Cookbook author Kevin West possesses a rare ability. He can make a damn good jar of spiced fig jam and writes beautifully, but the talent I’m talking about is more interpersonal: He’s excellent at introducing people to one another. In Los Angeles, where he and I both live, introductions can be, at their clichéd worst, more about favors and recognition than anything remotely friendly. Who do you know, what do you do, what can you do for me, etc. But when West says in his Tennessee accent—thoroughly Southern, but without any elongated drawl—that I simply have to meet so-and-so, there’s no doubt in my mind that an engaging, interesting conversation will follow—whether the topic be Damson plums, low-budget horror film production, Condé Nast, or staging real estate in the Hollywood Hills.
In his new book, Saving the Season: A Cook’s Guide to Home Canning, Pickling, and Preserving, West charts a personal, literary and cultural history of “putting up” over the course of more than 500 pages, 220 recipes, and numerous essays. Writing on everything from food safety to Adriaen Corrte’s 1704 painting Wild Strawberries in a Wan Li Bowl, Saving the Season is encyclopedic—truly “a guide to mastering the art of home canning.” Such breadth could be daunting for someone who picked up a flat of Ball jars and too many peaches at the farmers market and is in need of some straightforward guidance, but West’s way with an introduction—casual, intriguing, familiar—extends to his writing and recipes too. He initiates the culinary handshake, and knowingly sparks the conversation, putting all parties at ease—this canning thing can be easy, delicious and fun.
Thinking about making strawberry jam? Don’t worry about sweating over a pot for hours. Canning a small batch of three or four jars is the way to go—“a nice little job to knock off in an hour, rather than a labor that wrings the fun out of the afternoon.” And once you’re comfortable with the basic approach to canning and preserving, West eases into the more eccentric cousins of his Basic Strawberry Jam, such as a modernized version of antebellum sun-cooked preserves—berries slowly “cooked” over the course of days under a pane of glass out in the yard. “This recipe is my adaptation for urbanites: crushed fruit is cooked in the oven and finished with a splash of dry rose wine,” West writes after giving a brief history of the “ne plus ultra of Slow Food.”
And in many instances, canning recipes are stand-ins for the fascinating people West has come across over the years. We’re introduced to family members back in Blount County, the more urbane characters he met while working for the fashion magazine W, and the farmers and cooks and writers he knows from the food world. (Not all are that interesting—like this guy Willy Blackmore quoted on page 370, for example; I’m mentioned in the acknowledgements too, so: full disclosure, grain of salt, etc.) The recipe for Sunshine Pickles–which get their tang from the beneficial bacteria that swarm a stale piece of rye bread that’s dunked into the brine along with the cucumbers, garlic and flowering dill—opens with the story of Frank Schork, “a retired American librarian who first saw France as a GI in World War II and went back to live his late years on the Left Bank.” When Frank was a kid in Ohio, during the Depression, his grandmother made vinegar-less pickles with a slice of bread in the jar; he found a similar recipe for kovászos uborka in a Hungarian cookbook that he passed along to West. Fermented cucumbers flavored with garlic and dill are delicious regardless of the recipe’s provenance, but it’s that kind of narrative detail that will keep me coming back to Saving the Season’s Sunshine Pickles.
Organized according to the season, West’s book can be pulled and put to use at any time of year: when asparagus hits in the spring, utilize preserving and make pickled spears with green garlic and tarragon, and in the fall, when you might be inclined to ferment a batch of sauerkraut or kimchi. The spring and summer sections are the richest, however, and right now is a good time to put the various cucumber pickle recipes to work. When fall comes, you can crack open a jar and recall the tastes and smells of the warmer months—season, saved.
CUCUMBER DILL SPEARS AND CHIPS | Yields 2 Quarts
These dill-pickle spears—or sandwich chips, depending on how you slice them—can be processed, if you want, for long-term shelf storage, but first try making a batch to keep in the refrigerator. They will be crisp, and the flavor of raw cucumber comes through. It’s the freshest-tasting pickle in this book, and perhaps my favorite. The recipe can be scaled up.
• ¼ cup kosher salt
• 6 cups lukewarm water
• 2 teaspoons coriander seeds
• ½ teaspoon fennel seeds
• 3 large flowering dill heads (4 inches across)
• 3 pounds Kirby pickling cucumbers
• 4 cloves garlic, crushed
• 2 cups white-wine vinegar
1. Dissolve the salt in the water, and add the coriander, fennel, and dill. Set aside.
2. Scrub the cucumbers well, rubbing off any spines. Cut away a thin round from the stem and blossom ends, and slice lengthwise into quarters. Put the spears in a large bowl, and cover with the brine. Weight the cucumbers with a plate, cover the bowl with a kitchen towel, and set aside for 24 hours. If the bowl won’t fit in your refrigerator, it’s fine to leave it out at room temperature.
3. The next day, pack the cucumber spears into two scalded quart jars, saving the brine. Measure out 2 cups of the brine and reserve. Strain the remaining brine through a fine sieve to capture the aromatics, and divide them between the jars. Tuck a dill head and two cloves of garlic into each jar.
4. Mix the vinegar and the 2 cups reserved brine, and bring to a boil. Pour it over the pickles to cover. Seal the jars, and store in the refrigerator for a week before using. For long-term shelf storage, leave ½ inch headspace when filling the jars, then seal. Process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes, or in a hot-water bath, between 180 and 185 degrees, for 30 minutes.
[Note] Instead of spears, you could slice your cucumbers into round coins, lengthwise “slabs,” or bias- cut ovals. Make the slices 3⁄8 inch thick and soak them in the brine for 12 hours instead of 24.
Excerpted from SAVING THE SEASON by Kevin West. Copyright © 2013 by Kevin West. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.