Editor’s Note: Eugenia Bone’s new book, Well-Preserved, is a wonderful comprehensive introduction to home preservation, offering “recipes and techniques for putting up small batches of seasonal foods.” I truly enjoyed reading Eugenia’s well-written introduction, which gives a lovely (and sassy) look into how she came to adore preservation, and I wanted to share it with you all here. Keep an eye out in the upcoming months, when we will excerpt some of her preservation recipes. Enjoy!
Introduction from Well-Preserved
By Eugenia Bone
Reprinted from Well-Preserved by Eugenia Bone. Copyright © 2009. Published by Clarkson Potter/Publishers, a division of Random House, Inc.
I always walk to my local farmers’ market on Saturdays reciting the mantra “I will not overbuy, I will not overbuy.” As much as I love fresh fruits and vegetables, it makes me feel guilty to see them wrinkling and browning and bruising every time I open my fridge. But then I’m at the market, and I smell the strawberries or notice the yellow zucchini blossoms, the tomatoes fragrant as flowers, and the sea scallops cold and fresh off the Brianna, the sweet corn a dozen ears for $3, and asparagus? I love them!
When my husband sees all the food I cart home, he inevitably gives me the “You need to join a group” look. But within a couple of days I manage to process all that glorious produce into jars and freezer bags, tucked away for future use, preserving the season in all its wonderful freshness and optimism. I want the bounty to go on forever, and in ways both literal and metaphorical, preserving is, for me, a tactic for capturing time.
Coming from an Italian household, home preserving was always a part of the ebb and flow of the seasons. My dad put up a wide variety of foods — tuna in the late summer, tomatoes in the fall, prosciutto in the winter, as well as hot peppers stuffed with bread crumbs, pickled fava beans, olives, pesto, the must from pressed wine grapes, wild mushrooms $ I enjoyed eating it all. But it is one thing to be the recipient of someone else’s effort and quite another to do the work yourself. My dad lives in the country. He has a big kitchen, an even bigger garden, and woods teeming with wild things. I live in a rental in Manhattan and am powering through the supermom life, which means I have limited space and less time. Eventually, though, I learned you don’t need a big country kitchen, or an orchard out back, to can with enthusiasm. Cities host excellent farmers’ markets, and I’ve chosen the path of small‑batch preserving, more inclined to variety than quantity. I’ve also learned that I do indeed have the time to can, because by putting up small amounts of foods from which I can make subsequent meals, I expend less energy preparing dinner. I can accommodate unexpected guests with ease and flair. All it takes is an inspection of my freezer or my larder — what the husband calls “the bomb shelter.”
Ironically, my interest in preserving didn’t start at home: it was ignited during my second sophomore year of college. I lived in a ratty railroad flat above Mamoon’s Falafel on Bleecker Street in New York City. Probably as an act of charity (I was living on peanut butter and falafel), a friend of my parents’, the restaurant critic Jay Jacobs, used to take me to lunch when he was reviewing. We eventually became good friends in our own right, and Jay invited me to brunch at his Upper East Side apartment. All kinds of sophisticates were there, and me, a fairly unpolished twenty‑year‑old in a plastic miniskirt. I was dazzled — not by the muckety‑mucks sipping Corton Charlemagne and trading stock tips, but by the buffet: soft scrambled eggs, golden brioche as puffy as cumulus clouds, and a curling pile of thinly sliced gravlax, coral colored and opalescent, that was utterly light and creamy. I was smitten. Jay told me he’d made the gravlax a couple days before, that a monkey could make it and I was welcome to the recipe.
That such a marvelous dish could be made at home and stored in my wheezing old refrigerator was a miracle to me. I went back to my apartment, Jay’s twenty‑something son in tow, where we smoked a joint. While I rhapsodized about cured fish, imagining my own brilliant brunches, he swooned and fell off the edge of my platform bed. That and other distractions ensured it would be another six years before I actually made the recipe.
My canning fixation came into full flower when I was eight months pregnant with my second child, Mo. I had gone into the nesting stage. For some women that means buying burp cloths or stenciling borders on the nursery wall, but for me it was an obsession with preserving. Somehow I just got it into my head that with two small children I’d be housebound for months and we would all likely starve. When I told my father that I wanted to can, it was like encountering a fellow smoker on the sidewalk — he was my co-conspirator — and we put up twenty pints of tomatoes that first year. My fears of domestic incarceration passed soon after my son was born, but the pleasure of having those tomatoes in the cupboard stuck with me.
Over the course of the next few years Dad also taught me how to preserve in oil, how to pickle, and how to cure, but I think my most cherished canning recipe from him was pressure- canned tuna fish. We used to summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts, when I was a kid, and every August Dad would go to the docks pulling a child’s red wagon and roll home a tremendous two‑hundred‑pound tuna that he’d bought off the pier and gutted there, chucking the chum into the bay among screeching gulls. Dad flopped the big silver fish, round as a barrel, into the only bathtub in the house, where he salted it and soaked it in cold running water. For two days the fish bled in the tub. It was fascinating, but in my self-conscious pubescence I found it intimidating to use the toilet with that big fish so close, its round eye staring glassily at the showerhead.
