Is there anything sexier than preserves?
The correct answer, of course, is “no.” Preserves capture the bounty of the north’s brief but glorious growing season in a format that stores indefinitely, plays well with other foods, and creates flavors brasher than just about anything else on the plate.
That so many preserves are over-sweet, muted in flavor, and / or deadly dull isn’t a fault of the format — it’s an outgrowth of techniques that fail to capitalize on their potential. Food writer Beth Dooley and photographer Mette Nielsen’s lively new book Savory Sweet: Simple Preserves from a Northern Kitchen (University of Minnesota Press, $24.95) has the potential to seriously level up the preserves game in the Upper Midwest. It’s quietly revolutionary.
The book turns on a few clever ideas that play out in its pages. First, most books focused on preserves hearken back to the farm and call for the production of giant quantities, which presupposes large quantities of produce, huge pots, and lots of climate-controlled storage space. Second, many traditional preserves cookbooks create shelf-stable (as opposed to freezer) preserves, which require extensive processing that dulls flavor and mushes up texture. Finally, old-school preserves tend to be simple combinations of sugar with fruit, or salt with herbs and vegetables. The recipes of Savory Sweet are small-batch freezer preserves that combine subtle and novel ingredients, everything from Hot and Sweet Carrot Relish to Pickled Fennel with Lemongrass to Earl Grey Crab Apple Jelly.
We interviewed the authors at Nielsen’s studio / test kitchen in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis, and they put out a spread of coulis, chutneys, relishes, and syrups that made the book’s thesis tangible. The flavors popped like wildfire — tart, sweet, and acidic notes intense but in balance.
HEAVY TABLE: How does the message of Savory Sweet tie into the conversation about local food in the Upper Midwest?
METTE NIELSEN: I feel that preserving is the next step if you’re going to talk about a local food economy. We need to do it on a much larger scale than even this book. We need local preserving companies and local canning companies. This is a step, and we hope it inspires somebody. We have a very short growing season, but we grow an abundance. In my little yard, I had a spot that was maybe 10 feet by 4 feet and I got 300 pounds of tomatoes out of that.
BETH DOOLEY: It’s crazy what you can actually grow. Everything [in the book] is done in really small batches. Most other preserving books are based on the notion you have access to really huge amounts. And everything is done in a 10-inch skillet.
NIELSEN: There’s a great new book out of California, but it’s based on this enormous copper pan that’s $500. And then you get 40 jars of jam. Why not make this amount and you get four? The scale of it makes more sense. And a lot of other books are based on the notion that you have a cool, dark place to store things. Even in my house, my basement is way too warm. Things start to fade. You store that same thing in the freezer, and it looks bright and crisp and like something you want to eat.
DOOLEY: You’re cooking the fruit or vegetables for a shorter period of time, so they’ll look more colorful and taste brighter. A lot of the work that Mette did was to say, “we don’t need that much sugar!” That’s why these things taste good.
HEAVY TABLE: They’re very sharp and bright – everything’s really bold.