We've been swooning over Karen Solomon's Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It: And Other Cooking Projects
since it arrived on our shelves a couple months ago. The book is plump with dozens of creative kitchen projects, which range from jams and pickles to crackers and candy to smoked trout and home-cured bacon. It also doesn't hurt that the recipes are accompanied with luscious photos that make the book a feast for the eyes as well as the belly.
With more and more people trying to produce their own food, it only makes sense that a book like this, executed with this much care, is going to do well. Not just limited to vittles that live in jars, Solomon focuses on other foods that people often forget they can make themselves, like crackers and dressings, marshmallows, and infused spirits. "Things that live in the middle of the grocery store," she said.
Whether you're struggling to put up your garden's bounty or just looking for a place to sink some creative energy, Jam It is a precious find. I talked with Solomon about her research methods, her trials and errors, and the possibility of homemade Cheetos. (Please, please, please... )
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Megan: You said in the introduction to Jam It that the book isn't meant to answer the question, "What's for dinner?" You write, "I'm a crafter, and food is my medium of choice." I really love the idea of kitchen crafts. Was food always your medium, or did it take you awhile to find your niche?
Solomon: Not always. It did take a while. My partner and I both work, and we had a kid about two and a half years ago. When you're living that life, dinner happens in about 22 minutes. What you eat every night — we call it "people chow" — is a stir fry or a quick-ass pasta, something that's sustenance. We're not big fans of eating out every night, so it got to be that every meal being eaten, Monday through Thursday, wasn't the kind of cooking that I love to do. I love to take time and make something wonderful and beautiful that tastes fantastic, and that just wasn't happening. I started thinking, Okay, what can I do on the weekends that's going to satisfy that creative kitchen urge, and also yield something really wonderful that I can enjoy throughout the week, or throughout the month? So that's how the book got started.
Megan: You cover a lot of ground in the book — from jam, pickles, and pastas to curing bacon and smoking trout. What inspired you to learn all these somewhat varied kitchen skills?
Solomon: I was doing a lot of these things before the book, and then when I sat down to actually put together a table of contents, I worked on incorporating some recipes to give the book more balance, texture, and variance, to make it a more useful tool in the kitchen. Some recipes I was loving and making before, and other things I was like, "You know what would be nice, if we included a recipe for this in the book." Then it became a fun research project that I started for the book itself.
Megan: You mentioned having to look through ancient recipe texts and obscure farm manuals to find out how to do some of the projects outlined in Jam It. Could you talk a bit more about how you did your research?
Solomon: I'm a big used book fan and old book fan. In San Francisco, we have the Friends of the Library book sale, and that's a great place you can pick up... wait, I'm not even sure if I should be telling you guys this...
But you can pick up books for a dollar... I pick up stuff at thrift stores; I buy stuff online. People blog about this stuff and record their own adventures in making jam and making this and making that. Every recipe is a conversation, a research project.
One of my favorite books on my shelf is the Woman's Day Encyclopedia of Cookery. It's like a 13-volume set that I bought at a thrift store a million years ago. It is an amazing collection. James Beard wrote for it; it was just an amazing thing that came out in the 60s that is totally underrated. Larousse Gastronomique is also a classic. I never went to culinary school, but that has ALL the sauces. It's like 30 pages on every sauce. If you need to look up a sauce, it's in there. And of course Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking. He's just the master of any scientific question. So that was really helpful too. It's just another level of food geekdom, where food and books meet.
The '60s and '80s were big heydays for preserving. There were a lot of books on jamming and pickling that came out in those eras, so those used books are pretty easy to come across. But I wanted that one book that had everything in it, all the condiments, everything in a jar, everything with a lid and in a crinkly bag, and that's what I couldn't find. And it would be so insanely fun to write that book. So that's what I did.
Megan: What's your cooking background and writing background?
Solomon: I don't mince words about this: I am not a chef, and I have never worked in the restaurant industry. I've taken some culinary classes, but I don't have a culinary degree. I'm a through-and-through, proud home tinkerer. Maybe I've done it more obsessively than some other people.
