There isn’t a blade of grass on Mette Nielsen’s south Minneapolis lot. Not one.
Instead, edible plants fill every nook and cranny on her own 40-foot-wide Garden of Eden, in the form of berries and fruit trees that speak to Nielsen, a master gardener who loves to cook.
That includes – but who’s counting? – 30 fruit bushes (red, white and black currants, blueberries and raspberries, aronia berries, serviceberries, gooseberries, rosehips, creeping cranberries and more) and 16 rhubarb plants. Then there are the fruit trees – crabapple, quince, plum, cherry. And the garlic, asparagus and herbs, some starting to peek up from the soil now.
When you have that much produce, you need to know what to do with it. For years, Nielsen has experimented with preserving summer’s bounty. Now she and Beth Dooley, longtime cookbook collaborators, have joined forces to show us, in their Nordic-inspired “Savory Sweet, Simple Preserves From a Northern Kitchen (University of Minnesota, 202 pages, $ 24.95).
And as for backyard gardens?
“Don’t grow ornamentals; grow edibles,” Nielsen advises in a serious voice. Or at least as serious as this effervescent Dane with the gentle laugh can be.
She and Dooley advocate a different kind of preserving, one that relies on a refrigerator and freezer.
“There’s nothing wrong with past books on preserving,” Nielsen said as she offered a taste test of recipes from the book (think Tart Cherry Compote With Ginger, Fennel and Bay Leaves, or Coarse Grain Chili Mustard, or Rustic Cranberry Strawberry Jam With Lime and Vanilla, and yes, they are as good – and beautiful – as they sound).
But those older techniques often used a waterbath canner or pressure cooker, and took advantage of a cool cellar.
Times have changed. So should preserving methods.
“We all have refrigerators, and we all have freezers,” said Nielsen.
Today many cooks live in small spaces. Most of us don’t have cool, dark spots to store food. And then there are cooks who are afraid of the concept of canning and what they consider to be risks if proper methods are not used. (That would be the “B” word, as in “botulism,” not a concern with this process.)
Instead, this preservation process involves small batches with everyday equipment, prepared with vinegar or sugar, that make use of cold temperatures to keep them safe. These are not shelf-stable condiments. The bonus: easy and forgiving recipes that allow for creativity.
Another benefit, say the authors, who speak with the enthusiasm of evangelists, is that you can do the pickling and jam-making when it’s convenient, which doesn’t have to be on a steamy August afternoon in the kitchen at harvest time.
Freeze that produce, they declare, until you have spare time. And don’t be dependent on your own harvest. Reach for a bag of frozen strawberries at the supermarket to get your jams going in midwinter, if that’s when the urge hits you.
Nielsen grew up in Copenhagen, and Scandinavian traditions are evident in the recipes, from many of the spices to the preparation of savory preserves, such as those made with parsnips, squash and other vegetables.
A lot of her inspiration comes from nonpreserving recipes. “I look at what people do with with regular cooking and see how it translates into preserving,” she said.
As important in these recipes is Nielsen’s preference for less sugar, which she counters with herbs or an acid to offer depth of flavor. “I add a tablespoon of lime juice and, whoa, it comes to life,” she said.
A side note on the cookbook itself: It’s lovely. Nielsen has been a professional food photographer for 30-plus years, and her photos shine throughout the book, which features crisp, clean food styling from Abigail Wyckoff, and text and recipe collaboration from Dooley, a prolific author and columnist in the Taste section. The result is a contemporary collection of recipes based on Scandinavian practicality, a must-have for busy cooks.
Tips from the experts
Let’s get started with the basics for what is essentially a simple process for pickles and jams, chutneys and more.
Plan ahead. Read through the recipe before you begin as some have ingredient combinations that need to sit for several hours or overnight before being finished. Even a veteran cook (sigh) can overlook the critical words “Leave the covered bowl on the kitchen counter, out of direct sunlight, for 12 hours.”
The right pan. Start with a 10-inch saute pan, which allows for evaporation. That’s not the same as a saucepan, which has higher sides that will slow the process, which results in a longer time over the heat.
“Less cooking gives better taste,” said Dooley. “And not using a waterbath helps, too, for flavor.”
Reduce by half. Recipes often describe the evaporation process by saying “reduce by half.” But how do you measure that? Nielsen uses what she calls the “dip stick test.” She puts the end of a wooden spoon into the ingredients in the pan when she begins to cook them and lightly marks the spoon. As the ingredients cook down, she dips the spoon back into the mixture to see when it’s about halfway reduced.
“It’s a completely inaccurate method, but it’s enough,” Nielsen said with a laugh.
The Red Sea test. These recipes do not use pectin or a thermometer to determine when they are done. Instead, Nielsen recommends putting a small plate in the freezer as you begin the recipe. During the cooking process, when the jam seems almost ready, she drops a spoonful of it on the cold plate and returns it to the freezer for a couple of minutes. Then she drags her finger through the preserves. If the sides stay parted, it’s ready. If they fill in, she cooks it down further – or declares it a sauce, a perfectly acceptable solution, she notes.
Ready to preserve? Once you see how easy the process is, you’ll be back for more.
SPICY PICKLED VEGETABLES
Makes 3 to 4 pints (6 to 8 cups).
