Thursday, July 28, 2011

Why I Will Never Look at a Tomato the Same Way Again: A Review of Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland

Article first published as Book Review of Barry Estabrook’s Tomatoland on Blogcritics.

If you are looking for a feel-good book, Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit by Barry Estabrook isn’t it. In fact, if you aren’t prepared to be deeply disturbed, upset, angry, and disgusted, I don’t recommend reading this book at all. If, however, you are prepared to take the red pill, go down the rabbit hole, and wake up to some realities of the world, read Tomatoland. Read it now.

Seems pretty innocuous doesn’t it? The tomato industry—hardly the stuff of corruption, violence, and chemical warfare, or so you might think. Unfortunately, it is. In particular, the book addresses the Florida winter tomato industry, which supplies most of those insipid, pinkish tomatoes you find in the grocery store in winter or in fast-food meals. You know the ones that don’t taste like anything at all and are firm enough that you might be able to play a game of tennis with them?

Lack of taste (and nutrients) is just one of the tragedies associated with the growing of this fruit—and probably the least upsetting, which says a lot coming from someone who dearly prizes the flavor of food. The worst crimes of this industry are perpetrated on the environment the fruits grow in and upon the people who pick them. In crisp, unsentimental language devoid of hyperbole, Barry Estabrook details some of the atrocities committed in the name of the winter tomato.

First up is a shocking catalogue of the chemical warfare waged on the soil—if you can still call it soil—to grow the hard, green bomblets that eventually make their way north and into your salad. As it turns out, Florida happens to be one of the worst places in the country for growing tomatoes. The soil, or sand rather, is nutrient poor. The climate is extremely variable and humid, which allows all kinds of fungi, pests, and weeds to take hold and ruin a crop. To manage these challenges, the tomato industry carpet bombs fields with massive quantities of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Many of the chemicals used are Class I pesticides, which are considered highly toxic. For example, the material safety data sheet (MSDS) for methyl bromide states that it “may be fatal if inhaled and harmful if swallowed or absorbed through the skin. It is a neurotoxin and a severe irritant to the upper and lower respiratory tract, skin, and eyes.”

These aren’t chemicals we like to imagine eating, and they horrify us with the thought of what they might be doing to the environment. But worst of all is what they do to the laborers in the tomato fields—who are both the victims and the heroes of this story. Much of the Florida tomato industry has taken a laissez-faire attitude when it comes to regulations regarding chemical applications and worker safety. Workers are regularly exposed to these chemicals and experience ill health effects ranging from headaches, nausea, and chemical burns to birth defects and death.

And the story of worker abuse doesn’t stop there. Estabrook details maltreatment of laborers from economic exploitation to outright slavery. In one harrowing passage, he describes what happened to some enslaved workers: “If Domingo or any of the others in the crew became ill or too exhausted to go to the fields, they were kicked in the head, beaten with fists, slashed with knives or broken bottles, and shoved into trucks to be hauled to the worksites. Some were manacled in chains.”    

At the depths of this book, I had started planning this article and decided to title it “Why I Will Never Eat a Florida Tomato Again,” but to Estabrook’s credit, the second half of this book made me rethink this position. From the horrors emerge the occasional bright lights—stories of people who are willing to help and in some cases to put themselves at risk to do so, including a lawyer willing to fight for a badly deformed infant, a bus driver who lost her job for speaking out, courageous farm laborers willing to go undercover to expose slavery, church groups that host soup kitchens, and coalitions of workers who work to change the system. These stories made me realize that simply boycotting Florida tomatoes does little to create change. Supporting the people who are working to make a difference does.

Every once in a while, a book comes along that throws over what we think we know about things; examples include Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. These are books that have the potential to change the world. Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit is just such a book. If you care about the food you eat, about justice, about the environment, about human beings, then you need to read this book.  

Sunday, July 24, 2011

My grandmother's pancakes

That's my Icelandic grandmother, or Amma, on the far left in the tweed suit, holding a fur hat in her hand. This picture was probably taken when I was about six or seven, at least 33 years ago. That's me on the far right, in the rust-red pants, brown turtleneck, leg cocked back slightly. Between me and my grandmother are my uncle, his two first children, my grandfather (Afi), and my aunt. I am not sure who stands behind my aunt. This was taken somewhere in Iceland. We are on a picnic. Perhaps we are here to pick blueberries or krækiberjum (crowberries); I imagine we are.

