There's been a lot in the press lately about preserving food at home: canning, curing and pickling. Maybe it's because of the bad economy, or maybe because of the growing movement for people to be closer to and more in touch with the food they consume. Since 1967 with the "Fair Packaging and Labeing Act", the ingredients of any packaged food must be listed on the label. But beyond having the ability to decipher what some of the ingredients actually are, are you ever really sure what's in the packaged food you buy?
From the article on Salon last week about home canning, the discussion in the letters was both about whether or not home canning really can be economical (the article starts out with the author stating that she's eating a $17.00 peanut butter sandwich because she spent so much money on the homemade jam in it) or if it's just a anachronistic craft and a craze that guilty city dwellers partake in to make themselves feel better about themselves. For me, the answer is "sorta both."
I live in Brooklyn. I don't have a garden, and for the past few years, I haven't belonged to a CSA. My only source of fresh vegetables is the farmers markets that dot the city and my occasional trip to Vermont, upstate NY or Pennsylvania. As anyone who's shopped at farmers markets in the city, even when produce is in season and plentiful, it's often not cheap. But I really enjoy the process and hard work that goes into making jam, chutney, pickles and other condiments that can easily be preserved (either canned or frozen), and I'm always proud of the end product.
That's why I especially like Well-Preserved by Eugenia Bone . Though it does give good, basic instructions on the process of preserving food, the real focus of the book is how you can make small batches of preservable foods that become pivot points for meals that you can make all year long. The book is structured into sections on types of food - fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, & fungi and meats and fish. Within each section, there are several "master recipes" - for things like Brandied Figs, Meyer Lemons, Preserved Zucchini and Sauerkraut, followed by recipes for meals and dishes that use the "master recipe."
Although I've only tried one recipe in this book so far, I wanted to review it now, mainly because it's summer and it's time to be inspired by some of these recipes and start putting stuff up.
How it stacks up to the cookbook review criteria:
Inspiration - I think it's clear from what I've written above that I found this book very inspiring. This book will make me go out and buy a specific vegetable when it is in season. The introduction of the book reveals the author's own experience with learning to love preserving her own food (the tuna in the bathtub!) and offers a nice portrait of how canning can serve as a memento of a time or of a person as well as be something practical. I've been a home canner since I was a teenager, and in the past 4 or 5 years, I've managed to put up something every year (usually tomatoes or tomato chutney), but this book really was a revelation to me that there are other ways of integrating preserved food into full meals, rather than just thinking of them as condiments. Even if you don't end up doing any of the master recipes in this book, there are several recipes here that you could easily make with non-preserved foods, or with store bought items that are similar. There are several people on Amazon who disagree with me on this, but I highly recommend this book for an intermediate or advanced canner looking to do something new and looking to better integrate home preserved food into daily meals, while also focusing on smaller batches and preserving food as an art rather than merely as a necessity.
Instruction - The second chapter of this book is titled "All about canning" gives a good overview of different methods of preserving food - canning (water bath and pressure canning, freezing, preserving in oil, curing and smoking) with details for each, and helpful questions called out in the right margin. But, I think because much of the instructional content is in paragraph from rather than in list or step by step format, it could be easy for a beginning canner to miss a step or not understand important elements. The instructions for each master recipe and related recipes are clear, and any home cook who is used to following recipes will be able to make most of the recipes in this book. But I actually wouldn't recommend this book to a beginning canner.
Resource - Though I think that I will turn to this book later this summer when there is a specific vegetable in season and I want some ideas of what to do with it, I don't see it as a canning resource that I will turn to if I have questions about methods, ratios or general canning questions.
Two of my favorite resources for home canning come at it from different directions and together are excellent resources for any home preserving question. First, "The Busy Person's Guide to Preserving Food" (sadly appears to be out of print) is organized by type of food, and indicates the best preservation method for each food type. It gives specific information and step by step instructions for canning, drying, freezing and dry cellaring. A helpful appendix includes charts of yields and processing times. The second book is the Rodale Food Center book "Stocking Up." This book focuses on the methods of preserving foods, and goes from start to finish in the food preservation process, even suggesting types of seeds to buy for growing preservable foods and food varieties. It includes information on preserving vegetables, fruits, nuts, meats and even dairy - making butter and cheese.
In order to feel like I was making an accurate assessment of Well-Preserved, I felt like I had to make at least one recipe. I chose to make "Stewed Onions," mainly because I like onions, the recipe looked like it was versatile and spring onions are in season right now. I made a few revisions based on what I had available:
Stewed Onions with Thyme (Adapted from Well-Preserved by Eugenia Bone)
- 3 tablespoons of olive oil
- 6 large, fresh spring onions, thinly sliced (I used both white and red onions) (about 12 cups)
- 4 cups all-natural beef stock
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
Heat the oil in a heavy pan, add the onions and cook uncovered until soft. Add the stock and the thyme and cook, simmering for approximately 1 hour 15 minutes. Cool to room temperature. Fill half-pint mason jars, leaving one inch of head room in each jar. Refrigerate for 12 hours, then put in the freezer. Makes approximately 6 half pint jars.
The original recipe called for marjoram instead of thyme (I didn't have any marjoram, but I have a pot of thyme growing in my window) and I cut the recipe in half. She also specifies putting the onions in 1 pint freezer bags. I've never had a problem freezing mason jars, as long as you don't put a hot jar in the freezer, or a frozen jar in hot water, and make sure you leave room in the jar for the frozen food to expand. But, if you are wary about freezing glass jars, use freezer bags as she specifies. I haven't defrosted any frozen jars yet, but she specifies to defrost in the refrigerator and use within a few days.
Serve with eggs, as bruchetta (pictured on multi-grain bread with goat cheese feta and pepper) or as an addition to soup or in a sandwich.