In Conversation With Top Chef Cristina Ceccatelli & Canning Expert Marisa McClellan
With harvest season kicking off and a bounty of fall produce filling the farmers’ markets, now is the time to try your hand at preserving – or add a new recipe to your arsenal. Here to help: Cristina Ceccatelli, an Italian chef based in Ketchum, Idaho, whose homemade jams are a staple at her popular 16-table restaurant Cristina’s. Marisa McClellan writes about the art of canning on her website Food in Jars and released her cookbook of the same name last year. (We’ve been fans since making her mouth-puckeringly tasty kumquat marmalade.)
Heading into fall, what are your favorite ingredients to preserve?
Cristina: At the end of September and beginning of October, it’s pretty quiet in Ketchum. That’s when the farmers bring us the overripe fruit they can’t sell. So we make jam. We’re very old-fashioned; we don’t buy raspberries in January, for example. I do fig jams this time of year, since we have a lot of them. I also use huckleberries, which people here call “wild blueberries.” They’re in the same family, except huckleberries are smaller and more tart. People in the area pick them like Italians forge for mushrooms. They have their secret spots that they don’t tell anyone about. Huckleberries are also very expensive: around $10 to $25 a pound. My jam has 100% huckleberries (not a mix, which many stores offer to lower the price) with lemon juice and sugar. That’s it!
Marisa: I get really excited about pears. They’re an underrated ingredient. I make pear vanilla jam with real vanilla bean. It looks great with the speckle coming through – almost like ice cream. I also love quince, which is a bit more obscure. You can’t eat it raw; it sucks out all the moisture in your mouth when you take a bite. The fruit turns pink and gives off a light, floral scent when it’s cooked. My kitchen is small, around 80 square-feet, so there’s only room for me in there. I have to be really organized when everything starts to go out of season with that final push of peaches, corn and other late summer produce.
Do you have any kitchen essentials?
Cristina: Squat, round 8-ounce Mason jars. I like my tools plain and straight-forward.
Marisa: Weck jars are a little expensive but they’re great for more decorative gifts, like the pear jelly with vanilla bean speckles. Otherwise, a really good stainless steel wide-mouth funnel is useful when decanting liquids from the pot into the jars. Once you have one you’ll ask yourself, “How did I live without this?” A good funnel is durable, dishwasher-safe and continues to look beautiful with use.
What’s your secret for keeping jams and preserves as fresh tasting as when you first made them?
Cristina: I find the best method is to boil the fruit quick and short, just enough to have all the water evaporate. The Italians keep their jams cooking on the stove for days! All their homemade versions are brown from the caramelized sugar, although they taste very good… I put my quince, apricot, peaches and tomatoes on a high fire until they’re pulpy yet still taste summery. Then I add lemon juice to keep the color and flavor, mix in sugar (and Certo pectin for berry-based jams). Stir until you have a jammy consistency – around 15 minutes – not 17 hours! The goal is to not overboil.
Marisa: Flavor and color can fade if you put the jars near the window. There’s no bigger enemy to preserves than direct sunlight so store them in a cool, shaded area.
How do you develop your recipes?
Cristina: I don’t have a warehouse where I crank out 2,000 jars in one go. We make about 3,000 in a whole year. We don’t even have measuring cups! I grew up on a farmhouse surrounded by a lot of people who cooked all the time, so I do what I know. There’s no hard, fast recipe. I listen and try – like when people asked me to add brandy to my jam – and if it works, then I sell it.
Marisa: I make a lot of small batches and just play around. If it doesn’t work then at least you haven’t invested in five pounds of fruit. I’ll add lemon juice or zest, or spices to even the flavors out. Things that grow in the same season tend to go well together, like grated apple in a late summer peach jam.
If someone is feeling more adventurous, what sort of combinations do you recommend?
Cristina: Looking into winter, we preserve Meyer lemons every January with vanilla beans or thyme. It’s time consuming since we take out all the white, bitter parts of the lemon but the results are delicious. You just need a few martinis before starting that process!
Marisa: Experiment with chutney. You can combine fruit and spices. I use a whole chopped lemon – rind and all – to give my apple-pear chutney great tang and texture. Citrus with fall fruits is nice too.
Cristina’s Huckleberry Jam
Makes 7 x 8-ounce jars
4 ½ cups huckleberries, washed and separated
(2 cups whole and 2 cups pureed in a food processor)
3 tbsp fresh lemon juice
7 cups sugar
2 pouches of Certo pectin
Place berries in a stockpot with their juices. Stir in lemon juice, then sugar, and bring mixture to a full, rolling boil on high heat, stirring constantly. Add pectin. Return to full, rolling boil for one minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat.
Ladle quickly into clean, hot jars. Wipe jar rims and threads. Cover with lid tightly. Turn jars upside down for 5 minutes to seal, and store jams in cool place until ready to use.
Marisa’s Pear Vanilla Jam
Fills seven half-pint jars
8 cups chopped Bartlett pears (or any smooth, thin-skinned pear. There’s no need to peel.)
2 vanilla beans, split and scraped
4 cups sugar
1 packet liquid pectin
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, combine chopped pears, sugar and vanilla beans (and all that bean-y goodness you scraped out). Cook over medium heat until the fruit can easily be smashed with the back of a wooden spoon. Use a potato masher or immersion blender to break the fruit down into a mostly-smooth sauce (remove the vanilla bean solids before blending).
Add the pectin and bring to a rolling boil. Let boil for a full five minutes in order to active the pectin, so that the finished product will have a nice jammy consistency.
Fill jars, wipe rims to remove any residual jam, apply lids (heat canning lids in a small pot over very low heat while you’re preparing the jam to ensure a good seal) and screw on the rims.
Process the filled jars in a boiling water canner for 10 minutes (start the timer when the pot has returned to a boil). When the time has elapsed, remove jars from pot and place the jars on a towel-lined countertop. Let them cool undisturbed for at least two hours. During this time, the lids should seal. Check to ensure the jars have sealed by pushing down on the center of the lid. If it feels solid and doesn’t move, it is sealed.
All photos of Marisa McClellan and quince jelly making courtesy of Marisa McClellan.
Cristina Ceccatelli portraits courtesy of Kirsten Shultz.