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

by Sarah Henry on September 29, 2010 · 41 comments

in civil eats,food books,recipes

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 for EcoSalon and Civil Eats, 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.

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

This post also appears on Civil Eats.

Check back later this week for a D.I.Y. Delicious giveaway.

You might also like:

Photographer Sara Remington on Shooting Food

The Urban Homestead: An Old Idea is New Again

Fermented Food Fans: Meet the Folks From Cultured

Wild Man Iso Rabins: A New Food Entrepreneur

Shakirah Simley: Preserving Food, Seeking Justice

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{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi September 29, 2010 at 10:04 am

Sounds like she is my kinda lady. I do a lot of the things mentioned, but always want to do more. I bet she has some amazing tips in there. Don’t have an extra copy you could send me, do you? ;)
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Piggie in the Middle


Sarah Henry September 29, 2010 at 10:50 am

Oh I just knew this D.I.Y. guide would be right up your alley, Frugal Kiwi. Funnily enough, if you do a Google search you’ll find that it’s already available in NZ. Check it out!


Kerry September 29, 2010 at 10:19 am

good to read this on a day when I just tried making my own crackers. always have made my own bread, pie crust, and the like but for some reason, not crackers. they were a success — be fun now to try out different flavors.
Kerry´s last [type] ..Muisc Road Trip in North Dakota &amp South Dakota


Sarah Henry September 29, 2010 at 10:50 am

Kerry, I’m super impressed. What’s your secret to successful baking?


MarthaAndMe September 29, 2010 at 10:19 am

I am really excited about this book. Thank you so much for sharing! This is exactly the kind of thing I want to read right now. To make butter, yogurt, etc oh my gosh. I’ve got to get this book. Can’t wait for the contest!


Sarah Henry September 29, 2010 at 10:51 am

Stop back tomorrow, M&Me, to enter. And, yes, this is your kind of cookbook.


Sheryl September 29, 2010 at 11:00 am

This sounds like one amazing book. She sounds like one amazing cook, too.

And speaking of your kitchen, I’ll be right over. Pesto, squash, beets…my kinda food.


Sarah Henry September 29, 2010 at 11:47 am

Swing by when you find yourself out my way, Sheryl. It would be nice to meet you in person.


Jennie Schacht September 29, 2010 at 11:21 am

Vanessa rocks and so do you, Sarah — great article! I am hoping that D.I.Y. will catch on like wildfire and have everyone making real food at home from real ingredients. I recently started making homemade ricotta and labne. Once you get started, it’s hard to stop because the results are stratospheric (and also entirely down to earth). Keep up the great work, both of you!


Sarah Henry September 29, 2010 at 11:57 am

Thanks, Jennie, sweet of you to say.

For those who may not know (hand up over here before I Googled it), labne is a white, yogurt cheese with a Middle Eastern heritage made with cow’s milk.

Sounds and looks like something I might like:


Ruth Pennebaker September 29, 2010 at 12:00 pm

Excellent article, advice for those of us (or maybe just *me*) who are reluctant cooks. Somebody needs to start a class for the likes of us.
Ruth Pennebaker´s last [type] ..A Letter to My Two Favorite Oncologists


Sarah Henry September 29, 2010 at 12:27 pm

Okay, reluctant cook Ruth: What kinds of recipes might entice you into the kitchen?


Jennifer Margulis September 29, 2010 at 12:55 pm

I am so envious of people who are this good at this. I am totally a wannabe canner!!


Sarah Henry September 29, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Wannabes are welcome in the can-do canning movement, Jennifer. It’s the first step to giving it a go, I’d imagine. (Haven’t gone that route yet myself, but it sounds great in theory. Now, to put it into practice.)


Alexandra September 29, 2010 at 1:02 pm

“Cooking for ourselves is cheaper and healthier for people and the planet” – so true! But, we need to eat organic to avoid toxic chemical residues but that is probably what you meant. I find I cook much more because I do not want to use canned food, since there’s BPA in the lining. Yesterday I made organic beans and they were so incredibly sweet. All this interest in eating fresh foods! I keep hoping the famous chefs will get on the bandwagon and demand change from the agricultural industry so organic produce comes down in price.
Alexandra´s last [type] ..An Unexpected Consequence of Divorce


Sarah Henry September 29, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Big ag moving to lower the cost of organic food? What a concept, Sandy. Good to have big goals, though, right?


