Home canning on a pint-size scale

Philadelphia blogger/food writer Marisa McClellan pours honey over strawberries. Her new book is "Preserving by the Pint," about smaller-scale canning.
Philadelphia blogger/food writer Marisa McClellan pours honey over strawberries. Her new book is "Preserving by the Pint," about smaller-scale canning. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 28, 2014

It was blueberry-picking season, and Marisa McClellan had gotten a little carried away.

So, when she returned home on that summer day eight years ago with a perishable 13-pound haul, she figured the only thing to do was make jam.

But that first batch of preserves was more than something to spread on toast: It felt a little like a calling.

"I loved it. It was so fun to can something, and make something that lasted longer than a meal," said McClellan, 34. "I come from this family where everyone is really creative - and, at that point, I hadn't figured out what my creative thing was. Canning gave me that."

Since then, it's given her much more. McClellan has turned her preservation instinct into a food-writing career with no expiration date in site.

Her blog Food in Jars draws 350,000 visitors per month at the peak of summer canning season; and her first cookbook, by the same name, sold more than 60,000 copies. This week, she released her newest book, Preserving by the Pint: Quick Seasonal Canning for Small Spaces - an essential guide for anyone enrolled in a farm-share, growing a backyard garden, or just looking to extend the life of seasonal produce.

To that end, on a recent morning, McClellan had a quart of early strawberries, and a plan to cook them down with honey, lemon juice, and a few thyme sprigs into sweet, tangy jam that hinted spring might finally be on its way after all.

"I always say jam will tell you when it's done," she explained as she stirred the ingredients in a large skillet, pausing to listen for the telltale sizzle that results after cooking it about 10 minutes.

She makes use of every inch of her Center City apartment kitchen - a snug 80-square-foot galley finished with turquoise Formica that's unchanged since her grandparents bought the place in 1965.

McClellan, who grew up in Portland, Ore., helping her mother can blackberries and apples each fall, moved here to help take care of her grandmother in 2002, and stayed on.

She found work, and an online community, as a food blogger for AOL's Slashfood. After that site shut down, she launched her canning blog - not as a career move, but just as a way to stay involved with that community.

Then, she said, "It just kind of exploded. I managed somehow to be right ahead of the trend. This was early 2009, and that summer everybody was talking about canning."

A lousy economy, concerns about BPAs in store-bought canned foods, the rise of locavorism, and a resurgence of interest in forgotten domestic skills all converged.

"And I was there," McClellan said. "So when people started searching for canning information, they found me."

And as one of the city's most successful food bloggers, McClellan has parlayed that specialty into income, and since 2011 has earned her living working as a blogger, food writer, cookbook author, and cooking teacher. Her site has advertisers and sponsors, though, McClellan said, she'll accept only those whose products she likes and uses.

Her thoughtful instructions and creative recipes kept readers returning. If they got intimidated, she'd remind them: "If I can do it in my 80- square-foot kitchen, they can do it in theirs."

She got her first book deal, with Running Press, in 2010 and published two years later.

That the television show Portlandia debuted in 2011 with a segment called "We can pickle that!" made McClellan feel "like a cliche," she said.

But it also was a reflection of the popularity of pickling and preserving, named as a top food trend for 2014 by trend forecasters and by chefs surveyed by the National Restaurant Association.

The joke of Portlandia is that anything can be pickled: eggs, ice cream cones, parking tickets.

McClellan doesn't go quite that far. But in Preserving by the Pint she offers solutions for putting up four seasons' worth of greens, berries, herbs, and stone fruit into pickles, chutneys, pestos, and syrups. For spring, that means not only strawberry preserves, but also marinated sugar snap peas with mint and ginger, ramp-greens kimchi, and sorrel pesto.

Each recipe starts with a single quart or bunch of produce. The small-batch approach is designed to make canning quicker and more accessible, and help gardeners make the most of their backyard bounty.

For example, her mother, who still lives in Portland and has a garden, urged her to come up with a solution for preserving fresh herbs like cilantro, which produces foliage in abundance but quickly goes to seed. McClellan looked around and came up with a recipe for salt-preserved herbs.

"That's a technique I learned about from a friend who lives in Canada," she said. "It's a very traditional technique from the French-speaking areas of Canada. Those herbs last forever."

McClellan also reads all the canning books she can find, plus Food and Drug Administration guidelines for home and commercial canning.

Her goal is to eradicate the fear that many cooks associate with canning, that they'll accidentally create a biological weapon in their kitchens. She points out that botulism can't grow in high-acid food, which includes most fruits and brined pickles.

This week she embarks on a book tour to spread that message, with demonstrations and signings in Philadelphia - starting at Reading Terminal Market on Saturday - and across the country. (Check FoodInJars.com for details.)

After that? McClellan has a few more book ideas, and more blogging to do.

Plus, there will soon be a new crop of produce, just waiting to be transformed.

"In the summertime, I just get so excited about all the produce that's out there that I overbuy, and I'm in my kitchen until midnight," she admitted. She's hoping this summer to take her own advice.

"That," she said, "is where the small batches come in."


