Preserving can seem like a daunting task, but Salt Sugar Smoke (Octopus Books, 2012) by food writer Diana Henry includes simple guides to canning, preserving, curing and smoking. The following excerpt is a primer on Henry’s food philosophy, plus some stellar fall recipes for peppers, pumpkin, grapes and vodka.
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Lifelong loves take hold early on. My mum did lots of baking when we were growing up, and I have a clear memory of sitting on the countertop in our small galley kitchen as she sliced warm wheat bread and spread a piece with raspberry jam for me. The jam was made by Aunt Sissy, who wasn’t an aunt at all, but an elderly family friend and a tremendous preserver. That jam was better than any fruit I ever tasted fresh. Aunt Sissy’s jams were soft-set and ran off the bread. They were so loved, we only ate them on homemade bread or in a Victoria sandwich. At home, we seemed to be surrounded by great jam and chutney makers, many of them redoubtable members of the WI, and we loved getting jars from them.
So I always appreciated preserved foods, and I have been preserving this or that since I was in my mid-teens. Salt Sugar Smoke is the result of a rigorous exploration and a long journey. For three years, I preserved food every day, often all day long and well into the evening. My laundry room filled up with jars. The refrigerator became home to big slabs of bacon and chunks of beef in brine. I also discovered that I could go my own way. It may be traditional here to use equal quantities of sugar and fruit to make firm-set, sweet jams, but they make soft-set jams in France and much lower sugar jams in Scandinavia, so I made the kind of jams I preferred: soft-set and fairly low in sugar.
I am a home cook. I don’t have masses of special equipment and I don’t do things on a grand scale. Quite a lot of the literature that existed on preserving was off-putting. I didn’t want to turn my garden shed into a smokery. I could never manage — and would never need — to cure a whole pig. Preserving looked as if it was either for elderly ladies in floral pinnies or country-based downsizers with a vehicle big enough to transport several dead animals. I didn’t come into either category. I have done everything in this book in quite a gentle way and didn’t spend much on new equipment. I bought an additional preserving pan, some more wooden spoons, a wide funnel for pouring jams through, a lot of measuring jugs, a big plastic box to use for brining, and a little stove-top smoker.
Then I started my journey. I had, as the saying goes, a ball. I discovered that preserving made you feel as if you were more than just a cook. There were days when it reminded me of being on my grandparents’ farm. It felt as if I was presiding over something natural that had its own momentum, but which I had a hand in. And the food was bloody delicious. People have always preserved because they needed to, it was about survival. But the reason we still bother to do it is because the end products taste so good.
My daily cooking changed a bit. There were so many tracklements on the go that I did a lot of plain meals using these as embellishments: rice and vegetable dishes with chutneys, roasts with relishes, simple cakes with sumptuous fillings of unusual jams. I have always thought that home cooking — especially the quick kind we do a lot these days — is about accessorizing. We have to think of something good to do with a pork chop or a piece of fish.
I want everybody who reads this book to feel they can preserve and do some basic curing. Be careful about hygiene, that’s a preserving essential. Be aware that you are making foods that can spoil, so use your senses to tell you when something is off.
It could seem very grandiose to talk about “what makes a good life” in a book that is simply a collection of recipes. But for me, one of the constituents of a good life is the ability to find pleasure in the small things. A good jam for your toast in the morning. A chutney that is made from apples you gathered last autumn. Cutting salt beef that you’ve made yourself and can feed to a dozen friends. These are seemingly unimportant things, and they won’t change the world, but the sum of happiness in one’s life is often made up of such details. There’s a jar of jam on your table. If it is jam that has been made with care, that comes from fruit you picked, that is delicious and starts your day off well, it is very much more than just a jam. And — honestly — you can make it.
Roast Pepper in Olive Oil Recipe
These are very easy to do when you have the oven on for other things. Just stick the peppers in, follow the recipe (very quick) and you have half the basis for another meal ready to go.
