Then, throughout the first half of our chatty trip, meleleuca honey was on my mind because it's weird, delicious, and available only at one roadside apiary between Dunedin and Tarpon Springs. Unfortunately, the place had been closed, and I was grieving. Peaches were far from our thoughts this gloriously sunny Saturday afternoon, but that was about to change.
Adventure at the Roadside Fruit Stand
Suddenly, we passed a little makeshift fruitstand on the right. Both our heads swiveled, as though we were dashboard monkeys, to see what the vendor was offering. We saw flashes of red, yellow, green, and, wonder of wonders, peach.
I pulled to the shoulder, slammed the gearshift in reverse, and backed up. In spite of our being relatively close to Georgia, presumably the source of delicious Georgia peaches, peaches seem never to be in season on the left coast of central Florida. I think the peach mafia is hoarding the best ones - the only peaches our super markets carry are rock-hard or mealy. You never know, though, what a roadside stand might have. Maybe those peaches were going to be sexily succulent and leave us with juice dripping down our chins and onto our shirts.
"Are those peaches any good?" Maria yelled out the window at the vendor. He was a wrinkley wisened, toothless Hispanic man. She had to yell twice to make her tiny voice heard above the traffic noise.
"I'll give them to you, if you want them," the man hollered back. I heard the pop of her door as she swung it open. We both got out of the car, navigated the huge plat of mud that separated the roadside from the fruit stand, and went over to inspect the peaches.
Sure enough, the vendor was going to give those peaches to us. We asked why. "They're mealy," he replied.
Maria wanted to know what that meant, and the vendor told her they're not good for eating because they're getting old. He showed her how easily they broke apart, and tossed a couple of noticeably bad ones into his garbage pail.
"We'll take all you have," I told him. "Maybe I can make juice out of them." The batch of peaches comprised four or five trays of about 3 pounds each.
The vendor agreed they might make good juice. He looked up and smiled at me. That reminded me of my grandfather who had a similar, toothless smile. Then, as he handed me the bag, he noticed my baseball hat. Maria had bought it for me in an airport a few years ago and had it embroidered with the words "Jugito - Curandero del Barrio," which means "Little Juice Man - Healer of the Neighborhood." He ventured no comment about the hat, but only smiled bigger. Maybe he thought Jugito means "Man of little Juice." He'd have been right, but I'll save that topic for another article.
I browsed for vegetables while Maria chatted in Spanish with the Vendor. She was delighted to discover he was a native of Puerto Rico, as she is.
$5 and a couple of bags of vegetables later, Maria and I carried our loot to the car. We had bought tomatoes and yellow squash from him, both of which are so delicious when prepared rightly. We like to slice the tomatoes, array them on a large plate, squeeze a lime on them, salt and pepper them, sprinkle them with chopped oregano, basil, parsely, or cilantro, and let them sit for a while to develop flavor. And, we slice and simmer the squash with a little butter, salt, and pepper till tender.
Oh, right, I nearly forgot. This article is about making Jam. I guess I'd better get on with it.
Enter, Don Pancho Villa
On the corner of Drew Street and US Highway 19 in Clearwater, Florida, about 3 miles from our home, Don Pancho Villa's bodega and cafe caters to the burgeoning community of Mexican expatriates in Pinellas county.
Back in the mid 90's one family arrived from the Mexican state of Hidalgo, and began inviting their other friends and relatives. Now the Clearwater area of Pinellas county sports a population of 25,000 Mexicans from Hidalgo, upwards of 15% of the population. Missing the low prices and indigenous food of Mexico, they need Don Pancho Villa's. There they can buy a cheap lunch of pulled pork, rice, beans, and salad, and they can stock up on groceries bearing Mexican labels, or freshly hacked animal flesh from the meat counter. And of course, there is a plentiful supply of fresh and dried hot peppers.
Loving hot peppers, and craving the aroma in our kitchen, I had sent Maria to Don Pancho Villa's on Friday to buy some red jalapeño peppers and to order a 20-pound case of habaneros. She had returned with over half a pound of large, red, juicy jalapeños that I couldn't wait to bite into or mince and sprinkle over some fried eggs and sourdough bread. They were sitting in the refrigerator when Maria and I returned home from Tarpon Springs.