My writing background is really extensive. I've been a freelance writer for about 13 years and I spent about 9 to 10 of those years writing about food in some capacity. I think any food writer will tell you, except maybe Bobby Flay, but nearly any food writer will say that it's impossible to sustain yourself writing purely about food. For years and years I just kept trying to do as much as I could in the food realm, and actually paid my rent with other kinds of writing. I've been doing that for a long time, and I've written locally for anybody and everybody. I don't even know if I should say this, but... I've never been to Portland. I know I'd love it, and we joke out here that it's like the underground tunnel. A third of my friends out here want to move to Portland. They haven't done it yet, but they talk about it ? they're going to. I'm 100% certain that I'd love it, but here the food scene is just so burgeoning, which I guess it is there, too. Everything I keep reading is about the amazing food scene coming up there, and in Brooklyn, too. I'm sorry; I think I lost track of the question.
Megan: That's okay. I think we've got it covered. What was the reader demographic that you had in mind when you started writing the book?
Solomon: This is really funny, because this has been a big surprise for me. The demographic that I was thinking of was people like myself. How egotistical! The urban hipster. People with small kitchens and who have 22 minutes on a Tuesday night to cook dinner, but who also crave that kitchen creativity and are in love with this whole slow food idea and the concept of "Wow, I can make that myself?" That's who I had in mind when I wrote the book.
Accidental audiences have occurred, and this is so interesting to me. One is survivalists, people who live out in the wop-wops, off the grid, living off the land — that's been an unexpected market. The second surprise audience is people with kids. A lot of the comments I'm getting when I do events are, "These are great kid projects," "My kid would love this," "Have you ever thought about doing a book for kids?" My son is two and a half and we make popsicles together, and he loves it, but it didn't really occur to me. I definitely didn't set out to make a kids' book, but that was kind of an unintended side audience that seems to have developed.
Megan: There's a misconception, that I've bought into, that preserving food is difficult, and involves complex wizardry. What's your advice to people who are intimidated?
Solomon: That they absolutely shouldn't be. When I demo the pickled green bean recipe I say, "Okay, here's the recipe, get ready: Put stuff in a jar, fill it halfway with vinegar, halfway with water, and you're done. Stick it in the fridge for three days and boom, you've got pickles." I always feel like a fraud, like there's going to be a witch hunt. "That's not cooking!" But it is that easy. Some things are definitely that easy. An overarching concept for the whole book was to do things the simplest way possible, in a small amount of space that didn't require special equipment. Some of the projects are definitely time intensive, but I tried to make everything as low labor intensive as possible. Just because I'm lazy. And that's how I like it to be.
Megan: That's the way it should be.
Solomon: Exactly! Why Martha Stewart-out, when you can just do it and have it be delicious in the end? That to me is one of the great pleasures of the book — just to get people to realize certain things — like, "I can make my own butter in 20 minutes," or other things that they can absolutely make on their own. Then they can take that pride and ownership with their food that maybe they didn't have before because they were buying it at the supermarket. It becomes a fun craft project; it becomes something to be proud of; it becomes something to share as a conversation piece, and in that manner, it can be kind of infectious. To say, "Oh, do you like that butter that you're eating on your toast, friend? Well, I made that myself." And then it goes from there. You can add flavors and add shapes and can personalize it in a way that you can't do with store-bought stuff.
Megan: I consider myself fairly well informed when it comes to food, but it never occurred to me that I could make my own graham crackers. After I thought about that a bit, it seemed kind of depressing that I forgot that people made these types of things in their homes at one point, and that they weren't born in factories. I was reminded about how our attitudes about food have come a long way, but there's still a long way to go.
Solomon: Something I always say when I do talks is that there have been wonderful, wonderful revolutions in our produce. We know we want everything local, sustainable, lovingly grown, and we've gotten that. But the same people who are at the farmer's market every Saturday buying this stuff, when it comes time to dress the salad, they're reaching for that bottle of Wishbone ? or, as I always say, all those things in the middle of the grocery store.
