‘TIS THE SEASON for starting to concoct some of the holiday trimmings—especially delicious homemade gifts that can also figure into your own holiday menu, and capitalize on the flavors of the moment, before they’re gone. On her popular website Food in Jars dot com and in her downtown Philadelphia kitchen, Marisa McClellan always has something cooking. Right now that often includes one of her favorite fruits–pears–and also the beautiful and distinctive-tasting cranberry.
Marisa is a fulltime food writer and canning teacher, and also the author of two books: “Food in Jars,” and “Preserving by the Pint,” with a third one on preserving with natural sweeteners (called “Naturally Sweet Food in Jars”) on its way to the printer and due out in March 2016.
Read along as you listen to the Nov. 2, 2015 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
my preserving q&a with marisa mcclellan
Q. I want to right away say to people who are already thinking, “I don’t have a big kitchen; I can’t process a bunch of things for gifts,” that you don’t have a big kitchen, either, do you?
A. I have a teeny-tiny kitchen. The footprint of my kitchen is just 80 square feet. It’s not big at all.
Q. And you’re in downtown, or center city, Philadelphia?
A. I’m right in the middle of downtown Philadelphia, and live in an apartment that had belonged to my grandparents originally. It’s been in my family for years and years and years. Although you wouldn’t think it would be an ideal place for a canner to function, I really appreciate the limitations because they make me focus, and they make me turn to small batches, which work out really well for me.
Q. So you can have lots of different things; capitalize on those things that are on the verge as I said at the start—the sort of use-it-or-lose-it ingredients. You don’t need to have a big assembly line going.
I’ve been up to my neck in apples this year, and started with applesauce and more applesauce. Frankly at this point it’s like too much of a good thing. [Laughter.] So I’m more than ready move on to pears perhaps and maybe instead of sauce, butters.
But first: Why do you love pears so much?
A. What I like so much about pears is that they are so flexible. They have a really lovely, gentle flavor all on their own, but then because they’re sort of mild, they can be flavored in so many different directions. When you make a preserve with pear—as opposed to something like cranberry, which is such an assertive flavor—you can really make pears just about anything, which is really fun, because there is so much possibility.
Q. One I had never thought of that I found on your website: pears with lavender. Other examples?
Q. That sounds good.
A. It is really good. I’ve also used a pear puree, in place of cream in a caramel sauce. I’ve made a fruit-based caramel with pears. I love them with cranberries, with vanilla [in pear-vanilla jam], and even in a chutney—going in a savory direction.
Q. And they’re in season; in the fall and winter they’re in good supply in good quality.
One of the things they work in: butters. When you have a lot of fruit, are butters a good way to “distill” it down into something really special?
A. Absolutely. Butters are a great way to deal with a lot of fruit. When you make jams, you’re combining sugar and pectin perhaps, and cooking it down, in a fairly short cooking process, so you have a lot.
Fruit butters, at least the way I do them, is that I cook the fruit—the pears—down into a sauce, and then I puree, and then I cook it it long and slow, sometimes up to 12 or 14 hours often in a slow cooker or a very low oven. Instead of ending up with a lot of product, you really concentrate the fruit down, and get this really dense, deeply flavored version of the fruit you’re using. You don’t get a lot, but a little goes a long way. If you have 10 or 15 pounds of pears to preserve and don’t have a huge household, it’s a great way to not overwhelm your pantry as if you had made jam.
The other benefit of fruit butter: Because you concentrated the fruit, you’re concentrating the natural sweetness of the pears or apples, so you don’t need much additional sweetener, or maybe none at all. So it ends up being a more healthful fruit preserve, which I really appreciate.
Q. You make butters out of many things—not just apple and pear.
A. In the summertime, I love to make butters of blueberries or strawberries. Those berry butters are so delicious. I’ve made cranberry butter—cooked cranberries down, pureed them and then cooked them instead of into a sauce or jam as we think of for the holidays, it ends up being lighter. I’ve even done persimmon butter.
Q. I think I read a recipe for plum butter, too, on Food in Jars. It appealed to me because in a moment of plum-gluttedness in the summer, friends brought me plums. I thought, “What am I going to do with all these plums?” so that recipe would have helped me then.
You’ve made butters also with pumpkin, but it’s a little different. Before you said “pantry,” but with some like the pumpkin we don’t do the same thing in terms of preserving it?
A. Pumpkin is low in acid, so when it comes to safe canning, you need to make sure there is a certain quantity of acid in your product. All these fruits I’ve been listing are all typically high in acid, but pumpkins and very low in acid. In order to be safe and make a pumpkin butter or puree, you have to freeze it as opposed to can it to make sure that it’s safe.
