Nov. 12, 2014: UPDATE: We have a winner! Congratulations to Alto2, winner of a copy of Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry. Thanks to everyone who participated. I so enjoyed reading about your favorite preserves. Keep canning!
There is magic in the transformation of food. In the moment when a pot of simmering strawberries thickens to preserves; when milk coagulates into soft curds of cheese; when a slab of pork belly becomes pancetta. Anyone who’s ever put up a couple of pints of jam knows how satisfying that ‘ping’ sound is indicating a metal lid has sealed properly.
Of course, it’s not really magic, or at least not only magic; it’s science. Botany, biology, chemistry, physics. Cathy Barrow offers a generous helping of both science and magic in her debut cookbook, Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving. Cathy is the author of the blog Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen, and an expert all things preserved. In her book, she guides cooks with confidence and enthusiasm through various techniques for preserving fruits and vegetables, meats, fish, and dairy.
The recipes are far-ranging, from refrigerator “quickles” to duck confit, from strawberry-mango jam to homemade camembert cheese. You will learn how to can beans and how to smoke oysters ~ and because I love both these foods I have put them on the top of my to-do list. In addition to the primary recipes there are “bonus” recipes for putting all those preserves to good use.
Cathy and I met some years ago and became fast friends. One of the things I admire most about her is the many turns her professional life has taken. She’s been a retail buyer, a fishmonger (her shop in Pittsburgh was called Porgy and Bass), an event planner and a landscape designer. We caught up recently over lunch, where she answered a few questions.
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DM: What is the first food you ever canned?
CB: I started at age 5 with my great grandmother. Her son, my great uncle, had a small farm. He would drop off bushel baskets of produce and we would can it. My mother and I canned in the mid ’80s and it was her mango chutney that got me hooked. She wouldn’t part with more than one little jar every year and I developed such an addiction, I had to start making it myself. [NOTE: You’ll find the recipe on page 104 in the book, along with a bonus recipe for inside-out samosas with mango chutney.]
DM: When did preserving turn from a hobby into a passionate pursuit for you?
CB: Once I started writing the blog, and especially when I would post recipes on food52, I began to notice that people responded to the whole canning thing. And I began to understand that I had information that other people wanted. It was a natural evolution. (There was also the niche thing. I was admittedly searching for a niche.)
DM: A lot of food lovers know you through your blog, Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen. But not as many people know that you’ve had a number of diverse careers over the years. Tell us about yourself and your past lives.
CB: I have worked in so many different careers (department store buyer, fish market, marketing & membership & event planning for trade associations, landscape design and now writing). Somehow I feel that each of them has informed where I am now. I’m pulling from each experience.
DM: In the past decade or so we’ve seen a resurgence of interest in home canning and also a growing interest in food preservation through pickling, fermenting, drying, salting, curing, smoking, etc. Why do you think the preserving process holds so much appeal? And why has it made such a big comeback?
CB: Certainly the interest in reducing additives, salt and sugar in foods, trying to move away from processed food, has led a lot of people to start preserving. Also, a general interest in DIY and the availability of information on the web has made it more accessible for the curious. Finally, the local food movement ties in to preserving very organically. After all, only by preserving can you really eat locally year round.
DM: You are no-nonsense on the subject of safety in your book. Do you think people underestimate the potential hazards of home preserving?
CB: I think they overestimate it. Really, with jam, jelly and pickles? These are the high-acid foods that will mold if they go bad; they’ll never kill you.
DM: What are some of the most common mistakes people make when preserving?
CB: One is not cooking jam long enough — to the boil that will not stir down — a scary, spitting hot mess. Another one is not cutting the blossom end off a cucumber before pickling it. There is an enzyme in the blossom end that will cause pickles to go limp and there’s nothing worse than a limp pickle. Just slicing off a little bit from each end guarantees you won’t have that problem. (I say both ends because sometimes it’s hard to tell which is the blossom end.)
DM: This is your first cookbook. What did you enjoy most about the process? What did you enjoy the least?
CB: I thought I was an organized person, but it turns out I’m not. It took a long time to get the recipes wrangled into an order that made sense. Thank heaven for [my editor] Maria – because I was not able to visualize it. My husband, Dennis, said I was thinking about it from “inside the jar.” Maria helped me see it from “outside the jar.” The most enjoyable part was writing. Who knew? I did not start out thinking of myself as a writer, but I’m so passionate about the subject, it just felt right.
DM: Tell us about the cover of your book. Here we have a book on preserving and yet…no jars.
