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Food in Jars
Marisa is a canning teacher and author of two amazingly well-received cookbooks on preserving.
She is a writer whose work appears regularly on The Food Network’s FN Dish Blog, Saveur’s website, Table Matters and Food 52.
I am so excited to have Marisa McClellan of Food in Jars here on the show today.
On How Her Blog Came Together:
I started Food in Jars in late winter, 2009.
I had been working as the editor of a website called Slashfood, which was AOL’s food blog. My job there was coming to an end and I wanted to stay in the food blog community. I looked around to figure out what it was I wanted to write about. And, I realized that I loved canning jars and had done some canning, grew up doing it, and really felt like there was space for me to start a blog devoted to Mason jars and canning and preserving.
So I decided to carve out that little niche for myself. It has been an incredible journey since then.
I would say that at the start, it came naturally to me, but in the beginning, I didn’t know how much I didn’t know.
There’s been a lot of learning since I started only because as I dived deeper in, I didn’t know that there was so much that I still needed to learn. But I was already so invested that that learning process was really fun and exciting and natural.
I did most of my learning from books and the Internet. For instance, there’s a really great resource at the National Center for Home Food Preservation, which is run out of the University of Georgia and is the repository for the best practices of all canning and food preservation. They had a really good cookbook.
I took one class when I was first getting started on pressure canning just because I wanted to see someone else do it before I dove in. But, for the most part, the kinds of things I was curious about, the answers weren’t out there. I had to dig through and look at the USDA standards for commercial canning to figure out what was okay and what wasn’t.
That was fun and interesting to me, so I was happy to dive in and figure all that out.
On The First Thing She Ever Canned:
As a kid, most of what we did was either blackberry jam or blueberry jam.
I remember being nine or 10-years-old and helping my mom make blackberry jam. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, and that’s a place in the world where blackberries are just sort of anywhere. So that’s one of my primary foundational canning memories.
Then, as I got older, we’d go blueberry picking every summer.
Those two together, blueberries and blackberries, are really the core of my earliest canning memories, and what I started with when I started canning on my own.
On Where Her Canning Jars Obsession Came From:
I think it started in college. I went to college in Walla Walla, Washington, so rural Washington State.
I picked up a habit of wandering through stores, and antique stores, and junk stores when I had an afternoon off from classes. The thing I was drawn to were the old Mason jars. So I would pick up one or two here and there until I had a couple dozen in my dorm room. I used them for water glasses, I used them for pens, and it just kind of grew from there.
I don’t know why. There’s just something so appealing about a Mason jar. It’s clean and it’s got a nice heft to it, and it has so much possibility just in the vessel itself.
Tips For Those Wanting to Start Canning:
There’s a lot of really good instruction out there as long as you’re getting your information from a trusted source like the Ball Canning website, or in Canada, the Bernardin website, and they’re actually the same company, the National Center for Home Food Preservation, my website.
There’s a whole slew of good online information out there. As long as you’re following those best practices which are to use common sense, clean gear, and process your jars for at least ten minutes once they’re full of whatever you’ve made, you’re going to be okay.
It’s really hard to do harm to someone with jams, or pickles, or anything, and the thing to note too is that botulism, which is the thing that scares everybody about canning, can’t grow in high acid environments. This means that all of your jams and pickles, anything that’s designed to be canned in a water bath, is too high an acid for botulism to grow at all.
So the worst thing that’s going to happen is, if you do something wrong, it’s either going to mold or it’s going to ferment. And you’ll be able to see those things immediately upon opening the jar. So you’re never going to make someone sick with a jam, or a pickle, or a chutney, or any of these things. If they do go bad, you’ll see immediately. So there’s really no danger.
On Discovering Canning For Yourself:
There have been times when I’ve made things that weren’t as good as I wanted them to be. That typically happens when I am rushing. I find that if you really try to rush your way through a batch of jam or fruit butter or whatever, it’s going to take as long as it’s going to take. And if you have a time table that’s not working with the fruit, it’s better to stop cooking and come back to it later than it is to try to force your timeframe on to it.
I’ve had some really horrible mistakes. Nothing dangerous, but things that didn’t taste good, and I think that that’s part of the process.
One of the things with canning and food preservation that I have really experienced and have observed other people going through as well is that we have lost the institutional knowledge of what we like. It used to be that everybody canned and preserved, and you knew the five or ten things you made every year that you liked, your family liked.
If you’re picking up the canning habit, the food preservation habit without any context, it’s going to take you a few years to figure out what the things are that you like to preserve, that work for your family, that you’ll work through in a calendar year. So, it’s sort of this necessary process of discovery to figure out what are your preserves.
On Her Love of Ingredients And Food:
To be honest, it is just something that’s always been with me. I have always been a little food obsessed from the time I was really young. In fact, the first full sentence I said as a baby was, “More mayonnaise please.” So it’s just innate to me.
I really just have always been interested in food. From the time I was really young, I loved going to orchards. I have always appreciated the abundance of the harvest season, that’s something that just resonates. It connects. I feel most at home during that time of the year.
