COOKBOOK REVIEW: The Preservation Kitchen

Review written & photographed by Helena McMurdo
All images © Helena McMurdo. Do not reproduce without permission.

The Preservations Kitchen is available for purchase through our online store or at local bookstores. For more information on this book please visit Random House Canada

The Preservation Kitchen

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.

Green Bean Salad Final Plate_© 2012 Helena McMurdoPanzanella Fennel Salad_© 2012 Helena McMurdoPear Vanilla Aigre-Doux Jars_© 2012 Helena McMurdo

Pickled and Fresh Summer Bean Salad with Preserved Tomato Vinaigrette

Featured Preserve: Sweet Pickled Cherry Tomatoes

Rating: 5 out of 5 (restaurant sophistication but with simplicity)

THE PRESERVING: Looking through the list of preserves, the sweet pickled cherry tomatoes caught my eye right away. Maybe it was the book’s beautiful photograph of the tomatoes, backlit and suspended within the jar. I knew I’d still be able to get some beautiful tomatoes in early September, so I headed to Vancouver’s Trout Lake Market on a mission. There I met the folks at Sole Food. Sole Food is an urban farm in the heart of Vancouver. Can’t get more local than that!

The people that run the stand are very friendly and helpful and were happy to advise and answer any questions. I ended up buying some beautiful Sungolds as well as some fennel for my other preserves.

Sungolds_© 2012 Helena McMurdo

Although in some ways it seemed a shame not to eat these beautiful sweet tomatoes right away, I was eager to get home and start the canning process. That process, proved to be fairly simple. Somehow I got my tomato measurements wrong and I realized I didn’t have enough tomatoes to make the 5 pint quanity of finished product. I ended up dividing the recipe quantity by half. It didn’t seem to cause a problem. I appreciated the book’s advice of how much to pack in each jar, which kept me on track and made modifying the quantity much easier.

The first step was to toast some dill seeds and peppercorns and divide them among scalded jars along with some fresh dill fronds.

©2012HelenaMcMurdo SweetPickledTomatoes

Then to combat the tomato’s tendency to float I was instructed to prick each with a sterilized needle. Next I poured in the brine containing champagne vinegar, sugar and salt.

Finally the jars were sealed and processed in a water bath for 15 minutes.

I didn’t have proper canning supplies at the time, so I used the largest pot I had to process the jars. Ideally it would have been larger as it was only just tall enough and during the water bath, it was difficult to keep water from spilling out. When the jars were done and I placed them on the counter, I was in awe of how beautiful they looked. Canning is pretty!

Pickled Tomato Jars_© 2012 Helena McMurdo

THE RECIPE TEST: I made the tomatoes above with abandon and I’ll be honest, little understanding or care for what they would be used for. When I found their recommended recipe in the back of the book, I realized that I’d also need some pickled beans. By this time, I was pretty much used to the basic process so it was simple enough to pickle the beans. In this case, the beans did need to be blanched before packing into the jars.

Pickled Tomatoes_© 2012 Helena McMurdo

The book didn’t provide any information about how long to keep preserves or how long to wait before eating which I think I would have found helpful but after consulting other canners I figured that one month would be the minimum waiting time. So once both the beans and tomatoes were mature, I set about making this recipe. Blanched fresh beans are mixed with some of the pickled beans and fresh tarragon, parsley and chives. A vinaigrette is fashioned from the pickled tomatoes by whizzing them up in the blender with some olive oil. Then a shaving of pecorino adds a nice salty finish.

Green Bean Salad Beans_© 2012 Helena McMurdo

THE RESULTS: This recipe was probably my favourite recipe from the book. The salad is so simple, yet so sophisticated. I would make this all the time. The contrast between the flavours of the fresh beans and the pickled ones gives the salad real zing. I love that this recipe turned something I previously cooked rarely – green beans – into a delicious treat I crave. As for the vinaigrette, there was quite a lot left so it stayed in my fridge and was added to any salad I had. It was fantastic. I also added it to couscous which was also great. The recipe made about 2 cups of vinaigrette, so in future, I’d really want to have something in mind to use it for as it only keeps for a week and I found that I had way more than I could use.

Green Bean Salad Final Plate_© 2012 Helena McMurdo


Grilled Skirt Steak with Fennel Panzanella Salad

Featured Preserve: Pickled Fennel

Rating: 4 out of 5 (great ingredients are the key)

THE PRESERVING: I bought four beautiful bulbs of fennel from Sole Food. They were on the small size I realized later. The book lists the quantities in volume (under which it includes # of fennel bulbs) as well as weight in grams and ounces. I simply read that 4 bulbs were required and didn’t think further.

©2012HelenaMcMurdo PickledFennel

It was only when I got them home that I realized that the weight was slightly under. That said, the recipe provides a check and balance system as it advised how much to pack into each jar. So I was able to weigh my cleaned fennel and re-adjust my quantities, making 2 pint jars (500ml) instead of 4. Again, the canning process was fairly simple. The spices were toasted and added to the jars before the brine. This time I was working with fennel, coriander seeds and red pepper flakes. After the spices, the sliced fennel was packed into the jars and finally the brine added. The jars were processed for 15 minutes just like the tomatoes.

Pickled Fennel Jars_© 2012 Helena McMurdo

I had one jar that didn’t seal, so I stuck it in the fridge. Being a pretty impatient person, I was happy to have an early opportunity to try the fennel. New favourite thing! I loved the sweet sharpness of the vinegar with the licorice flavour of the fennel. At this stage, the fennel was still a bit crunchy and had not completely softened up as it did later.

