I want to tell you about a book. Before I do, I have to warn you that I am biased in the matter of this particular book. Its author is my friend. She and I have written for the same editors, in the same publications. Kevin and I have been the lucky beneficiaries of her skill in the kitchen. But none of that stops this book from being the best book on preserving that I’ve ever seen.
It’s Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving, by Cathy Barrow. It covers basic water-bath canning, pressure canning, curing and smoking, and even cheese-making. In short, all the subjects that scare the bejeezus out of us a-little-of-this-a-little-of-that, seat-of-the-pants kind of cooks.
I am a tentative canner. Canning is a little too much a black-box kind of process for me to be comfortable with it. The degree to which things gel, or don’t, seems to be guided as much by the phase of the moon as by anything else. Temperature! Acidity! Pectin! And all this persnickety attention to hygiene, so nobody dies. Oy.
Cathy takes me, and all you out there who are like me, by the hand. She tells us how, and she tells us why, in recipes that are both precise and empathetic. When you put the grape juice, sugar, and lemon juice into the pot to boil, how do you know when it’s ready to can? “The jelly will threaten to rise up and out of the pot. Stir and be brave, and keep the heat on high until the foam clears, about 10 minutes; the temperature will reach 220 degrees F.”
And, you know what? The jelly threatened to rise up and out of the pot. And then it actually did rise up out of the pot and made a huge mess on the stove and the floor, because I didn’t pay attention to the part when Cathy said that four cups of juice needed an 8-quart pot. Seemed like overkill, at the time.
I transferred it to a larger pot, and it threatened to rise up again. I stirred, and was brave. And, you know what? After about 10 minutes, damned if the foam didn’t clear. And you know what else? It hit 220. I had grape jelly. That’s the kind of result that can endear a book to you.
Consider me endeared. This is a book that supports and empowers, from a woman who really knows how to preserve. And it goes way beyond the basics of things like Grape Jelly. She’ll get you out of your flavor comfort zone, with things like Chai-Spiced Plum Preserves with Balsamic, and Juniper-Pickled Cocktail Onions. We’ve all (even me!) made refrigerator pickles, but how many of us have made them with fennel, orange, and olives?
The instructions are clear and engaging. When was the last time you read a recipe that invoked Rube Goldberg? The headnotes are charming and funny. Why take summer cherries and make Cocktail Cherries with Maraschino Liqueur? So you can “Gloat in January,” of course. And Mrs. Wheelbarrow isn’t kidding when she calls it a practical pantry. While the book is beautiful enough to live on your coffee table (photos are by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton of Canal House), it’s supposed to get dog-eared and stained. It’s to be cooked from more than admired. There are instructions to preserve just about every edible under the sun, and recipes to use them, once they’re preserved. I’m in for Crispy Buttermilk-Brined Chicken Livers on Toast. The point of the book is to make what’s seasonal seasonless, so you can eat it all year.
I feel compelled to repeat that I am biased, but this is a wonderful book, a book worth having, a book worth using. I am very glad to have it, and I will most certainly be using it.