I've been a fan of Karen Solomon's work for a long time, ever since I read and reviewed her first book Jam It, Can It, Pickle It back in the early days of the DIY kitchen revolution. We've come a long way since then. Canning and pickling are no longer grandma skills in need of rescuing from the brink of oblivion, thanks to people like Karen who have spent years testing and experimenting, discovering and inventing, helping to make the art of preservation fun and exciting.
But how does Karen handle day-to-day cooking in her home kitchen? What are the five essential things she believes a home cook should know? Read on for her fun, eclectic list!
Karen Solomon may be the queen of canning but she is also a mom with two boys and a partner to feed. She brings the same curiosity and inventiveness that she uses in her preserving pursuits to her home kitchen. She became interested in making things from scratch when she tasted a homemade vinaigrette for the first time while visiting her partner's mother. "She made it in the bowl," remembers Karen. "First she crushed some garlic with salt, then she whisked in vinegar, oil and black pepper. Up until then, salad dressing was a bottle of Wishbone that lived in my parent's refrigerator door! It blew my mind!"
Most people come to preserving through jams and pickles, but Karen was interested in condiments. From that first salad dressing she went on to teach herself how to make homemade ketchup, mayonnaise, mustard. "And then it was just a short step to figuring out how to make my own bacon!"
Karen's approach to life, both in and out of the kitchen, is bright and energetic and full of humor. She is above all curious, which automatically makes her a great cook. And, of course, generous, too, as she shares with us her five keys for a lively and delicious kitchen.
1. Hack your kitchen! Don't waste your money on a bunch of things you don't really need for your kitchen. Instead, discover how to make do with what you already have. "Think of a MacGyver and Alton Brown mashup," says Karen. "You don't have to spend over $100 on an imported Harsch crock for your pickles. Just use the insert from your slow cooker!" Karen also uses her oven and refrigerator to dehydrate foods (this post from her blog gives the details) or removes both ends from a tin can to fashion a tofu or cheese press. "You really don't have to spend a lot of money to make great food. I probably should never work for Sur La Table," she jokes.
2. Cooking requires a soundtrack. You have to have music! "Sometimes I listen to NPR," say Karen. "But then it just drives me crazy and I have to put on some music and sing along. Be sure that it fits your mood and the dish you are making, or at least the task you are working on." Old skool hip hop like Snoop Dog or original 70's punk like the X-Ray Spex are perfect for when you have to do a lot of chopping. Karen like to listen to musicals (Les Miserables and Jesus Christ Superstar were mentioned) when she's thinking hard about what to do or figuring out a recipe.
3. Take the Jane Goodall approach. A home cook looking to deepen their skills should be very observational and absorbent. "If you just immerse yourself in the food world, meaning read EVERYTHING (old and new, menus, books and mags, blogs and encyclopedias), watch EVERYONE (home cooks on YouTube, those tired Food Network shows, vintage Julia and Galloping Gourmet), eat EVERYWHERE (restaurants with varying ethnicities and levels of hygiene) and just sort of take it all in, you can use this information to amass a warehouse of food knowledge to draw upon.
"Jane Goodall made a lifetime of observing and learning, which is why I hold her up as an example. Be an open vessel to any and all ideas! Read any cookbook that has a spiral binding, read about what the pioneers cooked. About 80-90% of what you absorb won't be useful but the 10-20% that you do need? You will really, really need it. When I see grandmothers on the street, I wonder what their specialty is, when I travel to another country or even another state, I am obsessed with restaurant signs and names. I will purposefully seek out and make a day trip to a grocery store of any ethnicity. Food to me is archeological and explorative, a living study."
4. Don't take no for an answer. Karen is a self-described kitchen tinkerer. She never assumes that you can't make something. "One time, I took it upon myself to try to make a shredded wheat biscuit. You know, a homemade Triscuit," she laughed. "Just keep trying. Roast your own coffee, make your own breakfast cereal, try to make chocolate from scratch." Just keep at it and don't take no for an answer. "And fail! Fail proudly and often! I once made a Beef Wellington that was so bad, my family is still talking about it 15 years later. Don't be afraid and as Julia [Child] says, never apologize!"
5. Encourage and support the food system that you want to have. It might take more time and cost more money, but to the extent that you can go to farmers' markets, join a CSA, pay a little more for local food. Support it on all levels, from the neighbor kid's lemonade stand to homemade baby food exchanges. It's not always possible but it is becoming easier and easier these days. And if it doesn't exist in your area, CREATE IT!