Jam Packed: Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It by Karen Solomon [book review]
The title of Karen Solomon's wonderful Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It: And Other Cooking Projects (Ten Speed Press; buy on Amazon) is a little bit of a misnomer. While the projects outlined here are edible, and mostly require being in the kitchen, the recipes she presents are "cooking projects" the same way that quarrying marble is a "sculpture project." A comprehensive guide to making the sorts of fridge and cabinet staples that we usually leave in the capable hands of Kraft, Lays, or Bonne Maman, Solomon's book belongs to the growing category of volumes that, for lack of a better genre title, I'm going to call Pantry Cookbooks.
Pantry cookbooks are an idiosyncratic genre, occupying the strange territory of providing recipes for things without actually providing recipes for meals. Solomon owns up to this lack up front, noting in the introduction that this isn't a book that will answer the "what's for dinner?" question — for that, you're going to need a cookbook that deals in second-order recipes, the sort that include "ketchup" or "bacon" or "pasta" in an ingredient list without directing you to a subrecipe in the book's appendix.
But this isn't the book you pull out when you're making dinner. It's the book you pull out when you've got a few hours to kill on a Sunday, or you've just gotten an intimidatingly overstuffed CSA delivery, or it's very, very important that you nonchalantly one-up your cupcake-baking workplace frenemy by pulling out sandwiches made from home-smoked turkey (page 62) on homemade flatbread (page 5) adorned with ricotta salata (82) tarted up with oregano and cumin dressing (22).
Punk domesticity and culinary philosophy
Solomon's contribution to the genre also epitomizes it: her book owes a debt to depression-era canning pamphlets as much as to the punk domesticity of the hipster DIY movement. And from the ambitious (home-cured bacon, marshmallows, Jamaican ginger beer) to the obvious (frozen watermelon popsicles), the underlying philosophy of this book is as much about changing the way we look at food as it is a technical document on how to make it. Pantry cookery is the logical accompaniment to whole-animal butchering or going to the farm to pick your own apples: it's good to be reminded that butter doesn't just pop out of the cow in a yellow-white rectangle, but instead began life as heavy whipping cream and a pinch of salt, vigorously shaken in a tightly-sealed jar until the fat separates and congeals to a spreadable texture.
As with other back-to-the-source culinary movements, moderation is key — an overcommitment to stocking your own pantry can be as laughably problematic as an apartment-dweller buying a freshly butchered half steer. To avoid that end, Solomon gamely admits that this book isn't prescriptive: "No one is expecting you to bust out the Kitchen Aid just for a couple dollops of good salad dressing," she acknowledges in the introduction, suggesting that the recipes be thought of more as projects than requirements. In that sense, Jam It really is more of a craft book than anything else — albeit a craft book whose projects take place in the kitchen. The seventy recipes are divided somewhat haphazardly by category (why not merge the anemic three-recipe chapter on preserved and cured fish with the chapter on preserved and cured meats?) but they're exhaustive — the book covers virtually every technique that the ambitious kitchen-crafter needs to put his or her local processed-foods purveyor out of business.
Ingredients within ingredients
While Solomon's recipes are admirably straightforward (and accompanied at particularly tricky junctures with helpful step-by-step photographs of projects), at times they feel a little too simple. The essential problem with any pantry cookbook is an issue of regression: the book tells you how to make ingredients, sure. But what are those ingredients made of? Drawing the line is difficult, and more often than not it feels entirely arbitrary — no one is expecting you to press your own olive oil (though sometimes I worry it's only a matter of time before, say, Michael Ruhlman comes along and demands we do), but there's an inconsistency in what the pantry cook is expected to want to tackle. Solomon's Orange Yogurt Dressing suggests (though does not insist on) homemade orange marmalade, for example, but doesn't even bring up the idea of making your own yogurt. Lard gets its own extensive recipe, but Apple Fruit Leather calls for Apple Butter (page 93) or applesauce (no recipe given).
Wit, heart, and efficiency
But that's a little gripe for such a big-hearted cookbook. Solomon's done an extraordinary service to home cooks who want to make the recipes behind the recipes, who want to demystify the process behind processed foods. To be fair, virtually all of these techniques can be found in other books — but here they're all in one place, and moreover are delivered with wit and heart (and seriously lovely photography). Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It should be on everyone's bookshelf, and used often.