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The Preservation Kitchen: The Craft of Making and Cooking with Pickles, Preserves, and Aigre-Douxby Paul Virant and Kate Leahy
Capturing the Year in a Jar
The soul of my kitchen isn’t in my kitchen at all. It hovers one floor above, contained within a narrow storage room lined with aluminum shelves. Even on the brightest days, the sunlight that filters through a small east-facing window is dim, hardly adequate. It doesn’t seem to matter. Packed with jars of pickles, jams, sauerkrauts, and other experiments in preserving, these shelves radiate with possibility.
When I need inspiration, I head upstairs and take inventory. Each visit provides me with a snapshot of the growing seasons. Early spring yields light-green baby artichokes, white turnips, and jars of lemon preserves. Army-green ramps and asparagus soon follow trailed by glossy pints of strawberry jam. Summer starts out slowly, a few pickled green beans, some snappy snow peas, a batch of giardiniera. By the end of September, however, the shelves bulge, emanating primary colors as carrots, dill pickles, peppers, eggplant, peaches, porcini, cherries, summer squash, and tomatoes—lots and lots of tomatoes—compete for attention. Then comes autumn, a subdued time when ruby-hued cranberries and winter squashes quietly signal an end to the harvest.
By the time winter blankets the neighborhood with snow, we have started dipping into our flavor arsenal, fortifying gravy with fiery cherry bomb peppers saved from July and dressing up cheese plates with sweet-sour grapes. Winter months are slow days for canning, but the process never completely stops. As soon as the New Year arrives, the mailbox fills with fragrant lemons and mandarins from generous friends in California, and we get to work.
When my family and I opened Vie in the fall of 2004, I knew I was going to serve local produce year-round. This idea doesn’t sound that radical now. But even just a few years ago, there were far fewer local family farms supplying Chicago restaurants than there are today. Among those, only a handful managed to extend the Great Lakes’ all-too-short growing season beyond summer. And we had other challenges. When we opened, Vie was a novelty in Western Springs, a historic suburb a half hour west of Chicago on the Metra commuter rail. It’s a quiet village of tree-lined streets and comfortable homes surrounding a main street with small-town essentials: butcher shop, bakery, diner, produce stand, hardware store, and ice cream parlor. We were the first serious restaurant to put down roots, and the first to acquire a liquor license. (Western Springs had been dry since Prohibition.) The whole project was enough of a gamble that I knew I couldn’t stay in business if I drafted a menu devoted solely to beets—one of the few local items available year-round—even if the menu tasted delicious. I started preserving a few summer staples to extend the seasons. But that was well before I realized how many flavors I could capture in a jar.
I grew up eating pickles. My grandmothers, both from Missouri, were avid canners, their summer meals often punctuated with a plate of tart dill-marinated tomatoes served straight from the refrigerator. Several years (and several restaurant stints) later, I grasped what my grandmothers always knew: vinegar draws out flavor. I decided that pickles had a place on a restaurant table.
In the pre-Vie days, while working around town for other chefs, I started making my own pickles. The experiment soon gravitated to homemade sauerkraut as vats of vegetables fermented on the counter. Soon I was reading everything I could find on preserving. Especially memorable were the archaic methods outlined in old American cookery books, which always went heavy on vinegar, spices, and sugar. Then I met Christine Ferber, the famed Alsatian jam maker whom many in France call—no exaggeration—the fairy godmother of jams and jellies. After taking her preserving class at Chicago’s French Pastry School, I became hooked on the world of aigre-doux, a French sweet-sour style of condiment that seemed to go with everything, from cheese to roasted meat. This inevitably led to more experiments.
Pastry chef Christine Ferber’s preserves are so popular in France that food lovers make annual pilgrimages to her shop in Niedermorschwihr, the Alsatian village where she also grew up. Her standards are famously high: she uses only pristine produce, avoiding fruit picked after a rain (too soggy) or after baking in the hot sun (too soft). Yet what inspired me most about Christine’s preserve making is her knack for combining flavors, from cherries and strawberries simmered in Pinot Noir to raspberries cooked with elderflowers. Our paths crossed several years ago in Chicago. She was invited by the French Pastry School to teach a preserving class, and I signed up. That’s when I first heard about macerating fruit for at least a day before finishing a jam. It’s also the class that piqued my interest in aigre-doux. Through the years, I’ve adapted some of her recipes to suit my needs. All recipes in this book inspired by Christine are credited in the introductory note.
