My personal canning fears began with a stepmother who, with vicious Yankee frugality, processed green beans into dreadful, watery mush. Bad fairy tales aside, who now can relate to the white-aproned matron surrounded by tall pyramids of sterilized mason jars, the image punctuated by one terrifying looking pressure cooker and a scary box of pectin?
But, Cathy Barrow, food columnist for the Washington Post, The New York Times, NPR and more, I understand. Barrow has written “Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry,” W.W. Norton & Co. a contemporary treatise on all kinds of preservation techniques, with elegant, seriously un-dowdy recipes. This is the preservation book for people who, like me, have come to food preservation detouring home-ec class, arriving instead via the local farmers’ market: when faced with an irresistible flat of fresh local strawberries, memories of winter’s tasteless fruit still close, in spite of ourselves we sterilize jars.
Barrow’s book is filled with real lessons on creating a working, creative pantry, from water-bath canning to the more intimidating “pressure cooker” method. By the way, I wasn’t wrong to be scared of the pressure cooker; Barrow says, “If the water-bath method is the general education curriculum in the school of preserving, pressure canning is graduate school.”
On pectin alone these pages offer much, including a recipe for a homemade pectin made from gooseberries or underripe apples. Barrow also explains why the image of the matron I described above included so many jars: commercial pectin activates only with “copious amounts” of sugar; you therefore need to make a lot of jelly to get it to work.
As I said, there are many things about canning that have scared me over the years, including strangely brick-like jelly. Barrow has a long, clear discussion on naturally building firmness in low-pectin fruits like berries and cherries – use 1/3 underripe fruit, add kiwi, add green apple – but she also affirms my preference for not so stiff preserves.
“This book is filled with recipes for preserves that slump,” she advises.
Speaking of recipes, how could you not want to make ‘Nectarine, Rosemary and Honey Preserves?” Or “Figgy Marmalade with Macadamia Nuts?” Or “Apricot Jam with Ginger and Rosemary?” And the following winter, with that jam jar on your shelf, you will make “Focaccia with Apricot Jam, Caramelized Onion and Fennel.” Barrow has not just preservation recipes but what she calls “bonus recipes,” delicious things to do with your pantry treasures. Or, if you didn’t make your own ricotta, just go buy some really good local stuff so that you can make her “Ricotta and Egg Pasta Pillows” anyway. The book is a wonderful see-saw of sublime recipes that will build a heavy-hitting pantry and equally sublime recipes of things to do with that pantry. Her recipe for miso-brined pork chop, “Spiced Pork Chops with Galicky Bok Choy,” alone is worth the price of the book.
“Cocktail Cherries with Maraschino Liqueur?” Fanny Farmer didn’t sterilize mason jars with artisanal cocktails in mind. Barrow recommends adding a few of these cherries to a sauce pan to serve with duck or pork, or skewer them with fresh peaches and grill, or stir into soft ice cream, “ribbon with bittersweet chocolate,” and refreeze. This is the new horizon of food preservation.
Of course, not all preservation is in a jar: Chapter Three is about preserving meats and fish – salt-curing, brining, smoking and air-curing. Chapter Four covers curds and whey – from making cultured butter (my current addiction), to creme fraiche, to that homemade ricotta mentioned earlier, to the black diamond of cheese-making expertise, Camembert.
With all this milk culturing going on Barrow includes a list of places to put the buckets of residual whey that go with: drink it, wash your hair with it, supplement your pets’ diets with it – including the chickens, and feed your roses. Whey seems to be the new all-purpose household ingredient.
Barrow first experimented with preserving dairy when, left with an excess of cream which she had forgotten to whip for the dinner party dessert (my kind of woman), she made butter. See what I mean? This is a woman I understand. Cheese making – even yogurt making – when writ in the tomes of Mother Earth catalogues has felt as if I just didn’t have the proper back-to-nature pedigree that cheese cloth and curds require. Barrow comes at all these preservation efforts through her Washingtonian D.C. garage door, which is to say the recipes are accessible, spirited, and modern. Mrs. Wheellbarrow’s pantry is not your mother’s.
