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Meatless Monday: grilled peanut butter and jam sandwiches

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Blue Kitchen

(Read caption) A grown-up peanut butter and jam sandwich with a little kick and character. With beautiful strawberries now in season, homemade strawberry jalapeño jam pairs beautifully with peanut butter melted over the grill made rich with a smoky flavor.

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Peanut butter sees almost daily action at our house, often as a simple spoonful scooped from the jar for a quick snack while dinner is cooking. And we’re not alone in our love of the stuff – Americans eat almost three and a half pounds of peanut butter a year per capita, according to the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center. (Given our consumption, I have to admit that sounded low to me.)

Still, I was more than a little surprised when peanut butter and jelly sandwiches started showing up in restaurants, not on the kids’ menu, but as grilled entrées adults were expected to pay grown-up prices for. Seriously? Of course, I had to try my hand at it and see what the fuss was all about.

I do not fire up the grill lightly. Living in a second floor apartment turns backyard grilling into a StairMaster workout, with multiple trips up and down – to start the coals, check on the coals, recheck on the coals, bring down various tools and plates of food.... Usually when I do this, meat is involved. I mean, the fire and smoke just do amazing things to it. So if I was going to invest all that time and effort into grilling peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I wanted to make sure they were more than kids’ table fare.

That meant starting with some grown-up jelly, with a little kick and character. With beautiful strawberries now in season, homemade strawberry jalapeño jam sounded like what I was looking for. And that meant my first shot at making jam. After reading various accounts of jam/jelly/preserves making, most aimed at trying to make it sound easy, but mostly making it sound scary, I patched together various techniques and threw in some ideas of my own and came up with some seriously good jam (he said modestly). Sweet, but not overly so (many dire warnings about jam not setting without enough sugar), and with some fire to it. And beautiful to look at.

I did not, however, properly can my jam. There’s something about boiling water and sterilizing jars and metal implements that sounds more like midwifery than cookery to me, and I just can’t make myself do it. Yet. But the jam was good enough that I may have to get over myself while there’s still good seasonal fruit to be had. So now, we’ve got (had) two cups of fresh strawberry jalapeño jam to be eaten in the next few weeks. I think we’ll manage.

If you’d like to try actually canning this strawberry jalapeño jam (or any other summer produce, for that matter), there’s plenty of information available on the subject. One great place to start is Marisa McClellan’s wonderful canning blog, Food In Jars.

Next, the peanut butter. Restaurants charging good money for a grilled PBJ probably use locally sourced organic peanut butter made from free range peanuts. For this sandwich, use whatever you usually like to eat. If you like it on a plain sandwich, you’ll like it even more on this. We’re liking Smart Balance Rich Roast Peanut Butter these days. It’s rich in omega-3 fatty acids, has no trans fats, and you don’t have to stir it. I don’t stir peanut butter.

Finally, the bread. I recommend thick slices of a good, flavorful, chewy white bread. You want something with a good crust to stand up to the grill, but not too assertive in flavor. The smoke and the fillings will add plenty of taste. I used a nice crusty sourdough.

A little something on the side. To turn these sandwiches into a meal (and justify firing up the grill), I grilled some zucchini and peppers and topped them with fresh dill as a side dish. You can make this first and serve it warm or room temperature with the sandwiches. A recipe of sorts follows the jam and sandwich recipes.

Strawberry Jalapeño Jam
Makes 2 cups

4 cups hulled, sliced fresh strawberries
2 cups sugar, divided
4 jalapeño peppers, finely chopped (see Kitchen Notes)
the zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/2 package dry pectin (see Kitchen Notes)

In a large bowl, mix strawberries with 1 cup of the sugar. Stir to thoroughly combine and let macerate for about 1 hour, stirring occasionally. This will draw a lot of the juices from the strawberries and help them begin to soften. (You can let the strawberries macerate overnight, if you wish – refrigerate them, if you do.)

In a large saucepan or a stockpot, combine strawberries, jalapeño peppers and the lemon zest and juice. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, and cook for 15 minutes. The mixture will produce lots of liquid as it cooks. You want the fruit to soften and the liquid to reduce and thicken slightly.

WATCH IT LIKE A HAWK. Some jam recipes say the mixture will foam up when you add the pectin; mine foamed like crazy long before I added the pectin. I stirred it almost constantly and reduced the heat to low; after several minutes, it calmed down.

Remove from heat and, using an immersion blender, partially purée the strawberry mixture. Leaving some chunks in it will give the jam a nice texture. Alternatively, purée half the mixture in a food processor (being careful that it doesn’t splash up on you – it’s very hot and very sticky at this point).

Return to a full rolling boil and slooooowly stir in the pectin, so it doesn’t clump. (Some recipes suggest mixing 1/4 cup of your sugar with the pectin to avoid clumping – a good tip I may try next time.) Cook, stirring frequently, especially at first, for about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and ladle into clean jars (or if you’re doing actual canning, follow the instructions for that and ignore the rest of this). Let jars cool for about 20 minutes, than transfer to the fridge uncovered and let them cool completely before covering with lids. The jam is at its best for up to a month, if kept refrigerated. But at the first sign of mold, toss it.

Kitchen Notes

Heat things up. Or not. For this recipe, I used the seeds and ribs of all four jalapeño peppers. For whatever reason, the ones we’ve been finding this year just haven’t packed a lot of heat, and I wanted the jam to have some kick to it. It did, especially while cooking. It calmed down some after cooling, but still has a nice spiciness. Depending on the level of heat you want – and the fire of the jalapeños where you are – you can reduce the heat by discarding some or all of the seeds and ribs in your peppers. But do use four peppers, to get the taste. Even with four, it’s subtle. If I make this again, I may use more peppers, but remove the seeds from some of them.

So many kinds of pectin. It was baffling as I read recipes and scanned store shelves. I opted for Sure-Jell dry pectin (the regular kind, not the low or no sugar variety). A half package of this is equal to one pouch of the liquid. To measure a half package, I used my digital scale, one of the greatest inventions ever. There are pros and cons to each kind of pectin, or so I’ve read. Use whichever one works best for you.

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