Somewhere between churning your own butter and living out of your microwave, there is a happy medium between home-made and store-bought. Store-bought offers those two American marvels: speed and convenience. But the drawbacks are equally tangible: a more expensive item with inferior taste. Indeed, making things at home produces food that is healthier, better-tasting, and often cheaper than its store-bought counterpart. It’s also exponentially more fun!
Between an article by Mark Bittman and my own experiences, this is my list for Homemade Happiness.
OILS, DRESSINGS, and STOCKS
Chicken or Vegetable Broth. I’m certainly guilty of grabbing the chicken or vegetable broth from the supermarket shelf. But there is an alternative. If you simmer a carrot, a celery stalk, and half an onion in a few cups of water, you’ll have a vastly superior vegetable broth. Add a few chicken scraps, and another thirty minutes of simmering, and you’ll have a vastly superior chicken broth.
Olive Oil. While cooking sprays look inexpensive and convenient, they are, per pound, far more expensive than a decent bottle of extra-virgin olive oil. Extra-virgin olive oil also does not contain the additives of cooking spray.
Salad Dressings. No need for Newman’s own here. Combine a good olive oil with wine vinegar and/or lemon juice (at three parts oil to one part vinegar), and add salt, pepper, and a little Dijon mustard. Use this as a starting point, and customize as you see fit – maybe adding some shallots, honey, garlic, tarragon, or soy sauce. You now have a sizzling salad dressing!
HERBS and SPICES
Fresh Herbs. Dried parsley and basil are flavorless, and thus worthless. Fortunately, Italian parsley is possibly the cheapest item in the produce section and will keep for at least two weeks in the refrigerator. Chop and dice it yourself for some great flavor in a number of dishes, from home fries and homemade lasagna, to baba ghanoush and bruschetta.
BREADS and GRAINS
Bread Crumbs. Instead of buying packaged bread crumbs, make your own. Take a few slices of bread and bake evenly at 300 degrees for about 10 or 15 minutes. Once cool, remove the crusts, and throw the bread into a food processor. After a few whirls, you have fresh bread crumbs!
Grits and Rice. As I’ve noted, the only thing instant about instant rice and instant grits is your dissatisfaction. There is no substitute for real grits – though quick grits will work in a bind. And as for rice, old-fashioned steaming still works best.
CHEESE and MARINARA SAUCE
Parmesan Cheese. Beware the green cylinder. If you’ve ever purchased a green cylinder, on the back is a list of ingredients. Cheese should not have a list of ingredients. Though it is more expensive, there is no substitute for real parmesan-reggiano cheese. Grab a block and grate it onto pasta dishes, potatoes, garlic bread, soups, and more.
Marinara Sauce. Making your own marinara sauce is neither quick nor easy. But the alternative is a jar full of something resembling salsa’s first cousin. This is how I make my marinara sauce.
BAKING and DESSERTS
Vanilla Extract. Vanilla extract is an ingredient in almost every baking project. Unfortunately, it can be quite expensive. But if you have some vodka, some vanilla beans, and a jar, you can make your own for a lot less – just as I did here.
Whipped Cream. Dessert should never come out of an aerosol can. Never. Grab a pint of heavy cream, a mixing bowl, sugar, and vanilla, set aside five minutes of your day, and you have one wonderful batch of whipped cream (see here). Once you’ve made your own, there is simply no going back to the ersatz aerosol version.