Jam Session - The Peaches and Peppers Meet their Fate
As 9 P.M. neared, I was anxious for the Sam Peter fight to start, and Maria was in the kitchen peeling one of the peaches. She started complaining about how the peach didn't seem all that good, and in fact she was disgusted with it. Apparently she had found out what "mealy" really means. I told her not to worry and that I'd juice them. So, I took over from her to save her the agony of disappointment in the peaches.
Before long, the peaches were washed and pitted, and my Champion juicer was spinning with eagerness to rip the flesh of those peaches apart and convert them to liquid. I had jammed about a fourth of the peach flesh into the garbage disposal because it had turned brown. But that still left me with 8 or 10 pounds. As I ran them through the machine, I recycled the pulp to get all the juice out, then poured the thick nectar in a large pot. When I was finished, I had half a gallon of nectar. I transferred it to my pressure cooker, stirred in a teaspoon of vitamin C powder to prevent it from turning brown, and began to gather the other ingredients for making peach jam. I didn't figure Maria would be terribly interested in drinking the nectar because of her bad experience with that one peach. When I mentioned making jam to her, she brightened, and suggested I throw the jalapeños in too.
So, I ran the red Don Pancho Villa jalapeño peppers through the juicer, poured the fiery liquid into a sauce pan, and cooked it down till most of the liquid had evaporated. I poured the remaining liquor into the pressure cooker too, squeezed in the juice of two lemons, and turned on the heat.
When I make peach jam, I don't like to overdo the sugar, and I never use pectin, which thickens it. Instead, I bring the nectar to a boil, stir in 85% sugar and about 3 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice per quart of nectar, and then boil the concoction over high heat, stirring constantly, till I cannot stir down the bubbles. At this point, at sea level, the temperature of the boiling mass is between sustained between 120 and 123ºF, and then I remove it from the heat and pour it into sterilized, warm jars. Then, I screw the lids on snugly, and set the jars into boiling water for 5 minutes. Prepared this way, the jam will be thick, and it will have a very long shelf life at room temperature. The acid from the lemon and ascorbic acid works with the sugar to thicken the jam and make it hold its shape. Too much acid will make the jam "weep", and thin liquid will be forced out of it while the jam gets too thick. The idea of boiling is two-fold. First, it reduces the amount of water in the jam mass, and that makes it thicker. Second, it heats the sugar to the "soft-ball" stage, and that makes it thick without carmelizing it or turning it rock hard.
In the past I have made mistakes you'll want to avoid. I've added too much lemon juice, and that makes the jam weep and taste too tart. I've added too little, and that has made the jam runny. I've not boiled long enough, and the jam has been runny, necessitating a reboiling. I've boiled it too long, and that has made the jam too thick to spread easily. I've failed to stir the pot constantly, and that has resulted in a caramelization of the jam on the bottom of the pot, imparting a burnt flavor and flecks of dark matter to the jam. I've also added too many hot peppers, resulting in a jam that is too hot to enjoy on toast.
I met an old woman at the local Pepper Extravaganza who makes jam, and I asked her how she managed to get such good, rich flavor into it. She explained her secret. "I only cook it as long as I have to in order to make it jell. Overcooking takes away flavor." She always uses pectin in her jams in order to thicken them nicely without boiling them too long.
Pectin is a thickening agent that naturally occurs in all fruits, but it is more prevalent in some than in others. Unless you boil the moisture out of peach jam and raise the heat of the boiling, sugary mass to above 120ºF, you will need to add pectin in order to thicken it. Typical brand names are Certo and SureJell. Since you will be boiling it only a short time, and foam will form on the top, you will need to skim off the foam just before pouring into jars.