Q. The basic steps of making a butter: Is there a proportional thing you start out with when you’re creating a recipe—or do you actually follow recipes, by the way? I should probably ask you that. The fruit’s always different; some pears or apples are juicier or more dry, and so forth.
A. With the fruit butters, I almost never follow a recipe.
Q. Ah, the truth comes out. [Laughter.]
A. It’s really a technique more than a recipe.
Q. That’s what I suspected.
A. You are correct. With pears, basically I will core the pears, and cut them into chunks, then pile them into a slow-cooker, since a slow-cooker really is the easiest, most hands-off and energy-efficient way of making a fruit butter.
I’ll pile my slow-cooker full of the raw pears, and run it on high for a couple of hours to soften the fruit. Then I’ll unplug it, and puree the pears down with an immersion blender. If you don’t have an immersion blender, you can use a potato masher, or even a fork if you’re persistent, to make a rough, chunky sauce.
I will turn the slow cooker on to low, and lay either a wooden spoon or chopstick across the rim of the slow-cooker and put the lid on, so it ends up serving as sort of a little vent. The goal of cooking a fruit butter is to evaporate out the moisture. By giving it a little vent, it allows it to cook down more efficiently. Then I’ll cook it on low for 8, 10, 12, 14 hours—until I like the consistency of the fruit, and it’s reduced by between a third and a half, and it tastes good. The old-school true test of a fruit butter is when you scoop it up into a spoon, you want it to sit tall in the spoon, so it doesn’t just run to the edges. It should sort of sit up and mound so it doesn’t look watery.
[Processing the butter for pantry storage: Funnel hot butter into prepared jars. Apply lids and rings and process in a boiling water bath canner for 15 minutes, starting to time when the water returns to a boil. When time is up, remove jars from canner and let cool on a folded kitchen towel.]
Q. With the pears, some have different skins—some look like a russeted potato. Am I peeling them or leaving skin on whether brown- or red- or green-skinned?
A. I leave the skins on pears if they are smooth to the touch. Bartlett or Bosc or Anjou—many of these pears that are common to fall—are going to have a smooth skin, so I don’t worry about them.
If you’re getting them from a tree, and they’re really rough and nubbily—often organic pears are a little rougher than the conventionally grown ones. If I feel like that’s the case, like the skin isn’t going to break down nicely over that long cooking process, I might peel them. But it’s really up to the individual maker, and for you to determine whether you care. There are no safety implications; it’s just if you think that texture is going to be troublesome or not.
Q. Do you recommend a particular size of jar for average household use?
A. I recommend you preserve your fruit butters in 4- or 8-ounce jars, quarter- or half-pint. The reason for that is fruit butters typically have less sugar in them, which is great because we want to eat less sugar. But sugar is a preservative, and if you have pint jars of fruit butter and you move through your jar very slowly, as it rests in your refrigerator it is going to eventually succumb to mold.
If you have smaller jars open—if you preserved in smaller jars—you won’t lose as much to the mold.
Q. Any spices or anything else that you do to change it up, or do all your batches taste the same?
A. It almost never tastes the same. [Laughter.] Some batches I’ll do a classic combination of cinnamon and nutmeg, and maybe just a hint of clove. Other batches I will cook with a vanilla bean in with the fruit. Other times I’ll do cardamom, and sometimes I want it to be almost a little tangy and I’ll do a lot of lemon zest and lemon juice to make it really tart. That’s a really good one if you want to serve it with roast meat, or cheese, or roasted veggies—having that sweet-tart flavor goes nicely.
Once I’ve made a batch of fruit butter, and deemed that it’s done, I’ll add a little bit of sweetener to taste—a little but of maple syrup, honey, or even brown sugar for that slight molasses flavor—and then I just go with what tastes good to me in the moment. Depending on what I eat that day, that can be very different.
That’s one of the nice thing about fruit butters is that you can really play around. The fruit you’re starting with is already high enough in acid that adding little bits of spices or herbs isn’t going to make it unsafe. You can really experiment, and go with what tastes good to you.
A. They do. I often make a jam that’s one part pears, one part cranberries, some sugar—[above, Marisa’s pear cranberry jam] and because the cranberries have so much pectin on their own, they just kind of tighten it up. It’s really delicious.
Q. I had a laugh when I read an old post of yours, when in order to answer that family Thanksgiving debate of some want cranberry jelly and some want sauce, you used a recycled BPA free metal cans and made a jelly and molded it in there. It looked like it was from the ubiquitous provider of cranberry sauce and jelly.
