Read up on some of 2014’s most-loved cookbooks, tested and reviewed by the one and only Food52 community.
Cathy Barrow, the author of Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry, is a longtime Food52-er, famous for recipes like Salmon in Sorrel Sauce and Creamy Mushroom Soup. But followers of her blog, Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen, know that her passion for preserving knows no bounds. Her first cookbook is a testament to her authority on the subject. She guided me -- by no means a veteran canner -- with precise, detailed instructions in an encouraging, warm, and genuine tone through making preserves and then using them in dishes.
This is foremost a primer on preserving and contains 4 stand-alone sections: Water Bath Canning, Pressure Canning, Preserving Meats, and Making Cheese. The recipes are grouped seasonally and move sequentially from easy to advanced techniques. Throughout them all, though, Cathy feels like a friend: Her headnotes are chatty and funny. I don’t know Cathy, but I feel like I do after reading her book and trying out some of her recipes.
More: Before you start preserving, take a look at Mrs. Wheelbarrow's 9 essential tools for pickling and preserving.
I wanted to try a preserve recipe, but there’s a paucity of fresh seasonal fruit available in the winter here in the Pacific Northwest. I went for Straight-Up Preserves with Any Fruit, a master recipe for making jam with any fruit of your choice. I made mine with local pears and followed Cathy’s guidance for flavorings, adding pink peppercorns and a pumpkin-spiced whiskey I had on hand. The jam was slightly spicy, with caramel undertones. In other words, lick-the-spoon delicious.
What makes the book indispensable to me, however, are the 36 recipes that use preserves in dishes. Cathy believes that a pantry of homemade preserved food should be used in a practical way: Jam isn’t just for spreading on toast, but should be used to fill rugelach, top focaccia, and marinate steak. For those who choose not to do any preserving, these recipes can be made with high-quality ingredients purchased at farmers' markets or from well-stocked grocery stores. I adored the Salmon and Grain Salad with Red Onion Quickles, in which you brine red onions for just 20 minutes. They were fantastic -- crunchy, vibrant, and flavorful.
The Chicken Breasts with Currant Jelly Sauce was another winning recipe. I didn’t have any currant jelly in my pantry, but some pinot noir jelly I had on hand worked just great. The jelly is combined with mustard, thyme, wine, butter, and a sautéed shallot to create a complex but easy-to-make pan sauce to serve with the pan-fried chicken breasts. I loved that it was quick to put together for a weekday dinner but fancy enough for company.
More: Mrs. Wheelbarrow's cookbook is our preserving bible. Read about why we love it.
While most of the recipes aren’t difficult to create, some require some investment of time and can’t be rushed, and some ingredients can be challenging to find. I tried the simplest recipe from the meat section, Maple and Bourbon Bacon, and the hardest part was sourcing pink salt, which I finally found from a local charcuterie shop (you can also find it online). That being said, it was the best bacon I have ever eaten and the ingredients cost less than the bacon I buy from my farmers' market. Similarly, it took some effort to source non-homogenized milk to make ricotta cheese, but I eventually did. The curds were easy to separate from the whey, and the cheese had a nice, firm texture with a lovely, earthy flavor. It was far superior to store-bought varieties.
Recipes like the bacon and ricotta fulfill the book’s premise that making pantry staples can be practical and satisfying. What I appreciate most about this cookbook is how Cathy takes the fear out of preserving and makes it approachable and fun. I find cooking from it to be incredibly addictive -- so much so that I am already thinking about rigging up a makeshift smoker with my gas grill so that I can make Cathy's smoked oysters.
First photo by Mark Weinberg; second photo by James Ransom; all others by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton