In a jam: Turn summer fruit into flavorful preserves

By Wendell Brock

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Published: Tuesday, July 17 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

Lauri Jo Bennett, a Norman Park, Georgia entrepreneur who has turned her love of canning into a thriving business, specializes in pepper jelly, a Southern classic traditionally served with cream cheese and crackers. Here, Blueberry Pepper Jelly. (Renee Brock/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT)

Renee Brock, Mct

NORMAN PARK, Ga. — Lauri Jo Bennett is stirring fresh fruit into a bubbling pot of vinegar, sugar, chopped bell peppers and jalapeños. She is making pepper jelly — with a twist.

A native of this South Georgia town, Bennett is a former schoolteacher who turned her love of canning into a thriving business that specializes in pepper jelly, the sweet-tart concoction that Southerners have eaten with crackers and cream cheese for years. Bennett's trick is to mix summer fruit — blueberries, strawberries, peaches, blackberries and so on - into her thick, spreadable, jamlike jelly.

In a matter of minutes, the vivacious entrepreneur behind Lauri Jo's Southern Style Canning packs a vivid strawberry pepper jelly into jars and sets out to show a visitor the landmarks of her canning odyssey. She stops by the Colquitt County High School canning plant in Moultrie, Ga., where she used to spend summers "puttin' up" tomatoes and green beans, then proceeds to a nearby field where she and her family grow a good bit of the produce — yellow squash, green tomatoes, cucumbers — they pack into jars to sell.

"It's an art. It's something I grew up with. But most people today don't do it because it's a lot of work," Bennett says in a drawl as thick as her jam. "It's hot. It's nasty."

So true.

Yet with a bit of practice, you can turn small batches of fresh produce into delicious homemade jams and jellies that recall grandma's kitchen. Store-bought pectin includes recipes for nearly fail-safe batches of jams and jellies. Pectin is found naturally in apples, citrus and other fruits, so you also can create wonderful preserves by cooking fruit with Granny Smith apples.

Last summer, I concentrated on refrigerator preserves and pickles — making just enough to eat and enjoy quickly. This year, I've discovered you-pick berry farms and the magic of homemade blackberry jelly, strawberry preserves, peach jam and pepper jellies.

Don't think you need to go out and buy a lot of expensive canning equipment, either. Instead of a preserving pan, I use my oval, enamel-coated, cast-iron French oven. Instead of a massive, space-hogging canning pot with a jar rack, I use a stockpot and a metal trivet or a silicone hot pad to cushion the boiling jars from the hot vessel. I recently purchased a cheap-o jar lifter; a wide-mouth plastic funnel and a little device for popping air bubbles, which I found as a set in the grocery store canning department. (However, you can improvise a jar lifter by wrapping rubber bands around a pair of kitchen tongs. Works just fine.)

My guide for these low-tech canning adventures is Athens author Liana Krissoff's excellent "Canning for a New Generation" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $24.95). Krissoff replaces store-bought pectin with a process that minimizes sugar and cooking time, thus preserving the bright natural flavor of the fruit.

Indeed, it's hard to resist her tart, rustic Blackberry Jam With Lemon Zest or her Peach Jam With Lemon Thyme and Almonds. Both of these preserves taste good on biscuits, toast and English muffins, and both would make a wonderful addition to a cheese plate.

Meanwhile, Bennett is not about to give out the exact recipe for the prize-winning pepper jelly that's a foundation of her business. Instead, she provides me with an easy recipe of the sort that she might cook in her own kitchen. Made with strawberries or blueberries, it's incredibly addictive stuff. Everybody who tries it wants the recipe. So here you go.

Lauri Jo Bennett's Blueberry Pepper Jelly

Hands on: 30 minutes

Total time: 35 minutes

Makes: 8 to 9 half-pints

Easy and delicious, this jelly is also good made with strawberries. If you aren't up for doing it at home, Bennett's signature version is available on her website, www.laurijossouthernstylecanning.com.