The e-mail was startling — and thrilling. Chef Scott Drewno wanted to learn about preserving, and the guy behind those Asian-fusion duck bao buns and exquisite dumplings at The Source wanted to learn about it from — gulp! — me.
I’ve taught dozens of home cooks about canning, but planning a preserving session with a chef was a whole new thing. In the four hours available with home cooks, I might plan three or four recipes to cook, while passing along techniques and tips as we go. Then we eat something. And have a drink.
But a chef? There was no need to discuss how to recognize a rolling boil or how to dice an onion; instead, the work was about bigger topics — science, theories, and how and when to experiment.
Drewno approved an initial agenda, letting me know he was as much interested in fruit preserves as in pickles, and that both chiles and Asian-influenced sauces were also on his radar. From there, I planned the class.
He’s tall, this Drewno. I mean really tall. That was my first impression. And he’s really curious, which is such a pleasure for a teacher. We started class with coffee and my homemade jam tarts; the three tarts held different fillings, distinguishing between confiture, preserves and conserve.
After some safety discussions about botulism, mold and other appetizing topics, we got out the big copper preserving pan and cooked up two fruit preparations: a peach-lemon-verbena confiture and a plum sauce, all the while reviewing the differences between jelly and jam (not to mention the distinguishing elements of chutneys, salsa and ketchups, how and when to add herbs and spices, liqueurs and extracts). This conversation would take four hours with mere mortals, but Drewno is sharp. Same goes for Ben Small, the Source’s executive sous chef, who was along for the class. Only an hour had passed.
I had to up my game.
Pickles were the next topic, and because pickling is less about technique (you often just heat the brine and pour it over the vegetable), we reviewed types of pickles by tasting. Out of my jar-filled refrigerator emerged quick pickles, pickled chiles, lacto-fermented cucumbers and kimchi, sunshine pickles, tiny cocktail onions, hot brined okra, sweet brined fennel, olives and oranges, and candied jalapenos. For the next hour, we ran the gamut of pickling types, tasting, discussing and tasting some more.
We drank a lot of water.
Then the fun began, as both chefs took up their knives and planned their own pickles. There were cucumbers, fennel, daikon, carrots, jalapenos, serranos and habaneros, as well as a dozen vinegars and a host of herbs and spices. There were recipe guidelines provided, but their creativity ran free.
Drewno chunked Kirby cucumbers destined to become sunshine pickles using dark Chinese vinegar, garlic, onion and spices. Small sliced daikon as thin as a deck of playing cards, then stacked it inside the jar with carrots, jalapeno and champagne vinegar.
My favorite moment came after the chefs realized, unlike their savory world in the restaurant kitchen, preserving actually requires measuring. They looked a little horrified. Unsure. Then, quick as a whistle, Drewno grabbed a glass measuring cup, poured out some vinegar and said, “Hey, look at me! I’m measuring!”
The chiles are especially abundant and fiery this season, so we made some hot sauces. There was one fermented Sriracha-type sauce, made with cherry bomb peppers, prepped and ready to process, as well as another honey serrano sauce that needed only some blending and straining. We put both sauces into jars and processed them for shelf stability.
We ended the class talking about condiments — mustards, particularly — and tasting four distinct styles from my pantry. There was cheese and bread and kombucha, the fermented beverage made by my assistant, Ally Kirkpatrick. And we toasted the day with ice cold shots of vin de pamplemousse, my homemade grapefruit wine.
The chefs departed, four hours and many jars later, bearing all the fruits of their labor.
Cathy Barrow is a food writer and blogger, who teaches cooking and charcuterie classes in Washington.