Out of failure, a feast

Posted on Wednesday, April 13, 2011 | By Jared Easterday |
 In January, my super duper produce procuring friend showed up on my doorstep with twenty-five pounds of fresh, sweet and delectable blood oranges. Now, I'm the type of girl who a) loves free stuff; b) loves free food even more; and c) welcomes a challenge.  We'd been talking about waiting for blood oranges to come into season to make some marmalade.  I had made a small batch already from the few meyer lemons off my little dwarf tree and was gearing up to teach a canning class at 18 Reasons where we'd be making marmalade and the time had come!  What better way to really learn the ins and outs of a process than by overdoing it by about 20 pounds, right? We dumped the oranges into the sink to give them a good scrub since we'd be using the peels in the recipe; then we got to work flipping through cookbooks, technique web sites and recipes to decide how we were going to go about this.  With the meyer lemon marmalade, I had just peeled the lemons, left the pith on the peels and sliced the peels really thinly.  It turned out marvelously, but everything we were reading suggested that leaving the pith on oranges would make the end result way too bitter. We tried out a few pith-removing/peeling techniques to get a feel for what would be easiest to do with a batch this large - most recipes call for 3-5 pounds of citrus and we had 25 lbs!  First we tried using a vegetable peeler to remove just the outer peel, limiting the pith that came off with it.  That was fine, but then we were left with pith-covered oranges that still needed to be peeled somehow. Finally, we decided the best technique would have to be the one where you quarter the peels, pith and all, then steam them, leaving the pitch soft, mushy and easy to scrape off the inside of the peel segments.We were brilliant, we thought....for about 20 minutes.  Then, more than brilliant, we felt exhausted; not to mention worried about the future of our project.  Terina and I peeled, steamed, scraped....peeled, steamed, scraped....over and over until our fingers were scalded, our paper cuts were screaming and our backs felt like they'd be hunched permanently in Quasimodo fashion.  We eventually had to call in reinforcements who had been happily flying helicopters on the computer before we came begging for assistance. Hours scraped along and eventually all the oranges had been peeled and pithed and there was still chopping to do!  We sliced each peel into slender little slivers that would look lovely in our eventual marmalade.  Our cramping hands were unforgiving but we couldn't give up now - we were so close!  We saw the chopping task through to the end with relief!  Now that we had the hardest part done, it was time to choose our final recipe.  We were so tired we picked the easiest one we could find - no sliced ginger, no aromatic vanilla bean, no fancy suspended fruit - just add sugar and cook. Great, so the original recipe was for three pounds of oranges and six cups of sugar.  We had 25 pounds which meant we needed to multiply the recipe by 8.33, bringing us to.....50???!!!! pounds of sugar??? (/redoes math)  Yep, fifty pounds of sugar.  Holy crap.  Though we had been exhausted, beaten and bruised before, this was when we both lost it.  We began to laugh hysterically.  It was either that or cry, to be honest.  There was no way either of us felt comfortable dumping 50 pounds of sugar into a pot of oranges.  That's TWO pounds of sugar per pound of oranges!  I had a five pound bag of sugar in the cabinet so we agreed to reduce the sugar to 35 pounds and sent our happy helpers to the store to buy 30 pounds of sugar.  It must have looked pretty funny to see two bearded men in line at Safeway at 10:30pm buying 30 pounds of granulated sugar.  But I digress... After the boys returned with the goods we added bag after bag of sugar, stirring and glancing at each other skeptically, hoping our reduction in sugar wouldn't affect the recipe too much and wondering who was going to eat this sugarific concoction once it was done. NOW surely the hard part was done right?  Jars were cleaned and loaded into the canner to warm up.  Oranges were peeled, pithed, sliced.  Sugar decisions were made.  All we had left to do was heat the mixture to gel stage - or 220 degrees Fahrenheit.  No problem.  We put the marmalade into our three largest stock pots and cranked the heat on high.  Every 15 minutes or so we measured the temperature - it quickly went to about 210 degrees and....stayed there.  We put on the lid for 30 minutes to try to get the heat up.  