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Can It: An Interview with Food Alchemist Marisa McClellan

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Monday, Jun 11, 2012
What can happen in a 45-year-old, 80 square-foot kitchen? At the hands of master canner, Marisa McClellan, magic.
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Marisa McClellan

Food in Jars: Preserving in Small Batches Year-Round

(Running Press; US: May 2012)

When you admit to acquaintances that you can food, they either are filled with admiration, think you crazy, or a bit of both.


But canning, like many other slightly faded domestic arts, has made a huge comeback, appealing to do-it-yourselfers, end-of-days folks, artisanal foodies, and cooks interested in preserving the glories of summer fruits and vegetables. Nor should we forget the cooks who never ceased canning: Mormons, whose religious beliefs include extensive food storage, or people like my husband’s aunt, who tends an enormous garden and cans the results, thus spending far less at the market. 


Yes, high-quality, commerically canned food is readily available, but home-canned fruits, vegetables,  pickles, and fish (yes, fish) are far better than anything off a supermarket shelf. There’s the added advantage of knowing exactly what went into your jar—ideally, fresh organic food. Think of this in January as you eat pasta sauce made from organic Roma tomatoes you spent a sweaty August weekend canning, or as you tuck marinated red peppers and goat cheese into a midweek luncheon sandwich.
  
Canning is also marvelous therapy. Ideally, you are alone in your kitchen. Put on some music, then lay out your equipment: canning pot, rack, jars, jar lids, screw bands, funnel, ladle, jar lifter. Put your jar lids and screw bands in a small pot and heat gently. Put the canner on the stove and fill it with water. Now prep your jars: depending on the recipe, you may need to sterilize them (you can do this in the canner), or simply wash them well. Some dry their jars in dishwashers; others, lacking this convenience item, lay their jars in a low oven.


Now prep your food. A word of warning: always follow the recipe. People fear canning due to the potential for botulism toxin, and they have reason to fear. If you’re water bath canning, and for today we’ll assume you are, the five percent lemon juice, five percent vinegars, and pure pickling salts are in there for good reason. 


Once your food is prepped—washed, sliced, parboiled, peeled—use your funnel and ladle in the food. Leave sufficient headspace—that is, room at the top of the jar—or you may imperil the jar’s critical seal. Put on the lids and screw on the bands finger-tip tight. You want to be abe to open the jar later on. Using your jar lifter, carefully lower the jars into the now-boiling water bath, put the canner lid on, and set a timer. Allow the jars to process—that is, boil the living hell out of them—for the recipe’s allotted time. When time is up, turn off the heat, carefully remove the canner lid, and use your jar lifter again to pull your food out. Place jars on a heatproof surface and allow to cool up to 12 hours. You’ll hear popping, which is good: it means the jars sealed. 


After the jars are cooled, unscrew the bands and pick up each jar by the lid with your fingertips. Is the lid secure? Congratulations. You are mistress of the universe: you have created your own little world, and instead of paying somebody for it, you have made something delicious to eat yourself. Label your jar and store it in a dark cupboard. Is the lid loose? Can you remove it by hand? All is not lost. Refrigerate and eat within a week.  You are still mistress of the universe.You have joined the few, the select, the practical nurturers: you can food.


I came to canning the way I come to most things: I read about it, then branched out to the internet, where I found Marisa McClellan’s blog, Food in Jars and become dually addicted, not only to canning, but to McClellan’s posts on jellies, jams, pickles, and the many ways to use these products. And where many fine food blogs feature spacious, modern kitchens filled with enviable equipment, McClellan’s kitchen is decidedly modest: small, lacking counter space, with an elderly electric stove. Here was a kitchen I could relate to. When I learned McClellan had a cookbook in the works,
Food in Jars: Preserving In Small Batches Year Round, I had the luck of interviewing her.


1. In Food in Jars, you mention your mother canned a few specific items. What motivated you to begin canning?


I started canning on my own thanks to a blueberry picking trip. I came home with 13 pounds of berries and making jam just felt like the most natural thing to do with my fruit. I called my mom a bunch of times for that first batch, but by the end, I was well and truly bitten by the canning bug.


2. I think all canners have experienced canning failures at some point. In your opinion, what was your worst canning failure?


The bulk of my failures came when I adapted recipes without understanding how it would impact the finished product. For instance, in the early days, I made a lot of jam but vastly reduced the amount of sugar that the recipes called for. Invariably, the jam would not set up. Later, I learned that in order to get a good set using traditional pectin (or no added pectin), you need a certain amount of sugar. When you reduce below a certain amount, you’re always going to end up with syrup, not jam.


3. In your blog, Food 52, you cite Amanda Hesser as an early influence on your decision to pursue food writing. Are there other food writers/cooks/bloggers you find especially inspiring?


Laurie Colwin was another food writer who had a big influence on both my decision to choose food writing and the style I’ve developed. She was actually a childhood friend of my mother’s.That connection, coupled with the fact that she was able to become a writer and tell such beautiful stories about food, helped me see that it was something I could do, too.


4. You write that jam is your favorite food to can. I noticed the book has a definite slant toward sweeter, fruit based products like jams, jellies, and fruit butters—though as an avowed pickle lover, I want to make everything in the pickling chapter!  Do you prefer canning sweeter items, or do savory foods move through your canner, as well?  If so, what are some of your favorite savory foods to can?


I really love the alchemy of jam making. When you combine fruit and sugar and apply heat, magic happens. There’s something truly artistic about it to me, which is why I love it so much. That said, I do recognize that we cannot live on sweets alone and I do try to balance out my tendencies towards jam with plenty of pickles, relishes and salsas. There’s a corn salsa recipe in the book that is one of the few things that I can that my husband will eat (he’s something of a picky eater). I make 15-20 pints a year because because he loves it and we use it in so many different ways. I’m also a big fan of the dilly beans and pickled okra recipes you’ll find in the book. They’re great for jazzing up simple meals or cheese plates for parties. 


5. Moving from the savory and sweet, you sometimes post meals you’ve prepared, particularly dinners. I get the sense your love of cooking is not limited to canning. What are some your favorite fresh foods?


When it comes to general day-to-day cooking, I’m something of a fool for soups and salads.I love every variety of leafy green, as well as squash, eggplant, tomatoes and beans. Oh, and anything dairy. There are always at least five or six varieties of cheese in our fridge.


6. 
What advice would you give to first time canners?


Don’t be scared. You can’t kill someone with jam or pickles. Don’t try to can more than three or four pounds of something your first time. Start with a trusted recipe. Read it over three or four times before you start. Get all your tools in one place. Take your time.


7. You’re being sent to a desert island. What cookbook are you taking along?


If I’m headed to a desert island, I’m taking Hank Shaw’s book Hunt, Gather, Cook. It’s an ideal guide for eating well using what’s around you. 


8. Can we look forward to more cookbooks?  I’d love to see more about pressure canning.


It’s my greatest hope to write another cookbook. Right now, nothing is settled, but I have a couple ideas I’m hoping to breathe life into over the next few years.


9. What do you want readers to know about your blog and book?


Most of all, I want people to know that both the book and blog are me. There’s nothing put-on about my writing and I’m not manufacturing any sort of false, pretty for the cameras existence. This is how I live and what I do. Every recipe I’ve ever published has been made in my 45-year-old, 80 square-foot kitchen. If I can do it, anyone can.


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