Almost everything I know about canning food, I've learned from Marisa McClellan. I follow her Food in Jars blog, watched her give live demonstrations, and used her small-batch canning cookbook recipes in my kitchen. There's an immense satisfaction that can be gained from eating a jar of peach-vanilla jam in February that you made and preserved back in August, and I know that satisfaction because I've been following McClellan's jar-obsessed cooking for years now.
McClellan's latest cookbook, "Naturally Sweet Food in Jars" contains the recipes for 100 preserves made with coconut, maple, honey and more. She's ditched the granulated sugars for her third book of small batch recipes in favor of alternative, natural sweeteners.
"I choose to do a book focusing on an array of sweeteners beyond granulated sugar because I've found that there are a goodly number of people out there who are trying to reduce their sugar intake and use less refined sweeteners," said McClellan. "Additionally, these sweeteners lend a great deal of flavor, and so I wanted to explore some of the possible combinations."
The book is divided by sweeteners, honey, maple, agave, coconut sugar, fruit juice concentrate and dried fruit. She points out in the introduction that the sweeteners all contain either sucrose, glucose or fructose, so the sweeteners are still sugars, but less refined sugars.
As in McClellan's other cookbooks, she begins with the necessary information on the basics of canning — what cookware, special gear, jars and rings are needed as well as the how-to process. "Naturally Sweet Food in Jars" can be a standalone book on canning without having McClellan's other books. (Although I do recommend them all for the canning-curious and avid canners.)
The book is being released at the start of spring, so I asked McClellan which recipes readers should turn to if they want to use the first produce of the season.
"There are a number of recipes that are good for early spring. We should be seeing rhubarb any day now, and the rhubarb parsley syrup or the ginger rhubarb jam are both perfect for this time of year. Another good one is the fennel parsley relish (pictured at left)." And, as strawberries come into season, she also recommends the strawberry cocoa jam sweetened with coconut sugar, one that she feels is "the perfect entry point into preserving with natural sweeteners."
Most of the recipes in this book make three to six jars of preserves, great for someone who doesn't want to be canning in the kitchen all day or who doesn't have a lot of storage room. Recipes can be doubled for larger batches.
"Many of the recipes in this book double more readily than the recipes in my previous books because of the Pomona's pectin," said McClellan. "It's a pectin designed for low sugar applications that doesn't depend on the cooking down process to set up. However, because these natural sweeteners don't provide as much preservative power as refined sugar does, I don't recommend making more than you can use up within a calendar year."
There are certainly plenty of jam and jelly recipes in this book, but the variety of preserves in this book go far beyond those classics. She has sauces, butters, chutneys, pastes, relishes, pickles, salsas and more, including an intriguing Carrot Cake Conserve that can be used to top oatmeal or a cheese spread. That's on my must-make list.
Two other recipes I have marked as must-makes so far are concord grape jam sweetened with maple sugar that McClellan says will "transform your standard PB&J into the best sandwich you've ever had." Honeyed Meyer limoncello is shelf stable for only two to three months or can be refrigerated for up to nine months, unlike limoncello made with granulated sugar. Honey doesn't have the preserving power that refined sugar does.
"Traditionally made limoncello uses a ton of refined sugar, which serves as both sweetener and preservative. The honey sweetened version has a tendency to go cloudy and a little funky over time," said McClellan.
Preserves are meant to be opened and enjoyed, and I asked McClellan to create a picnic menu using her food in jars. She came up with one that made me long for a basket full of food, a checkered blanket and a warm, sunny, lazy afternoon.
"To drink, I'd bring a jar of orangeade concentrate, to be drunk with sparkling water," she said. "I'd make turkey sandwiches with a generous smear of the caramelized red onion jam and pack a big batch of pasta salad, including my marinated multicolored peppers. For dessert, a jar of pear vanilla jam, graham crackers, and a really creamy wedge of brie. Four preserves, one meal!"