3 red peppers
3 yellow peppers
2 tsp dried oregano (preferably wild oregano)
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup white balsamic vinegar
about 1 3/4 cups extra virgin olive oil
Fills 1 (1 quart) jar
• Preheat the oven to 400°F. Put the peppers — whole — in a roasting tin and roast in the oven for 25–30 minutes. They should have begun to char, but not too much. You don’t roast these as much as you would if you were making soft roast vegetables to eat rather than preserve, because if the peppers get very charred they just collapse.
• Put the peppers in a bag (it makes the skins easier to slip off as the peppers sweat) and leave to cool. Pull away the stalks, tear the peppers in half (this will be very easy) and remove the seeds. Carefully peel the skin from the pepper halves, then tear the flesh into broad strips (there are natural breaks in the skin and the peppers will just come apart along these. These natural breaks produce nicer looking strips than using a knife does).
• Put the peppers straight into a hot, dry sterilized jar with the oregano and seasoning and pour on the vinegar and about 1/4 cup of the oil. Stir gently with a sterilized spoon to combine. Cover right up to the top with more oil — it’s crucial that the peppers are completely immersed — and seal with a vinegar-proof lid. Leave to cool, then keep in the refrigerator. Once you’ve opened the peppers, continue to keep them in the refrigerator, making sure they are always covered with oil, and eat within one month. As always with produce bottled in olive oil, take the jar out of the refrigerator to come to room temperature before using. The oil tends to ‘set’ around the vegetables when chilled, and you need it to warm up.
How to use:
This is for an antipasti spread (and a good thing to have stashed away for an impromptu meal), or serve the peppers with burrata or mozzarella and a salty anchovy dressing (great with the sweetness of the peppers).
The peppers are also good in a sandwich with mozzarella and avocado, the bread soaked in oil from the jar. Use the oil to make dressings too, or for sautéing onions; it develops a sweet peppery flavour.
Gdansk Vodka Recipe
This is adapted from a recipe in The Polish Kitchen by Mary Pininska. It’s warming and has just the right amount of sweetness. It also mellows and changes over time. You can keep it for as long as three years.
2 cinnamon sticks
4 blades of mace
10 cardamom pods
1 star anise
10 juniper berries
thinly pared zest of 2 organic oranges
thinly pared zest of 6 unwaxed lemons
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
4 cups vodka
Fills 1 (1 1/2 quart) bottle
• Roughly crush all the spices in a mortar. Put these into a big lidded container with the citrus zests.
• Put 4 cups of water into a saucepan with the sugar and bring slowly to a boil, stirring to help the sugar dissolve. Simmer for 20 minutes (don’t cover the pan). Skim the froth from the surface, then pour on to the spices and citrus rind and leave for 30 minutes. Add the vodka. Put a lid on and leave for two weeks in a cool, dark place.
• Taste to see whether you are happy with the flavor (though it will develop further even when you have removed the spices). You might want to leave it a little longer at this stage.
• Strain the liquid through a double layer of muslin, bottle, seal and label. It’s best to keep this for two months before trying it. It will actually be good for several years (a friend who makes a similar spice and citrus-infused vodka says it is best on the fourth Christmas after making it).
Caraway Vodka Recipe
• Lightly crush 2 tsp of caraway seeds, put them into a piece of folded paper (which acts as a little chute) and pour them into a bottle containing 2 cups vodka. Leave until the seeds have flavored the vodka to a degree that you like, then strain and re-bottle. Fills 1 (1 pint) bottle. This keeps for three years.
Chilli Vodka Recipe
• Pertsovka, or chilli vodka, is the Russian cure-all. Prick an unblemished red chilli several times with a cocktail stick or needle and put it inside a bottle containing 2 cups vodka. You can add some black peppercorns as well if you want another layer of heat. Leave until the vodka is as hot as you would like it to be, then strain and re-bottle. Fills 1 (1 pint) bottle. This keeps for three years.
