When you're a food writer, following culinary trends is part of the job. In the last five years I've over-indulged in bacon, made more than one batch of fancy cupcakes and tried out about a hundred recipes for kale salads. But I found myself sitting out of one newly popular pastime.
Food preservation, particularly canning, is cool again. And no wonder. Bringing together seasonal food, a DIY ethos and a sort of luxurious frugality, it's a recession-proof hobby. But to me, it looked messy, difficult and occasionally dangerous. I couldn't help thinking about one particular high school biology lecture on botulism.
I came up with a lot of excuses: I didn't want to buy equipment for a hobby that hadn't even hooked me yet. I could buy jam that was just as good. And what was my household of two going to do with a dozen jars of strawberry jam anyway?
Then I met Cathy Barrow. Well, I didn't actually meet her. First, I noticed her on the home cooking website Food52, where she was an early, active user under the moniker MrsWheelbarrow. I followed her adventures as she and fellow writer Kim Foster led a group of enthusiast bloggers in a yearlong celebration of meat cookery and preservation, Charcutepalooza. I read her blog at MrsWheelbarrow.com, and her food stories, which began appearing in The Washington Post and The New York Times.
Then, as happens in the small community that is the food writing world, I ran into her at a New York food conference. Turns out, Mrs. Barrow was born in Toledo, Ohio, and when she was 13 moved to Pittsburgh, where she stayed through college, studying psychology and organizational management at Carnegie Mellon University. She had her first forays into the professional food world in Pittsburgh, too, working in the housewares department at Kaufmann's, Downtown, as part of the store's executive training program, and then as a regional sales rep for houseware brands such as Le Creuset and Wusthof. In 1983, she opened a fish shop called Porgy and Bass on Bellefonte Street in Shadyside.
The fish shop didn't last, and Mrs. Barrow moved on as well, accepting a job offer in Colorado. Her professional life drew her away from the food world, as she worked first in retail clothing management, then in marketing. "I was an office worker for 17 years," she said, but all that time, she cooked.
"I started out as a young child helping my great-grandmother cooking for the temple," said Mrs. Barrow, "making hamantaschen, hundreds of whatever we were making. I'd always help with Friday night dinners and big holidays. I remember distinctly when my mother became Julia Child-obsessed and a lot of really fun weekend afternoons with her making really crazy things."
In 1999, Mrs. Barrow had moved to Washington, D.C., but was traveling 18 days out of the month as a consultant and growing increasingly sick of it. She'd also gotten married, and her new husband, Dennis Barrow, asked her what she really wanted to do. She went back to school to study landscape design. In 2004 she started her own business as Mrs. Wheelbarrow, the gardening coach. Four years later, "the economy tanked," and no one could afford a landscape designer. So she re-imagined herself one more time.
"I was always the one who had the parties, who hosted Thanksgiving for orphans," she said. Friends would ask her to come teach them how to make scones or what to do with tofu. But she'd never been paid for it. She started a food blog and began offering cooking classes in her home kitchen. First her friends came and brought their friends and then word spread. She taught all kinds of classes, but she noticed the canning classes were the most popular.
"My mother became enamored of preserving in the '80s," she said. "I still have the Gourmet magazine that I think set her off in 1983. She'd just moved to the Berkshires not far from an orchard and she and a friend began putting up jam." She started canning on her own in the mid-'90s, but it was six years ago, when her mother died, that she began to become more deeply invested. "That's when I read Michael Pollan's 'Omnivore's Dilemma' and Barbara Kingsolver's 'Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.' I started to think about sustainability, local. It became more central to the way that my kitchen functioned. If you're going to do all those things, you have to preserve."
And from the demand for recipes and classes, it was clear that many people felt the same way, but few people had Mrs. Barrow's talent for instruction. Just four years after the launch of the site, she has a thriving career as a freelance writer, a teacher and a sort of general spokeswoman for the pleasures of putting up the season's bounty. And now, at 55, she's realized that she always belonged in the food world. "I don't want to look back and say I regret anything," she said, "but I'm really happy to be there now."
I finally broke out the Ball jars when I learned canning doesn't actually require much special equipment. You can cook preserves in a Dutch oven, and can in any large pot (I use a pasta pot). If you don't have a rack, just fold up a clean dish towel. If you don't have canning tongs (or the heat-proof silicone kind that so many people have these days) then wrap large rubber bands around your metal tongs, so they can get a better grip on the jars.
Mrs. Barrow's recipes are typically tailored for small batches, anywhere from 4 to 6 half-pint (1 cup) jars.
This year, I've put up something to mark every turn of the seasons, starting with strawberry-rhubarb confiture in the spring, apricot preserves and spicy plum sauce in the summer and apple butter at the beginning of fall.
It's easy enough to learn from recipes and blog posts, but I got an extra dose of instruction at a tomato canning class at Mrs. Barrow's house in Washington, D.C., as the canning season wound to a close. Over four hours, along with three other attentive students, we processed and canned tomatoes, poblano salsa and tomato ketchup, which is nothing like Heinz, but has plenty of its own charms.
I quickly learned why her classes book up months in advance (she'll post next year's sessions in January). Small and hands-on, they're a fantastic way to become comfortable with the basic techniques of canning (we covered water-bath and pressure canning), and along the way Mrs. Barrow shares tips and tricks for making the process quick, easy and safe.
She'll share a lot more in her first cookbook, "Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry," which will cover techniques from water-bath and pressure canning to freezing, dehydrating, fermenting, fresh-cheese making and more and will be published by W. W. Norton in late 2014. Mrs. Barrow made the announcement on her blog last week, describing herself as "completely, totally over the moon." She'll be working with acclaimed editor Maria Guarnaschelli, whose projects include Judy Rodgers' "The Zuni Cafe Cookbook," Rose Levy Beranbaum's "The Cake Bible" and Michael Ruhlman's "Charcuterie."
The traditional canning season may be over, but I'm looking forward to tackling more projects, including several from Mrs. Wheelbarrow's blog. Homemade triple sec anyone? Since tomato season is over, she suggested I share her recipe for Apple Pie Jam. Any jars you don't eat yourself will make delicious and appreciated holiday gifts.
Apple Pie Jam
"To avoid fruit float, be very mindful of the timing," says Cathy Barrow. "One minute means 60 seconds. At a BOIL YOU CAN'T STIR DOWN. That's seriously boiling. Be careful when you stir; hot sugar burns. Sixty seconds. No more. Fruit float is often caused by over processing, and that's the trickiest part of this recipe. If fruit floats in the jars, don't worry -- just give it a stir before serving." It makes 6 half pints.
- About 8 to 10 mixed firm crisp apples
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (I use Ceylon cinnamon)
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
- 1 box pectin (not low-sugar or Pomona brand)
- 4 cups white sugar
- 1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon butter
Peel and finely dice the apples. Pack them firmly into a 4-cup measure. Add water in between all the apple pieces to fill to 4 cups.
Put the apples, water, lemon juice and spices in the preserving pan and sprinkle the pectin over the fruit. Stir well. Bring the mixture to a full rolling boil that cannot be stirred down.
Add both sugars, stir well and bring back up to a full rolling boil for EXACTLY 1 minute. Do not stop stirring. Remove from heat.
Stir in the pinch of butter to reduce the foam. Skim off any foam that remains. Ladle into hot, clean jars leaving 1/4-inch headspace. Wipe the jar rims and threads. Cover with clean, sterilized lid and ring.
Process in boiling water for 10 minutes.
-- Cathy Barrow
Freelancer China Millman: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published October 25, 2012 4:00 AM