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    Half-sour cucumbers, hold the salt

    Half-sour cucumbers, hold the salt

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A Dream of…Marmalade?

For years I assumed that only the truly gifted home ec queens, most of them from the deep South, were qualified to make jam. I love to cook and I love to play with my–or anybody’s–food, but I knew instinctively that the combination of 1) me and 2) hot vats of boiling fruit and sugar was a recipe for disaster. Or hospitalization. Or outrageous cleaning bills. Or all three. So I stayed far, far away from pressure cookers, Ball ™ jelly jars, and anything involving bushels of fruit and all-day productions.

And yet…once in a while I’d walk by the produce section, see something unusual, and fantasize about making a new kind of jam they didn’t have in the store. The kind with just fruit and maybe sugar, but no corn syrup to cloud up the flavor. Something that didn’t cost $6 for a 10 oz. jar. Something that didn’t taste like all the freshness had been boiled out of it.

There’s nothing more disappointing to me than the difference between ripe strawberries and strawberry jam. It should be so good, and it just tastes so tinny, with all the life and brilliance cooked out of it. Oranges are, if possible, even worse cooked. And yet I do love marmalade, which seems even more mysterious than jam.

This week, I stopped by my neighborhood corner grocery and found a small cardboard box perched atop the large open bins of walnuts and almonds. In the box were a couple of pounds of kumquats for $2/lb. A decent price–but was I really going to do something with kumquats?

Since discovering the microwave, I’ve taken on an unwise and very brash attitude about tackling new challenges that basically boils down to “Just nuke it!” I realized if I microwaved the marmalade it would either succeed or fail, but at least it would do it quickly.

So I bought half a pound of kumquats and brought them home. Looked at them suspiciously and washed them well, then sliced them crosswise very fine and separated out the seeds. I know some recipes call for putting all the pips into a cheesecloth bag or maybe a coffee filter and tossing the bag into the boiling pot to add pectin and ensure a good gel. But that’s just too Martha Stewart for me. I didn’t think it was worth worrying about for such a small amount. If it stayed syrup, so be it.

The half-pound of kumquats went into a pyrex mixing bowl and I tossed what looked like nearly an equal amount of sugar on them. Then I drizzled just enough water to wet down the sugar and make a loose slurry I could swirl around in the bottom of the bowl. The sliced kumquats held it together more or less and it wasn’t really liquidy–just loose enough to move. A small squeeze of lemon juice for good luck. Then I covered the bowl with a microwaveable lid and nuked it on high for four minutes.

While it was going–pray it didn’t overcook the kumquats, pray it didn’t scorch or boil over–OK–I chilled a saucer in the freezer so I could test whether the marmalade was setting up properly by dripping a few drops on the cold plate and seeing if they stay put. Yes, I know, I really do read too much. But you know, it makes you feel that much more professional, especially when you know you’re nuking your way through what’s supposed to be a sacrosanct Slow Food Recipe.

And it–didn’t set up exactly. More like didn’t really run. So I let it cool a bit and tried again. Same deal, different minute–so I decided, what the heck, and tasted a little. It was a bit runny. But my knees buckled with the flavor.

It was nearly fluorescent orange, aromatic with the right hint of bracing bitterness, tart enough with just-right sweetness, strong enough and spicy and floral and clean-tasting and fresh and complex and kumquat rather than just orange, and to tell you the truth, it was just about as perfect as you can get. I’ve never tasted commercial marmalade that came anywhere close. Did I dare nuke it another minute or two? Would it start tasting cooked? It was only half a pound, so why not. I did. It set up, but the flavor was still fine. And it was beautiful.

This kind of jam is incredibly easy to make and well worth a few minutes–OK, twenty–of slicing. But you aren’t really canning it. To store it you should put it in a clean container in the fridge. And make it in small batches, not huge vats. You can’t get it in the store and now you don’t need to. Just nuke it, eat it, and swoon. When you come to, go ahead and feel smug and clever. Especially since you don’t have a big vat to wash up afterward.

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