Local farmers turned my part-time canning habit into a full-blown commitment. I started getting to know an entrepreneurial network of Midwesterners who worked year-round to grow local produce, insulating crops with hoop houses, greenhouses, and even compost piles so that chard, beets, arugula, parsnips, and sunchokes could flourish even when outside temperatures hovered well below freezing. Small farms in southern Wisconsin began to come together through community-supported agriculture programs, while stretches of central Illinois highway, once bordered by oceans of corn and soybeans only, transformed into land that supported goats, sheep, tomatoes, peppers, and lettuces. Michigan and Indiana farms beckoned with more produce, especially juicy organic berries and stone fruits. Through the back door came boxes of peak-season, Midwestern-grown produce that outperformed anything shipped from California. This produce deserved to be savored, and saved.
In the early days, I started slowly, a few cases of tomatoes and a couple of jams. But as I packed away jars of locally grown San Marzano tomatoes, more ideas came flooding in. How about fermenting Brussels sprouts, for instance? Or what about puréeing black walnuts with maple syrup for a nut butter? For about two years, our kitchen went through what I call our “experimental preserving extravaganza” period. Not everything was a success. A baby leek and carrot aigre-doux failed to win fans (leeks are generally better fresh or lightly pickled). Fermented tomatoes, meanwhile, polarized the kitchen—I liked them, and still make them on occasion. Others did not like their pungent tang. Gradually, the murkier experiments were pushed aside in favor of the winners, of which there were plenty. As our canning inventory accumulated, spreading from the second-story storage room into the basement of one of my employees, it became clear that this habit had evolved into an obsession, just as much about flavor as about principle. I had become a so-called jarring chef.
Our menus at Vie have developed alongside our seasonal preserves, and they are intrinsically linked together. The bond is reflected in this book. In Part One: In the Jar, I share recipes for preserves that take advantage of peak-season ingredients. In Part Two: At the Table, I demonstrate how to use these preserves in meals ranging from weeknight dishes to celebratory occasions. Organized around the seasons, these menus mix fresh produce with preserved ingredients, unlocking the culinary potential that occurs when we stretch growing seasons. Tying both sections of the book together is one simple adage: I eat what I can and what I can’t, I can.
Principles of Safe Preserving
A Brief History
Canning looks pretty old-fashioned. Hot jars filled with jam or pickles, capped with a two-piece lid, are dropped gently into a pot. Once boiled, these sealed, shelf-stable items line a pantry shelf to be used throughout the year. But home canning as we know it is a relatively modern practice. Before the development of the self-sealing Mason jar in the 1850s, and even after, canning was, thanks to Napoleon and his experiments in feeding an army, a military endeavor. In the nineteenth century, homemakers were more likely to preserve and store produce in vats of heavily salted, sweetened, and spiced vinegar brines, then store these containers in cool pantries for months. Housekeeping in Old Virginia, a collection of regional recipes published in 1879, included recipes for brines containing two pounds of sugar for every gallon of vinegar. It was a brine “strong enough to bear an egg”— and acidic enough to keep just about anything from spoiling. Some recipes in this household manual recommended soaking vegetables in brine for at least six months before eating them. What’s amazing about the collection of recipes in Housekeeping is the range of foods that were preserved this way: lemons, cabbage, green tomatoes, and melon rinds all received the strong-brine treatment.
While reusable Mason jars with their dependable two-piece lids ushered in a handier way to preserve food, other priniciples of preserving—how it keeps food from spoiling—remained a mystery. In 1915, USDA scientists had a breakthrough: they identified the bacterium that causes botulism poisoning. Eventually scientists established the safety pillars of canning: acidity, heat, and a sealed, airless (anaerobic) environment would ensure shelf-stability.
