cherries(Steph Larsen photos)

“You live in the middle of nowhere!”

This was the exclamation, repeated at regular intervals, we heard when an old high-school friend of mine came to visit.

For folks from the city — even Nebraskans — visiting our house can feel like entering another world. There’s no traffic to speak of, and you can see the stars at night. You need directions from a local because Google Maps or GPS become unreliable and there aren’t always street signs … or paved roads, for that matter.

After my friend and I caught up a bit, the conversation shifted to the quality of life in Omaha, where my friend lives. He talked about the Botanical Garden, the Omaha Zoo, and other attractions in the city, then wondered aloud what there is to do in rural Nebraska.

And I thought: How, if there’s nothing to do here, am I so busy?

cherry treeThe top half of this superproductive cherry tree is for the birds, but we get the bottom.(Steph Larsen)We sure have plenty to keep us occupied. We’ve had quite the rain in the last 2 weeks, averaging about an inch a day, so things were a little soggy. The rain has been welcome, not only for our pasture but because we tend to ignore “indoor projects” when we’re able to do things outside.

We spent much of a recent afternoon pitting tart cherries and putting up (that is, canning) cherry jam, and sauce. Our cherry tree is producing much more than we ever expected, and we’ve scrambled to keep up with picking and processing them. The top half of the tree we’ve left for the birds to eat, mostly because we’ve got our hands full with what we can reach on our short extension ladder.

Canning is both a deeply satisfying and sometimes frustrating kitchen adventure. Since this was the first time this year I’d fired up the canner, I was a little rusty. One of my character flaws is to barrel into a project without reading all the directions first, and this resulted in the first batch of jam getting made into sauce because I forgot the proper order of things — first boil the fruit with the pectin, then add the sugar. No matter. It was at least a tasty mistake.

I’m always slightly appalled at how much sugar I have to use to make jam. For 5 cups of chopped cherries, the directions inside the pectin package call for 3 cups of sugar — and I use the low-sugar pectin. I have a sweet tooth, but even I blanch when that much is sitting on the counter, measured and waiting to go in the pot. The directions say in big letters though, DO NOT SHORT THE SUGAR. Ignore the warning and your jam won’t set. 

The science of canning can be touchy, and watery jam can be the least of your problems. Botulism and salmonella are very real dangers, though luckily more common with canning meat than jam. Even so, I follow all the steps for cleanliness: wash and boil the glass jars and the new lids, fill jars to within an 1/8 of an inch from the top, screw the tops on tightly, and boil in the canner for at least 10 minutes. That’s one of the frustrations: it takes a long time for a pot of water that big to boil on my old electric stove, and I’m very aware of the energy I’m using as I do it.

The fruits of our afternoon of labor were pure deliciousness. As we savored cherry sauce alongside the grilled brats, wild asparagus, and freshly picked salad, I couldn’t help but disagree with the mantra of the day. There’s a lot going on in my corner of the prairie. I may not live in a city, but I’m far from “nowhere.”

When I first dreamed of having a farm, my goal was to grow most, if not all, of my own food. Now I see that my farm can serve another purpose — as a teaching tool. Because where else will my city friends learn how to move sheep or set up fence? It’s also a reminder that living in rural places is a worthy and beautiful pursuit.

And just in case you’ve got access to tart cherries, here are some delicious ways to enjoy them. If you’ve got other recipes, please share them in the comments.

Cherry jam

Modified from the SureJell pectin package

5 cups prepared fruit (about 3 lb. fully ripe sour cherries)
1 box low-sugar fruit pectin (I use the pink-box Surejell to reduce sugar)
1/2 tsp. butter or margarine
3 cups sugar, measured into separate bowl

Bring boiling-water canner, half full with water, to simmer. Wash jars and screw bands in hot soapy water; rinse with warm water. Boil jars and lids to sterilize. Drain well before filling.

Stem and pit cherries. Finely chop or grind fruit (a food processor works best), but do not puree. Measure exactly 5 cups prepared fruit into 6- or 8-qt. saucepot. Mix one box pectin with 1/4 cup of the sugar from the separate bowl.

Stir pectin-sugar mixture into prepared fruit in saucepot. Add butter to reduce foaming. Bring mixture to full rolling boil (a boil that doesn’t stop bubbling when stirred) on high heat, stirring constantly. Stir in sugar. Return to full rolling boil and boil exactly 1 min., stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Skim off any foam with metal spoon.

Ladle immediately into prepared jars, filling to within 1/8 inch of tops. Wipe jar rims and threads (important step to insure a good seal). Cover with two-piece lids. Screw bands tightly. Place jars on elevated rack in canner. Lower rack into canner. Water must cover jars by 1 to 2 inches. Add boiling water, if necessary.

Cover; bring water to gentle boil. Process 10 min. Remove jars and place upright on a towel to cool completely (at least 12 hours, 24 hours is best). After jars cool, check seals by pressing middles of lids with finger. If lids spring back, lids are not sealed and refrigeration is necessary.

Cherry Crisp

From Wasem Fruit Farm

Mix the following together and let stand for 10-15 minutes:

3 1/2 cups pitted tart cherries
1/4 cups cherry juice
1 Tbsp. cornstarch
2 Tbsp. tapioca
1/2 cup sugar

With a pastry blender, mix the following:

1 cup quick rolled oats
1/3 cup butter/margarine
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup flour

Place cherry mixture in the bottom of a greased 8×8-inch baking pan. Spread rolled oat mixture over the cherries. Bake at 350° for 20 minutes or until cherries are really bubbling.