I met Washington cookbook author Cathy Barrow on Twitter six years ago. We quickly became great friends virtually and in real life. At the time, she had a food blog, Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Kitchen, but as the years passed, she also began writing for The New York Times, Garden & Gun, Modern Farmer and is now a regular columnist for The Washington Post. Her new book, "Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving," published this week, and she'll be at Southern Season tomorrow, Nov. 6, from 4-6 p.m. signing books.
How did you make the transition from food blogger to cookbook author?
A lot of it was just an accident. I was a landscape designer and a very happy one. In 2008, when the economy made a little switch, my landscape business dried up. So I started to blog to get people to come to cooking classes I was experimenting with. It really was backwards. I didn't intend to -- I didn't even know what blogs were. I just started to write, not expecting anyone to read it. Then I got on Twitter, and then [the community recipe website] Food52 was a big part of expanding my audience and taught me about writing recipes. I have to tell you, I hadn't really thought about this [career] at all.
Why did you become so interested in preserving food?
Well, I started very young as a kitchen slave for my great-grandmother. And my mother and I did it together in the '80s. The whole science of it wasn't at all daunting to me -- I got that. I began to understand that my knowledge was something that other people didn't have. It was after reading Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," I drew a very direct line between local eating and preserving in season. Really, you can't eat locally year-round if you don't preserve things -- because there's not enough to eat. That connection made me seek out ways to preserve things I regularly bought at the grocery store.
What fear or misconception do people have about canning that you think is unfounded?
I think it's good to have a healthy respect for the science of preserving always, but if you're making fresh fruit jam, preserves or most pickles, there's nothing to worry about. Food-borne illnesses do not survive in the highly acidicized and low-pH environment. The worse thing that will happen with those products is that they'll get moldy.
What's the biggest mistake people make starting out?
The biggest cooking mistake is knowing when jam is set. That's a really tricky bit of cooking technique that takes some time until you get really good at it. There are ways to test for the jell so that your jam isn't runny like syrup, and I outline all of those in my book. But still, there's nothing like experience to teach you when exactly the jam is going to be ready.
We're moving into winter. What should folks be preserving now?
Right now, I'm making caramel-pear preserves -- and that's pretty delicious. I'm also making whole cranberry-raspberry preserves that are great for the Thanksgiving table. All of the fresh cheeses [in the book] are available to be made now and through the winter. It's a great time to focus on the dairy section. You can learn to make cultured butter and your own buttermilk, yogurt, ricotta, mascarpone and even Camembert. We have so much great dairy available to us right now — it's changing in this region and it's easier to find pasteurized but not homogenized milk. Those make very complex products. Without the stabilizers that you're used to tasting, it's a revelation.
Below you'll find the recipe for the caramel-pear preserves mentioned above, and if you'd like a taste, Barrow will be bringing tarts made with the preserves to share at her book signing at Southern Season.
Caramel Pear Preservesby Cathy Barrow makes 5 or 6 half-pint jars active time: 1 hour
When October comes and caramel apples are on display at local farm stands, my mind, of course, turns to jams and flavors. And that is how this recipe came to be. I cannot explain the spice, except to call it divine intervention.
There are many types of pears. Some are velvety, soft, and juicy; others are a little firmer, grainier and drier. That's the kind you want for this jam, one that stands up to cooking, leaving distinct pieces of pear surrounded by the smooth, silky caramel.
1. Mix the pears, 2 cups of the sugar, the quatre épices, and orange and lemon juices in a bowl. Cover and let macerate while you make the caramel.
2. Slowly melt the remaining 1 1/2 cups of sugar in your preserving pot over low heat, without stirring (you can shake the pan for even cooking), and cook until it becomes a caramel. Let it turn from golden to a deep amber color. Don't rush the process, and watch it carefully. Do not walk away. Do not read your email or fold laundry. Stand there and watch.
3. Here's the really scary part, the part that will make you think you've wrecked it all. Pour in the pears and all their liquids. The caramel will seize and break. It will make you want to cry. It will look wrong. Don't worry. Just heat the whole mixture up again very slowly, stirring carefully and frequently to work the pieces of caramel off the bottom of the pot and incorporate them into the preserves. It's a hellish moment. Then bring the preserves up to 220 degrees, which will take at least 30 minutes, by which time all the caramel will have melted again and it will be heavenly. You'll smell those spices. You'll be happy again.
4. Keep the preserves at a boil that will not stir down for about 5 minutes, then remove from the heat and test the set, using the wrinkle test or sheeting test to determine if the jam has set to a gentle slump. If not, heat it again and boil for 2 to 3 minutes, then test again.
5. Ladle the hot preserves into the warm jars, leaving a 1/2-inch head space. Clean the rims of the jars well with a damp paper towel. Place the lids and rings on the jars and finger-tighten the rings.
6. Process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes. The preserves are shelf stable for 1 year.
Quatre Épicesmakes about 1/3 cup
Quatre épices is a French four-spice mix used in many sausages and pâté. I like the floral bite of white pepper blended with cloves, ginger and nutmeg. It's a great mix to have in the cupboard. This recipe makes much more than is needed for the preserves, so there will be plenty left for experimentation. Sprinkle it on pork, chicken, and fish, summer and winter squash, panna cotta, and grilled nectarines.
Combine all the spices. Store in a tightly closed jar.
Excerpted from "Mrs. Wheelbarrow's Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving," by Cathy Barrow (W.W. Norton & Co.).