January is a good time to hang out in your kitchen. Winter is settling in and cooking up some delicious food is a great way to combat the chill in the air. After the holidays many of us are trying to incorporate a bit of thrift into our lives and cooking for yourself instead of going out or eating frozen convenience meals is a proven money saver. Cooking at home usually saves calories too, while delivering more nutrients than the typical restaurant or fast food meal. Finally, cooking at home gives you a level of control over your food that just isn’t possible in any restaurant setting—you choose the seasonings, you choose the cooking method, you choose whether the ingredients are organic, locally grown whole foods or processed foods.
There are some foods that many home cooks, even those that cook from scratch daily, often tend to buy ready-made. They might be things we consider too time-consuming, like home-baked bread, or things that seem tricky, like salad dressing, yogurt or mayonnaise. Sometimes they are foods that seem like an overwhelming production, like homemade soup or roasting meat; it might be baby food or food for the dog, or maybe not even food at all, but cleaning products or body care. This month, why not try making something you usually buy? It will shake up your routine a little and warm up your kitchen at the same time and it is fun—and rewarding—to know you can depend on yourself when the weather is too nasty for a trip to the store or your wallet is feeling too slim.
Like any other cooking project, homemade versions of convenience products start from a well-stocked pantry. Take a few minutes to make sure you have the basics on hand and that your supplies are not stale or rancid. Some things you’ll need are storage vegetables, including onions, garlic, potatoes and carrots; mushrooms and fresh herbs are nice if your budget allows, but dried versions work just fine for most things. You’ll need cooking fats—olive oil is a favorite, but you will probably also want something with a milder flavor, along with butter or a vegan substitute. Flour and leavening agents including yeast, baking soda and baking powder are useful. Has it been a while since you refreshed your herbs and spices? You might want to start over with a new, fragrant supply. Depending on the ready-made food that you want to master on your own, you might also need a stash of beans, grains, pasta or canned tomatoes.
Start your do-it-yourself project with something that is simple, but delivers a good return on your investment of time and money. Canned pinto beans can be used in a variety of ways right out of the can; they are low in fat, a good source of protein and fiber and not too expensive—Westbrae Natural organic pintos cost $1.89 for a 15-ounce can. Head over to the Bulk aisle and check out the dried pinto beans, though. At $1.85 per pound, they are also not too expensive, especially when you realize that a pound of dried pintos will deliver about five cups of cooked beans! That’s about three times as many cooked beans for a few cents less than canned, and you get to decide how much sodium you want in your beans. In addition, the bulk beans from Mountain High Organics are grown in the United States; Westbrae does not list country of origin on its bean labeling.
Okay, you’ve got a pound of dried pinto beans and you are thinking about a pot of chili or maybe some refried beans, but you aren’t quite sure what comes next? The first thing you want to do is sort through the beans to remove anything you don’t want to eat, like small stones or plant debris. The sorting is easily done if you spread the beans out on a cookie sheet or platter and work through them with your fingers. Beans are almost always dusty, so once you’ve culled any foreign material transfer the beans to a large colander or bowl and take them to the sink for a good rinse.
The next step is to soak the beans before you cook them. Soaking reduces the amount of cooking time needed and helps make beans easier to digest while making their nutrients more available to the body. There are a couple of ways you can approach soaking; if you are in a rush use the quick soak method: Put the sorted, rinsed beans into a pot and cover them generously with water. The beans are going to absorb water, so you want them covered by a couple of inches. Bring the pot of beans to a boil for three minutes; remove from heat, cover and let stand for an hour.
Many cooks think the long-soak method produces beans that cook more uniformly. This process is one that you can begin first thing in the morning or in the evening, depending on when you plan to cook the beans. Sort and rinse the beans and then place them in a large bowl; cover generously with water and then forget about them for at least six hours. It is best to soak beans until they are fully hydrated—slice one open and check to see that there is no opaque hard spot in the center. This process is the same for virtually all types of beans, but the soaking time will vary; larger beans require a longer soak than smaller ones. Lentils and split peas do not have to be soaked at all, but it will reduce their cooking time, especially for split peas. Beans should be soaked at room temperature, but if it is very warm, or the soaking time will be more than eight hours, put them in the refrigerator. Do not add any salt or seasonings to the soaking beans.
