Tomatoes are ripening, trucks full of peaches are wending their way to farmers markets, and everywhere, home food preservation enthusiasts are working frantically in their steamy kitchens to put it all by, listening expectantly for their hot jars of preserves to “ping” as they seal.
Canning is such a time-honored tradition in some households – and a “lost art” made popular again by a whole new generation of do-it-yourselfers – it’s hard to remember that it is very modern technology.
Bringing food to a boil to kill bacteria, and then preserving the sterilized food in vacuum-sealed jars, has only been practiced in the home kitchen for about a century.
Canning is too modern, in fact, to merit much space in the new book “The Lost Art of Real Cooking,” by Ken Albala and Rosanna Nafziger.
At first I was dismayed that a book devoted to “real cooking” could omit something so essential. But what they have included has expanded my food preservation repertoire by leaps and bounds.
To tell the truth, Albala doesn’t really like to can. (The sections in the book devoted to fruit preserves and marmalades are written by Nafziger.) All that boiling kills bacteria indiscriminately, and you need bacteria, Albala explains, to create delicious traditional preserved foods.
“The bacteria that turn cabbage or any vegetable into a pickle are literally everywhere. It is a pity that we think of bacteria as enemies,” he writes in the book. “We should care about bacteria, yeasts, and other microbes, mostly because they give us flavors we crave instinctually: pickles, yeasty bread, stinky cheese, not to mention alcohol …”
Working with bacteria instead of eliminating it requires practice and patience, but it results in many more interesting ways to preserve food.
“The Lost Art of Real Cooking” features fermenting and pickling; brewing wine and beer; culturing cheese and butter; maintaining a sourdough starter; curing and smoking meats; and preserving duck or goose in a confit.
The authors include other challenging but rewarding dishes designed for immediate consumption such as doughnuts, pies, pasta, and strudel; stuffed grape leaves; tortillas; snails; and chicken pâté.
It is a truly eclectic collection of tempting recipes to occupy the home cook for years, but not just any home cook. Real cooking is, the authors announce in their sub-sub title, inconvenient and difficult, arcane and dangerous, antiquated and laborious.
“We intend to make the process of cooking as long, difficult, and arduous as possible,” they write in the introduction. “Gentle Reader, if you cannot abide by long hours in the kitchen, this is no book for you.”
But despite these warnings, this book goes further than any I’ve seen to make real cooking both possible and pleasurable. And you don’t necessarily have to give up your day job, either, to find the time to try it.
Compared to canning green beans, for instance, fermenting a batch of homemade sauerkraut according to Albala’s instructions is a piece of cake.
Glass jars, a pressure cooker full of scalding steam and an entire afternoon vs. a cool basement, a lovely ceramic crock and about half an hour? Doesn’t take a microbiologist to figure out which one I’ll choose.
The difference is that old-fashioned fermented sauerkraut won’t be finished for weeks or months. So you have to be patient. It also requires some thought and care from time to time.
Care, and a little work. That’s all it takes to become a real cook. There’s hope for everyone, even if “you were raised on boxed mac ’n’ cheese or suckled by a vending machine.”
“There is, it cannot be denied, unspeakable pleasure in providing sustenance for others with the labor of one’s own hands,” Albala and Nafziger write.
For cooks who understand this, “The Lost Art of Real Cooking” is a treasure trove of instructions, inspiration, advice and unbridled enthusiasm for delicious homemade food.
Rarely have I found a cookbook that is equally as fun to read in bed as it is useful in the kitchen, especially for less than $20. Their conversational style makes me feel I’ve found two new best friends.
Recently, with Albala’s instructions for sourdough bread open beside me, I found the courage to make a new batch of sourdough starter. (I gave up on my old stinky, sluggish one months ago.)
A few weeks later, with those same instructions confidently leading me on, I made my first successful loaf of sourdough bread.
It was not hard, nor time-consuming. I spent 15 minutes mixing up the dough, which I left for six hours to rise. (Not much kneading necessary.)
I spent another five minutes shaping the loaf, which I let rise for another three hours before baking. Even without a pizza stone on which to bake it, it turned out crusty and delicious, requested by my son for several subsequent lunches.
Later that week, with a surplus of raw milk in the fridge, I followed the instructions for making “Cracking Good Cheese,” which is basically an aged cheddar-type cheese.
I stopped, though, when I got to the point in the recipe where Albala writes, “Return the curds, which will now look like cottage cheese, back into your pot” because my family loves cottage cheese and I thought I’d surprise them.
Suddenly I was done, and I’d barely started! Someday I’ll press on, arduously, to make that cheddar.
Here is Albala’s recipe for classic sauerkraut:
“Cut white cabbage finely or grate it. I use three small organic cabbages equaling two and a half pounds, which almost fills a quart jar. One large cabbage works fine.
“Put the cut cabbage in a bowl and add two tablespoons kosher salt and knead by hand for about 10 minutes. Voila, it makes its own luscious brine. You will not need to add any water, or anything else for that matter.
“Transfer the cabbage to a crock or jar, weigh it down with a plate or ceramic jar lid so everything is submerged, and pop it into the ‘cellar.’ Let it sit for three or four weeks at a cool temperature.
“You will end up with beautifully sour, crunchy, and piquant sauerkraut. … Be sure to taste it often, and when you like it, it’s ready to eat.”
Here is Nafziger’s recipe for homemade flour tortillas:
“Put four cups flour and a little bit of salt in a bowl. An old variety of wheat, like spelt, works very well, but all-purpose or regular whole wheat or a mixture will do as well.
“With your clean fingers, work in half a cup of softened butter or lard. ‘You know it is ready and has enough butter if you can squeeze a handful of the flour/butter in your hand and then open your fist and find the mixture holds its form,’ says Mariza (Nafziger’s former housemate).
“Next, slowly add a cup or so of water, kneading in between additions, until you have a fairly stiff dough. Keep kneading until it’s smooth and lifts the sticky bits of dough from your fingers. Wrap the dough well and let it sit on the counter until you’re ready to roll it.
“To roll the tortillas, flour the counter. Take an egg-sized piece of dough and roll it to your desired thickness – between an eighth and a quarter of an inch.
“Cook tortillas on a hot, ungreased griddle or tortilla plate. A dedicated cast-iron griddle is nice, but be warned that high heat without grease will destroy a cast-iron skillet’s seasoning for other purposes.
“Cook it briefly on both sides until blistery and dry with darkened marks from the skillet. Keep cooked tortillas warm in a tea towel.”