Megan: Do you think that the slow food movement is trendy, that we're going to retreat back to a place where we're not as aware of where our food is coming from?
Solomon: I think for food, in general, absolutely not. Alice Waters and Michael Pollan have taken care of that for us. I think that the ceiling has been broken, in that regard. Do I think that everyone is always going to make their own crackers and never going to buy a box of crackers again? Absolutely not. I still buy some things. The book is not a manifesto; it's just a suggestion. I can't eat this way every day. It's nice to know that sometimes I can. But if I'm on a road trip, am I only eating my own potato chips? Of course not! That's just insane.
It's nice just to give people options. You can buy your local, organic produce or you can buy it from the Mega Grocer. You can make your own beef jerky or you can buy it. There are some pretty decent ready-made products out there, things that are whole grain, and depending on where you are, things that are local, things that are made from good quality organic ingredients that are like homemade. They still face some of the same old axiomatic troubles of any packaged food. They're still coming from a factory in a box and a bag. They're still in many cases overpriced for what they are, compared to what you can do on your own, but they definitely are convenient. So, again, I like to think that people now know that they have options, but I hate to think that it's just a trend and that in two years people wouldn't be thinking about it anymore. But, I would never say that this is going to change how people eat forever and ever.
Megan: Are there any processed or storebought foods that you really love to eat but haven't figured out how to recreate yourself?
Solomon: Definitely. Any kind of woven wheat, like a Triscuit.
Megan: I love the Triscuit.
Solomon: Me, too. The same for cereal, that Autumn Wheat cereal — that kind of woven wheat thing, you just can't do at home. That takes some serious factory machinery to make that happen. I'm crazy, but I'm not insane.
I'm not going to start weaving single strands of wheat together to make a single flake. That's kind of kooky. And some things just taste different. There's cheese in the book, but I stick to really basic and easy cheeses. To make really great cheese, first of all you just need to be in the right climate, and to do an aged cheese you need certain starters, and you really need to take a lot of time. You need to start waxing and preserving the stuff in cellars, and that I have not taken on. I'd just as soon buy it from the professionals.
There's sausage and bacon in the book, and I'd love to be curing more of my own salami, but again it just comes down to the fact that I don't have a place of the right temperature and the right humidity, and I'm not going to build one. Eventually it all comes down to hardware. Am I going to build my own aging cellar for meat? Probably not. Am I going to spend $300 on my own cold smoker so I can make my own lox and nova? Probably not. There is gravlox in the book, but cold-smoking opens up a lot of doors.
Megan: I love all of the really, really bad candy, like jelly beans and Nerds and all the stuff that's pumped with as much artificial color and flavor as possible. I was looking in your book, wondering if there was a way...
Solomon: That would be interesting! I tried lollipops, and to tell you the truth, I wasn't satisfied with the result, which was why the recipe didn't make it in there. I wanted to use natural flavors — real fruit and real herbs and make a really dense, flavorful extract. Right now, if you make lollipops at home you have to buy these flavor enhancer things, and I tried even using natural store-bought extract. There's this great company that makes these citrus oils. I tried using that, but I just wasn't satisfied, so they didn't make it in the book. But, yes, that would be fun. I don't even know how to make a jelly bean. Some of it is fun because it's a total challenge. I promised a friend that I'm going to try to make my own Cheetos.
Megan: That's awesome.
Solomon: She teaches a class on nutrition from the garden for young kids, and she's been doing nuts with lime and chili and that's great, but the kids love hot Cheetos. I was like, "Okay, I think I can do this. I'm not making any promises, but I'm willing to give it a go."
Megan: I hope you can.
Solomon: I know! Wouldn't it be fun to make your own Cheetos?
Megan: I would imagine that there was some level of trial and error involved when you were fine-tuning your projects?
Solomon: [Laughter] Oh, God, yes!
Megan: Are there any big flops that you'd be willing to share to make everyone else feel better about themselves?