When you are ready to cook the beans, drain the soak water and rinse them thoroughly; this will send a small amount of nutrients down the drain, but it also eliminates any remaining dirt and many of the sugars—oligosaccharides—that cause flatulence in some bean eaters. Cover with about three cups fresh water per cup of beans and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat, partially cover and simmer until the beans are tender—pinto beans will take about two hours and the cooking time for other types will vary, depending on their size. Garbanzo beans may require a bit longer and soybeans often need at least three hours. Beans cook nicely in a slow cooker—start them in the morning and they will be ready when you get home from work or let them cook while you sleep, then cool and store until you are ready to use them. If you use a pressure cooker, beans can soak all day and then be cooked and ready for dinner in just 15-20 minutes; most pressure cookers should not be filled more than halfway with beans and water and adding a tablespoon or two of oil will help prevent foaming or loose bean skins from clogging the vent. Adding aromatic vegetables and herbs to the beans when cooking will result in more depth of flavor regardless of the cooking method, but do not add salt until the beans are tender. Adding salt, or acidic ingredients like tomatoes, can greatly increase the amount of time needed to cook the beans. In the case of pinto beans, your final use will determine the seasonings you add. If I am planning to turn a pot of pintos into refried beans I add a chopped onion, a few cloves of minced garlic, some ground cumin and a dried ancho chile pod to the beans while they are cooking, salt to taste once they are tender, and then let them simmer another ten minutes or so to balance the flavors. You can also toss in a small amount of raw, chopped bacon or ham or some smoked Spanish paprika when you start cooking, if you like a smoky flavor in your beans. These beans are great, whether mashed for refried beans, scooped into a soup bowl and sprinkled with a bit of cheese, served over cornbread or rice or added to soup or chili. If you’ve cooked a full pound of beans, you will have enough to try them a couple of different ways and if you have cooked two pounds the extra beans can be frozen for a few months, preferably in some of the pot liquor.
A whole chicken
A golden, roasted chicken can feed one or two people for a few days; it makes a festive offering to serve to friends and gives you a delicious replacement for packaged sandwich meat. Start with a whole chicken that you’ve thawed in the refrigerator; thawing will take a day or two, so be sure to allow enough time. Remove the chicken from the package, remove the package of giblets and the neck from the cavity and rinse the bird well, inside and out; pat dry with paper towels. You don’t need a special roasting pan, but choose one that is sturdy and has sides to catch the juices; a rack is nice to keep the chicken elevated—the air circulation helps the chicken to cook evenly and prevents it from stewing in its juices. You can improvise a rack by placing the chicken on a bed of sliced vegetables; onions, celery, celeriac and carrots all add flavor. Place a small, quartered onion, a few whole cloves of garlic and a bundle of fresh herbs—parsley, rosemary and thyme are nice—in the cavity. Rub the outside of the chicken with a bit of oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast the chicken breast side down at 375°F for 25 minutes. Take the chicken out of the oven and carefully turn it breast side up; return to oven and continue to roast, about an hour longer or until a meat thermometer inserted in the thickest part of the thigh reads 170°F and the juices are clear. The exact timing will depend on the weight of the chicken and the accuracy of your oven. Let the chicken rest for 15 minutes before slicing and serving. Roasting two chickens at once is no more difficult and assures you’ll have plenty of leftovers for casseroles, sandwiches or soup later in the week.
The juices in the bottom of the chicken roasting pan and the chicken carcass can be refrigerated and cooked up for a quick homemade soup the next day if you like. Start by chopping an onion or two leeks, two ribs of celery and a few carrots and a couple cloves of minced garlic; sauté these in a bit of oil or butter in a large soup pot; add some sliced mushrooms too, if you like. Break the chicken carcass into a few pieces and add it to the vegetables in the pot along with any reserved juices from the roasting pan. Add water or chicken stock to cover, salt and pepper to taste and a handful of chopped parsley. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a low simmer, partially cover the pot and let it cook for about hour before removing the bones. You can add any other vegetables to the soup that you like, as well as some bits of the leftover roast chicken, or stir in a half-cup of uncooked grain like rice or barley. Leftover grain or cooked noodles should be added toward the end of cooking time. Adjust the seasonings before serving.
Do you grill up a perfect hamburger or homemade veggie burger, only to serve it next to frozen fries? Your oven can turn out delicious, crisp homemade fries in about the same time as frozen, with minimal cost and effort on your part. Russet potatoes work best; you will want one medium-sized potato for each adult diner. Scrub the spuds well, or peel if you prefer, and slice lengthwise into eighths or cut them into the traditional fry shape. Toss the slices with two teaspoons of oil until evenly coated and then spread them in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Use two pans if you are cooking several potatoes—if the slices are too close together they will steam rather than crisp in the oven. Bake your fries, turning once or twice, for about 20 minutes at 425°F, or until they are tender in the middle and golden-brown and crisp on the outside. Season with salt or chili powder and serve with your burger and a squeeze of ketchup.
