Vanessa Barrington: The D.I.Y. Delicious Diva

It’s a schizophrenic time for food in America. On the one hand, everywhere I go I meet a canner, jammer, fermenter, or forager obsessed with perfecting these age-old crafts and sharing them with other urban homesteaders or selling their wares at farmers’ markets, pop-up stores, or underground dinners.

On the other hand, as Michael Pollan observed in a New York Times Magazine piece last year, people are cooking less but watching more.  Cooking shows, that is. Food preparation has become a spectator sport, a form of entertainment, but not something you actually do in the privacy of your own home. This sorry state of affairs was lamented by some of the biggest names in food writing, including Saveur founder Dorothy Kalins, at the recent Symposium for Professional Food Writers.

Guilty as charged: We make modest meals in my house and we’re addicted to MasterChef.

Some say the rise of celebrity chefs, the Food Network, indeed cooking programs on all the TV channels, have made Americans feel more intimidated and less at home behind a stove. Millions are disconnected from where and how their food is grown, and they have no idea what to do with raw, unprocessed ingredients or how to fix something good to eat.

Surely the time is ripe for a cookbook (or two) designed to entice people back into the kitchen. Enter D.I.Y. Delicious: Recipes and Ideas for Simple Foods from Scratch (Chronicle, $24.95) by Vanessa Barrington, a chef, food writer, and recipe tester from Oakland, California. Her book, which has the stamp of shooter Sara Remington all over it, boasts some 75 recipes for making salsas, sauces, and salad dressings, as well as step-by-step illustrated guides to culturing, brewing, fermenting, and baking.

Barrington’s dedication sums up her thinking behind this atypical food tome: This book is dedicated to every eater and cook who has ever asked the question ‘Why can’t I make this myself?’ Who among us hasn’t flirted with that notion?

Cooking for ourselves is cheaper and healthier for people and the planet, cuts down on waste, engages us with food in a way that take-out or dining out never will, and, when done well, tastes good too.

Barrington, who blogs about food policy and healthy cooking here on Civil Eats and at EcoSalon, has a manifesto few would quibble with: The world would be a better place if more people cooked real food more often.

It also takes time to make a decent meal. Barrington recently penned a guide, born out of this book, to help people figure out how to add “cook” to their to-do lists. She suggests folks follow the three Ps: With a well-stocked pantry, the right paraphernalia, and advance planning, figuring out “what’s for dinner?” need not be an onerous undertaking.

She comes to such sentiment honestly. The coauthor of Heirloom Beans, Barrington was inspired to write D.I.Y. Delicious after a family reunion at the home in a small town near Salt Lake City where her mother grew up. The house, which her aunt still calls home, has a kitchen pantry that boasts shelves lined with jars of pickles, preserves, jams, jellies, and canned vegetables from the garden.

Barrington says these put-up goods looked foreign to her. She grew up with a working mom who saw cooking as a chore and relied heavily on convenience foods to get dinner on the table. After the reunion, this self-taught chef started questioning why she was buying everyday staples  — granola, bread, butter, jam, yogurt, tortillas, and pickles — that are easy to make. Through trial and error she set out to learn how to make her own basics. Lucky for us that project forms the foundation of this cookbook.

Along the way she discovered that the food she made at home herself with ingredients she knew tasted better than their store-bought equivalents. Barrington got hooked on a homemade kitchen and she hopes others will too. “I sometimes felt like I was drowning in plastic containers from my yogurt habit, or I’d lament the loss of all that fruit from a family member’s plum tree falling to the ground and rotting,” she recalls. “After I started making my own yogurt and jam I felt a great sense of accomplishment and deep satisfaction that comes with making food with your own hands.”

Her mantra: If she has food in her kitchen that she’s made, then she always has the makings of a meal on hand. I thought of her this morning, while I made pesto with freshly picked basil and roasted beets and butternut squash before the heat of the day makes cooking in my kitchen unbearable. The squash I’ll use to make soup or fill potstickers, beet chunks star as the main feature in a salad with feta, mint, and red onion tonight. The pesto found a home on pasta and as a spread for sandwiches for school.

D.I.Y Delicious consists of what Barrington calls building-block recipes and it includes techniques and skills — like culturing yogurt, pickling vegetables, or making fresh pasta — necessary to help home cooks construct a kitchen repertoire. She begins her book with a recipe for grainy mustard and then includes dishes like Maple and Mustard-Glazed Root Vegetables that call for the homemade condiment. A blueprint for making fresh, whole-milk soft cheese is followed by a recipe for Savory Spinach-Cheese Pie with Olive Oil Crust. Sourdough Starter is used in bread, pancake, and pizza recipes. Spicy Pickled Green Beans are paired with Potato Salad and Hard-Cooked Eggs. Freaked by fermentation? Try your hand at Ginger Beer. You get the idea.

“I hadn’t made butter since the first grade,” says food writer Molly Watson, who served as a recipe tester for Barrington’s book. “I made the Cultured Butter for my dad, who eats about half a loaf of bread for breakfast,” Watson explains. “When I asked him how it was he said: ‘Of course, it’s so much better than store-bought butter.’ I was kind of shocked by how good it was. I started spreading it on crackers like cheese.” I know what she means. After I began making tortillas, my son turned up his nose at the kinds that come in bags. He prefers the size (small), texture, and taste of the made-from-scratch variety.

Barrington is not surprised by our findings. After all, she wrote a book on the subject.

Originally published on Lettuce Eat Kale

Food photos & cover shot: Sara Remington, author photo: Susan Fleming

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