Note: Plan ahead as the vegetables need to be in a brine for
12 hours before you proceed. This is an updated – and spicy – twist on traditional piccalilli, the classic British mix of vegetables in yellow mustard sauce. Serve this on hot dogs, burgers, eggs or sliced cold meats. Use whatever vegetables you prefer, but keep the quantity of vegetables to about 2 pounds, the equivalent of 8 to 9 cups of cut-up vegetables. From “Savory Sweet,” by Beth Dooley and Mette Nielsen.
6 cups water
1/2 cup salt (not canning salt)
1 1/2 cups coarsely chopped carrots (about 1/2 pound)
2 cups coarsely chopped celeriac (also called celery root, about 1/2 pound)
2 cups coarsely chopped onions (about 1/2 pound)
3 cups small cauliflower florets (about 1/2 pound)
2 cups cider vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons sweet paprika
2 teaspoons curry powder
2 teaspoons mustard powder
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons cornstarch, stirred into a little cold water, optional
To prepare the vegetables: In large bowl, whisk together 6 cups water and the salt. As you cut the vegetables, drop them into the salt brine. Mix well, and cover. Leave the covered bowl on the kitchen counter, out of direct sunlight, for 12 hours.
Drain vegetables in colander, and rinse them well under cold running water. Fill bowl with ice water. Set large pot of water over high heat, and bring the water to a boil. Blanch the vegetables until just tender-crisp, about 3 to 4 minutes, being careful they don’t overcook. Drain vegetables and place them in the ice water to shock until cold. Drain vegetables, and place in a large bowl.
To prepare the sauce: In a medium saucepan, combine vinegar, sugar, paprika, curry powder, mustard powder, turmeric and cayenne. Set pan over medium-low heat, and bring to gentle boil. Whisk well to dissolve sugar and incorporate spices. Reduce heat and simmer about 5 minutes to blend flavors. If using cornstarch, whisk it in a little at a time to slightly thicken sauce. Pour sauce over vegetables, and toss to coat.
To assemble: Wash jars, lid and bands in very hot soapy water, rinse well and place upside down on clean towel to drain.
Divide vegetables among the jars. Press down to make the vegetables fit, if necessary. Leave a half-inch of headroom in each jar. Cover each jar with a square of wax paper slightly larger than the jar opening, fold in the corners with a clean spoon, and gently push so some of the sauce comes up over the wax paper. Wipe the rims with a clean wet cloth or paper towel, add the lids and bands, and lightly tighten the bands.
Label the jars. Cool completely, and tighten bands before storing in the refrigerator. Let the pickled vegetables rest for a few days before eating, so the flavors marry. These will store well in the refrigerator for several months.
MINTY RASPBERRY JAM
Makes about 4 half-pints (4 cups).
Note: Plan ahead as the ingredients need to macerate for at least 2 hours. Try using different varieties of mint. Chocolate, orange, pineapple mints all add their subtle notes. Use this jam to top a cheesecake or fill muffins or cupcakes. Whisk jam into frostings and whipped cream. From “Savory Sweet,” by Beth Dooley and Mette Nielsen.
2 pounds raspberries (about 8 cups)
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons minced fresh mint
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
Place raspberries in a 10-inch saute pan, sprinkle the sugar, mint, lemon juice and zest over the berries, and gently stir everything together with a large spoon. Cover the pan, and macerate the fruit at room temperature for at least 2 hours or overnight. The sugar will draw the juices from the raspberries, yet they’ll remain intact.
Put a small plate in the freezer for the set test. Uncover the pan, set it over medium heat, and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring carefully, until the mixture has thickened, about 10 to 12 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat and do the set test: Put a spoonful of jam on the frozen plate and return it to the freezer for about 2 minutes. Remove and drag your finger through the center. If the mark doesn’t fill back in, the jam is ready to spoon into jars. If the jam isn’t thick enough, return the pan to the heat for a few minutes, then repeat the test.
Wash the jars, lids and bands in very hot soapy water, rinse well and place them upside down on a clean towel to drain.
Spoon jam into the jars, leaving a half inch of headroom to allow for expansion during freezing. Wipe rims with a clean wet cloth or paper towel, add the lids and bands, and lightly tighten the bands. Label the jars. Cool completely and tighten bands before storing the jars in the refrigerator or freezer.
MINT AND CHILI SWEET PICKLED RHUBARB
Makes about 3 half-pints (3 cups).
Note: Finely dice the pickled rhubarb and toss into salsa, or serve over grilled pork or salmon. It also pairs well with soft cheeses and cured meat. From “Savory Sweet,” by Beth Dooley and Mette Nielsen.
3/4 pound rhubarb, cut diagonally into 3/4-inch pieces (about 3 cups)
3 sprigs fresh mint
6 wide bands of lime zest
1 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
2 teaspoons salt (not canning salt)
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
Wash jars, lids and bands in very hot soapy water, rinse well and place upside down on clean towel to drain.
Divide rhubarb among jars. Place 1 sprig of mint and 2 bands of lime zest in each jar.
In small saucepan, bring vinegar, sugar, salt and crushed red pepper flakes to a simmer. Cook, stirring to dissolve sugar, about 3 to 4 minutes.
Divide liquid among jars. Cover each with a square of wax paper slightly larger than the jar opening, fold in the corners with a clean spoon and push down gently so some of the brine comes up over the wax paper. Wipe rims with a clean wet cloth or paper towel, add the lids and bands, and lightly tighten the bands.
Label the jars. Cool completely and tighten the bands before storing the jars in the refrigerator.