THE RECIPE TEST: I don’t eat a lot of beef so this might not have been a recipe I would have picked if it had not been for the preserved fennel. However the combination of corn, fresh and pickled fennel , arugula combined with croutons and skirt steak seemed interesting.

This being Canada, we don’t often see skirt steak. More common is the flank steak which I duly purchased and substituted. My butcher told me both come from the same general area, the area between the rib and hip of the animal with the flank steak being a bit thicker.

The steak is marinated in garlic, olive oil, salt and pepper and red pepper flakes, which can be done up to two days before. I always like anything I can do ahead.

Marninated Flank Steak_© 2012 Helena McMurdo

The next day, it was fairly easy to assemble the ingredients. I made the croutons first, mixing some bread pieces with olive oil, thyme and salt and pepper and then toasting on a baking sheet.

Croutons for Panzanella Salad_© 2012 Helena McMurdo

The pickled fennel canned a month earlier was transformed into a vinaigrette by straining and reducing the pickling liquid, giving the fennel itself a rough chop and then combining all with lemon juice and olive oil.

Draining Pickled Fennel_© 2012 Helena McMurdo

Then it was shave some fennel, grill the steak and and grill some corn cobs until just blistered.

Grilled Corn_© 2012 Helena McMurdo

While the meat rested I combined the other ingredients and tossed them in the vinaigrette before laying them on a plate and slicing the meat on top.

Panzanella Fennel Salad_© 2012 Helena McMurdo

THE RESULTS: So I started this recipe test saying I don’t eat beef frequently but credit where credit is due. The meat was delicious. I loved the flavour that the marinade added to the meat and I found it tender enough. And I have to say, it made the dish. I tried the salad with and without the meat on different occasions and the meat version added a flavour that seemed integral.


The fennel vinaigrette was really fresh and zingy and I will use this in the future on many other dishes. It’s really special and one of the finds of this book. The fennel softened up considerably since I tried it on canning day and had transformed into something new.

This is one of those recipes where the ingredients really shine through and the results are only as good as the ingredients used.

Sadly my corn was probably not the best and it came across quite starchy and lacked a sweetness that would have really added to the salad. So I can’t blame the recipe – it just underlines how with simple cooking, your end result is only as good as the ingredients used.

I’m kicking myself for not trying the suggestions for using root vegetables instead of corn.

It wasn’t my favourite recipe from the book so I’m not giving it 5 out of 5 but I don’t think there were any real faults with the recipe itself. I will definitely try this salad again.


Blue Cheese with Pear and Vanilla Aigre-Doux

Featured Preserve: Pear & Vanilla Aigre-Doux 

Rating: 4 our of 5 (a secret weapon) 

THE PRESERVING: Having already completed two rounds of preserves and getting a better feel for the book, this time I headed to Whole Foods in search of some Bosc Pears. This time, I was making an aigre-doux, a sweet and sour French preserve that pairs well with cheese. Learning from the last two episodes I went shopping for the weight measurement vs the number of fruit listed.

Pears_© 2012 Helena McMurdo

The process was similar to the first two preserves except in this case the brine was replaced with a mixture of Gevurtztraminer wine, champagne vinegar, honey, sugar and salt, flavoured with vanilla beans. The dry spices used in this case were peppercorns. The smell of the brine mixture was amazing as I poured it into the pear-packed jars. It was fragrant with sweet vanilla, but still sharp with vinegar. Once I had processed the jars, I set them out on the counter to cool as I had done with the others and once again admired their beauty.

Pear Vanilla Aigre-Doux Jars_© 2012 Helena McMurdo

There was a bit of preserving liquid left so I reduced it and poured it over some pear stilton that I had in the fridge for a reward after my two days hard work. I literally could have drunk the liquid in a glass! It was so delicious. Sweet and sour and more-ish!

THE RECIPE TEST: About 4 weeks later, I was ready to crack into these beautiful babies. In fact, the anticipation was killing me. I appreciated the simplicity of this recipe although to be fair, as with many of the recipes in this book, I think I was attracted by the preserves themselves, before I knew what I would make with them. I thought that the preserves would be highlighted in this and looked forward to trying this simple combination of blue cheese, nuts and my beautiful pear preserve. I bought some lovely Roquefort, strained the pears from the liquid and gave them a chop while I reduced the liquid over medium heat. What could be simpler? The recipe called for Hickory Nuts, which sadly were unavailable in my neighbourhood. I substituted the suggested walnuts and they worked perfectly.

Pear Vanilla Aigre-Doux_© 2012 Helena McMurdo
I could literally eat this all day long. In fact, I may have to ban blue cheese from my house now that I know about this new way to eat it. Notably, I did eat some of the extras without the walnuts and I have to say that they are integral to the dish. They are earthy and help balance the sweet and sourness of the pears and the sharpness of the cheese. If I had any complaint, it would be that I found it a little tricky to eat. It definitely needs a knife and fork, but that doesn’t quite allow you to mop up all the sticky,sweet goodness so extra crusty bread must be on stand by for mopping up purposes. Most of all, I really like the idea that with a moment’s notice, you could pull a jar out of your cupboard, buy some cheese and fashion this sophisticated dish.

Blue Cheese with Pear Vanilla Aigre-Doux_© 2012 Helena McMurdo