Eclectic, esoteric, irreverent were some of the words used to describe this book of sometimes "laborious and inconvenient" things to make. It's not so much a book of recipes, as it is a book of cooking ideas. Take the pretension out of many of the delicacies that you find being peddled at fancy food establishments, and a good deal of the time you'll find food that folks like you and me have been making for hundreds of years.
There are many sections to get lost in, from fermented vegetables to fermented beverages, bread making, meat curing, fresh pasta, grains and desserts. And don't forget jams! There is a good sense of humor, from both writers, who take turns explaining their respective topics. Albala is a professor of history (and author of many books), so you'll get some interesting information on say, a medieval pig recipe. Nafziger is a chef and editor who hails from West Virginia, and likes to reference her homespun West Virginian upbringing.
Some of the things that fascinated me was learning about Koji mold and utilizing wild yeasts for your bread making. I wanted to follow the recipe for a gallon of beer, but I haven't yet gotten there. Talk about inconvenient food, Albala tells you how to make and grind your own malt. Apparently, the purist home brewers he talked to scoffed at this idea, and he went ahead and did it anyway. I applaud this gumption, but go read the description on how to grind malt! (But then again, I have no problem taking days to make a jam or jelly.)
The book itself is formatted like an old-timey cookbook, which if you're like me, and have piles of cookbooks spilling out of your bookshelves, you know all about. Vaguely cryptic and sometimes insufficient in detail, these kinds of books have recipes like little pieces of flash fiction, all of a paragraph long. In The Lost Art of Real Cooking, the narrative is the route taken on most of these, and I'll be honest, it flusters me sometimes. Although I like to wing it, and make things my own, I do like bullet points and clarity. But it teaches a great lesson: get in there and just do it, all ready! Stop shilly-shallying and make the goshdarn fermented pickles already!
So, I'll admit it. I've made a great deal of cucumber pickles in my life, but never fermented them! Gadzooks! Please don't think less of me. I've jumped this hurdle, and made it safely on the other side. Why, you ask? Oh, I don't know. I've fermented other things, but cucumbers just didn't make the list. This book nudged me. It said: come on, just put some cucumbers in some water, salt, spices and vinegar and just do it already. It's one of the nicest parts of this book. It's encouragement makes you feel like you made the decision yourself, when in fact they were nudging you all along.
I packed my garden's cucumbers into a sterilized half-gallon mason jar. I put in two garlic cloves, and some pickling spices, a bay leaf, and a dried hot pepper. I covered it in a brine made of 1/2 cup of kosher salt mixed with 8 cups of water. I stuck a glass in the jar (which I saw being done on a blog, but I can't remember which one! What a great idea!) to weigh the cucumbers down, keeping them submerged under the liquid. I put the jar in the basement, and almost three weeks later, I had the most incredible, crunchy, salty, sour pickles I have ever had. And I've had some good pickles.
P.S. Check out Ken Albala's blog at http://kenalbala.blogspot.com/
and Rosanna Nafziger can be found blogging here: http://www.paprikahead.com/
To win a free copy of this liberating book, leave me a comment below and tell me what inconvenient and laborious foods you've been making this summer! You have until midnight, Wednesday, August 25 when the winner will be picked by the random-number generator. Please make sure to leave an e-mail address if you don't have a blog linked to your comment, so I can find you if you win!