There wasn’t any one sort of foundational experience that made me go, “Oh, oh, my God, food, that’s where I want to be.” It’s just kind of grown with me as I have grown as a person.
On Her Books:
The first book, Food in Jars, came out in 2012 and is a cookbook devoted to my favorite preserves.
It’s got jams and jellies, and pickles and chutneys. There are some recipes for bread mixes in jars. I’ve got some nut butters, granolas. It was my attempt to wrap my arms around all my favorite things that I had done on the blog and translate them into a book.
The recipes are all revised for the book. So you’ll see something on the blog and it will have been changed a little bit or tweaked or made better for the book.
I think of it as a really good book for someone who’s just started canning, who wants the basics and who doesn’t mind yielding anywhere from 3 to 4 pints of something.
The new book, which came out last spring, called Preserving by the Pint, it’s still jams and jellies and pickles and things like that, but it has a philosophy that canning doesn’t have to be a large undertaking. It’s something that you can do in very small batches in about an hour or less and still really enjoy your product.
The idea behind that was simply that I live in a small apartment and have a small kitchen, and wanted to make things in small batches. And when I started posting those recipes, other people really resonated with them.
Every recipe in the book starts with either a pint of produce, a quart of produce, or a pound or two, so that your yields are only two or three half pints, but the amount of time you’ve invested in making them is really short.
It’s a really good way to prevent waste as well. I always talk about that as my secret mission with that book is it’s not just about preserving, but it’s also about breathing new life into things that you might have otherwise thrown away or decided you just couldn’t deal with.
So for instance, if you get a CSA Share, some weeks you get more than you can deal with. Instead of just throwing it away at the end of the week before you pick up your new box, you can make a little batch of pickles or a little batch of jam and extend the lifespan of that produce and get the most bang for your buck.
On Documenting Her Cookbook Tour Experience:
I wanted to make sure I didn’t forget some of those lessons that I had learned along the way, so that I can prevent myself from repeating the same mistakes.
In life if you don’t take to heart the things you learn, you do the same things over and over again. I don’t want to do that. I want to move on, learn new lessons, not have to keep learning the same ones over and over.
Throughout the process you definitely have moments where you doubt yourself. You think, “What am I doing?”
I am working on my third book right now, and I have moments where I am like, “I don’t know how to write a book. I don’t know how to do this.” I have done it twice and I still have those feelings.
The Pressure Cooker:
Which food shows or cooking shows do you watch?
I watch Cutthroat Kitchen because my husband’s a big fan.
I watch Top Chef because I find it fascinating, and it’s a really good representation of what’s sort of in the cheffy world at the moment.
I really like the online videos that the Breville small appliance company puts out. They have a really nice YouTube page.
What are some food blogs or websites that we have to know about?
Well, food blogs, I love my little community of food preservation blogs like Punk Domestics. Sean Timberlake who writes that blog is also now the blogger for About.com. As for food preservation, he’s been doing an amazing job there.
Wellpreserved, which is a Canadian food blog. My friend Kate Payne writes Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking, which is a really good one.
I have a friend who writes a blog called What I Weigh Today. It’s really interesting because it’s the intersection of someone who is a food writer, food editor, loves food, and is also trying to find ways to eat healthfully and work her way through dealing with weight in a culture where we put a lot of focus on both food and body image, and finding how to make that all work together.
Who do you follow on Pinterest, Instagram or Twitter that make you happy?
I am definitely an Instagram addict. I follow a lot of people. It’s hard to even articulate.
My friend Alexis Siemons, she has a website called Teaspoons and Petals and her Instagram handle is @teaspoonsandpetals. She is a tea writer and takes the most beautiful pictures of tea cups, and desserts, and things like that.
What is something all home cooks should have in their pantry?
All home cooks should have salt in their pantry.
You never want to run out of salt because it’s going to give everything flavor.
Vinegar is also useful. Anytime you make something and it tastes flat, if you add a little apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, it’s going to brighten it up.
So salt and vinegar and it’s hard to go wrong.
Name one ingredient you cannot live without?
I cannot live without garlic.
I always have some, I use it every day, and my favorite way to add it to a dish is to grate it on a microplane rasp, because you get tiny little bits, you don’t have to chop it, and you get a lot of flavor. One of the tricks I learned recently was that if you want to brighten up a pot of soup, instead of adding your garlic at the beginning of cooking, add a little fresh garlic at the end. It’s going to make it taste more alive.
What are a few cookbooks that make your life better?
As far as just needing the basics, I still always turn to The Joy of Cooking. Anytime I need to make biscuits or just need a basic recipe for something like that, that’s my go-to. I like the 1960s edition the best because that’s the one I grew up with.
The So Easy to Preserve cookbook, that’s the one I mentioned earlier from the National Center for Home Food Preservation. That’s a great one for when I just need to understand how a recipe should work. I turn to that.
And there’s a book I love called Whole Grains for a New Generation by Liana Krissoff and it’s one that I always find something new in.
What song or album just makes you want to cook?
There is an album called Rekooperation by Al Kooper who is a blues and jazz organ player that I love to cook to.
Keep Posted on Marisa:
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