As though I'm a little "touched" in the head, as the old folks I knew as a kid used to say. Those people are mostly strangers, 'cause the folks who know me have no question about that. Anyway, this weekend I got a bee in my bonnet to make some preserves. Not just any preserves mind you, but some that I recall from my wee young days on the farm...
I've shared a lot of the recipes my Italian grandmother taught me, but not so many from my grandmother that was the good old fashioned southern country cook... mostly because I don't want to be responsible for all of those heart issues they could bring... Grandmother Waneta was a great cook... her biscuits that were the best ever, and her potato donuts were to die for, but one of my favorites was something she made that could be eaten on those biscuits... watermelon rind preserves.
Yup, preserves made of the cast off rind of a watermelon. Who'd a thought? Obviously, those who came before us wasted absolutely nothing. I've often wondered, "How in the heck did we (humans in general) EVER start eating this stuff?" Sometimes all I can attribute it to is that we either ate everything or risked starvation, and that old survival mode can be very strong... but not many folks I know now days do much with watermelon rinds other than toss them out.
Being a girl from what I consider the south (and all y'all who are really in the real South stop laughing), I didn't give these much thought growing up, until I realized that they really aren't made all that much elsewhere. That, of course, affords them the label of a "Southern delicacy". So, next time you want to wow folks with something totally different (and make them look at you like you may be a tad "touched"), even if you are from up North, give these a try... Let me share with you how my grandmother made these...
Watermelon Rind Preserves
First, you need a watermelon that has a pretty thick rind. When you find one, and decide it is absolutely time to give this a try, you cut away all of the delicious pink flesh and eat or refrigerate it to eat later, and then peel away the green outer rind. That you can toss or put in the compost heap.
When you have that rind, you need to cut it into chunks. I like my chunks little, they're probably a quarter of an inch square or so, while some like their chunks a bit larger. I think my grandmother even made hers more like slices than chunks... so, personal taste here. Anyway, you'll need about a quart and a half of them (that translates into about 6 cups or so).
The first step in making them is soaking the rind in a salt water bath. Use about 1/4 cup of salt to enough water to cover the rinds. Stick this in the fridge (use a glass or plastic bowl) over night or for at least 5 or 6 hours.
Once the rind is soaked, drain the water, and rinse very well, then soak in "clear" (her word, not mine) water for at least half an hour to an hour, drain and rinse again.
Now, while all of this soaking and draining is going on, gather the rest of the ingredients:
1 t Alum (if you can't find this, it's ok... the world won't end without it, but it does make them more "crisp")
1 T dried ginger (I used a combination of dried and fresh ginger, and, frankly, I wish I had used a lot more of it... but then again, y'all know I am a serious ginger fan)
Once you have done the "clear" water soak on your rind, toss it into a pan with the alum and dried ginger and cover with water. Boil this until it is tender (you can easily pierce it with a fork, but it still is relatively firm). Drain and rinse with cold water. Lots of rinsing and draining goes on in this recipe, have you noticed?
Now, on to the actual making of the sweet part of the preserves...
4 cups granulated sugar
2 lemons, seeded, and "sliced real thin" Now... me, I love lemons too, but the whole "sliced real thin" thing didn't sit very well with me, the pith can add such a bitter taste and all, so my solution, I zested the two lemons, and juiced them both, that gave me just a bit over a quarter of a cup of fresh lemon juice.
About 6 cups of water. I say about, because I used closer to 7 by the time I was finished.
Put the sugar, water and lemon juice/zest (and/or thinly sliced lemons) into a large pan and gently bring to a boil. I added about a teaspoon of fresh ginger to this mix as well, although the recipe didn't call for it. Allow this to boil for 5 to 10 minutes to begin to thicken, and then CAREFULLY add the watermelon rind. Lower the heat (because it will scorch if you are not careful) and allow to cook until the syrup is VERY thick and the watermelon is translucent. You can add small amounts of water if needed to get the watermelon to the translucent phase.
In the mean time, you should sterilize 4 or 5 half pint jars. Bring a great big kettle of water to the boiling point to use as a water bath for the preserves, and put the lids in a bath of simmering water and just keep in a holding pattern until you are ready to use.
When the watermelon rind is translucent, and the syrup is thick (you really have almost equal amounts of rind and syrup when you reach this stage), it's ready to put in the jars. Ladle the HOT preserves into the jars, wipe the rims of the jars with damp paper towel to remove any of the preserves on the rim, cover with the lids that have been simmering, and gently screw on the rings. Place the jars into the water bath (the water should cover the jars by at least an inch) and "process", boil, for 10 to 15 minutes.
CAREFULLY lift the jars from the water bath and sit on a rack to cool. If you don't have a rack, use a folded dish towel on the counter. Then, if everything has gone just right, in moments you will hear the amazingly satisfying "ping" of each jar as the seal is fully created. It's very, very rewarding! When the jars are cool you should be able to see the slight "dip" in the center if the lid that is created by that seal. If you don't, and the lid is still up, refrigerate the jar and eat soon.
I don't have to tell anyone that all of this is really hot. Hot, hot, HOT... and you need to be REALLY careful, do I? I mean, this stuff has sticking power from all of that sugar, so BE CAREFUL!
All that's left is to label and enjoy! I think I'm gonna go make some of those biscuits of Grandma's...