We took off the lid for 30 minutes to try to boil some water out.  We jumped up and down, we slumped over the counter.  We cursed and shook our heads and our fists and drank more wine.  What else could we do? Water boils at 212 F.  This mixture was never going to get past boiling.  We were really regretting our decision to reduce the sugar, but it was too late to change course. All we could do was wait.  We sat at the table and lamented our decision to make so much marmalade.  Stupid marmalade, "I don't even like to eat it," I proclaimed.  Sigh. Wait a second, do you smell that burning?  OH NO!  OF COURSE the marmalade was burning.  Burning at a temperature BELOW 220 degrees.  That was it - I really couldn't take it anymore.  I pulled the burning batch off the oven and swore as I carelessly tossed it into the sink.  What a waste of a night and my sanity.  And the worst part was that I was supposed to be teaching a canning class using marmalade in two weeks.  Not only was I so clearly incapable of making anything worth eating, I never wanted to see the stuff again in my LIFE.  I'd certainly have plenty of words of warning for the class, but could I conjure up any words of wisdom out of this?  I didn't know and it was too late in the night to think about it. After the burning episode, we still had two giant pots of bubbling marmalade left but I felt too dejected to try to save it.  I sent Terina home and she promised to come back the next afternoon to help me finish it up. She did come back the next day and we managed to boil out enough of the water to help concentrate the mixture and get it darn close to 220 F.  It took us two more days to jar up the two huge stockpots that weren't burned and I stacked all the jars carefully in a corner of the dining room to remind me of how much I hate marmalade. Still, that burned pot sat on my counter, waiting to be disposed of.  I didn't want to throw the entire thing out but it surely wouldn't be worth a damn on toast.  If fresh, delicious, perfect marmalade didn't do much to tempt me, how would burnt marmalade be able to? I stuck my nose in the pan and scoffed at the ruined batch- it didn't even smell like marmalade, more like a BBQ grill.  And then it hit me - BBQ grill?  Imagine a sweet, smokey, tangy and slightly spicy blood orange marinade smothered on chicken to be grilled outside this spring!  Maybe I was just hungry for something beside sugar but I HAD to try it!  I hurried about the kitchen grabbing onion and garlic powder (okay food snobs, seriously, at this point I could not be bothered to chop one more damned thing!), cumin, mustard seeds, red chili peppers and, of course, cayenne, which goes into nearly every thing I make.  I mixed and tasted, mixed some more - shaking bottles over the stock like some sort of mad scientist while I heated the mixture.  After I felt good about the spice level, I prepared more canning jars in hot water.  I was nearly delirious at this point, unsure of what Terina would think, but so excited about the possibilities. The next weekend, Terina stopped by to pick up her jars, acting a tad sheepish as if she felt slightly to blame for the catastrophe; which is, of course, utterly ridiculous.  I told her what I did with the burned batch and she laughed.  I felt certain she wouldn't try it. Fast forward to last weekend.  I know, I know.  Marmalade is nearly out of season (though there are still tons of oranges on my tree if you want any for marmalade!) and people are moving on to pickling their ramps, but it's really taken me this long to get over being pissed off at the marmalade so that I could write about it.  I felt like you all needed to know what can go wrong (clearly everything) when you don't follow the directions perfectly.  Not only that, but I was inspired by a huge success - you can see what drives me to write - and it's not failure.  It was a beautiful day and Jared and I had friends coming over to celebrate the life of a much-loved grandmother of a close friend we had lost that day.  It was the perfect grilling day and I suggested chicken from the grill - then I remembered the marmalade/barbecue surprise.  Why not?  I threw the failed marmalade over some chicken parts and tossed it in the refrigerator to marinate for a few hours.  That evening, we had the best grilled chicken I have ever had.  Everyone raved about it and the only disappointment was that we were one piece short for our group! Maybe it's because the memory of our horrible marmalade experience is fading, three months on, but I feel redeemed somehow; a master of failures, queen of re-purposing.  Next year I think I'll skip the marmalade and just make barbecue sauce!