Preserving Expert Kevin West on Cookbooks and Agrodolce Spring Onions
The following is an excerpt from Kevin West’s Saving the Season, out now from Alfred A. Knopf.
There used to be a store in West Hollywood called The Cook’s Library, and after I got serious about preserving, I repeatedly threw money at it. Not that there were many books on the shelf marked “Jams and Pickles” at the way back of the store, but by the time I could navigate the other sections there and back, I’d have a leaning pile of things that I just had to have. Books are a vice, and never let anyone tell you otherwise.
The best of the “Jams and Pickles” shelf included Christine Ferber’s Mes Confi tures, and I read with wonder her recipes for Fig and Gewürztraminer with Pine Nuts, White Cherry with Raspberry, and Banana with Bittersweet Chocolate. But the book was for me as full of frustration as inspiration, and Madame Ferber led me to ruin many pounds of good fruit. One gets the impression that she published her cookbook to avoid revealing anything about how she actually makes preserves. So French.
The Cook’s Library also delivered me Thane Prince’s Jellies, Jams and Chutneys, which tells a preserving story from the other side of the Channel. Prince is a food journalist who clearly knows her way around the preserving repertory, and I learned a lot from her—you might even say she’s one of my teachers. But the book is dinky. Somehow you feel as if it’s the cheap digest version of a larger guidebook, which is what I’d rather have. Also, there’s something scatterbrained about Jellies, Jams and Chutneys. Prince raises points and then briskly marches on without addressing them. Or she’ll send you to such- and- such a page to learn more, and the detour proves to be a blind alley. Prince doesn’t bother with the boiling- water bath, either, preferring instead such charmingly antiquated closures as cellophane seals, which are more closely related to the nineteenth century than the twenty- first. So British.
About the time that I had made myself a regular at The Cook’s Library, it went out of business. Feeling stymied, I trolled the Internet for obscure dealers in cookbook arcana and, to my genuine surprise, found one named Janet Jarvits in Pasadena. I noted her coordinates and set out, unaware that I had more or less found the address of Ali Baba’s cave.
The Jarvits treasury is guarded by cats. As you approach, a feline odor emerges to greet you on the sidewalk, and when you enter the door, a cat or two will swirl around you the way that waves assault your ankles when you walk on the beach. But to behold the view from inside Jarvits’s door is to believe her claim to have thirty thousand volumes. The shop is a stupefaction of cookbooks: scholarly editions of nineteenth- century classics like Lettice Bryan’s The Kentucky Housewife, collectible early printings of Joy of Cooking, and cast- off dollar copies of the latest from Rachael Ray. Shoppers are welcome, provided they don’t take up too much space: the passageways are mere cracks between book- lined cliffs.
Jarvits herself looked nothing like what I had imagined. Tanned and sinewy, she might have passed for a rah- rah triathlete, but she spoke quietly and gave the impression of being painfully shy. Because she seemed to know everything about her subject, however, she also visibly enjoyed having her expertise tapped. On a subsequent visit, when I asked her for something on the history of Thanksgiving, Jarvits mentioned an article published a decade earlier in an academic journal. After scouting a chaotic corner of the store for half a minute, she handed it to me. I was floored, and unless my eyes failed me, she allowed herself a glimmer of due self- congratulation.
On that first trip to Jarvits’s emporium, I reluctantly left when my pile threatened to become too heavy to carry. Among the finds was a 1950s hardback, no dust jacket, with an orange binding illustrated with a buxom woman in a mutton- sleeved gown, her arms upraised and her mouth operatically open. Behind her appears to be London Bridge. The book’s title is a non sequitur: West Coast Cook Book.
I’d never heard of its author, Helen Brown, and the book devotes only four pages out of four hundred–plus to preserves and pickles, but the recipes for Cherry Olives, Bodega Beans, and Tiburon Onions grabbed me. The book cost four bucks, which for a few good recipes would be a bargain at twice the price.
At home, I made Tiburon Onions with onions the size of Ping- Pong balls, and they were delicious, with sweet golden raisins balanced against the sour of wine and vinegar. A little tomato paste provided color, herbs an earthy depth. It was an unfussy and efficient recipe that yielded masterful results. So American.
