Review written & photographed by Helena McMurdo
All images © Helena McMurdo. Do not reproduce without permission.
The Preservation Kitchen (Ten Speed Press, $29.99 CDN) is written by Paul Virant, the Michelin-starred chef behind the Vie, in Western Springs, Illinois. He’s known for his local, seasonal cuisine and has an awards list as long as your arm including Food & Wine 2010 Best New Chef and a James Beard Nomination. I admire his approach to food, which embraces the seasons and uses preservation methods in order to showcase local flavours and ingredients.
He is joined by food writer, Kate Leahy who you may know as the co-author of A-16 Food+Wine, the ICAP2009 Cookbook of the Year.
As the name suggests, this book paints a picture of a kitchen that is organized around the bounty of the seasons, where food is put by for future use. It has two main sections: Preserving methods and various types of preserves are tackled in the first section while the second section is dedicated to menus to make with the preserves. Paul Virant’s philosophy that food is part of the good life, is evident in the way he has approached the recipe section, featuring an array of seasonal and occasional menus. His menus paint a picture of life enjoyed around the table with family, friends and conversation, whether it be through a refreshing light summer meal, an abundant thanksgiving menu, or a delightful charcuterie platter to share with friends who help out on a fall day of canning.
My favourite things about this book are:
The variety of preserves – This book has recipes for lots of different types of preserves and has different chapters for acidified preserves such as pickles and relish, conserves (including mostly fruit-based jams, marmalades, butters), bittersweet preserves including Aigre-Doux and Mostarda) and finally fermented and cured preserves such as sauerkraut and cured meat.
The sophisticated flavours – I found that flavours in the preserves to be subtle and multi-layered, not the sour, acid pickles I remembered from home canning of the past. With most of the pickle recipes calling for champagne vinegar, I found the results to be more delicate.
Aigre-Doux – This group of sweet and sour French preserves was a lovely discovery and the recipes in this category are ones that I’ll be taking advantage of to add wow to my cheese plates. I fell in love with the tangy, zingy flavours in these preserves.
The small batch recipes – I’ve been daunted in the past by canning because I felt like I needed to go out and procure 100lbs of tomatoes, and assemble a huge team of helpers, something my tiny kitchen would groan at. The recipes in this book allow you to try many different preserves in batches of 4 or 6 pint jars. So it’s not a huge investment in canning equipment or space. I liked the fact that if something grabbed my fancy I could put it together quickly in a few hours.
The clear and precise preserving instructions – Preserving can be daunting. I certainly don’t want to poison my friends or family with any unsafely canned food. In addition to the separate section outlining safe preserving instructions, the individual preserve recipes are very clear and have a good step-by-step sequence. I also really like how the authors have included equivalent measurements in volume oz, grams and percentages for all recipes.
My main criticism of the book would be that for most preserves, there was usually just one recipe to work with in the accompanying menu section. I found that certain preserves were really interesting to me, and while Virant definitely offers some additional suggestions for ways to use a preserve, in addition to the menu recipe, I would have appreciated additional menu recipes to work with. Despite the delicious and inspiring menus it was the preserves that really inspired me and I would have enjoyed other ways to use them.
That said, I think I’ll refer back to this book frequently. It’s basic methods and instructions for preserving are invaluable and the flavour combinations are truly inspiring. This is a book for the long haul, to sit with and plan with. The seasonal menus need some thinking out and I’m sure I’ll enjoy this book more in years to come as the seasons change and I’m able to take full advantage of more of the recipes.