Preserving anything but tradition

Beth Dooley and Mette Nielsen’s “Savory Sweet” takes a modern approach to preserving

Beth Dooley, left, and Mette Nielsen, right, are the authors of "Savory Sweet: Simple Preserves from a Northern Kitchen." Submitted image

When author Beth Dooley was working on her 2013 book, “Minnesota’s Bounty: The Farmers Market Cookbook,” she and photographer Mette Nielsen scoured local farmers markets for whatever was fresh and in season, hauling home piles of produce to concoct their recipes.

Inevitably, there were leftovers — nothing new for Dooley, who admits to a habit of overbuying at the farmers market.

“We were like, ‘We should do a preserving book, because we’ve got to figure out what to do with all this stuff,’” she recalled.

The result, published this spring by University of Minnesota Press, is “Savory Sweet: Simple Preserves from a Northern Kitchen,” a preserving book that dispenses with tradition.

This is not old-fashioned canning, the laborious process that filled farmhouse kitchens with steam and pantries with sustenance for a long winter. The book preaches a faster, simpler approach to preserves that takes advantage of modern conveniences and delights in unexpected flavor combinations.

Submitted image
Submitted image

“Savory Sweet” is premised not on the old problem of scarcity but the new problem of overabundance. Instead of guiltily adding uneaten vegetables to the organics recycling bin, it suggests, turn them into delicious relishes, chutneys, mustards and marmalades that concentrate and enhance the flavors of our local produce.

Dooley and Nielsen recently sat down to talk about the book at Nielsen’s house in Seward — or, rather, the new, two-story accessory dwelling unit in Nielsen’s backyard, which includes a sleekly designed modern kitchen on its first floor. The kitchen was filled with natural light from a bank of windows overlooking Nielsen’s backyard, an average-sized Minneapolis plot supporting a way above average number of vegetable beds, herb patches and fruit-bearing bushes and trees, which were just coming into flower then, in mid-April.

The rest of Nielsen’s gardens seemed preternaturally advanced for season. The leafy greens growing near the path to her front door looked almost ready for the salad bowl. Some of what she grows over the course of a summer ends up at nearby Birchwood Cafe, where she also tends a small kitchen garden of herbs, fruit and edible flowers.

Nielsen’s incredible talent as a grower (she is a master gardener) was another inspiration for the book. This time, she crafted the recipes with Dooley in addition to taking photos.

“You can only eat so much fresh, you can only give so much away, so you’ve got preserve it if you can find a simple way of doing it,” Nielsen said.

She prepared a small spread of local cheeses, Red Table Meat Co. salami and toasted baguette slices to accompany an array of her homemade preserves. Among them was blood orange marmalade made from a recipe in the book; it included vanilla bean to smooth the spiky tartness of the citrus and chili that punctuated the complex flavor with a late-arriving hint of spice.

The ingredients for Nielsen's blood orange marmalade. Submitted image
The ingredients for Nielsen’s blood orange marmalade. Submitted image

Her gardens wouldn’t deliver their full bounty for months. And yet, here on her table was a lovely, garnet-red coulis made from black currants, tasting as bright as summer itself.

Nielsen, who grew up in Denmark and moved to Minneapolis in her 20s, comes up with some surprising and creative uses for vegetables that are pantry staples in those northern climes — like parsnips paired with grapefruit in a relish spiced with jalapeno, garlic, ginger, coriander and mustard seed.

“The whole point of the book is to think about savory and about sweet at the same time when you’re making condiments,” Dooley said. “This is one of the hallmarks of Scandinavian or northern climate cooking. The food is so plain that, because we don’t have access to all these fresh herbs all year long or all these wonderful citruses and things like that, you put things up but make them super-intense, so they can swing both savory or sweet.

“You can put it on your toast in the morning or you can have it with your chicken at night. You can take a really simple meal and you can really fire it up using these.”

Nielsen prepares her preserves in small batches, not mass quantities. And they aren’t preserves in the traditional sense, or not exactly; they live in the refrigerator or freezer, not the pantry.

“I was reading all these recipes and I wanted to cut way down on the sugar or add fresh herbs or do all these (other) things, and these were all the things the traditional books told us were not safe,” Nielsen said. “So, I’m like, this is the 21st century. We have refrigeration.”

Relying on the refrigerator removes two of the major barriers to canning for beginners: the laborious process of boiling, sealing and sterilizing preserves and the worry that, if it isn’t done perfectly, botulism will spoil the work.

“It seems silly, especially in the heat of August, to be standing over a hot stove stirring and making stuff bubble and having to spend all afternoon when you’d rather be out at the beach,” Dooley said.

Their approach also cuts down on the equipment required for making preserves. Nielsen said her most important tool was a 10-inch stainless steel sauté pan — the kind found in most home cooks’ kitchens — which she used to prepare every recipe.

“I always say, I have nothing against traditional canning books, I just don’t want to do it that way,” Nielsen said. “We’re trying to offer an alternative.”

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