Marisa McClellan’s new book will inspire you to preserve the season this summer.
Word to the wise: Make a friend who cans. You know, one of those urban homesteader types who, every now and then, presses a jewel-tone Ball jar of jam into your palm, still warm from its hot water bath. This way, you get the superior goods to spread on your toast and don’t need to sterilize jars and steam up the kitchen yourself.
I’m fortunate to have this friend. Actually, I lucked out by having the best version of this friend that a lazy jam lover could possibly have: Marisa McClellan, the dedicated canning and preservation expert behind the popular Food in Jars blog and the four books that have sprung from it.
Over the years, she’s gifted with me all the most interesting preserves that have graced my table, mostly sparing me from DIY. Yet some of these things I have come to love so much that I will, somewhat grudgingly, make them myself. Namely, sauerkraut, tomato jam, and shrubs–all things I know how to do thanks to Marisa’s* authoritative body of work.
Confessions of a can’t-do canner
What I’m telling you is that even though I personally love Marisa McClellan and admire what she does, even though I own her cookbooks, I don’t actually put that much food in jars myself. Her first three books, Food in Jars, Preserving by the Pint, and Naturally Sweet, on my own bookshelves at least, function as culinary reference material and a totem to our friendship.
But her new book, The Food in Jars Kitchen (Running Press, 2019), published this spring, changed things for me when it comes to Marisa’s work. Unlike her past books, mostly focused on creating the titular food in jars, canning and preserving your berries, citrus, tomatoes, cucumbers and everything else under the sun, this new book is all about what to cook with this stuff.
These recipes call for preserves as ingredients, whether they are the ones you make, the ones those canning-happy friends give you, or even the ones you buy at the store. This is great news for a reluctant canner like me because I’m a lot more likely to cook with Marisa’s recipes when they don’t strictly require a hot water canning bath, bringing molten sugar to 220 degrees, or tools that look something like medical devices.
I can start with store-bought preserves. Whew.
Store-bought is fine
I began with a jar of farmers market-procured apple butter because I wanted to make Fruit Butter Baked Oatmeal. In her headnote, Marisa promises a sliceable oatmeal you can store in the refrigerator and reheat on weekday mornings. My adoration of all things oatmeal plus my aforementioned laziness made this recipe (the very first of the book) irresistible to me. Raisins and pecans, two of my favorite oat sidekicks, also feature prominently in this dish.
The oats you need here are divided; you turn 1 cup of your rolled oats into oat flour in the blender, which makes the final product more like a baked good than a bowl of porridge. The rest of the oats stay intact, giving it a distinctly oaty texture. If you’re feeling any level of oatmeal ennui, this baked version will keep you interested and save you time in the morning.
I also used commercial salsa to make Marisa’s dead simple salsa-braised chicken thighs. It’s more of a method really–simply marry chicken thighs, salt, and salsa in your slow cooker and braise until it becomes shred-able and tastes like something that belongs in a taco. It sounds simple, and it is, but it’s one of those back-pocket recipes that can drain the stress out of dinner.
I like this dish, and I bought a half-decent salsa, but I have to admit I wondered if it would be even better with salsa I made myself. My own salsa would have been charged up with hot chilies, smokey with chipotle, perhaps even rich with ground pepitas. At this point, I started to wonder if Marisa’s intention with this book isn’t to give me a permission slip to skip out on canning anything but to make slackers like me understand what a powerful boost your own homemade food in jars can be to home cooking across the board.
Homemade is better
I want to tell you about the Sauerkraut Frittata, but first I need to lay out my sauerkraut education for you. If you are into this stuff, I encourage you to hang out with food writers. That’s why I know how to make sauerkraut and always have it on hand.
Between the time Marisa walked me through how she makes sauerkraut on film and time spent with another food-writing pal, Amanda Feifer, whose book, blog, and fermentation classes are all top-notch, I have become very proficient in fermenting cabbage. And to digress further, I need to tell you if you’ve eaten only shelf-stable supermarket sauerkraut and never the fresh, unpasteurized, homemade stuff, I’m afraid you don’t even know what sauerkraut tastes like.
OK, back to the frittata. This was a must-try for me: despite always having plenty of kraut hanging around, loving it with eggs in the morning, and often serving some alongside to a frittata, I’ve never thought of actually putting it into my frittata until I read this recipe.
I have to admit to using considerably more olive oil than the two tablespoons Marisa calls for. I live in fear of my frittatas sticking to the skillet and I just enjoy a rich and deeply brown wedge. In her headnote, Marisa mentions that a garlicky kraut is particularly good here, and that’s exactly what I had in my refrigerator. I liked this recipe so much, and I had such an excess of sauerkraut, I made this twice in one week.
Clearly, Sauerkraut Frittata is a new staple for me. Would I feel this way if I started with store-bought kraut? I doubt it.
A toast to friendship
Marisa and I are food friends, but we’re also friends-friends. In fact, when we met as administrative assistants in our early 20s, neither of us knew we’d go on to culinary careers. She’s been there for me through many real-life things, including me quitting alcohol a few years ago. She never raised an eyebrow or said a judgemental word, and she helped tremendously by fanning the flames of my appreciation for nonalcoholic beverages.
In the process, she introduced me to and taught me to make shrubs, a fruit and vinegar syrup first used as a preservation method. There are no shrub-specific recipes in this book, but they work in certain places. The Herbal Fruit Sparkler, for example, calls for “jam, jelly, or syrup.”
Since a shrub is definitely a syrup, it fits the bill. Muddled with fresh herbs like mint and basil and topped with plenty of sparkling water (Topo Chico preferred!), this is exactly the kind of complex and refreshing drink that eliminates my FOMO when others are sipping something stronger.
Without ever trying to boss me around about it, The Food in Jars Kitchen has inspired me to take on at least a few canning projects this summer. The book is sneaky that way, granting permission to use whatever you have while relentlessly inspiring you make your own ingredients from scratch.
Armed with a core of essential recipes for preserves Marisa includes here, plus her earlier books, and of course, her Food in Jars blog, I know I have everything I need to take my homemade pantry, and the rest of my home cooking, to a new level.
Maybe I’m finally about to become that friend who cans.
*Normally, I would refer to someone I write about by his or her last name, because journalism. Full disclosure: Marisa and are good buddies and have been for ages. It’d be stilted and weird for me to refer to her by her last name. I’m not claiming that this essay about me cooking from this book is “objective,” but I am sharing my opinions here because I think you might find this book inspiring and useful, too.