Marinated Sugar Snap Peas With Ginger and Mint

Makes 1 quart or 16 servings

1 1/2 cups unseasoned rice vinegar

1 tablespoon honey

1 teaspoon finely milled sea salt

1 pound sugar snap peas

1 green onion

1 sprig fresh mint

3 thin slices fresh ginger

1. In a small saucepan, combine the vinegar, honey, and salt. Heat until the honey and salt are entirely dissolved.

2. Wash the sugar snap peas well. Using a knife, trim both ends and remove the tough string that runs along the back of the peas. Cut the green onion into 2 or 3 segments, so that they fit the jar. Stand them up in a clean 1-quart jar, along with the mint sprig and the ginger slices.

3. Pack the prepared sugar snaps into the jar. If they don't all fit, set them aside. You may be able to sneak them in once the pickling liquid is poured.

4. Pour the hot vinegar mixture over the sugar snaps. Tap the jar gently on the counter to remove any air bubbles. If you had any remaining peas, try to pack them into the jar at this time.

5. Place a lid on the jar and let the jar rest until it has cooled to room temperature. Refrigerate. Let these pickles sit in the vinegar for at least 24 hours before eating. They will keep for up to a week in the refrigerator.

6. Make sure to use the freshest sugar snap peas you can find. No pickling brine can restore crunch to a pea that has lost it to age. If you can't find sugar snaps, this recipe works equally well with crisp snow peas.

- From Preserving by the Pint (Running Press, 2014)

Per serving: 32 calories; 1 gram protein; 4 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams sugar; trace fat; no cholesterol; 118 milligrams sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.


Honey-Sweetened Strawberry Jam

Makes 1 pint

1 dry quart strawberries (about 1 1/2 pounds)

1 cup honey

5 to 6 sprigs thyme

Juice of 1/2 lemon

1. Prepare a boiling-water bath and two half-pint jars. Place two lids in a small saucepan of water and bring to a gentle simmer.

2. Hull and chop the berries and place them in a bowl. Add the honey and stir. Strip the thyme leaves off their stems and add them to the strawberries and honey. Stir to combine and let sit for at least 10 minutes.

3. When the honey has dissolved and the strawberries are quite juicy, scrape the mixture into a wide pan. Bring to a bubble and cook over high heat for 8 to 12 minutes, stirring regularly, until the jam is thick and sticky. It is done when you can pull a spatula through the cooking fruit and it doesn't immediately rush in to fill the space. (It will also start to sizzle.)

4. Funnel the jam into the prepared jars. Wipe the rims, apply the lids and rings, and process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.

- From Preserving by the Pint (Running Press, 2014)

Note: Once opened, preserves sweetned with honey don't last as long as those made with sugar.

Per one-tablespoon serving: 39 calories; trace protein; 10 grams carbohydrates; 10 grams sugar; trace fat; no cholesterol; 1 milligram sodium; 1 gram dietary fiber.


Garlic Scape and Arugula Pesto

Makes 1 cup

8 ounces garlic scapes (2 to 3 bunches)

1 cup packed arugula leaves

1/2 cup toasted pine nuts

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/4 cup olive oil, plus more as needed

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Chop the garlic scapes into 1-inch lengths and combine them with the arugula leaves, toasted pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until a paste begins to form. Remove the lid and scrape down the bowl, if necessary.

2. Once you've gotten a chunky paste, slowly stream in the 1/4 cup of olive oil with the motor running and process until well combined. Taste and adjust the seasoning to taste.

3. Pack the pesto into a half-pint jar (if freezing it, try dividing it between 2 quarter-pint jars). Cover with a thin layer of olive oil (it keeps out the oxygen and prevents the top of the pesto from browning) and either refrigerate or freeze. It will keep in the refrigerator for at least a week, or in the freezer for up to a year.

- From Preserving by the Pint (Running Press, 2014)

Per one-tablespoon serving: 83 calories; 2 grams protein; 5 grams carbohydrates; no sugar; 7 grams fat; 1 milligram cholesterol; 39 milligrams sodium; trace dietary fiber.


Salt-Preserved Herbs

Makes 1 pint

8 ounces mixed fresh herbs (such as parsley, cilantro, basil, chervil, sorrel, or leafy celery tops)

6 ounces coarse sea salt

1. Wash and dry herbs well. Pluck leaves from the stems and roughly chop by hand (a food processor often turns them to paste). Scrape herbs into a bowl and add salt. Using clean hands, toss herbs and salt until well combined.

2. Funnel herb mixture into a 1-quart jar, apply a lid, and place in the fridge.

3. Every day for a week, give it a good shake. At the end of the week, it should have reduced in volume by about half.

4. Transfer the herb salt to a 1-pint jar and fit with an airtight lid. It will keep in the refigerator indefinitely . Note: When dipping into the jar of herb salt, use only meticulously clean spoons. This extends the life span of your herb salt because there is less risk of introducing bacteria into the jar.

- From Preserving by the Pint by Marisa McClellan (Running Press, 2014)


smelamed@phillynews.com

215-854-5053

@samanthamelamed

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