August 2011

Charlotte Freeman


Make Something! Anything!

This is my favorite time of year, the time of year when I get to restock my pantry with gleaming jars of pickles and jams and preserves. Like a lot of people, I didnít grow up canning (although my stepmother always put up tomatoes in the fall, and green beans, which we thought were horrible) but when I bought my house almost ten years ago, it came with four apple trees, two plum trees, several vigorous rhubarb plants, and a vegetable plot in the back. I hate waste, so the first year, I figured Iíd better learn to make jam.

The serendipitous thing for me is that in the intervening years, canning, pickling, and preserving has caught the DIY wave, and each summer brings a new crop of cookbooks filled with recipes for making all kinds of cool things. My three favorites this year have been Home Made by Yvette van Boven and Oof Verschuren, D.I.Y Delicious by Vanessa Barrington, and Tart and Sweet by Kelly Geary and Jessie Knadler.

Home Made: The Ultimate DIY Cookbook is a doorstop of a book chock full of all sorts of cool ideas. Yvette Van Boven is a food stylist, recipe writer, illustrator and restauranteur based in Amsterdam and Paris. Her book was published in Dutch in 2010, where it won a slough of awards, and the English version is launching in September. This book is great fun, itís haphazardly organized, but in some ways that makes it more interesting to flip through. Yvette brings a wealth of European country traditions to this book -- her childhood was spent in Ireland, and as an adult she seems to split her time between the Netherlands, Paris, and the south of France where her husband has family. It is upon all these country skills she draws, and if you have a fantasy, as I do, that in another life you were some industrious European granny making all sorts of delicious things from the indigenous products of your area, this is the book for you. One of the things I particularly appreciate is her insistence that you donít need a lot of equipment to make things at home. For fresh cheese, for example, she fashions a cheese press from two tin cans, one nestled inside the other, and tightened with string or elastic for pressure. She has a nice primer on building an outdoor fire to grill on, as well as rigging an indoor smoker to do small items like fish (Iím not big on smoked food, so I didnít actually test that one). In her introduction, she notes that her goal was recipes that ďwill not let you down because you donít have the right appliancesÖ I have used things that I thought you will have in your house -- an oven, a range, maybe also a food processor or hand blender, but in any case a knife and a colander, etcÖĒ

Since I went through a cheesemaking phase a couple of years ago, I was particularly curious about her technique for making fresh cheese. Itís dead simple. You heat equal amounts milk and buttermilk until just below a boil (this instruction seemed alarmingly imprecise to me until I saw how heat causes the curds to begin forming just below the boiling point), add some lemon juice, and pack the curds into the aforementioned tin can cheese press. Press overnight, and brine if you want (I did, for 24 hours). Itís a lovely fresh cheese that Iíve been eating all week with some apple chutney I made now that my apples are falling all over my backyard. I also made her mustard, which if Iíd known how easy it is to make mustard I would have been doing it for years. I can never get mustard as strong as I like in the store -- and it turns out mustard is really easy. Take mustard seeds, a little salt, a little sugar, some vinegar and whiz up in the food processor. If itís too vinegary add some wine, or beer, or water. Thatís it. So good, and not a hassle at all. But where Iíve really been having fun is with her recipes for liqueurs. I sort of riffed off her homemade vermouth recipe, and have been adding a vodka infused with sage, savory, thyme, lemon peel, coriander and pink peppercorns to the cheap white wine I drink in the summer. Presto! Itís like being in the south of France.

I think what I liked most about this book is that while it has a lot of recipes, all of which seem to work exactly as advertised, she mostly provides a lot of techniques and uses the recipes as examples of those techniques, while also suggesting variations a person might want to experiment with. Since I love few things as much as playing with my food, Iíve been having a ball exploring the ideas in Home Made.

D.I.Y. Delicious comes from the same school as Home Made, although itís a tiny bit more earnest than the Dutch book. During a family reunion, Vanessa Barrington was inspired by the sight of her Auntís pantry in the house her mother had grown up in -- the shelves were lined with pickles, preserves, jams and jellies, and canned tomatoes. It was beautiful and frugal and a little bit sad that her mother had left these country traditions behind when sheíd moved away. She started thinking about staples and started looking at labels but it was the yogurt containers that really did her in. Iíve had exactly this same moment, the moment when you look in the drawer where you keep containers for leftovers, and realize that your yogurt habit has you drowning in plastic. And those are just the quart containers! So she started making yogurt, which is really simple once youíve done it a couple of times, and then she started seeing the fruit trees. Like so many of us, Barrington was sliding down that slippery slope of neo-frugality, putting up fruit that would otherwise go to waste, learning to make her own yogurt and granola and even tortillas, and reveling in not only the cost savings but the knowledge that when push came to shove, she knew how to feed herself and her family. My personal favorite in this book is the recipe for Ajvar, an bright-orange eggplant and red pepper spread I fell in love with a couple of winters ago (spread on toast with cheese melted on top itís a wonderful breakfast). Since my local grocery store doesnít carry it, and I rarely go over to the Bozeman grocery, Iím completely thrilled to be able to make this on my own.

Tart and Sweet: 101 Canning and Pickling Recipes for the Modern Kitchen has been getting a real workout in my house these past couple of weeks. I become a tiny bit obsessive this time of year, much to the bemusement of my sweetheart. I like a stocked pantry before winter. I like seeing all those jars lined up, and the pastas, and the dried beans in quart mason jars. I like knowing that between my pantry and the whole 4-H pig we bought right after the county fair (and the two carboys of homebrewed beer my sweetheart started last night), that even if we both lose our jobs in this bad economy, weíll eat this winter. (Of course, out here most people also hunt a couple of deer and an elk for their freezer, so weíre fairly normal.) The whole front section of this book is an excellent primer on how to select product to put up, and how hot water bath canning works, as well as how to do it safely. Canning isnít rocket science, although you do have to be clean, and careful, and pay attention to a few basic principles, especially acid levels. I started off with their recipe for pickled garlic with lemon, which is not only delicious, but so pretty. I might have to do a few more half-pints for Christmas presents because the result is so lovely. We had weekend guests, after which we still had about six ears of really gorgeous corn left, so I used their pickled corn recipe -- which was a great addition to a chicken salad I made last week. The mango-chile butter I fudged, and made peach-chile butter instead, which was also delicious, as was the ďRaisin-Haterís Apple ChutneyĒ I made last weekend when I could no longer ignore the apple crop in my backyard. What I particularly like about this book is the flavor combinations. In particular, the pickles in this book are really inventive -- and since the high-acid content of pickles makes them one of the safest products for new canners, theyíre a great place to start playing around.

What struck me about each of these books was that theyíre all positing the same idea -- that making your own food is simple, wonít take up all of your time, is fun, and that learning these kinds of skills will improve not only your eating, but will just make you feel more independent and competent in general. One reason I am so dedicated to the idea that we all need to cook for ourselves is exactly this -- if you have some basic skills and techniques, then youíre a lot more flexible during those times we all go through when economizing becomes necessary. And itís just fun as hell to play with your food -- so for September Iím going to encourage everyone to make one thing youíve never thought of making before: a condiment, a cheese, a tortilla, a pot of jam. Just try one new thing. Itís fun! Youíll like it!