Solomon: Sure, definitely. Well, I mentioned the lollipops. I can't even tell you how many batches of lollipops I made. And once candy gets to the hard crack stage, when it becomes hard like a lollipop — just try washing that pot. When it's hard at room temperature, the clean up is the worst. So that was definitely one that myself and my partner are both glad to not be doing anymore. There was also this thing that happened when I was trying to make marshmallows. There are a couple different ways to make them (well, actually there are immeasurable ways to make marshmallows), but in my early recipes I didn't use enough gelatin. I went on a camping trip and I was all happy, thinking, I made these marshmallows. We can cook them around the fire. They had good flavor and good texture, so let's take them to the campfire and give them the ultimate test, right? We got our sticks, got the fire going, and put the marshmallows on, and instead of getting toasty brown, they just melted into the fire. They fell off the stick. The recipe in the book, I promise you, has been tested by the camp fire numerous times, but that was definitely, "OK, back to the drawing board on that one."
There are also things I've been doing outside the book. I'm always testing out things. There were a few batches of Nutella. Well, I guess I should say "hazelnut chocolate spread." I like what I've got now, but there were definitely a lot of mistakes along the way. And what do you do with crummy Nutella?
Megan: I'd probably just eat it anyway.
Solomon: Yeah, I think I folded it into a torte. I hate to waste food, right? I made some pickled herring recently, which was... I don't know if that's ever going to make it into a book or not. It was a lot of work and it was pretty good, but then in the end it needed more salt. It's definitely a trial and error kind of thing. I could just go on and on about my failures. I'm not sure how many more you want...
Megan: Are there any blogs that you'd send people to, or other preserving gurus that you'd suggest people follow?
Solomon: I really love how on Chow.com, they used to have this recipe section called "Project" that was awesome. It used to be really easy to find, and now unfortunately it's kind of buried. But they'd talk about making your own bitters, making your own cocktail onions. There's a lot of bar stuff in there, which is great. There are a lot of blogs that I read occasionally — Food in Jars is a really good one. I like Erin Cooks. She's not just food preservation; she cooks a lot of stuff, but she is a really thorough blogger. Let's see, Married with Dinner, too, she's really good.
And 101 Cookbooks... There are a lot of blogs that I read, and they may do a food-crafting recipe from time to time, but they're not just food crafting.
I wish I had more time right now to track what I'm doing in the kitchen on a daily basis, and what I'm doing now. I'm Chef140 on Twitter, but even that has been painfully neglected.
Megan: Have you observed any trends in the social aspect of food preservation? I was looking into canning classes here in Portland, and they're totally booked up.
Solomon: Oh, huge. Huge, huge, huge. People are doing informal canning clubs. A local woman was doing an interesting take on it, which ended up in the New York Times, called "Yes We Can." People could buy into shares of a canning club. She made a deal with local farmers, so in June we'd can apricots and July tomatoes and August cucumbers, etc.
Megan: Was it sort of like a CSA?
Solomon: Sort of. You buy a share of whatever food is being canned, and you pay less if you actually want to come do the work. So if you want to just get canned tomatoes you have the option of paying a lot, or if you want to work to make the canned tomatoes happen you pay a little. I thought that was a really good idea.
There's definitely been an increase in classes out here. I'm teaching some, but also, just anecdotally, I'm reading about it happening in other places. There's definitely more, not just canning, but all kinds of stuff. I guess my hope for it all is that it doesn't end when summer does. There's so much that happens outside of summer. I know people get most stoked for summer produce and it's great, don't get me wrong, but there's so much more. I love winter pickles, and I love daikon and cabbage. You know that Ploughman's pickle, the British one? It's basically like turnips and all kinds of stuff in a tamarind-type sauce. In the fall, there are olives. I'll probably be teaching a class on brining your own olives. It's a year-round thing. Canned cucumbers and tomatoes are great, but that's not all there is to it.
Not to mention all the wonderful things you can do to preserve and make a project out of food that's not canning. There's a lot beyond that too. I hope it continues, I really do. I think it's fantastic and I'm thrilled that people are getting their pans dirty.
Karen Solomon spoke from her home in San Francisco on July 17, 2009.