Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen
Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen was started in 2009, and it’s where Cathy shares her cooking, baking, preserving, and keeping of her practical pantry. Her recipes have been included in the Food52 cookbook. Al Roker made her Thanksgiving stuffing on the Today Show. And she has been featured in the Washington Post. Cathy recently released her first cookbook, Mrs.Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry, which won the 2015 IACP Single Subject Cookbook Award.
I am so thrilled to have Cathy Barrow of Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Kitchen here on the show today.
(*All images below are Cathy’s.)
On Starting Her Blog:
I had been a landscape designer for about ten years, and I was really a happy landscape designer. I have a big garden, a flower garden, and many, many clients in my general neighborhood. And in 2008, when we all suffered a little bit from the change in the economy, let’s say, my landscape business dried up, not just a little but sort of completely. And I know all the reasons for it now, but at the time, I couldn’t really see clear. I was pretty depressed. And several friends of mine who had come to my kitchen to eat, who I’d helped learn how to make pie dough, or learn how to cook with different ingredients, they all said, “You should be teaching cooking classes.”
And I said, “Well, that’s just a great idea. How will anybody ever find out about it?” And their response was, “Have you heard of this thing called a blog?” And I had not. I had never read one. I was really not part of that world, so I started doing some research. And one of those friends was a graphic designer and helped me set up the site, taught me a few simple tricks to figure out how to load a photo, and off I went. Nobody was more surprised than I was, that anybody actually read it.
I do feel there’s a very distinct line that you can draw from gardening to cooking, and particularly, the kind of cooking I do that is so seasonally dependent. My knowledge of the garden makes me a better preserver in many ways.
On Learning How to Cook:
I definitely took some cooking classes that were very helpful, and I read a lot of cookbooks. My curiosity led me to want to learn how to make certain things. I remember, maybe even 25 years ago, deciding that I wanted to learn how to make a baguette. And this was long before you could just Google how to make a baguette, or go to YouTube. And what I found, was that maybe the first one wasn’t good, but the second one was better, and the third one was even better than that. I recently read something Sam Sifton wrote in The New York Times, where he said that cooking is like yoga. It’s a practice. It’s not something that you’re born knowing, but the more you practice, the better you get at it. And I’ve been doggedly determined to learn how to make certain things, even in the face of failure.
I think I’ve been developing my own recipes forever, but it never occurred to me that it was something unusual, until I became part of a larger community. I think, for many of us, joining the Internet and starting to share recipes was a revelation. We either thought we were all alone in the world…because my friends, of course, were like, “You’re crazy spending eight weeks trying to figure out how to make a croissant.” And then I find this group of people who do the same thing I do, and it’s so thrilling to me.
So I’ve always gone to restaurants and tasted it, and then come home and tried to recreate things. Or I decided I’m going to study Sichuan cooking, and just cook everything in a book until I felt that I was confident enough that I could take that education, those flavors, and start to refine it a little bit. I definitely started working on my own recipes when I married a vegetarian, because Dennis would prefer not to eat much meat; he does eat a little bit but not much. He’ll eat a little chicken. I was pretty meat-centric when I met him, and now having to learn to take some of my favorite recipes and translate them into something that can become vegetarian, has been a big education for me. It’s a lot of fun.
How it came together is really crazy. A friend of mine on Twitter, it happened that it was a late December Sunday morning. The tree was up, the presents were wrapped, the cookies were mailed. It was actually the first Sunday that I wasn’t crazy with things to do. I was hanging out in my kitchen and playing on Twitter, and a friend of mine said, “It’s so cold in my basement, I could hang meat.” And I said, “If you hang a duck breast, you’ll have prosciutto in seven days.” “Really?” was the answer. And I don’t know what kind of divine intervention happened, but I literary saw this whole program layout for me.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what I might do to push my blog up a little bit in terms of recognition, and it became clear to me that my knowledge of how to make charcuterie at home as a home cook could be the basis for an education program. So I got off of Twitter at that very moment and I sketched out a 12-month education program to go each month and learn something about charcuterie, following the guide of Michael Ruhlman’s great book, Charcuterie. And I came back online and said, “Hey, here’s the idea.” And a lot of people said, “We’d love to do that.”