I studied Mrs. Brown’s volume more closely. Its publication antedated the opening of Chez Panisse by nearly twenty years, but it sings the praises of the Pacific Slope in the same seasonal- regional key as Alice Waters, whom my generation esteems as the inventor of California cuisine. Brown devotes wonderful chapters to fruit, vegetables, seafood, and salads, and she writes knowledgeably about olives and olive oil, herbs and spices, wine—all rather specialized subjects for her era. She curtly dismisses convenience food and recipes that rely on them. Committed to the multiple cuisines of California’s immigrant communities, Brown demonstrates a knowledge of Latino and Asian cooking and sound judgment on which “foreign” recipes will best adapt to the mainstream table. Her collection of game recipes—venison, small birds, rabbit, bear, squirrel—is the best I’ve seen anywhere.
What’s more, the tone of Brown’s writing conveys the sunny, confident, unpretentious, democratic gumption of those who for 150 years have moved west to avoid the convention- bound strictures of back east. She writes in her introduction:
This is a book of West Coast cuisine—if anything as simple as our cookery can be called a cuisine. . . . These are the recipes that show the versatility of our cooks—not the high- salaried exponents of la haute cuisine, but the cooks, both male and female, who are fascinated by the kitchen and whose greatest pleasure lies in discovering some new ways to serve some old familiar food. West Coast cooks improvise. They have ever since, in the early days, they had to use whatever was on hand, or starve. Today they still improvise although they are blessed with plenty, and they frequently do it with remarkable success. That is why we not only believe we should have the finest food in the world, we don’t honestly see how we can avoid it.
Astonishingly, Mrs. Brown’s volume anticipates the food trends of the past decade: a local, seasonal, artisanal, vegetable- based, cross- cultural, mindful, and whole- food approach to eating. Who was this woman?
Once I knew, I felt sad that I had even to ask. History teaches us that fame is fleeting— sic transit gloria mundi—and Helen Brown’s too- brief afterlife proves it. According to The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, Brown was born in 1904 and lived her married life in Pasadena (coincidentally, the birthplace of Julia Child). By the late thirties, she was known in New York as “the West Coast food establishment,” and her professional cohorts included Child and Craig Claiborne. James Beard was a close friend; they co- wrote a book on outdoor cooking in 1955 and maintained a twice- weekly correspondence that was published in 1994. “Beard was deeply attached to her,” confides the Oxford Companion. “She functioned somewhat as an older sister.” Brown died of cancer in 1964.
When I got to the end of the entry, I was startled by the name of its author—Janet Jarvits. Later, on another trip to the shop, I asked Jarvits about it. She hadn’t known Brown, but as a young dealer in 1994, she bought the bulk of Brown’s cookbook collection from the author’s estate. Some of the ten thousand books had been damaged in a fi re after Brown’s death, others had been chewed by rats, but the purchase helped establish Jarvits’s name in the book trade. I asked her why Brown isn’t more famous today. “I don’t know,” said Jarvits. “Maybe she died too soon.”
Brown’s Tiburon Onions inspired one of my favorite savory preserves. My version is faithful to the original, apart from small tweaks to the seasonings and some explanatory notes. Agrodolce means “sweet and sour” in Italian. Tiburon is a seaside village in Marin County. Tiburón is the Spanish word for “shark.” Agrodolce Spring Onions would go well with grilled meaty fish like tuna, marlin, and, naturally, shark.
AGRODOLCE SPRING ONIONS | Yields 1 Pint
1 pound spring onions (less than 2 inches in diameter, or 1 quart when trimmed)
3 cups tart white wine, such as Chilean Sauvignon Blanc
½ cup white- wine vinegar
½ cup golden raisins
1 tablespoon tomato paste
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons sugar
1 dried red chili pepper
1 bay leaf
1 sprig fresh thyme
¼ teaspoon black peppercorns (about 12), lightly crushed
1 teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
1 Soak the onions in cool water for 5 minutes to soften their skins, then peel and cut off the stalks. Scrape or carefully pare away the roots, taking care not to sever the base, which will keep the onions intact during cooking.
2 In a medium saucepan, cover the onions with the wine and vinegar. Add the raisins and the remaining ingredients, and bring to a boil. Moderate the heat to a simmer, and cook, uncovered, until the onions can be easily pierced with a bamboo skewer or a sharp knife and the sauce is thickened and deeply colored. The cooking time will be approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes. Occasionally turn the onions over to ensure even cooking, and as the sauce reduces, shake the pot to prevent sticking.
3 Pack the hot onions into a prepared wide- mouth pint jar—you will probably have a few left over to use right away. Allow the jar to cool, then store in the refrigerator indefinitely. To process for shelf storage, leave a generous ½ inch headspace, clean the rim with a paper towel dipped in vinegar, and seal. Process in a boiling- water bath for 15 minutes.
[Note] The recipe can be doubled, provided you use a large enough pot. The contents should be no more than about 3 inches deep.
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.