In this week's Chef & Tell, I mentioned that I had taken a pickling and preserving class at the Cook Street School of Culinary Arts, through the school's program for home cooks. Cook Street offers a wide range of instruction for amateurs, ranging from classes in basic knife skills, wine and food pairing and international cuisine, to more advanced subjects like artisan bread, pastry and, my choice: the trendy art of preserving things in jars. With the help of Tyler DuBois, co-owner of the Real Dill, and chef instructor Erin Boyle, I was able to learn just enough to become a dangerous home canner. (Christmas spoiler: friends, relatives and co-workers now know what they're getting for Christmas.)
Preserving food in one form or another isn't exactly a new fad; Nicolas Appert developed a method of preserving food in glass jars for the French army in 1809. But everything do-it-yourself is hip right now, as a generation of digital kids attempts to reconnect with a bucolic past they never knew. I'll admit I've been swept up in the romantic farmhouse mythos, too: I have a backyard garden (currently what I'll generously call "fallow"), I buy eggs from a neighbor who raises chickens in her back yard, and I'm an eager test subject for my wife's soap-making cottage industry.
So a pickling and preserving class seemed like a natural extension of my already-Portlandia tendencies. Cook Street's class gave me some hands-on -- and expertly mentored -- training in how to safely preserve fruits and vegetables using various ratios of salt, vinegar and sugar. DuBois, whose pickles and Bloody Mary mix are popping up everywhere from upscale grocers to some of Denver's best restaurants (Biker Jim's and Colt & Gray come to mind), let us know that refrigerator pickles are the best way to go for small production -- using properly sanitized (meaning a short bath in boiling water) glass jars, it's not necessary to heat-seal the jars for a long and shelf-stable life span. Small batches of jams and pickles can be stored in the fridge for months, especially when using USDA-approved recipes (which we did).
We boiled away a few hours of the evening, sipping wines selected by Cook Street's staff and learning the best ways to quickly slice large volumes of vegetables (tip: A really sharp knife keeps away the tears when slicing onions). The end products: shelf-stable strawberry jam, quick pickles that were tangy and ready to eat by the end of the evening, pickled onions, and a tomato jam that chef Boyle informed us was really just a version of a gastrique -- which uses equal volumes of sugar and vinegar to create a sweet-and-sour sauce from a variety of fruits and vegetables. Just so we would have something with which to taste our creations, we also learned how to make Spanish tortillas (the egg-and-potato omelet, not the Mexican tortilla).
Keep reading to see my home pickling results...
Once you know how to pickle, the next step is finding a cheap source of vegetables; rushing to Whole Foods for a crate of organic, hand-picked cucumbers or heirloom tomatoes isn't going to save you any money. Several of our Cook Street classmates said they had backyard gardens, but mine was in a sad state of bindweed overgrowth. Luckily, our instructor mentioned that Miller Farms has a relatively cheap you-pick setup where wannabe-farmers can be carted around from field to field on a tractor-towed hayride, hopping off to fill bags with whatever is ready for harvest. A weekend trip to the farmstead located a few miles east of the Longmont exit on I-25 yielded several grocery bags full of tomatoes, peppers, green beans, onions and beets -- all destined for Mason jars (another expense in the process).
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Several evenings of sweaty labor later, following the recipes (more or less) that Cook Street had sent us home with, all that produce was converted into about 28 jars -- quarts and pints -- of pepper jam, tomato sauce (which we froze, since the low acidity requires pressure-canning), and pickled beets, beet stems, green beans and onions. I've since acquired a pressure canner, so my next project is to convert the remaining onions into onion-bacon jam. If you hear reports of an explosion from a southwest Denver neighborhood in the coming days, it will be either another hash-oil disaster or just my pressure-canning experiment gone awry.