Count your blessings

Things are not going too well in the garden. The cucumbers, zucchini, and possibly also the Charantais melons have been struck by the striped cucumber beetle, the squash vine borer, and who knows what else. Last year my entire harvest of winter squash was wiped out and I had to dump 80 beautiful, perfectly shaped little Delicata squashes that did not ripen because the plants suddenly wilted and died.

While I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of the organic pesticide I mail-ordered, the line-up of canning jars from this summer reassures me that it already has been a successful gardening season no matter what lies ahead.

When I first made the spiced gooseberries a few years ago, it initially looked like a complete failure. The kitchen smelled like a pharmaceutical lab, and the concoction tasted like the worst kind of cough syrup. I was mad at myself for wasting a large basket of gooseberries, several bottles of rum, whole vanilla beans, and quite a chunk of time on this. But the original recipe said to let the jars sit for two months.

When I opened the first jar in September, I was stunned. This was absolutely delicious! A very subtle spice flavor, and just a hint of rum. It is a treat on vanilla ice-cream, which is the way I have served it to numerous guests (I have tweaked the recipe a bit over the years). Everyone loved it although I always make sure that whoever comes for dinner likes gooseberries, or is at least eager to try new things. Because while gooseberries do well in this climate and I always get a good harvest from my three bushes, I am not willing to waste my treasures on culinary ignoramuses…

Spiced Gooseberries in Rum

4 to 4½ pounds (1.8 to 2 kg) slightly underripe gooseberries

4 cups (800 g) sugar

2 cups (500 ml) water

2 handfuls fresh, organic bee balm leaves, washed and picked over

2 handfuls fresh, organic lemon balm leaves, washed and picked over

1 bottle (750 ml) white rum

2 whole vanilla beans

You also need:

A canning pot, or a very large stockpot

4 1-quart (1 l) canning jars

4 bands

4 new (unused) lids

1. Remove the blossom ends from the gooseberries with small scissors (cuticle scissors work best), or a small knife. Wash the gooseberries.

2. Bring the sugar with 2 cups water to the boil in a large saucepan. Add the bee balm and lemon balm leaves. Turn off the heat and let steep for while you prepare the jars.

3. Fill a canning pot with enough water to the cover the jars with about 1 inch and bring the water to a boil. If you do not have a canning pot, place a couple of kitchen towels on the bottom and between the jars so they don’t bang together and crack. When the water starts boiling, place the jars, bands, and lids into the water to sterilize them. Remove the jars, bands and lids and dry the bands and lids thoroughly with a clean kitchen towel.

4. Fill the gooseberries into the canning jars. Slit the vanilla beans open with a sharp knife and place ½ bean into each jar in the middle of the gooseberries.

5. Strain the syrup and return it to the pan. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes until reduced to a light syrup. Add the rum and bring the liquid back a boil.

6. Pour the boiling syrup over the gooseberries, leaving about ½ inch headspace. Wipe the rims of the jars with a damp paper towel, then wipe them dry (this is to assure a good seal). Place the lids on the jars and screw the bands on tightly.

7. Process the jars in a boiling water bath for 20 minutes. Carefully lift the jars out of the water and place them on a damp kitchen towel.

8. Let sit undisturbed for 24 hours, then store the jars in a dark cool place. Let the gooseberries sit for two months before opening. If the jars are properly sealed (the lids should not give when you press them down), the gooseberries will keep for more than a year.

Makes four 1-quart (1 l) jars

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