Every summer, my family road trips about 11 hours north from our home in Missouri to visit my grandma in a teeny town in Wisconsin, on the farm where my dad grew up. It’s one of those trips that we all look forward to every year, not just because it’s a chance to get away from work and responsibility for a week (that’s the beauty of any vacation, right?) but also because we get to spend a solid few days in a place that feels infinitely more peaceful than anywhere else in the world. It’s calm, it’s quiet, and it’s familiar. In other words, it’s perfect.
Last week while we were at the farm, I told my grandma that I’d been thinking about learning to can or make jam for a while, and she mentioned the bunches of rhubarb she had growing out in the garden that needed to be used before they missed their chance. I’ve had very little rhubarb-eating experience in my lifetime — enough to know I like it but not enough to know exactly how or what to do with it — and my rhubarb-cooking experience was zero before this trip. Rhubarb jam sounded like just what I needed to expand my rhubarb horizons while learning a dandy new skill at the same time.
At the farm, everything comes with a story. The rhubarb plant that we picked from was planted more than 40 years ago, my grandma said. For more than 40 years, that single plant has been growing enough rhubarb for jams, pies, cakes and crumbles, with hardly any gardening maintenance needed at all. Forty years. I wouldn’t have guessed she was a day over 19.
Before this rhubarb jam business could get going, Grandma showed me how to do the picking. She grabbed hold of a piece of rhubarb near the bottom and gave it a quick tug as it snapped off the plant. Then with a small paring knife, she cut off the big leafy end and started a pile of red rhubarb stalks next to her on the grass. “That’s all there is to it,” she said.
Once all the rhubarb was picked (we grabbed enough for a double batch of jam and a rhubarb crumble), we headed inside to clean it and cut it. This is the most time-consuming part of the process, Grandma said. She was right; it took a while to get all the dirt washed off the stalks and all the rhubarb cut up into ¼-inch pieces. But it was pretty smooth sailing for there on out.
Maybe it’s because this was my first time making jam, but I felt almost giddy while we were dicing and boiling and stirring away the afternoon. There’s something so simple yet so calming and carefree about stepping back from modern conveniences and doing this type of thing, step by step, from the beginning. By the time we’d spooned the jam into the jars, added the lids and waited for them to seal, I was so smiley from the whole experience that I started thinking I’d never buy jam from the grocery store again. Then one by one, the lids made a loud “pop” to tell us they were sealed. Happy, happy day.
Rhubarb Raspberry Jam
• 4 cups diced rhubarb
• 4 cups white sugar
• 2 to 3 tablespoons water
• 1 package raspberry JELL-O (Grandma said strawberry works well, too.)
Mix rhubarb, sugar and water in a large pot over medium to medium-high heat. Stir occasionally. You’re basically heating it up until the rhubarb starts releasing its juices. If you’ve been cooking for a while and the mixture still looks a little dry, add another tablespoon of water and stir. You can also put the lid on the pot to get the moisture going faster, but keep a close eye on it. Boiled-over jam = messy business.
Once the mixture reaches a rolling boiling, add the JELL-O package while stirring. Keep stirring until JELL-O is completely dissolved. You really need to keep your eyes (and spoon) on the pot at this point. The jam can boil over really quickly.
Carefully spoon hot, hot jam into hot, hot jars [Note: You want everything super hot for this part of the process, particularly if you plan on sealing your jars. After washing your jars, pour boiling water over them and in them, which will keep them hot until ready to use. Right before you’re ready to fill them with jam, pour out the boiling water and let them drain for a few seconds so they aren’t super watery inside. In the meantime, you can put your lids in a bowl of boiling water so they’re also hot and ready to use.]. Place a hot, hot sealing lid on top, then screw on the outer ring. Then Grandma usually places a towel on the counter and flips the jars upside down (lid side on the counter) for about 30 minutes before flipping them back over. After those 30 minutes, flip your jars right side up, and wait for the “pop” to know they are sealed properly.
We doubled the recipe and ended up with about 10 tiny jars of jam to last us well into the chilly season. And last they will; Grandma said that once those puppies are sealed (I’m paraphrasing here; she didn’t really use the word “puppies”), they keep for quite a long time. Woo to the hoo for that.
Do any of you have jam-making experience? What are you favorite ingredients to use? Anything out of the ordinary? And are there any gardeners out there who can pick straight from the source and then cook until their heart’s content? You lucky ducks.