Two Kinds of Pickled Grape Recipes
I started off making a sour version of these that I’d read about in Middle Eastern books, but with my sweet tooth (and that British love of the sweet with the savoury), I ended up doing them like this. You can alter the spices (star anise, cinnamon and ginger are all good). At first the grapes just wrinkle slightly in the syrup but, the longer you keep them, the more they shrink. I actually like them best after about a week.
for fragrant white pickled grapes:
3 1/2 cups grapes, muscat if you can get them
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup white wine vinegar
1 1/2 cups riesling
1 bay leaf
10 white peppercorns
Fills 1 (1 quart) jar
for spiced black pickled grapes:
3 2/3 cups (1lb 4oz) seedless black grapes
2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 cups white wine or cider vinegar
10 black peppercorns
10 juniper berries, bruised
1 small dried chile (optional)
1/2 cinnamon stick
Fills 1 (1 quart) jar
• In either case, pull sprigs of the grapes off the main stem. Put everything else into a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to help the sugar dissolve. Boil for about four minutes, then cool completely.
• Wash and dry the grapes and put them into a warm sterilized jar. Pour over the vinegar and seal with a vinegar-proof lid. You can eat these immediately. The longer they are in the vinegar the more ‘pickled’ the grapes will taste and the more wrinkled they become. They will keep for a year.
How to Use:
These are made for roast pork — belly or loin — and look fabulous in little branches served alongside slices of the sweet, fatty meat. But they are also very lovely with pâtés (and a smooth chicken liver parfait), terrines and most cheeses.
Pumpkin Achar (Pickles) Recipe
Achar is a kind of Indian pickle in which the preserving is done with spiced oil. It was completely unknown to me until I started work on this book, and has been one of the most delicious discoveries. You need about 100ml (3 1/2 fl oz) of lime juice; limes vary enormously in the amount of juice they hold.
1 small butternut squash or 1 3/4 lb pumpkin
1 large onion, roughly chopped
3/4 inch piece fresh ginger root
2 red chiles, halved, deseeded and sliced
6 garlic cloves
1 cup sunflower oil, plus more if needed
1 tbsp turmeric
1 tsp mustard powder
1 tsp yellow mustard seeds
2 tsp black peppercorns, lightly crushed
finely grated zest of 4 limes and juice of 6–8
1 cup cider vinegar
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1 tbsp salt
Fills 2 (1 1/2 pint) jars
• Peel the pumpkin or squash, remove the seeds and cut the flesh into 1/2 inch chunks.
• Put the onion, ginger, chillies, garlic and 2/3 cup of the oil in a food processor and blitz. Heat the rest of the oil in a frying pan and add the onion purée. Cook this gently for 10 minutes, then add the turmeric, mustard powder and seeds and the peppercorns. Cook for another five minutes, keeping an eye on it and stirring from time to time to prevent the mixture sticking and burning.
• Add the lime zest and juice, the vinegar, sugar and salt. Continue to cook gently, stirring a little to help the sugar dissolve. Take off the heat and leave to cool.
• Get a pan of boiling water ready and drop the pumpkin into it. Return to a boil and, when it has boiled for 90 seconds, drain the pumpkin, rinse in cold water and pat dry on a clean tea towel. Mix with the spicy sauce and bring to a boil.
• Pack it into warm sterilized jars, and shake each jar to make sure there are no air pockets. The sauce should come up over the pumpkin. If it doesn’t, add a thin layer of oil. Seal immediately with vinegar-proof lids. This keeps for a month; refrigerate once opened.
How to Use:
You can of course eat this with curries and whatever other Indian food you might have cooked, but I also like it just with lightly spiced roast chicken thighs. Marinate thighs in a mixture of yogurt, crushed garlic, chopped chile or cayenne pepper, lime juice and salt, then roast for 40 minutes. This is even good with plain roast chicken and pork.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Salt Sugar Smoke: How to Preserve Fruit, Vegetables, Meat, and Fish by Diana Henry, published by Octopus Books, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Salt Sugar Smoke.