My grandmother's clothes in this photo interest me. She is dressed so well for a trip to a wild meadow surrounded by distant mountains. Did she always dress this nicely when going out, regardless of where she was going? I honestly can't remember. My memories of her only come in bits and pieces now: a glimpse of her through the glass upon landing at the old Reykjavik airport, her bundling me up in a thick woolen Icelandic sweater to keep me warm, the teddy bears she knitted for me, her calling me by my cousin's name when illness had devastated her memory. She had a soft round face with a little peach fuzz on her skin and usually wore her hair in a net. But these memories are so deeply inadequate to suggest a person's life or what she meant to me. Here's my only other photo of her, with me and Afi on a boat in Sweden:

Food memories stand in for much that I've never really known about my grandparents. For example, Afi and Amma always bought a particular brand of chocolate-flavored cereal when I came to visit. I think they bought it just for me, and I loved it. Even though I no longer eat processed cereal, when I smell that particular brand of cereal, and it has a very particular smell, I find myself back at their small kitchen table, eating out of the bowl with the picture at the bottom. I see my grandfather winding up a toy with a key and kneeling down stiffly to set it loose on the kitchen floor. I see all kinds of details about their apartment: the glass doors to the dining room with the etched fish and bubbles, the cuckoo clocks, the couch stuffed with so many decorative cushions no one could sit on it, the blue cot I slept on, the textured concrete of the balcony. Outside was a gray and green world that smelled of fish and harbor. 

Inside fresh, cold air wafted through the lace curtain at an open window, the sounds of traffic rose from the road below, and a huge stack of thin pancakes grew in the kitchen. Now my family calls these pancakes Swedish pancakes. I don't know how or why that happened. I always liked them, the pancakes, but I had no idea they would leave me with such powerful sense memories. In essence, they are thin, sweet crepes with a slightly lemony flavor, but to me they represent memories of Iceland, of the vast banquets of cakes, kleinur, cookies, sweets, and pea and carrot salad on crackers served as just a little afternoon "coffee." We seemed to have these little coffees every day at every relative's house. The pancakes were also served as a special occasion dessert with whipped cream and jam. We had them as picnic food, sprinkling on sugar and rolling them into tubes like cigars. The crunch of the raw sugar at the center of a soft pancake roll makes the memories for me. 

The ingredients are simple enough, but these pancakes take a little practice to get right. It also takes a little experimentation with your equipment. It took me several tries with various spatulas and pans and measures until I found just the right way to make them. They should be very thin with a fine lace edge. They should be browned just right on both sides.

The ingredients:

  • 2 medium eggs
  • 3 deciliters milk
  • 1/8 tsp salt
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • 1.5 deciliters all-purpose flour
  • zest of one lemon
  • 4 Tbsp butter (divided)
The equipment:
  • medium bowl
  • balloon whisk
  • fine zester
  • 1/4 cup measuring cup
  • frying pan about 8-9 inches in diameter
  • a pastry brush
  • a small sauce pan
  • a hard spatula that covers at least half the pan.
Now, for some explanations for the equipment choices. Bowl, whisk, zester? Well, what do you think? The size of the measuring cup and the pan, however, do matter. If you just barely fill the measuring cup, you will get the perfect amount of batter to spread across your pan. Pan size also matters. If it is too big, the batter will set before you have time to coat it with batter. Too small, and the pancake will be too thick. With the right size pan and a bare quarter cup of batter, you'll get just the right thickness every time. Spatula size also really matters here, because you want it to support as much as possible of your pancake so that you can easily flip it.  Pastry brush and small sauce pan are for buttering the pan every time you start a new pancake. Don't assume there's going to be enough butter left in the pan; there won't be.

Now, how do you make the pancakes? First off, make the batter: Melt 4 tablespoons butter in a small sauce pan. Mix milk and eggs in your bowl and whisk in 2 tablespoons melted butter (the butter will look curdled because it will get cold in the milk; don't worry about it as long as it's somewhat evenly dispersed). (Leave the remaining butter in the sauce pan on low temperature.) Mix salt, sugar, and flour together and add the flour mixture in batches to the liquid, whisking continuously to avoid lumps (small lumps are not a problem; if you get big ones, you'll probably need to strain the batter). Whisk in the lemon zest. Voila, batter! 