There is how to smoke bacon, but also a recipe for Smoked Spiced Almonds. There is how to smoke a whole chicken, but there is also a recipe for comfort food 2014 style: “Smoked Chicken, Porcini, and Peas.” There is a recipe for Hot Smoked Salmon and Hot Smoked Trout, but don’t miss the bonus recipe: “Pappardelle with Smoked Salmon and Spinach.” Even if you never smoke a thing, and source your smoked salmon from a package, (just make sure it’s the hot smoked version, not lox), make this. That said, Barrow’s Gravlax recipe, a shining slab of glistening salmon carefully pressed in a toasted anise, peppercorn, lemon verbena, brown sugar, sea salt, and gin rub, is certain to be served in my house this holiday season.
Barrow calls it “the power of the pantry” – fighting words in an age of box stores and industrialized foods. Barrow sees the pressure cooker’s ability to safely preserve soups, stocks, and meats as equalling less dependency on commercially processed foods, and more local eating.
Some people, including Barrow, believe the apex of food preservation is duck confit, a recipe for which is here. Still, I am aiming at, and am willing to confront my pressure cooker fears for “Pressure Canned Tuna,” a recipe for preserving rosy slabs of line-caught wild tuna in olive oil, beauty that would make an Italian fisherman blush.
Here is a recipe from Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry that you can – and should – make right now. Then make vanilla ice cream.
Caramel Pear Preserves
makes 5 or 6 half-pint jars
3 pounds firm slightly underripe Bosc or Seckel pears, peeled, cored, and cut into fine julienne
3 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon Quatre Epices
3/4 cup orange juice juice of 1 lemon
1. Mix the pears, 2 cups of the sugar, the quartre epices, and orange and lemon juices in a bowl. Cover and let macerate while you make the caramel.
2. Slowly melt the remaining 1 1/2 cups sugar in your preserving pot over low heat, without stirring (you can shake the pan for even cooking), and cook until it becomes a caramel. Let it turn from golden to a deep amber color. Don’t rush the process, and watch it carefully. Do not walk away. Do not read your e-mail or fold laundry. Stand there and watch.
3. Here’s the really scary part, the part that will make you think you’ve wrecked it all. pour in the pears and all their liquids. The caramel will seize and break. It will make you want to cry. It will look wrong. Don’t worry. just heat the whole mixture up again very slowly, stirring carefully and frequently to work the pieces of caramel off the bottom of the pot and incorporate them into the preserves. It’s a hellish moment. Then bring the preserves up to 220 degrees F., which will take at least 30 minutes, by which time will the caramel will have melted again and it will be heavenly. You’ll smell those spices. You’ll be happy again.
4. Keep the preserves at a boil that will not stir down for about 5 minutes, then remove the heat and test the set, using the wrinkle test or sheeting test* to determine if the jam has set to a gentle slump. If not, heat it again and boil for 2 to 3 minutes, then test again.
5. Ladle the hot preserves into the warm jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace. Clean the rims of the jars well with a damp paper towel. Place the lids and rings on the jars and finger-tighten the rings. Process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes. The preserves are shelf stable for 1 year.
*Sheeting Test: “When you believe the jam is ready, remove from the heat and let the boil settle down. Lift up the spatula or spoon you have been using to stir the jam, turn it sideways, and let the jam sheet off it. It should gather along the edge of the spatula and drop slowly back into the pot It should look like jam!
The Wrinkle Test: “Before starting to make the jam, put three small plates in the freezer. At the point in the recipe when the jam is set, or should be set, or you think it is set, remove from the burner. Take one plate from teh freezer, drop a bit of jam onto the plate, and let the cold take effect – a minute or two. The set you see on that plate is what you will get.”