Yet some debate continues between American food scientists and home cooks about safe canning practices. The open-kettle method, in which hot food is poured into a hot jar, closed with a cap, and left on the counter to seal itself, is one of the biggest points of debate. While this method was common years ago, American food scientists do not endorse it today. Even though the jar may seal, the food still runs the risk of spoilage because the jar was never sterilized in boiling water. When my coauthor, Kate, and I took an acidified foods canning class through the University of Wisconsin extension program, one woman shared her grandmother’s practice of packing hot tomato sauce into jars, capping the jars with lids, and storing them above the stove until she needed to use them. Every once and a while, a jar exploded because of residual microbial activity. The mess alone would be reason enough to avoid this method. However, many prominent European jam makers endorse this process, and it is common to find recipes for marmalades that don’t require water-bath processing once the marmalade is packed in jars. I can understand the argument—a marmalade is pretty stable on its own; fruit is high in acid and sugar itself acts as a preservative. Even so, I always boil jars of jams in water for at least 10 minutes, the point at which I can be sure that the jar, the lid, and the contents are sterilized.
As the popularity of canning and preserving once again expands, contradictory information continues to circulate. Meanwhile, warnings from jargon-prone government guides can scare a newcomer away from even trying. You don’t need an advanced degree or access to a sterile lab to can safely. However, you do need to understand a few facts.
Entire university departments are dedicated to understanding the complex relationships between food and spoilers. My intention here is not to cover the minutiae but rather to provide background on basic canning science. After reading this section, you will understand why a fruit jam is processed in a boiling water bath and low-acid garlic conserva is processed in a pressure canner. (And by “processed,” I’m referring to the time the jars spend in a pot of boiling water or in a pressure canner.) You will also know why I process larger jars longer than smaller jars.
Preserving science comes down to destroying micro-organisms, mainly molds, yeasts, and bacteria. Not all molds and yeasts in food are bad, as anyone who has enjoyed a piece of blue cheese or sourdough bread can attest. In some instances, bacteria is an essential part of the process, like in sauerkraut production. In general, however, preserving food requires limiting microbial activity as much as possible. It is no fun opening a jar of jam to find that a family of mold has colonized the surface. (This can happen when a jar is not properly sterilized. If you find mold on the surface of a preserve, throw out the jar.)
The combination of heat, acidity, and an airtight seal is crucial to the safety of the contents in a jar. Yeasts, molds, and most bacteria generally have low tolerances to heat, and heating food at the boiling point of water destroys most of these organisms. Most of these spoilers also need oxygen to survive, and an airtight seal cuts off this lifeline. Consequently, boiling a jar filled with preserves in a water bath destroys microorganisms, sterilizes the food in the jar, and forces air out of the jar, enabling the lid to seal as it cools.
An airtight seal keeps oxygen and new microbes out, but it also can create the perfect habitat for the dangerous bacterium clostridium botulinum. In an anaerobic environment, the spores of clostridium botulinum flourish. These spores give off a toxin that, if consumed, leads to botulism poisoning, a serious and sometimes fatal illness. That’s where acid comes in. Clostridium botulinum is sensitive to acid. If the environment within the jar is acidic, botulism spores cannot survive. The only other way to destroy botulism is to process jars at temperatures well above the boiling point of water. Since water boils at higher temperatures under pressure, foods that are not acidic enough to stave off botulism need to be processed in a pressure canner. Most of the preserving recipes in this book are acidic enough to use a boiling water bath for processing. For the few low-acid preserves in the book, I’ve included instructions in Pressure-Canned Preserves, page 121.
A pH of 4.6 is the dividing line between acidic foods that can be processed in a water bath and low-acid foods that must be pressure-canned. Every preserve with a pH of 4.5 or lower can be processed safely in a water bath. (On a pH scale, 1 is a strong acid, 14 is a strong base, and 7 is neutral.) Most fruits, and consequently most jams, are naturally acidic, but most vegetables are not. A lemon has an average pH of 2.2 while a carrot clocks in at about 6. While lemons cooked into marmalade are acidic enough on their own, carrots need vinegar to lower their pH below 4.6. Essentially, they need to be pickled. If you wanted to pack carrots in water, you would have to process the jars in a pressure canner because the jar would not be acidic enough to inhibit botulism spore growth. (And what’s the point? A jar of carrots in water is hardly an improvement on fresh carrots.) Yet not all fruit is acidic enough to preserve as is: figs are borderline, and so are some tomatoes. (For more on acidity and tomatoes, see page 46.) All of my recipes have been tested for pH. While minor changes to the recipes, like using a different herb or spice, will not change the overall acidity level, I urge you not to play around with the quantity or variety of vinegar, alcohol, or lemon juice called for because it could compromise the product’s pH level.
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