Next, make the pancakes. Heat your 8-9 inch frying pan on medium heat. Give it at least five minutes to let it get hot enough and to even out the temperature. Brush the pan with melted butter (just the barest amount to cover the pan, but not pool). It will sizzle a bit. 

Add just slightly less than 1/4 cup of the batter to the pan. Quickly swirl the batter around to coat the pan. If you get a hole or two, don't fret, it will still taste wonderful, just try to cover the pan as evenly as possible. 

Let it cook for about a minute or two. Feel around the edges with the spatula, once you are able to get the spatula under the pancake without tearing it, take a peek at the underside.

When you like the color, get the spatula as far under the pancake as you can and turn it over. You can help a little with your other hand as needed. Also, if it sort of lands in the pan a little folded, all is not lost, you can shake the pan around and straighten out the pancake. Then cook until you like the color on the underside (another minute or two). Transfer the pancake to a plate. Then start from the beginning again: brush the pan with a little bit of melted butter...

It does take a little practice to make them pretty, but even if you rip and tear the first ones, don't worry about it. They will still be good. Serve rolled up with sugar. Serve with maple syrup. Serve with jam and whipped cream. Eat them straight. Or eliminate the sugar in the batter and serve with a savory filling. Just enjoy them. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Warm, wonderful salmon "shepherd's" pie

At the fish counter this morning, I was thoroughly seduced by the wild-caught sockeye salmon from Alaska. I know, I know, Alaska is in no way, shape, or form local, so I failed on that front. But at least it’s in season. And honestly, how could anyone resist this color? Just look at that gleaming, opalescent orangey-red. It begs to be savored.

As a painter, I am a sucker for color. Here’s a case in point:

So I sprang for the salmon. Then I had to think of something to do with it. You can’t leave something that beautiful hanging around. I considered grilling, roasting in the oven, a quick sear—no, no, no. Nothing I could think of seemed able to fill the cravings I had. I wanted potatoes, but I didn’t just want to serve potatoes with my salmon. Something pie-like started creeping into my imagination. I scouted around on the web looking for fish pie recipes and found this one from Jamie Oliver, and, using it as a stepping-off point, I came up with this salmon shepherd’s pie (which makes no sense really, no sheep in the sea, but there you go). 

First step was to create some mashed potatoes to top this lovely thing. I had some beautiful red-skinned potatoes purchased from the farmer's market a couple of weeks ago (although Yukon Golds would do nicely as well). I decided to leave the skins on and make the mash nice and chunky to give the pie a rustic feel and some texture. 

I scrubbed and cut up the potatoes into chunks and boiled them for about 30 minutes, until they were fork tender. Then I strained them into a bowl:

Added a generous sprinkling of salt:

And some cream (about a half cup) and a tablespoon of butter:

Then smashed the lot with the back of a spoon:

Until I got a nice creamy, lumpy mess that tasted oh so good (if you need to, add more salt):

While the potatoes cooled a bit, I started on the rest of the dish. First I grated three carrots coarsely on a box grater:

Sprinkled them on the bottom of a buttered glass baking dish:

Then grated some sharp cheddar cheese and added that to the dish with the carrots:

Next, I turned my attention to the salmon, removing the skin and cutting it into bite-size pieces:

I added the fish to the dish with the carrots and the cheese, sprinkled salt and white pepper, and squeezed half a lemon over it all:

Next, I spread the smashed potatoes over everything and grated some more sharp cheddar over the top :

Finally, I popped the whole thing into a 400-degree oven for 40 minutes, turning the oven to broil for the last few minutes to get the top nice and brown:

And finally sprinkled some parsley on top (dry is what I had, but fresh would be lovely) and served it with a nice Swedish cucumber salad:

My husband and I had seconds. I was even tempted to have thirds, but resisted. My four-year-old ate everything on his plate, not with great praise, but he ate it (and that means a lot). Me, I can't wait to have the leftovers for lunch tomorrow. I haven't decided whether to share them with Mike or not...  

Thursday, July 14, 2011

So what is this thing called authenticity?

The idea of authenticity has been worming its way around my mind ever since I read Todd Kliman's article, "The Problem of Authenticity," in issue 1 of The Lucky Peach. I suppose the article resonated because authenticity has been a byword in my family for many years. The article made me realize I don't actually have a verbal definition of the term; basically, it's one of those gut-feeling, I-know-it-when-I-see-it kinds of things.

