This recipe for the preserved-fruit potion removes the bitter.
I KNOW IT’S not cool for food writers to dislike anything. We’re supposed to slurp down everything from raw octopus to lambs’ brains with gusto. And we do try. I, for instance, have a minimum one-bite rule for everything, regardless of how repulsed I am at first glance. The fact is, though, that we’re only human, and it’s probably safe to say that all humans dislike something.
Thankfully, my list of dislikes is pretty short. Better yet, most of the things on it aren’t likely to turn up on my plate without warning: tripe, escargot, pickled herring, licorice.
But then there’s marmalade.
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Over time, I’ve learned to keep the fact that I don’t like marmalade to myself. That’s because whoever I tell claims I just haven’t tried the right one yet. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been given jars of marmalade by well-meaning friends and acquaintances in an attempt to show me the error of my marmalade-hating ways. I probably hold the world record for the amount of artisan kaffir lime and pomelo-ginger marmalades I’ve chucked in the trash.
It’s not that I haven’t tried to like it. Believe me, I have. I spent seven years in Britain, the country that invented the peel-and-pulp preserve, trying to see what everyone sees in the stuff. But for the life of me I can’t; why ruin the flavor of a perfectly delicious citrus fruit by cooking it with its acrid, bitter rind? I mean, we don’t just chomp into unpeeled oranges, do we?
The tragedy of not liking marmalade, of course, besides the endless stream of jars I’m gifted, is the fact that I don’t have any way of enjoying an entire category of fruits out of season. When raspberries and apricots and plums are out of season, I reach for a jar of them in preserved form. When Meyer lemons and satsumas disappear off the shelves, I know I won’t be able to taste them again for an entire year.
Or at least this used to be the case. Then one year I found myself in southern Italy at the height of citrus season and discovered something miraculous — namely, that there’s more than one way to preserve an orange (or a mandarin, as it were).
My epiphany occurred during a dinner at an agriturismo in Calabria called Casa Chella, a lovely restaurant-cum-olive-and-citrus-farm run by Natale Falsetta and his wife, Maria. There, in addition to many other delicious things, I was served one of the simplest, yet most memorable desserts I’ve ever eaten: a tender sponge cake filled with a jam-like substance they called “marmellata di mandarino.” I knew at first bite this was no ordinary marmalade, though; without even a trace of bitterness getting in the way of the pure, intense sweetness of the mandarins, it tasted like the Mediterranean sun itself in spreadable form.
Thankfully, Maria was happy to share the recipe. “Well, you just peel some mandarins,” she told me, shrugging nonchalantly, “and cook them with sugar until it sets. That’s all.” Or that was the gist of it anyway. What I actually noted down was “peel — sugar — cook,” so needless to say, the specifics took a little sleuthing.
But not much, actually. This must be one of the easiest preserves in existence. In fact, a quick blitz in the food processor and a leisurely half-hour-boil on the stovetop are all the effort required to churn out a batch of chunky, sweet-tart mandarin bliss, as delicious topping a cake as it is drizzled on a bowl of plain yogurt or slathered thickly on hot toast.
The method works for just about any other citrus fruit, too; I’ve made it successfully with Meyer lemons, blood oranges and grapefruit, adjusting the amount of sugar and acid to taste. It makes quick work of a bumper crop, but it’s equally invaluable for the occasional subpar bag of citrus I bring home from the store, because for this treatment the fruit doesn’t have to be particularly sweet.
It also makes stellar gifts, as popular with people who adore marmalade as it is with those who despise it. And as an unexpected bonus, I’ve found that the more jars of this I give out, the fewer of the other kind I get in return.
Melissa Kronenthal is a freelance food writer and photographer.
Marmellata di Mandarino
Makes about 1 quart*
2 ½ pounds mandarins, any variety, preferably organic
2 ½ cups sugar, or more to taste
Juice of 2 to 3 lemons
1. Wash 2 or 3 of the mandarins and zest them, carefully avoiding the white pith underneath. You should have about a tablespoon. Peel all of your fruit, removing as much of the pith and filaments as possible. Working over a bowl to catch the juices, cut each mandarin in half around its equator, and pick out any seeds. Place the halves along with any juice they’ve expelled in a food processor and process for about a minute, until you have a chunky purée.
2. Combine the mandarin purée, zest, sugar and lemon juice in a large, heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then reduce the heat so it continues to boil gently. Allow the mixture to cook, stirring occasionally, until it sets, about 25 to 30 minutes. To test the set, place a saucer in the freezer for a couple of minutes, then drizzle a teaspoon of hot jam on it. Allow to cool, then run your finger through it. If it holds the trough, it’s set. Also taste for sweetness at this point; if you think it could use more, add a bit more sugar and cook another minute or two; do the same with lemon juice if the acidity needs some perking up.
Pour into hot, sterilized jars, seal tightly and process according to your preferred canning method. Or simply keep in a closed container in the fridge for up to a month.
* recipe can be doubled