Book Review

The Jamlady Cookbook

by Beverly Ellen Schoonmaker Alfeld

Published by Pelican Publishing Company, 1000 Burmaster St., Gretna, LA 70053-2246. 288 pp, 50 color photos. ISBN 1-58980-235-7. $35.August 2004.
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Reviewed by Bill Grimes (9/2004)

Most of us have been faced with a surplus of fruit at one time or another, whether from our own overplanting, a “gift” from a “friend” or an unwise purchase decision. After all that can be eaten fresh have been devoured and the urge to eat more satisfied, after more desserts than anyone can eat have been prepared and after all the neighbors never seem to be at home when you ring their doorbell with fruit in hand, it’s time for a decision: throw the fruit out or make jam.

Here in the West and Southwest we are blessed with year-round availability of both fresh, if sometimes inedible, fruits
and a wide assortment of canned jams, jellies, preserves, conserves, syrups and other fruit-based condiments. Historically, this has not been so. The seasonal availability of fruit meant that one needed to preserve it somehow if one was to have sustenance through the harsh winter. Some fruits could be canned whole or in sections (such as peaches), others could be dried (such as apples), some could be made into wines or cordials if the household ethic allowed (grapes, elderberries, blackberries, etc.) and most could be made into sugarlaced condiments. As suggested by this cookbook’s title, it is the latter method— preservation—that the author addresses.

Generally I find books on jams, jellies and preserving of two types—technical and artistic. In the technical books, the author specifies ingredients and technique meticulously, allowing one to produce a series of technically perfect but uninspiring and all-too-common results – apple and grape jellies, strawberry preserves, berry jam. Perfect but boring. Artistic books, on the other hand, tend to be long on inventiveness but short on practicality and, occasionally, on common sense. A little rose petal and lavender jelly goes a very long way. The author has managed to produce a book that is meticulous in its technique yet demonstrates superb artistry in winning flavor combinations.

Bev Alfeld and her alter ego, “Jamlady,” are fixtures on the farmer’s market and fair circuit in the Chicago area but almost unknown here. Her canned condiments have awakened the taste buds of thousands unaccustomed to how good fruits and fruit products can taste. By exerting tight control on the ingredients and how they are combined, cooked and canned, she produces unusual condiments that keep well—or would if they weren’t eaten so quickly.

The usual ingredients are represented here—sour cherries, blueberries, plums, figs, strawberries, grapes, apples and peaches—but the straight-ahead approach is accompanied by unusual twists. Sour Cherry-Almond Jam is followed by Rhubarb-Sour Cherry Preserves. Cinnamony Blueberry-Plum Jam is followed by Cranberry Preserves with Grand Marnier. Grape Conserve is followed by Thyme and Grape Jelly. Nectarine Jam is followed by Nectarine-Mango Jam. Not only are the usual characters given new accents but she also introduces additional fruits for consideration—currants and gooseberries, elderberries, chokecherries, quince and rowanberries, and even tomatoes—all with exciting flavors.

Not content to stop at fruit, the author also includes unlikely but scrumptious sounding vegetable preserves. The thought of Brandied Carrot Marmalade with Macadamia Nuts make my mouth water even as I write this. I can imagine Horseradish Jelly, although I might not make it for a while. Beet preserves, Zucchini Jam, Tomato-Ginger Jam and Red Pepper Jelly all beg to be made and tasted.

But what makes this book a must-have for the majority of CRFG members is the treatment Jamlady gives to unusual fruits we are likely to have around the house. Bananas, kiwis, Asian pears, persimmons, chestnuts, mulberries, and cactus fruit all take center stage. But what would amaze me if I didn’t know Bev better is her section on even more unusual fruits such as barberry, canistel, carambola, sapodilla, carissa, grumichama, jaboticaba, loquat, monstera, jelly palm fruit, passionfruit, serviceberry and many more. Given this wealth, I forgive her for mentioning the kiwano, or African horned melon.

Not content with simply helping us to make all these jellies and jams, the author includes recipes for pastries and other foods that incorporate what we have made. There is also an excellent extensive section on spirits and liquors that can be used in flavoring our fruits or other cooking. All of this is accompanied by detailed discussion of pectin, acidity and pH, how to can and process your product—in short, all you need to be successful.

I cannot say that this is a perfect book. The organization of the material and the author’s choice of shorthand abbreviations in her recipes—JSP/RWB5(4OZ)10(8OZ) meaning to Jar, Seal and Process a jam in a Rolling Water Bath for 5 minutes for 4- ounce jars or 10 minutes for 8-ounce jars—I personally find disconcerting. Since I am reviewing a prepublication copy, I can only hope that several typos will be corrected in the final printing. Even after picking these nits, however, I must recommend this book highly and look forward to using it over the summer to can my own bounty. I want to try some of those liquors too. —B.G.


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