And I said, “Don’t worry about it. It’s yours.”
So, a few days later, my husband, Tommy, runs into Keith in the barn. They share a beer or two. Talk about tractors and the new smoker Keith’s making, and well, boy stuff. But Keith doesn’t mention his new air conditioner, our gift, which has transformed their bedroom from a weeping sauna to a livable, even quite pleasant place.
Between the beer and the boy-talk, it never came up.
Tommy comes home and over dinner (sweet corn, steamed La Ratte potatoes and a pork chop) says to me, “I’m not sure Keith really knows how to say ‘thank you’.” We were just making dinner convo; it didn’t really matter much to either of us. Keith’s a man of few frilly words and we didn’t give them the air conditioner with any expectations of anything in return. The gift had already been repaid tenfold.
But then the next morning Tommy goes downstairs to make the coffee. He swings open the front door and calls up, “YOU GOTTA COME DOWN HERE!”
And there, on our front stoop, were three buckets of fresh-picked fruit: peaches, apricots and the prized Black Morello cherries. No one knows my penchant for making jam more than Keith and Kelli.
For me, there was no greater gift.
Now THAT’S how neighbors in the country say thank you.
The following is one of the three jams I made from the thank-you-buckets. It’s from The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook by Rachel Saunders, my jam-making guru. The addition of a splash of rose water, which you can find in the ethnic aisle at your grocery store, turns what is already a sexy summer jam into something divine. I love this junk slathered on scones or on English Muffins I make from my Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day dough.
You’ll need what Thomas Keller calls “the cheapest must-have you can buy for your kitchen”: a food scale. Mine was under $10 and I use it all the time. The jam recipe measurements in this book are so impeccably perfected by Ms. Saunders DO NOT simply step on your bathroom scale holding a big bag of apricots — hmmm…not that I ever did that or anything. 🙂
APRICOT ROSE JAM (Thank you, Rachel Saunders!)
5 1/4 pounds pitted and quartered apricots, pits reserved
2 1/4 pounds white cane sugar
3 ounces freshly squeezed lemon juice
2 to 3 small splashes of rose water
In a glass or hard plastic storage container, combine the apricots with the sugar and lemon juice. Press a sheet of plastic wrap directly on the surface of the mixture, smoothing well to eliminate air bubbles. Cover the mixture tightly with a lid and let macerate in the refrigerator overnight.
Place a saucer and five metal spoons in a flat place in your freezer for testing the jam later.
Place several apricot pits on the floor between two, old clean cloths and, using a hammer, tap them through the top cloth until they crack.
Carefully remove the almond-like kernel from each pit (discard the shells) until you have enough to make 1 heaping tablespoon chopped. Place the chopped kernels into a fine-mesh stainless-steel tea infuser with a firm latch and set aside. (I use a tea bag for herbs and then tie a knot at the top.)
Remove the apricots from the refrigerator and transfer them to an 11 or 12 quart copper preserving pan or a wide non-reactive kettle. Place the tea infuser into the mixture.
Bring the apricot mixture to a boil over high heat, stirring frequently with a large heatproof rubber spatula. Boil, stirring frequently, for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and, using a large stainless-steel spoon, skim the stiff foam from the top of the mixture and discard. Return the jam to a boil, then decrease the heat slightly. Continue to cook, monitoring the heat closely, until the jam thickens, about 30 minutes. Scrape the bottom of the pan often with your spatula, and decrease the heat gradually as more and more moisture cooks out of the jam. For the last 10 to 15 minutes of cooking, stir the jam slowly and steadily to keep it from scorching.
When the jam has thickened, test it for doneness. To test, carefully transfer a small representative half teaspoonful of jam to one of your frozen spoons. Replace the spoon in the freezer for 3 to 4 minutes. Tilt the spoon vertically to see how quickly the jam runs. If it runs very slowly and has thickened to a gloopy consistency, it is done. If it runs quickly or appears watery, cook it for a another few minutes before testing again.
Turn off the heat, but do not stir. Remove the tea ball of kernels. Using a stainless-steel soup spoon, skim all of the remaining foam and discard.Pour a small splash of rose water into the jam, stir well and carefully taste. Add more rose water judiciously, tasting carefully as you go, until the rose flavor is present, but not overpowering. Pour the jam into sterilized jars and process according to manufacturers instructions.
And remember – ALWAYS give a jar or two to the neighbors!
Even if you don’t live in the country.
Take those boots off before you come in here!