And it became a blogger challenge over the next couple of weeks. After that, I started making random phone calls to see if I could find some sponsors. And one of my dearest friends now, who I didn’t know at all, Kate Hill, offered a week-long charcuterie program at her French retreat in Gascony. And that was gonna be the Grand Prize. So I was trying to establish how you would get the prize and how it would be voted on. Anyway, I worked out those details but I also realized that just offering somebody a week-long thing in France wasn’t enough. You had to get them there.
So then I found a travel agent called Trufflepig. I didn’t know them at all but I just went to their contact form on the web and said, “Hey, you got a great name. I got this crazy idea, would you give me free tickets to France?” And they came back and said, “Sure, and we’ll do train tickets and hotels. And how about a party?” I mean, they were so generous. And so I put this program together and about 400 bloggers around the world participated, and Food52 partnered with us and ran the whole program on their site. And it was just tremendously fun. What I loved is that in September of that year, Kate Hill invited me to her farm in the south of France, so I got to do that same charcuterie training. It was wonderful.
On Making Charcuterie for the First Time:
I always say to start with bacon. You can’t go wrong. Everybody loves bacon. And once you have it, you’ll join that forever club. You’ll never go back. Bacon, simply you get a pork belly, you cure it for a week in the refrigerator and then you roast it very, very low until it comes to a temperature that’s safe. So there’s no hanging it in the closet. There’s nothing dangerous or unsafe about it. It’s going to be refrigerated then it’s going to be cooked. It’ll change your mind about charcuterie right then and there. You’ll never go back.
Salting, and then you could add other flavorings, too. You can do plain salt but I personally have a combination in my book that is maple syrup, bourbon, and coffee. And those three things with some salt makes a really delicious bacon.
I think that the biggest mistake you can make is not buying really good meat. Buying commodity meats makes it more difficult to be precise with charcuterie, mostly because there’s too much water in most commodity meat. And you need to get the water out in order to make safe charcuterie. And sometimes that means that…what we look for, for instance, in most charcuterie, is a 30% weight loss will tell you that that meat is ready, if you’re hanging it. But if you have commodity or commercial pork, for instance, it might have such a high water content that it’ll need to reduce more. So I would say buying the best possible meat from sources that you know is going to guarantee more success.
On Some Good Resources for Learning about Charcuterie:
I think Michael’s book is a really great place to start. And then there’s a new book by Jeffrey Weiss called, Charcuteria, and that’s more Spanish. There’s Jane Grigson’s classic charcuterie book from England. But I really think if you want to learn charcuterie, just start with Michael Ruhlman’s book and work from the front to the back. Or you can get my book, which has this small discreet and very simple chapter on charcuterie.
On Her Book, “Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry”:
I set out to write a book that would really be a primer on all kinds of preserving, because as long as I’ve been doing it and looking for resources, I couldn’t find one book that had everything I needed. So I also wanted to make sure that the book not only would take you through all the steps necessary to learn how to preserve everything, like jams and jellies and pickles, tomatoes, also meats and beans and soups and fish and diary, like cheese. Then I worry that so many people don’t think about what they’re going to do with all those jars they’ve put on the shelf, so I included 35 recipes using what you preserved.
For me, there’s preserving at one level, which is making the jams and jellies and the pickles. And that’s great, but that’s not really sustainable. It’s hobby preserving. I’m very interested in more of that pantry building in this practical sense, and the sustainable nature of preserving and how that means that I can eat locally year-round, that I can keep my food money in my community by purchasing from my local farmers all summer, preserving that food and then eating it all winter long.
