What Green Beans and Figs Have in Common

It all started with some surprisingly bad fig jam. Amanda and I have seven fig trees. We HAD nine, but our two O’Rourkes got trampled in the construction of the storm shelter/root cellar. Two of our figs were planted in 2010, got knocked down to the ground by the severe winter, and have bounced back with fresh foliage this year. The rest were planted this year. So even though we are positioned to enjoy quite a lot of figs soon, we’re still in waiting mode now.

So we were delighted when our friends Byron and Mavis allowed us to pick from the gigantic Celeste fig tree growing in their side yard. We brought home about a gallon of delicious figs and set about making fig jam, using one of those standard fig jam recipes that are ubiquitous on the Internet.

The first thing that hit me was all the lemon juice required. It’s needed for water bath canning because figs are an unusual fruit. Instead of being acidic like peaches or pears or plums (which work well in water bath canning), figs are mildly alkaline. So the solution used in these recipes is to load them up with acidic lemon juice. It’s not a problem for your fruit to be “lemoned up” if your jam is also loaded up with sugar, as most of the recipes on the Internet seem to be. Even though it seemed like a lot of lemon juice, we added it, because nobody wants to be the one whose poison jam made the whole church sick. And we dutifully abstained from the added sugar. Amanda and I like our jam to taste like fruit, not like a bite of fruit-inspired candy.

What a disappointment. As we had feared, the lemon juice brutalized the delicate flavor of the figs. We had no choice but to add sugar – not nearly as much as called for in the recipes, but enough to make the jam palatable. We will soldier on and consume it, but it won’t be a source of joy like, say, the pear preserves we made back in September.

I perked up Saturday when I was attending the Fig Walk at Petals from the Past, and Dr. Arlie Powell, the acknowledged dean of fruit trees in Alabama, promised us a taste of his wife’s fig jam. Surely, I thought, this would be the good stuff, and I could find out how she made it. Unfortunately, what we tasted was a more typical super-sweet confection, vaguely reminiscent of figs but very different from figs themselves. I apologize, Mrs. Powell, but I’m guessing you made your jam using a recipe very much like those on the Internet, with lots of lemon juice added to provide acidity and lots of sugar added to cover up the taste of the lemon. Quite serviceable by today’s standards, but very, very different from the taste of fresh figs.

So then we started thinking: why is the lemon juice needed? To lower the pH for water bath canning. Why are we water bath canning? Because that’s what everybody does to make jam. That’s how we decided to experiment with pressure canning fig jam. Amanda and I invested in an All American #930 30 quart pressure canner a couple of years ago when we lived in suburbia, back in the days when money flowed more freely and $300 seemed like a small price for a lifetime investment in delicious resilience. We’ve used it regularly for water bath canning but never before yesterday for pressure canning. There was something intimidating about all those turnbuckles and that metal-on-metal seal, and we were afraid the food wouldn’t taste as good as we like anyway. Then the Farmer-in-Chief started bringing in beans.

Permit me another digression here so I can tell you that we may have accidentally overplanted cucumbers, but we intentionally overplanted green beans. The very top of Row 8 is lima beans, but the lion’s share of Row 8 (that is two sides of a 140 foot row) is green beans. That’s right. 140 x 2 or nearly 280 feet of green beans. At one time somebody thought our church would be selling green beans as a fund raiser. The idea slipped away, but only after we had geared up to do our part.

We haven’t said much about them, because we didn’t know for sure how they would do. Now we can tell you that we shall soon be the proud owners of a formidable mess of green beans. We got our first taste of the crop Sunday, and they were wonderful. Sweet, crisp, and lightly seasoned with garlic and a splash of olive oil. Heaven!

But what we tasted Sunday was just the scouting party; the troops just over the hill were massing for their assault. Phalanx upon phalanx of variegated and delicious rattlesnake green beans. So we decided this would be the time to put our pressure canner to the test.

The 930 can handle 14 quarts at a time. We decided an even dozen would do for us. So before we crank up the pressure canner to deal with 12 quarts of green beans, I needed to get more familiar with the pressure canning process. Re-enter the figs. Our friends John and Kathy ALSO have a mature fig tree, and Kathy brought us a bag of figs on Sunday. Picked at the peak of freshness, delicate and delicious. A great example of the gift economy in action, huh?

So Amanda and I decided this would be a great chance for us to make a “dry run” with the pressure canner to gear up for those green beans. The All American 930 has a pressure gauge, but it’s mostly for show. The brains of the outfit live in a cute little weighted valve that sits atop a vertical vent on the lid of the canner. The user has his choice of pressure at 5 lb., 10 lb., or 15 lb. So far everything I’ve seen is based on 10 lb. That is, 10 lb. above atmospheric pressure. The nice big bag of figs from John and Kathy, minus a few we stole for tasting here and there, cooked down to just one quart of flesh, so yesterday afternoon we canned four half-pint jars of fig jam in the pressure canner.

We joked that the ingredients list would be the simplest: “Figs.” That’s right; no lemon juice, no pectin, no sugar, not even any water. Just figs.

fig-jam-for-sitePressure canning turned out to be surprisingly easy in relation to my fears about it. Getting the canner up to boiling was trivial on our propane burner, and then we let the steam escape the vent for about five minutes before placing the cute little weighted valve on it, set to 10 lb.

It took another five minutes or so for the valve to start dancing and spitting, indicating that we had reached that 10 lb. threshold. I then started timing and processed for 15 minutes before turning off the heat. Per the instructions for the pressure canner, I let the canner cool down at its own pace, which took about 30 minutes.

We now have four half-pint jars of fig jam that we can’t wait to try, but we’ll have to wait because we already have a jar of the surprisingly bad jam open. Meanwhile, the rattlesnakes are gathering for their attack, so we better get ready.

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