And I can't tell if I am comfortable with that or not. On the one hand, if you don't have a specific definition of a thing, you can make all kinds of exceptions that undermine the integrity of the thing, stretching its "truthiness" (to steal a term from Stephen Colbert) to the breaking point. On the other hand, you can make all kinds of exceptions that allow the thing to grow, to take into itself new perspectives. So, I don't know where to come down on defining authenticity.

Kliman addresses three questions regarding authenticity in food:

  • "For one thing, how the hell do you define it?
  • "For another, where the hell do you find it?
  • "And another, having found it, how do you know that it's, in fact, it?"
And he presents some examples that show what a tricky problem this actually is, such as the now less authentic bagels made in New York City (where once they were made entirely by hand, now they are stamped out by machine), or the wide range of how to define a gumbo in New Orleans, or the "right" ways to make Szechuan food or Neapolitan pizzas. Some places have strict regulations that define specific dishes to ensure that tradition is not lost. (To be honest, I also see some defensiveness against encroaching pop culture in such regulation too, but that's another story.)

Authenticity in food is an interesting topic because it mirrors and illustrates changes in culture. I was an anthropology major in college, and one topic that came up a lot was this idea of culture loss--that people the world over are losing their traditions to adapt to a new world order of internationalism. That sodas and televisions and t-shirts are now found in the remotest areas of the world and are destroying traditional ways of life. That languages are being lost as the last speakers die off. And, yes, it is sad, it is awful because there is so much to learn from what is being lost. And yet, and yet, isn't that the way of the world? We think of these cultures and these particular dishes as coming down to us fully formed, sacrosanct, but they too evolved. Cultures adapt to changes in local conditions and have always done so.

In the same way, people have taken their food traditions to new places and adapted them to what's available. Is it inauthentic to change something you grew up with to suit your tastes and the ingredients you can get your hands on? Is it inauthentic to drop the stuff you never really liked anyway? Is it authentic to cling unyielding to old ways and traditional ingredients? There are foods I'd never make if I had to make them the way they are supposed to be made. I simply don't have the patience to make pesto using a mortar and pestle. I don't have the arm strength and coordination to make mayo without a food processor. I make Swedish meatballs with whatever ground meat I happen to have on hand, not the specific blend of beef and pork that's typical (except chicken, I don't think I'd ever use ground chicken for Swedish meatballs). Traditional dishes have to be open to adaptation, to the creativity and the imagination of the cook, to the ingredients that are available. The way a person makes food reflects his or her family history, personal history, the season, the location. It's a complex palimpsest of layer upon layer of thoughts, feelings, images, tastes, scents, and memories partially smudged and aged until no single influence is perfectly in focus. And really, isn't it more interesting that way?

So where do I finally come to rest on the topic of authenticity? I guess it comes down to the words of a pompous old fool of a character: "This above all: to thine own self be true." But I also suspect that my thoughts and feelings about the topic will evolve.  

(And if you didn't read my review of The Lucky Peach, here it is.)

UPDATE 6/7/12: Here's another take on authenticity in food. Francis Lam and Eddie Huang discuss the fairness of other chefs taking on other cultures' food. It's kind of a long discussion, but it raises a lot of issues.

Monday, July 11, 2011

New Magazine Review: The Lucky Peach

Article first published as New Magazine Review: The Lucky Peach on Blogcritics.

I just got my first Lucky Peach and devoured it. The Lucky Peach is McSweeney’s brand-new magazine devoted to food writing. As with any McSweeney’s publication (I’ve been a fan since first discovering McSweeney’s issue no. 4), the magazine is dedicated to original voices, strong ideas and opinions, and creativity in all its glory. The Lucky Peach is no namby-pamby whole-hearted endorsement of all things trendy in food, but instead raises questions about the trends and looks at them from fresh angles. From the discussion among Anthony Bourdain, David Chang, and Wylie Dufresne about mediocrity—and especially mediocrity in the restaurant business—to an essay about authenticity, this magazine presents articles that make you think and, more important, make you want to think beyond what you’ve been told or given.