A. Everybody was fooled.
Q. You make pickled cranberries, too—and I don’t mean like dill-pickled.
A. It’s one of those preserves that people are skeptical about at first, and then when they try it it’s so bright and vibrant tasting, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t sold on the concept after they tried it.
It’s apple cider vinegar, a bunch of sugar, a little water and a bunch of spices—cinnamon and ginger and allspice and cloves and then some black pepper corns for a little edge. And then you just cook the cranberries in that brine until they start to pop ever so slightly. You put them in the jars [processing directions and full recipe at this link] and let them sit for a little while.
They are so delicious with cheese, or I love them with roasted sweet potatoes. I think some people think that sounds a little crazy, but the creamy sweetness with the sharp tartness of the pickled cranberries is so good.
A. The pickled cranberries is actually two products in one. You have the berries, and then you have this liquid that is tart and sweet and fully flavored with the cranberry. You can make a delicious cocktail with it, or you can just pour it in sparkling water and make yourself a non-alcoholic sparkler.
Q. Would this be a good one for gifting? It would look very festive.
A. I think so especially if you have friends and family who like things that are outside of the norm. A pickled cranberry isn’t something you’ll find at the grocery store, obviously, or even at your gourmet market—so it’s really different, it’s unique. The recipe I have makes four pints and you can also can it in eight half-pints, so you get a lot.
Q. Any other cranberry ideas right now, and do you stock up on them? I love the flavor but of course they have a finite season.
A. I live in Philadelphia, right near New Jersey, so we get some great local cranberries—really cool, interested-colored ones. White ones, and pink ones. I sometimes buy 10 or 15 pounds when the season is coming to an end, and portion them out in my freezer so I get through to the next season.
Q. I’m a freezer nut, with multiple freezers. In this apartment of yours that has been in your family a long time, and has the 80-square-foot kitchen: Do you have more than just your refrigerator freezer?
A. I don’t. I cram them in there. [Laughter.] Right now I don’t have any cranberries left, but I have some apricots from earlier in the season. Basically I’m always socking away a little bit of fruit from the previous season to get me into the next. I have to be very militant about keeping track of what’s in my freezer, and staying on top of using it. The real estate is limited. You know it’s important to me if I make space for it in the freezer.
Q. I have an extra small freezer, the size of an under-the-counter refrigerator, with drawers that pull out. At rhubarb time this spring, I had just discovered some raspberries from last fall’s garden, and I was making rhubarb compote. I thought: The heck with buying strawberries—which I don’t grow—and last year’s raspberries went into the rhubarb. It was delicious—and the color! Like cranberries, raspberries have that brilliance.
Any other fruits you recommend we explore this time of year?
A. I mentioned persimmons, and I go for the flat-bottomed ones, the Fuyu persimmons. They are great for making chutney with; they are a little low in acid to be made into a jam. What I like to do is combine them with apple cider vinegar, and some shallots, maybe some golden raisins, and cook them into a sticky, tangy, sweet condiment for cheeses—and it makes a great gift. I have one on my website that’s persimmon and pear—there are the pears again.
Another great one this time of year: quince. If you haven’t ever worked with them, it looks like a cross between and apple and a pear, and is typically golden in color. They are really dense; you’d never take a bite out of them and eat them raw, they’re so dense and astringent. But as soon as you roast them, or poach them, they turn into this lovely, yielding, floral-scented fruit.
enter to win one of marisa’s canning books
I’LL BUY A LUCKY READER a copy of their choice of Marisa McClellan’s books. All you have to do to enter to win is comment in the box at the very bottom of the page, scrolling way down past the last reader comment, answering this question:
Are pears or cranberries in your kitchen or on your menu this season, whether for baking, canning, or whatever use? Any favorite uses to suggest?
Me? I love to make baked pears for eating anytime, and always make cranberry sauce for the holidays (so easy, and no high fructose corn syrup or excessive sugar).
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say, “Count me in” or something like that, and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll choose the random winner after entries close at midnight Sunday, November 8. Good luck to all.
The winner (U.S. or Canada only) can choose “Food in Jars,” and “Preserving by the Pint,” or a third one on preserving with natural sweeteners (called “Naturally Sweet Food in Jars,” to preorder now and ship in March 2016.)
(Photos from Food in Jars dot com, copyright Marisa McClellan. Disclosure: Purchases from Amazon links yield a small commission.)
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Nov. 2, 2015 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).