Saturday, June 30, 2012

Tasting the Arroyo

I am not a natural athlete. I love to move, to find a running rhythm, to succeed at physical challenges, but I lack a very important aspect of the natural athlete: muscle memory. This summer, as I do every summer, I set out to begin running again, and it feels good. Indiana trots along beside me, and when he's not distracted by another dog, a bird, a squirrel, a place to pee, or something completely invisible to me, he's a great running partner. (Me: Step step breathe-breathe in, step step breathe-breathe out. Indiana: clickety clickety huff-huff, clickety clickety huff-huff.) I have been in and out of running since I ran cross country in high school, so it doesn't take long for me to get back in the groove. My run isn't pretty, though. And I could never learn more complicated moves in other sports, like the butterfly stroke or how to pitch a ball well. E has wasted many hours trying to teach me to effectively shoot pool and deliver a good tennis pitch. When I bowl the perfect strike or shoot a nuthin'-but-net three-pointer, both things which have happened, it is an absolute, irreproducible fluke.

I've ridden horses my entire life, or what seems like my entire life, almost as long as I can remember. I'm comfortable around horses. I think they're funny animals. I can sit through a buck without freaking out and know how to read ears. But, I'll never be the best rider because, from one ride to the next, I forget a little something I learned. I relearn it in the next ride, but then something else is forgotten. I can't picture where every part of my body is and where it should be at every moment. On my weekly date with Dude-the-horse at my barn this past Friday, as I asked Dude for a canter my trainer yelled at me for the thousandth time, "Get your right calf off him! He can't move into the right lead when you're holding him back with your calf!" My brain has registered this command as many times as she's told it to me, but I'm having the hardest time making my body remember what my brain knows. Yes, I do learn and improve, but for a muscle-memory-less person like myself, improving at a physical skill is a life-long slog. In other words, I'll always be learning to ride a horse.

However, though I do not have muscle memory, I do have taste memory. I can taste foods in my head without having them in front of me. Someone can tell me what is in something that they like to make, and I have a pretty good idea what it tastes like. And, I can imagine combination of flavors and be confident in whether or not the combination will work before I even get to cooking. That happened to me this week, when I went on a hike with Indiana after garden-chicken-dog-sitting at a friend's house with an overloaded grapefruit tree. On our hike, we brushed past a late-blooming elder tree in the shade of the canyon, and when I smelled its muscat-y sweetness, and knew exactly what I needed to do.

Grapefruit and Elderflower Marmalade
The basic strategy of boiling the whole fruit to soften and prepare the bitter grapefruit comes from Nigella Lawson's oft-cited red grapefruit marmalade recipe (found online here at the bottom of the page) in How to be a Domestic Goddess. Her recipe, however, relies on milder red grapefruit, and what I have available to me is quite bitter, so I mitigated that bitterness with a smidge of salt—salt is a great neutralizer to bitter flavors, and it doesn't take much, hardly enough to taste. As well, I prefer a nice soft set, pieces of tender candied peel floating in a tasty jelly, so I upped the liquid a bit by adding the orange juice. And, what makes this a really special marmalade, something that is evocative of a warm canyon breeze, is the addition of elderflowers, amped up with St. Germain. If you live in an elderflower-free zone, you can make this with just the liqueur and have a hint at what the arroyo smells like in the morning. It won't be nearly as elderflower-y, but you'll get the start of an idea. And once you've got that idea, maybe your taste imagination can get you the rest of the way.

You will need:
2 large or 3 small grapefruit (the fruit should weigh 1 3/4 pounds)
2 1/4 pounds sugar
1 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 fresh elderflower heads
3 ounces St. Germain liqueur

To make the marmalade:
Scrub the grapefruit really well to get any grime off; I use a small brush to remove dust and bug residue.  Place the grapefruit in a very large pot and pour lots of water in the pot, enough that they float easily. Place the pot over high heat, and boil for two hours until the fruit is soft. Remove from heat and drain off and discard the cooking water. Allow the grapefruit to cool completely.

Once the grapefruit is cool, use a sharp knife to cut them across their bellies. Slice each half into six or so long wedges, then chop the fruit as fine or as coarse as you like across the fruit wedges, not lengthwise. Remove any seeds you find, but other than the seeds, you're using the whole fruit for this recipe.

Dump the chopped fruit and any juices that collected while you were chopping the grapefruit into the large pot you've been using. Add the sugar, orange juice, salt, and elderflower heads to the pot and stir so that the juices moisten all the sugar. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat. Cook the mixture until it reaches 221 degrees, or until it sets; there many different ways of testing this (a cold saucer, a drip test, recognizing the change of the bubbles' appearance). Since the whole fruit is so high in pectin, it shouldn't take too long to reach the setting point. It took about 18-20 minutes for me.

Remove from heat and use a fork to fish out the elderflower heads. Discard them. Stir in the shot of St. Germain.

Ladle the marmalade into clean jars. Follow the USDA guidelines for home canning that you can find here to seal and preserve the marmalade.

This recipe makes approximately 3 1/2 pints.

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