This first issue is almost entirely devoted to ramen, which may seem like a funny place to start a new magazine about high-end food, but in true McSweeney’s fashion, it works. Turns out ramen is far more interesting than those square blocks that could also pass for insulation that at least I used to buy in college because I couldn’t afford to eat anything else. In Japan, ramen is as much a part of the fine dining scene and culture as sushi; nearly as much technique, knowledge, and specialized vocabulary are devoted to it. The magazine presents several articles about it, from a travelogue by Peter Meehan and David Chang to a guide to regional variations on sushi by Nate Shockey to a taste test of instant ramens by Ruth Reichl to a fascinating little story about the American working-class version called ya-ka mein by John T. Edge, which all tell a rounded history of the foodstuff.

And being a food magazine, of course recipes are included, although I wouldn’t buy the magazine for them. Some of them do seem delicious and many articles discuss techniques for making some really special things to eat, but that seems almost secondary to the passionate writing about foods and the cultures surrounding foods. I find that I am inspired to try some of the recipes provided (in particular the recipes for alkaline noodles and bacon dashi), but more than that I am inspired to think about food: where it comes from, how’s it made, the culture that surrounds it, and the people who make it.

I have only two criticisms of the magazine. First, the language gets a bit salty at times. I know, it’s a food magazine—shouldn’t it be a little spicy?—and maybe I am old fashioned, but the use of the f-word gets a little old sometimes. Granted, with Anthony Bourdain as a contributor, the language almost has to get a bit rough, but I find it jarring. I think it’s possible to get the voice of the authors across without having to include every syllable. Second, the layout of the recipes, while visually appealing, is sometimes hard to read. The layout includes arrows to let you know where to go next, but because we are Western readers, we expect a page to flow in a certain way. When it doesn’t do that, reading gets a bit harder; you find the flow is disrupted and you are struggling to figure out what the next step is.        

Despite these drawbacks, I know I am going to hold on to this copy of the magazine for years and I will be experimenting with noodle soups. And I can’t wait to find out what they are going to do in the next issue. I am so glad I signed up for a subscription!


Saturday, July 9, 2011

Blueberry jam with maple syrup and lemon zest

For some updates on techniques and a recipe for plum-peach jam with basil, click here. 

I haven't posted in a while. For the Independence Day weekend, Mike, Sebastian, and I drove to Auburn Hills, Michigan (a little north of Detroit) to visit Mike's sister, her family, and their dad for the holiday (the drive takes 10 and a half hours; my little boy is a champ!). Instead of cooking and eating good local food, we subsisted mainly on junk food and candy bought at rest stops along the Pennsylvania and Ohio turnpikes, feeling bloated and gross the whole way. (Sebastian, of course, loved this, but the guy is four, so I can't blame him for having tastes geared primarily toward straight-up salt and sugar.) I did have one really excellent meal: My brother-in-law Russ made some amazing fall-off-the-bone ribs and served them with BBQ sauce, grilled corn, and baked beans. We gorged ourselves on these delectable treats and moaned with discomfort for several hours after dinner. It was totally worth it.

Before we left, I had wanted to make a batch of blueberry jam to make sure that the harvest didn't go by without preserving at least some of it, but I ran out of time. I love blueberries. They may be my favorite berry. I am especially fond of wild lowbush blueberries, but they are hard to come by here in Virginia. When I was a kid in Sweden, I spent much of my time roaming around the woods like a small wild animal, getting damp and muddy and pretending I was a hero of some kind: a knight one day, Robin Hood the next. In my long rambles, I discovered treasured spots where wild blueberries grew in great masses, and I spent many hours seated among the plants, plucking berry after berry and savoring each one. I miss my blueberry spots, especially now that I cook. If only I could wander out into the woods and collect and gather blueberries, bring them home, and preserve them for winter. (I was told once that my Icelandic grandfather Sigurdur was a legendary berry picker; he could fill baskets faster than anyone, fingers moving so fast they blurred.)

But I must settle for domesticated highbush berries, which produce larger fruits that are not quite as deeply flavorful (still good, but not magic). Thankfully, one of my favorite farms, Reid's Orchard, grows berries and fruit organically (although they aren't certified), using integrated pest management techniques and caring for their soil and land in a way that will preserve it for the future (and it shows, just take a look at their peaches--they taste and smell as good as they look).