While your oven is hot why not bake a supply of crunchy croutons to add to salads or float on a bowl of soup? Bread with an airy, open texture makes the best croutons; slightly stale Pane Turano Italian bread works well or you can use yesterday’s baguette as long as it is not too hard. The bread you choose will determine whether your croutons contain preservatives or other additives. Trim the crusts off the bread, especially if you are using a crusty baguette, then slice the bread and cut into cubes of whatever size you like. Do you want your croutons seasoned or plain? For seasoned croutons, mix a few tablespoons of olive oil with the dried herbs of your choice; add a clove of minced or pressed garlic or a bit of finely grated Parmesan or Cheddar cheese if you like; salt is optional. Toss the bread cubes with seasoned or plain olive oil until they are evenly coated, but not saturated; the quantity of oil depends on the quantity of bread. Spread the cubes in a single layer on a cookie sheet and toast at 350°F until golden and crisp, turning every few minutes. Once the toasting process starts, croutons can scorch easily, so pay attention! Croutons will get crisper as they cool; once they are completely cooled, store tin an airtight jar.
If you are tossing those croutons into a salad, consider dressing it with your own vinaigrette. Yes, there are dozens of ready-made salad dressings and many of them taste quite good, but they can punch a big hole in your grocery budget. The standard formula for vinaigrette is one part acid to three parts oil, plus flavorings if you like. The trick can be to find an acid ingredient that pleases your palate—many people find red wine vinegar or lemon juice to be a bit harsh, so you may want to experiment with white wine vinegar, balsamic or even rice vinegar. Pour the vinegar into a small jar with a tight seal; add a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a clove of pressed garlic, a bit of salt and pepper. Let stand for about five minutes. Add the oil—olive oil is classic—seal the jar tightly and shake until the ingredients are completely blended. You can add a minced shallot or herbs to the vinegar-mustard mix if you like; some people like a pinch of sweetener, some skip the salt, the flavor choices are yours.
Pasta is a classic winter comfort food, but if you depend on jarred sauces it can be an expensive favorite. Many people put up their own canned tomatoes during the summer just so they can make delicious marinara sauce in the winter. You can make a great homemade sauce using commercially canned tomatoes too. Check the recipe page of this newsletter for a delicious sauce; you can increase the size of the batch and freeze the extra for another meal or personalize it by adding cooked Italian sausage or ground beef, mushrooms, crushed fennel seeds or other favorite flavorings.
Yogurt is a staple in my kitchen; I eat it with berries for breakfast, use it in baking, and dollop it on vegetable curry, so it can play a big part in my food budget. Homemade yogurt costs about half as much as ready-made and once you get your incubation system figured out it is an easy process that only needs about 45 minutes of hands-on time.
If you want to try making yogurt at home it is best to get the incubation system worked out first. Yogurt needs to ferment, undisturbed, for five to eight hours at about 100°F. Some people incubate yogurt in a thermos, some use a heating pad or a warm oven and I have seen (but not tried) instructions on the web for using a slow cooker, but I like using a picnic cooler. I fill four half-gallon milk jugs with very hot tap water (about 125°F) and place them in the cooler to preheat it while the milk heats, and then leave them in there throughout the incubation time; this keeps the interior of my cooler right around 100°F for more than eight hours. Regardless of the incubation method you choose, give it a test run first to make sure the temperature will be right.
To make a quart of yogurt you will need a quart of milk; whole milk makes thicker, creamier yogurt without adding powdered milk or gelatin, than low-fat or skim milk, so it is often recommended for beginners. Do not use ultra-pasteurized milk for yogurt. You can also use non-dairy milk to make yogurt if you prefer. An accurate thermometer is a necessity for yogurt making—the cultures thrive in a relatively narrow range of temperatures and it is very frustrating to have a batch fail because the milk was too warm or cool. You will also want a clean quart jar (smaller jars or covered bowls can be used), a heavy-bottomed saucepan and yogurt starter. We carry Yogourmet freeze-dried yogurt starter in Aisle 4 with the baking supplies or you can use a good, plain commercial yogurt with live cultures; you will need two tablespoons of yogurt per quart of milk. I have good results using Seven Stars Farm original plain yogurt as a starter; I freeze it in a clean ice-cube tray, and then store the frozen cubes in a freezer bag—they thaw in about an hour. Many home yogurt-makers save a bit from each batch to use as starter the next time, this works best if you are making yogurt every few days. The other required equipment is your incubator. Be sure all the yogurt-making tools—and your hands—are very clean so that you are not introducing any unwanted bacteria.