It means that I can come home from a long trip and I don’t have to run to the grocery store or call for Chinese take out, but I can just go downstairs into my pantry and find all kinds of things that are right there for me to eat.
The Pressure Cooker:
Which food shows or cooking shows do you watch?
I’ll admit that I like the vintage ones best. I like to watch old Julia, especially Julia and Jacques Pepin. Those are great. I do love Sara Moulton. I think she’s just a solid cook. My husband and I used to watch her show a lot when we first got married, and so I always love to watch Sara.
What are some food blogs or food websites we have to know about?
I hope you know about Cheryl Sternman Rule. She’s been writing the blog, 5 Second Rule, for a long time, and had a beautiful vegetable book out called Ripe, a while back. But now she has a new book called Yogurt Culture, and a coordinating blog called Team Yogurt. And it’s a marvelous website. I love to follow my friend Mardi who writes the blog, Eat. Live. Travel. Write. And she’s been working with these young chefs, these young boys, in her chef class. It’s so fun to watch what they make. In the preserving area, Food in Jars, Hip Girl’s Guide, those are great resources. Well Preserved out of Canada, love those. I mean, I read a lot. Of course I’m smitten with Smitten Kitchen. She’s genius. David Lebovitz, I love. I guess that’s maybe a start.
Who do you follow on Pinterest, Instagram, or Facebook that make you happy?
I follow my friend Kate Spinillo on Facebook and on Instagram, because she raises chickens and pigs. She had polka-dotted pigs earlier this year. And sometimes I just had to go and look at those pigs because they’re so cute. I love following them. I’m passionate about Punk Domestics. I follow everything they do. Sean Timberlake collects all kinds of DIY on preserving information there. So I’m really always following what he’s doing. And I love Food52. Who doesn’t? I mean, they’re brilliant. They do everything wonderful.
What is the most unusual or treasured item in your kitchen?
I have three things that I brought back from the south of France. One is a handmade cassole to make cassoulet. It’s big terracotta and just beautiful. I also have a pepper grinder. It could be a coffee grinder, but I use it for pepper. It’s a little wooden box with a thing that turns on the top and a drawer that pulls out. And the pepper comes out in a large cracked form and it’s perfect to coat pastrami or to put on the outside of pancetta. And then on that same trip, my friend Kate’s sister, Stephanie, found these little (figures). Often, they’re babies that are put in the Mardi Gras cakes. You probably have seen it – if you get the baby it’s going to be your year, but in France, they have them for all the different professions. These tiny little pastries and sugars and confiture, just little ceramic things that sit on my stove and make me happy.
Name one ingredient you used to dislike but now you love.
Anchovies. I can’t get enough of them. That’s the only one I can think of. I’m pretty much an omnivore, but for a long time, I wasn’t sure at all about anchovies. And now, I can’t get enough.
What are a few cookbooks that make your life better?
I’m really a fan of the old ones. I turn to Marcella Hazan and The Classic Italian Cookbook all the time. It’s just a brilliant book. I love the pairings after every recipe. So if you find one recipe you want to make, you know then what to make with what pasta. It’s really lovely.
Edna Lewis’ book, The Taste of Country Cooking, I read that all the time because her voice is beautiful and the recipes are just intense and organic and natural, like, what you would do if you saw beautiful things growing and brought them back to your kitchen. I like to read Laurie Colwin’s, Home Cooking, and all her recipes. And the Canal House ladies, they were my photographers, Christopher and Melissa. And they can’t do wrong, as far as I’m concerned. Every cookbook they have, you can just open it up, point, and make it, and you’re going to be happy.
What song or album just makes you want to cook?
I’ll admit. I don’t listen to a lot of music in the kitchen. It’s oddly distracting for me. More likely when things are processing, that I might turn something on and just dance. I’ve been listening to Ellie Goulding a lot lately. I just never know what I want to put on to dance around the kitchen. But while I’m cooking, I’m concentrating and I’m trying to measure ingredients. I find music, because I love it so much, totally distracting.