After recovering from the Michigan trip for a few days, I finally made it out of the house to get food on a steamy Thursday. I went to the Herndon farmer's market and decided to get some blueberries from Reid's. I lucked out because they had a lot of them, so I bought six pints. I had had this idea of making jam flavored with maple syrup and lemon zest. Foods from the same area often taste particularly good together--and sugar maples typically live where blueberries grow, so the combination sounded good. Obviously lemons and blueberries violate that principle, but they are good together. The acidity of the lemon just sparks the flavor of blueberries (as lemons do with so many things).

It was actually so hot and humid the day I bought the blueberries that my camera fogged up. 
So here's how I made my blueberry jam with maple syrup and lemon zest. I started with

  • 3 liters blueberries, picked over to remove any soft berries, stems, leaves, or anything else you wouldn't want to eat, rinsed, and finally drip-dried for 10 minutes or so (better yet, use a scale, you should have 1.5 kilos of berries) 
  • 700 milliliters sugar
  • 200 milliliters real maple syrup
  • 1 lemon, washed
  • 1 tablespoon pectin, mixed with a little water to make a smooth paste

I spread a layer of sugar on the bottom of the pot I planned to use for jamming.

Then I layered blueberries over the sugar, added another layer of sugar, and zested some lemon over the sugar.

At the second layer, I added the maple syrup instead of sugar and zested some more. 

I added more berries and ended with a final layer of sugar and zest. (In other words, one layer of sugar on the bottom of the pot and one to top it all off.)

I covered the berries and sugar with the lid (ants are quite a problem in summer) and let it sit for a little over an hour (you could let it sit up to 24 hours in the refrigerator). Then I set the pot on low heat. At first, not much happened but eventually I could see a rim of liquified berry juice starting to rise around the edges of the pot, followed by a completely wet mass slowly simmering away. (Note that this isn't a project you do quickly, it can take several hours to reach the jelling point. Pick a lazy, rainy day when you aren't going to leave the house to make the jam. Maybe make some bread while you are at it.) 

I added the mixture of pectin and water to the pot and let the mass just simmer away. (At one point, I did get a boil over, so I had to turn down the heat a bit. Almost anything that's made with a lot of sugar has a tendency to get feisty if too much heat is applied.) I skimmed regularly. (Once when making jam as a kid, I made the mistake of not skimming. It left the finished product with a very unpleasant, bitter aftertaste. So if you decide to make jam, don't skimp on skimming.) Oh, and here's a tip to ease your skimming: Keep a bowl of cold water near the stove, dip your skimmer into the cold water before you skim, and then clean off the scum in the cold water, and skim again. You will probably want to replace the water from time to time. 

While the mass simmered, I cleaned and sterilized my jars in boiling water. (You can re-use your jars, but you must use new lids every time. The rubber that creates the seal doesn't hold up to multiple uses. You can probably find boxes of lids where you would buy other canning/jamming equipment.)

You can keep the jars in the hot water on low while your jam continues to simmer. Eventually, I started testing my jam to see if it was ready. How to test for readiness? Get a teaspoon of the liquid in the pot and spread it on a plate. Let it cool for a few minutes, and scrape your spoon through the smear on the plate. If the liquid immediately fills in the lines where the spoon scraped through, you are nowhere near done. If the lines don't fill in immediately, but do eventually, you are getting closer but you aren't there yet. If it bunches up into a jelly-like mass, you are ready to go.

When the spoon scrapes through, the liquid immediately refills the line. This is nowhere near done. 

The liquid isn't filling in as quickly now. The white of the plate shows just a little longer. Progress, but not done. 

The liquid no longer fills in where the spoon has scraped through, and you can create a little clump of jelly. Finished!
When the jam had reached the point where it was finished, I added the juice from the lemon (both for flavor and to help preserve the jam). (I strained it to make sure I wasn't adding seeds.) Then the next step was to add the jam to my warm and clean jars, close up the jars, and boil the jars to vacuum seal them. 

One thing to remember when you add the jam to the jars: Always leave at least an inch of space at the top of the jar. Otherwise, you won't be able to create an effective vacuum. And the vacuum is one of the main reasons that these jars will last for up to year. (That is, if you don't eat them before then. I am almost out of the strawberry jam I made already!)

I've wrapped my jars in newspaper because I don't have a rack to keep the jars stable (yet). 

Ah, pride and joy!
Update: To make sure your jams and jellies are safe to eat, check out the National Center for Home Food Preservation.