The winter months can be long and cruel; luckily, each day is now a fraction longer than the last. However, chances are you are having a hard time finding inspiration in local produce. Root vegetables are old reliables, and I will be adding to the collection of recipes, but I would like to begin the year on a sweet note. Apples are the typical autumn-winter fruit across most of Canada; as are cranberries, but, come January, fresh, locally-grown cranberries are a bit rarer. Many of us will be looking farther afield for our fruity hit: citrus! There is no denying it, citrus fruit come into their own in the winter months. They are sweet, tart, and refreshing; their colours are bright and cheery, just what one needs on a dreary winter day.
There isn't much one can do to improve on the citrus fruit: it's portable (great for packed lunches and snacks); it's nutritious; and it comes in all shapes, sizes and flavours to suit just about anyone. But citrus are not just for eating out of hand; there is something to be done with them: marmalade! I do love a good marmalade, it's the perfect balance between sweet, tart and bitter. If you are not a fan, do not turn away, keep reading, I will make a convert of you. I used to hate marmalade. I disliked it with fervour: the bitterness of most commercial marmalades did not appeal to my childhood palate, but what really bothered me were the thick, chewy bits of peel -I would always choke on them. The bitterness has grown on me, but I still have an aversion to chunky peel. The solution is to make your own.
Scrumptious marmalades can be made with any citrus. Traditionally, orange marmalades are made with Seville oranges, which are just about coming into season, but supermarket navels, Moroccan clementines, lemons and grapefruits can produce a perfectly acceptable jam. I like to add 2 lemons per kilo of citrus because their peel contains a lot of pectin, necessary to gel the marmalade. Ideally, you would buy organic or unwaxed citrus just for jam-making, but if those are too pricey, regular fruits will do: scrub them clean under warm-ish water, and remove any blemish or soft spots. There is a ton of recipes out there, but here is my own: it is relatively easy, and makes reliably tasty spreads. I have not included volumetric measures for the ingredients, because I find jam-making much easier when ingredients are weighed out. The precision of a digital scale is not necessary for jams and jellies, any scale will do: the general rule of thumb for most jams is a ratio of 60%-100% sugar to fruit (600g-1kg sugar/1kg fruit or 1.32lb-2lbs sugar/2lbs fruit). For citrus marmalades, you need a very sharp knife (or a good bread knife), and the ratio is 1.5-2kg sugar/1kg of fruit; it sounds excessive, I know, but the sugar is necessary to balance out the bitterness.
All-citrus marmalade is always scrumptious, but if you feel wary of the bitter elixir, you can add a few spices , other fruits or vegetables to temper the peel. Yes, you read right: vegetables; sweet root vegetables, such as carrots, beets and fennel bulb, are especially suited to jam-making. Grate up to half the weight in vegetable, and add to the pot before adding the sugar. Sometimes, all you need a few spices to make the marmalade more palatable for nay-sayers: vanilla bean is a classic, but any citrus-friendly spice will do -cinnamon; clove; cardamom; coriander...
Yields enough for four 250ml (8.5oz) pots
500g citrus fruit
1 vanilla bean
5 cardamom pods
Wash and scrub citrus fruits.
Cut off the button end (the pith -the bitter, white part of the peel- is especially thick at this end), split the fruit in two from top to bottom.
Slice each half as thinly as possible, removing any pips as they come along. (I like to place my cutting board over the edge of the sink, with the pot underneath to catch all the juices. Otherwise, I end up with a mess on my counter.)
When all the fruits are sliced, add water to just cover. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise, scrape out the seeds, and add -seeds and pod- to the pot. Add the cardamom.
Cover pot, and bring to the boil.
Let simmer over low heat for about 1 hour, or until the peel slices are tender. (Add grated vegetables at this point, if using, and simmer for another 10 minutes.)
Add 750g sugar, and bring back to the boil.
Simmer over medium-low heat for another 30 minutes, uncovered, stirring every ten minutes, making sure that the bottom does not stick.
Taste the marmalade: if it is too bitter, gradually add the rest of the sugar until it is sweet enough. Stir until sugar is completely dissolved, and cook for another 10 minutes.
Remove vanilla pods.
Pour into hot, clean jars, seal, and leave to cool.
Homemade marmalades are usually much looser than commercial ones, since there is no added pectin. Properly sealed, the jam will keep for 2 to 3 years -except for an all-lemon marmalade, which should be eaten within a year of making. Marmalades are divine on toast, obviously, but they need not be reserved for the breakfast or tea table: they make delightful cake fillings (orange and chocolate is always a winner); warmed over with a bit of water, marmalade becomes a lovely sauce for a roast meat (left-over barbecue duck? Smother with marmalade, and you've got a new dish!)
A note on vanilla beans: they are pricey. Recent weather woes has driven the price of vanilla beans through the roof. Yet, when one considers the amount of work that goes into each bean -hand pollinated; hand picked; fermented a minimum of 6 months...- two dollars a beans seems like small potatoes. Some shops have preferential prices for bulk purchases, a good option if you do a lot of baking. Vanilla beans will keep indefinitely if kept in an airtight container, and are still usable if they are dried out. Also, do not throw out the used pod: they can be put to a second use. Rinse the pods after use, and leave to dry out for a day or two, then bury them in your sugar pot. The sugar will take on a subtle vanilla aroma, not enough to flavour your baking, but enough to add a little je ne sais quoi.