When the tuna was clean, Dad cleared off the dinner table and butchered the meat. The best part — the fatty belly meat — we ate fresh; the rest he shoved into half-pint jars, covered in oil, and pressure‑canned. Cases of pink meat glistened in jars, aging under the couches, until we went home to New York. It seemed an impossible feat, the work of a titan canner. And then, about five years ago, my buddy Beaver (his real moniker: all the Truax boys were named after small mammals) got a connection to a fisherman in Montauk who delivered the goods: twenty pounds of yellowtail caught just twenty‑four hours earlier. After numerous conference calls with my father, we canned it up. I’ve been canning tuna ever since, albeit smaller amounts of fish I buy retail. I kind of miss the tuna in the tub, but every fall I preserve the memory in a jar.
I also freeze as a means of preserving, though the capacity of my freezer was, until recently, strained by a third ice cube tray. One August, however, while hanging out at our cabin in Colorado, we stumbled across a mother lode of porcini mushrooms and chanterelles, as big as teacups. I sautéed the mushrooms until they released their liquid, then froze them in their own broth and lugged them — about thirty pounds’ worth — back to New York. There I was faced with a dilemma. Even if I defrosted my permafrosted freezer, I would be hard-pressed to fit thirty pounds of anything inside. That day the husband and I went to the local electronics emporium. Today I may be the only person in fabulous SoHo with a chest freezer.
During the course of the year I put up a wide variety of foods that I use in multiple dishes, from cured bacon (ridiculously easy to make and much tastier than commercial) for frisée salad with lardons and poached eggs or savory chicken Canzanese with bacon, garlic, sage, and rosemary; to Foriana sauce, a combination of walnuts, pine nuts, raisins, garlic, and oregano that I use to stuff clams and thick-cut pork chops. I preserve all sorts of things: smoked chicken breasts for salads and sandwiches; pickled cauliflower to make a romping vegetable dish with tomatoes and black olives; and brandied figs to cook into sweet, rich sauces for quail and duck or stir into mashed yams. In the fall I can tuna and, after allowing it to season for six months, use it in pasta dishes, composed salads, or vitello tonnato, all excellent in the spring. I also make sweet concoctions, like grated apples flavored with warm pie spices, which I dump into a crust to make a pie, or roll into a crisp strudel, and from the leftover juices, icy apple-pie‑flavored granita; and Concord grape and walnut conserve, which I use to make a tart or mix with chocolate, stuff into ravioli, and fry.
Often I will combine two canned goods in a dish, though I have resisted the inclination to cross-reference the recipes in the book. But ideally, you can cross‑pollinate these recipes using multiple goods that you have preserved. In fact, just thinking about these recipes brings to mind new, delicious combinations. How about this? Spiced Apples (page 89) and brandied fig tart (page 59), Spaghettini with Tuna (page 208) and a dollop of Green Olive Tapenade (page 71), or a Cobb salad with Smoked Chicken Breasts (page 198) and home‑cured Bacon (page 193)? Chicken Canzanese (page 197) would be great garnished with a mound of Mushroom Duxelles (page 185). Actually, so would Duck Breast with Brandied Fig Sauce (page 61). Yeah, baby.
This morning, before I sat down to finish this introduction, I went to the farmers’ market. It’s early fall, just beginning to cool off, and the red peppers are in, cheap and magnificent. So are the tomatoes. I load up. Heading home I couldn’t resist an earthy pound or two of hen-of-the-woods mushrooms at the wild craft booth and then purchased two quarts of opulently purple Concord grapes, because I just had to. If I could have carried it, I would have bought a peck of sunny Golden Delicious apples as well. They smelled so good.
About 25 percent of all households in the United States can, the majority of them in the country, and for all sorts of reasons: necessity, pleasure, health. (A serious canner friend of mine from Routt County, Colorado, told me a story about a mortician in her town. “He said in the past morticians used to have to get a body into the earth real quick, but nowadays a human body will hold for two weeks due to all the commercial preservatives he’s eaten.” Lovely.) Home canning reduces your carbon footprint, increases the quality of your dining experience, and provides a sense of independence from the industrial food complex — all excellent reasons to get into it. Plus, it’s very relaxing and cheaper than psychotherapy.
But for me the canning experience provides something beyond good health and convenience and political expression: because it takes time and care to accomplish, the craft of home canning slows down my relationship with food. Preserving is not about immediate satisfaction (for that, eat the cherries fresh). It’s about anticipation. And in that sense it’s an act of optimism. Yes, the world will be here in two weeks when my marinated artichokes have finished seasoning. And no, life is not slipping past unacknowledged and unrevered.
In my bomb shelter there are a couple of jars of last spring’s pickled asparagus. I canned them the same day my young son told me how much he loved it when the trees had blossoms and baby leaves on them at the same time.
You see, I’d almost forgotten that.
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