Whenever produce is in peak season and cheap, I like to preserve it for use later in the year. The strawberries that are in full flush right now will never taste better. Soon there will be a plethora of berries to deal with, and then a run of lovely stonefruit and pipfruit. And later still, as autumn rolls around, there will be peppers and chillies and tomatoes.
All these sun-kissed harvests can carry their flavours into jars in the pantry to prop up the muted flavours of winter. Come a cold winter's night, you will open the jar and bring out the tastes of summer.
It might sound like a lot of work to get them there, but trust me, it's easy. It's not like you have to get out giant cauldrons and go into a major production - small batches of just a few jars are really easy to make. There's something incredibly rewarding and very therapeutic about a line-up of jars filled and sealed on the bench ready for the pantry.
Getting into the rhythm of creating a pantry of homemade preserves as cheap fresh harvests come to hand saves time, energy and dollars later on. But even more than this, homemade preserves provide a signature to your food. You always feel like a bit of a hero when you can pull out a jar of homemade kasundi or some peach chutney at the summer barbecue and have everyone clamouring for the recipe.
I am a real fan of making edible gifts for my friends. And I love receiving them. Last year for Christmas I received treats such as pinot noir cherries, Moroccan tomato chutney, kasundi, Indian peach chutney and some wonderful apricot jam. There's something so personal about these kinds of gifts, they represent the lexicon of a family's larder, often with the tastes and histories of recipes passed down generation to generation.
I aim for one batch production each year, whether it's homemade berry jam, chilli jam, a tasty nut butter, pickled cherries or some other nice pickle or preserve. When you're choosing what to make, think about perishability - you want something that will last at least three weeks. You also need to think about whether it has to be kept chilled - this can be a trial when festive fridges are already overflowing.
It's so satisfying knowing that I've produced something delicious and handmade that the people I care about will enjoy.
Ready in 15 mins + freezing + pickling. Makes 1 jar
2 tsp salt, heaped
Juice of 1 lemon
1 bay leaf
Neutral oil, such as grapeseed
Scrub the lemons well and cut each lengthwise into six wedges. Freeze on a tray until rigid (this breaks down their cell structure, which speeds up the preserving process). Sterilise a medium jar and its metal lid. Pack the frozen lemon wedges into the jar, add the salt, lemon juice and bay leaf and cover with oil. Seal with lid. The pickled lemons will be ready in about a week but will improve over several months. Once you open the jar, you'll need to keep it in the fridge. To use the lemons, scoop out and discard the lemon flesh, then thinly slice the rinds.
Annabel says: In a month or two lemons will be hard to find and ridiculously expensive so it's a good idea to preserve them now, when they are cheap. Preserved lemons look pretty and make a useful gift. When you come to use them you discard the juicy middles and just eat the rinds. They make a great addition to couscous, salads, dressings and tagines. Pureed, they add a special flavour to sauces and dressings. Once opened, they will keep for months in the fridge.
Christmas Fruit Mince
Ready in 10 mins + macerating. Makes about 8 cups
3 cups currants
1 cup good-quality raisins, chopped
1 cup cranberries
3 apples, peeled and grated
1 packed cup soft brown sugar
½ tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground allspice
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
½ cup brandy
¾ cup hazelnuts or pine nuts, toasted and chopped
Make the Christmas Fruit Mince at least 24 hours ahead of when you need it, to allow the flavours to develop. Combine all ingredients except the nuts in a basin and store in the fridge or seal in a sterilised jar until required. It will keep for months. Stir in nuts just before using.
Annabel says: For the uninitiated, "Christmas mince" conjures this weird idea of meat in a sweet tart - which it once was. The origins of Christmas mince pies date back to the Crusaders, who brought back recipes from the Middle East that used meat and fruits and spices. Thankfully we have abandoned the minced meat, and the suet that once gave these pies their unctuous richness has been replaced, with great success (and a lot fewer calories), with grated apple.
Ready in 15 mins + standing + setting. Makes 2 small jars
2 cups coarsely crushed strawberries
2 cups sugar
1 Tbsp lemon juice
Mix berries with sugar and allow to stand for 3-4 hours in a non-corrosive container. Boil hard with the lemon juice for about 5 minutes or until jam starts to set. Pour into sterilised jars and seal with sterilised pop-top lids.
Annabel says: At this time of year, roadside stalls are piled high with strawberries. I always ask for jam berries. They're cheaper as they may be a little squishy or imperfect but they're ideal for jam. There's nothing quite like the taste of homemade jams like this and they take just a matter of minutes to make.