What? You want a regular recipe? Okay, here goes:
How to Make Jugito's Peach-Jalapeño Jam
2-gallon stainless steel or porcelain pot with flat bottom
Sterile jars with rubber-seal lids, all of which are still warm
Enough peaches to make 1/2 gallon (8 cups) fresh peach nectar
12 big red juicy jalapeño peppers
7 cups sugar
- Juice the peppers
- Put pepper juice in pot and set it to boil so as to reduce liquid and thicken remainder.
- Meanwhile, juice the peaches, and recycle the pulp to extract all possible juice.
- Pour peach nectar in pot and stir into pepper nectar.
- Squeeze the lemons and stir juice into nectar.
- Bring nectar to boil, stirring constantly.
- Stir sugar into nectar. If you are going to use pectin, stir it in now.
- Bring to rolling boil at high temperature, stirring constantly.
- If you are using pectin, remove from heat, skim off foam, and skip next step.
- In this step, stand back from the pot, wear gloves and an apron, and use long-handled utensils to avoid being splattered and burned with magma-like nectar. Continue boiling at high temperature, stirring constantly, using spatula to prevent sludge buildup on bottom of pot. Boil till temperature is sustained above 120ºF and below 124ºF for one minute. At this point, stirring will not diminish the bubbling.
- Immediately pour hot jam into sterile jars, wipe any spill of the threads and rim, then put caps on and screw down the tops snugly.
- Clean the pot, fill 1/2 full with water, set on stove, set sealed jars into the water, and bring to boil with lid on. Boil for 5 minutes, turn off heat, and allow jars to cool in the pot. This assures all bacteria are killed.
- Label the jars so you will know what is in them.
- Refrigerate jam after opening jars.
- Send me a jar of your jam.
How to Use Peach-Jalapeño Jam
This jam has a delicious, sweet flavor and packs plenty of heat. Suggested uses are:
- Spread the jam on buttered toast and eat with freshly brewed hot coffee.
- Decant some into a bowl and set beside Wheat Thins and a block of cream cheese or aromatic French cheese.
- Spread instead of syrup on pancakes.
- Use as a glaze for barbecued or roasted ribs, chicken, beef, pork, rabbit, or venison. Note: don't spread it on till the barbecue or roast is already well-browned and crusty on the outside, or the sugar will burn. After spreading it on, let it roast a little longer but watch it and remove it before it burns.
- Spread thinly on a loved one, and lick it off. Careful where you put it - that pepper burns. But hey, be adventurous. What's a little heat between lovers?
Naming a Power-Packed Jam after Sam Peter?
I know what you're wondering. You're wanting to ask me: "You mean you missed the Sam Peter fight in order to make Peach-Jalapeño Jam?"
No, but the fight didn't last long enough to interfere. While the nectar was coming to a boil, the fight started, and I was glued to my seat. Sam Peter, for all his black Nigerian beefy bulk, was the smaller of the two fighters. Throughout the first round, his larger opponent, Taurus Sykes, managed to keep his distance, and nevertheless had several close calls as Sam began to get his range. I counted three zooming overhand rights that barely missed and seemed to leave a sonic boom around Sykes' head in their wake.
At the bell, I got up to check and stir the pot. I turned the heat to low. All was well in nectarville, and this could be a long fight. I headed back to the beckoning glow of the tube.
In the second round, Sykes wasn't so lucky. In spite of being warned in his corner to stop backing up and to shift to the side, all Sykes did was back up, putting him directly in the path of Peter's freight-train attack.
After a hard right from the Nigerian Nightmare knocked Sykes firmly against the ropes, Peter came in, ducked down, then slammed an overhand right just above Sykes' left temple. Sykes began to crumble, and Peter landed at least two more like the first, knocking Sykes to the mat. Not even the ropes could save him. He didn't answer the 10-count.
I don't consider Sam Peter to be that great a boxing talent, but his punching power and killer instinct are awesome. He claimed "Nobody can take it," and I'm sure he's correct, if an opponent backs straight up from his attacks, but a more skilled boxer can evade him, side-step him, and pound his ribs to slow him down and make him drop his guard.
Sam Peter, like my Peach-Jalapeño Jam, packs a wallop. But I'll watch him develop a little longer before I nam a pepper jam after him.