Susan September 29, 2010 at 1:21 pm

Love this concept! And the photos look good enough to eat, too.


Sarah Henry September 29, 2010 at 2:01 pm

You’re spot on, Susan, about Sara Remington’s food photography.


Jesaka Long September 29, 2010 at 3:11 pm

Several of my friends have started canning and jamming, so I’m going to recommend D.I.Y Delicious to them. I’m an apartment dweller, so I may have to keep this book on my “future” list. Thanks for sharing it!


Sarah Henry September 29, 2010 at 3:18 pm

Hey Jesaka, You may be interested to know that some of the best home food I’ve eaten of late has been made by friends who have the teeny, tiniest of kitchens.


Casey@Good. Food. Stories. September 29, 2010 at 4:13 pm

Yes! This is the way to go – even my husband is eating multi-grain bread now that it’s homemade. Although… even though I’ve made my own ketchup before, this Pittsburgh girl just can’t quit the Heinz. One of my few processed sins.
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..GUEST POST- Love- Italian-style at Il Vigneto


Sarah Henry September 29, 2010 at 5:14 pm

It’s okay, Casey, I have a few of those myself. Chief among them: Vegemite. Showing my roots, I know;)


Christine @ Origami Mommy September 29, 2010 at 4:25 pm

What a fascinating book! I can’t wait to get my hands on it. I do quite a bit from scratch but rely on my mom to bring me homemade Korean pickles, dried fruits, and jams. At some point I have to learn how to make them myself.
Christine @ Origami Mommy´s last [type] ..Escape


Sarah Henry September 29, 2010 at 5:17 pm

Christine, you’ll find Spicy KimChi, Saurkraut, and Pickles in these pages. Fig-Rosemary Jam and Plum-Verbena Jam too.

And lucky you for having a mom who keeps you stocked in homemade preserves and pickles.


MyKidsEatSquid September 30, 2010 at 2:49 am

Growing up I remember the weekends where my mom did canning–the whole kitchen would be filled with peaches and green beans and bottles. Then as I got older, she stopped canning because it was so much easier–and often cheaper–to buy canned goods. So while I remember canning, I’m still a bit intimidated to try it myself. I definitely want to pick this book up.


Sarah Henry September 30, 2010 at 7:02 am

Thanks for adding your unique perspective, MKES. It is interesting that these time-honored practices are coming back when our mothers’ generation wholeheartedly embraced industrial-style canned goods.


Nancie McDermott September 30, 2010 at 9:29 am

You put the good word out there on so many good things, and here you go again. Loved meeting Vanessa at Portland food conference this spring, and love this book. Like your blog, it’s inspiring!


Sarah Henry September 30, 2010 at 10:28 am

You’re too kind, Nancie. I met Vanessa for the first time at the IACP conference in Portland too, which is kind of funny, since we’re practically neighbors.


Vanessa September 30, 2010 at 10:00 am

Thanks everyone for all your nice comments and interest. For those of you who think you don’t know enough to can or your kitchen isn’t big enough, this book is not really about canning and the whole underlying theme is that you don’t need a big fancy kitchen or a lot of special equipment to cook good, healthy, wholesome food. It’s all about making do with what you have and trusting yourselves in the kitchen. Hopefully it will inspire people! And thanks again Sarah for such a lovely piece!


Sarah Henry September 30, 2010 at 10:30 am

My pleasure, Vanessa, and good point on the whole canning conundrum that’s become a bit of a theme in this comment thread.

Kudos, again, for your efforts to entice folks into the kitchen (whatever its size;).


Stephanie - Wasabimon October 1, 2010 at 10:36 am

Yeah yeah, keep mentioning that scholarship. ;)

I’m so all about this book, and I really want to win the copy you’re giving away.


Melanie Haiken October 2, 2010 at 10:50 pm

I’m staying with a cousin here in Portland who makes all sorts of cool stuff, from peach preserves to homemade salsas. It’s fun to see the big glass jars in the fridge and makes me feel inspired. Maybe next year…..


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