Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Marmalade, sans Smoosh

gioI’m a cat person. Taleggio and I bonded over shellfish and sleeping in on Sundays as soon as I brought him home from the shelter. As the consummate bedfellow in my life, we share secrets. He’s the only other set of eyes to witness the dirty dishes I leave in the sink or my midnight cravings for triple crème and chocolate, and only he gets to paw me in the shower. Adopting my Russian baby Blue was my first tangible step toward starting a family of my own creation. One day, when I have a home big enough for the three of us (or four if I can find him a Daddy), I hope to welcome into our lives his brother, Marmalade Smoosh. Smoosh will be a big, fat, fluffy, orange Persian who will join Gio in deserving the title, “my man.” Till then, I’ll have to settle for another type of marmalade, sans Smoosh…

In the darkest depths of winter, when I haven’t seen the sun in days, I sometimes have Raymond Chandler daydreams. In these dreams, ever-sunny Los Angeles (to which I have been magically transplanted) is populated exclusively by women in chic suits with boxy crocodile handbags, who wander aimlessly through gardens of bougainvillea while dashingly handsome men (who all look suspiciously like Don Draper, a.k.a. Humphrey Bogart) roll cigarettes and drink martinis in the shade. No one does any real work, and there’s nary a strip mall in sight—nor an In-And-Out burger, SUV or iPhone. In these dreams, when I reach through the window of my immaculately white California kitchen to break a fresh avocado off the branch, a warm breeze touched with the smell of winter’s citrus wafts in from my backyard grove, where Smoosh coos to be let in.

p1223292Short of putting on some high heels and Hoagy Carmichael while I roast root vegetables, reality suggests that there hasn’t been a lot of sunshine in my New York kitchen recently. But just as my West Coast fantasy was starting to fade, I got a surprise in the mail sent by an old friend in Phoenix—a brown box filled with Seville oranges and Meyer lemons. Now, Phoenix may not be vintage Hollywood, but for homegrown citrus, it hands down beats anything else I’ve tried. My friend grows his sour oranges as ornamentals in his backyard; the dark, glossy-leaved trees sprout and drop their bright fruit unbothered by any but birds. Maybe he meant for me to put the oranges in a nice bowl and leave it at that, let them brighten up my table with a ray of Arizona sunshine, but I have a feeling he knew I wouldn’t be able to leave them alone.

A (perhaps apocryphal) story of the beginnings of Keillor’s Dundee Marmalade served as inspiration—in 1700, the story goes, a grocer was offered the opportunity to buy pounds of Seville oranges at a severely discounted price, when a passing ship, hemmed in by a storm, needed to get rid of them quickly. Intensely sour and full of seeds, even by 18th century tastes the oranges were far too bitter to sell. So the grocer’s wife (Mrs. Keillor) did what any smart woman of her day would have done; following the rule that the tartest of fruits—wild blueberries, rhubarb, green apples, raspberries—can make the best desserts, she turned them into a transcendent Seville orange marmalade. With a box of bitter citrus on my doorstep and a new set of canning tools in the cupboard (a thoughtful Christmas gift), I decided to follow her lead.

p1233336I’ve always been fascinated by the second life of food: pickles, preserves, even the conversion of leftover bits and bops into new, exciting dishes. Having the chance to break out my hot water canner mid-winter is a delicious treat, as well as pragmatic. How else can one safely bottle up a batch of distilled sunlight for the next few months? The process of washing and sterilizing, boiling, bottling, sealing and processing —so methodical and exact, yet so timeless—becomes meditative. Surely Mrs. Keillor arrived at a similar process 300 years ago, using her equivalent to my modern tongs, funnels, lid-lifters and Ball jars. After washing and lining up my tools on a clean cloth towel and sterilizing the jars in a hot water bath, I’m like a surgeon prepared for a major operation. Sleeves rolled up, apron on, ready to dig in!

The whole experience of canning is an aesthetic and sensory indulgence, one totally lost if you’ve never done more than open a jar of Smuckers. Strawberry jam on toast is decadent; a stockpot full of boiling strawberries, hot and thick and sweet, is immersive and divine. After squeezing and pitting the oranges (and one of the Meyer lemons, for a little extra zing), I carefully wrapped the pits in a cheesecloth pouch, sliced the rinds into thin strips, and added both to a pot of boiling water. Within minutes the air was heavy with orange oil. Making marmalade didn’t just bring the sunshine in; it saturated my entire apartment with a sweet, thick, spicy scent. After simmering for hours, pounds of white sugar were poured in, drowning and quickly dissolving in the glistening orange goo. Last but not least, a splash of Glenlivet (one in the pot and one on the rocks, with a sour orange twist)…because what goes better with oranges than scotch? It was all I could do to keep from taste-testing ladlefuls of marmalade as I waited for the full experience—cooled, set and on toast.

p1243366Long after I’d poured the marmalade into six clean pint jars, sealing and lowering them into boiling water for processing, the scent lingered—in curtains, in clothes and in my hair. It was the smell of lazy days and luxury, bitter rinds and (in my mind, anyway) the glamorous, seductive West. I poured myself a bit more single malt and plunked down in bed, still in my apron. A frisky Taleggio popped out from between the sheets. Squinting, I could almost see an avocado tree outside my window. And surely, those were footsteps coming up the stairs—Bogie? Smoosh?

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