CB: From the beginning I said there would be no jars on the cover. It’s not just a book about preserving. It’s about seasonality, about eating locally, about broadening your skills and your pantry. Why memorialize just that one moment? That’s why I included the bonus recipes for using what you make ~ so that what goes into the jar doesn’t stay in the jar. Early on, I told Christopher (Hirsheimer) and Melissa (Hamilton) that I wanted the cover to be like a contemporary Dutch master painting. They thought that was pretty hilarious and laughed. But that’s actually what they ended up doing without thinking about it.
DM: One of the attributes about your book that I really like is that you’ve made even daunting techniques sound completely doable. Were there any techniques that were tough to master? Or surprisingly easy?
CB: I’m very happy with the way the recipes get progressively more challenging in each section of the book. That’s the only way to get past that trepidation — by building skills. So, I wouldn’t say there were techniques that were difficult, but some of the recipes took a while to develop. The smoked oyster recipe is one I’m especially proud of — I must have made them at least 30 times to get the flavor profile right. That’s a lot of oysters.
DM: So, what’s next? Will it be yet another new career? Or a new book?
CB: I’m working on a proposal for the next book — it will include more recipes, new techniques and menus using what you’ve made.
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To find out where Cathy will be in the coming weeks, check out the Book Events page on her site.
FOR THE GIVEAWAY: I’m giving away a copy of Cathy’s book to one lucky reader. To enter, simply leave a comment in the comments section below telling me about your favorite preserve, whether it’s a jam, a pickle, something smoked or salted or fermented. Also, please feel free to share a link to a favorite preserve recipe if you have one. Be sure to enter your email address (which will not be posted) so I can contact you if you are the winner. A winner will be chosen at random (and by that I mean I will write all entrants’ names on slips of papers, put them into a hat, blindfold one of my kids and let him or her retrieve the winning name). The winner will be announced on the blog on Wednesday, November 12, 2014, so check this post for an update.
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I have my eye on numerous recipes in addition to the aforementioned canned beans and smoked oysters, including the Caramel Pear Preserves, Pressure-Canned Tuna, and Guanciale (cured pork jowl). Here, I’m sharing Cathy’s recipe for homemade mascarpone, which is as simple as they come and at the same time incredibly good ~ sweet with a slight tang, and a perfect dense creamy texture. I swirled a spoonful of it into cream of celery soup the other night (stay tuned for that recipe) and added the rest to a pumpkin pie (also coming soon).
Cathy Barrow's recipe for homemade mascarpone is as simple as it is divine. It contains just three ingredients ~ cream, lemon juice and salt. But with just a little manipulation ~ a little heat, a little chill ~ they become something entire different, rich, creamy fresh cheese. Cathy suggests a number of uses: "Slather it on a peach half, sprinkle with light brown sugar, and broil until bubbly. Stuff dates with it, roast for 5 minutes in a 425 degree F oven, and sprinkle with crunchy salt and olive oil. Fill a meringue with key lime curd and mascarpone folded into whipped cream." (Recipe from Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry, W.W. Norton & Company)
- 2 cups (16 ounces) heavy cream (non homogenized pasteurized cream is best; see NOTE)
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- Fine sea salt
In a small saucepan, heat the cream to boiling. Reduce the heat, add the lemon juice, and simmer the cream for 5 minutes; it should be at a temperature of 185 degrees F. Remove from the heat, cover, and set aside for 30 minutes.
Set a fine-mesh sieve lined with a double thickness of damp cheesecloth over a bowl. Without stirring, gently tip the cream into the lined sieve, letting the whey run into the bowl below. Sprinkle a small pinch of salt over the cream. Cover and refrigerate the bowl and sieve for at least 8 hours, or overnight.
Remove the mascarpone from the sieve by lifting the cheesecloth by the corners and twisting it into a packet; discard the whey. Mascarpone will keep, wrapped in the cheesecloth in a covered glass or ceramic bowl, for up to 2 weeks. Wipe away any collected whey in the bottom of the dish daily to keep the cheese fresh. [DM: I spooned the drained mascarpone into a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid and stored it, capped, in the fridge.]
NOTE: Pasteurized is not the same as ultra-pasteurized. Ultra-pasteurized cream has been heated to above 280 degrees F to extend shelf life. It tastes flat and doesn't whip as well as regular pasteurized cream. For this recipe I used pasteurized non homogenized heavy cream from Lewes Dairy, in nearby Delaware.