Heat the milk to 185°F, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching. If you are using fresh or frozen yogurt as a starter, let it come to room temperature while the milk is heating; if you are using a freeze-dried culture follow the package directions. Once the milk reaches 185°F, hold it at that temperature for a few minutes, then remove the pan from the heat and let the milk cool to 100-112°F. At this point, stir some of the warm milk into the yogurt to temper it a bit and then, gently, but thoroughly, stir the starter into the pan of milk. Transfer the mixture to the clean quart jar, cover and place in the incubator. I usually find six hours to be a good incubation time, but check after about five hours to see if it has set up to your liking, keeping in mind that the yogurt will thicken a bit more as it cools. When the incubation time is done move the yogurt to the refrigerator for several hours before serving to stop the fermentation process.
There are a couple more tips to keep in mind when making yogurt: you can increase or decrease the size of the batch as needed; it doesn’t matter if the milk cools slowly or quickly—I often set the pan in a sink of cold water, but watch it very closely because the temperature drops in a flash this way; milk or incubation temperatures above 120°F will kill the culturing bacteria. Any sweeteners or other flavorings are best added when you serve the yogurt. If you want to branch out beyond yogurt making, The Home Creamery by Kathy Farrell-Kingsley is a simple, basic manual for making and using all sorts of dairy products at home including yogurt, kefir, sour cream and soft, fresh cheeses.
Baby and toddler food
Many parents feed yogurt and other simple homemade foods to their babies and toddlers instead of buying commercial baby food. Homemade baby food is much less expensive than those tiny jars and you know exactly what you are feeding your child. Pureed, steamed vegetables and fruits are a good place to start, followed by cereal and protein foods. Check with your baby’s health practitioner for recommendations on specific foods to introduce first and potential allergens to postpone. Many parents find it efficient to prepare food in larger quantities and freeze portions until needed. After a food is cooked it is pureed using a blender, food processor or food mill. Purees can be frozen in dollops on waxed or parchment paper or in clean ice cube trays; transfer the frozen portions to a labeled freezer container or zip-top bag until you need them. If you want to prepare fresh food for baby at each meal or when away from home, check out the Kidco Baby Food Mill sold in the baby food and supplies area in Aisle 4—the mill is easy to use, easy to clean, easy to carry with you and a perennial favorite with Co-op Owners. If you are interested in making your baby’s food you might want to add another resource we carry—Super Baby Food by Ruth Yaron—to your cookbook collection. Yaron guides readers through the entire process from preparation and equipment to timing the introduction of various foods. She also shares a wealth of money and time saving tips for child and home care. Find her thrifty recipe for baby wipes to the right..
Do you feel like you spend too much money on all-purpose cleaners? The next time your spray bottle runs dry, refill it, rather than throwing it away. Mix two tablespoons white vinegar with one-teaspoon borax in your washed 16-ounce spray bottle; fill the bottle halfway with very hot water and shake until the borax is dissolved. Add one-quarter cup liquid soap or detergent and 15 drops lavender essential oil and you’re ready to do more cleaning. You can find borax in Aisle 5 with the laundry products; lavender essential oil is available in the Wellness department.
Many dog lovers take time each week to make a batch of homemade dog food for their furry friends. Just like people, dogs can develop allergic reactions to a variety of foods and special-diet dog foods are not budget-friendly. If you make your dog’s food you know exactly what Fido is eating—most recipes are a simple mix of meat, rice and vegetables—but it is important to consult your veterinarian first to ensure that your dog’s nutritional needs are being met. Doggie treats can be tough on both your budget and your dog’s health and are easy to make at home. Try this recipe if your dog is not allergic to wheat: Combine two cups whole-wheat flour (half spelt is good), one cup rolled oats, and two tablespoons ground flax seed in a bowl. Stir in one cup of water and one-third cup natural peanut butter and mix well. You may need a bit more water to get workable dough. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead, adding more flour if necessary, until the dough is no longer sticky. Roll out the dough to approximately one-quarter inch thick and cut it into small rectangles, using a pizza wheel or tiny cookie cutters. Bake at 350°F for 20 minutes, then turn off the oven and let the biscuits stand in the cooling oven to make them crunchy. These treats are not calorie-free, so offer them as a special reward.
These homemade “convenience” products are just a small sample of things you can make easily—and inexpensively—at home, so don’t quit here; check out the recipes in this issue of the Reader for more ideas. Chicken or vegetable stock requires a bit of time, but is easy (see Megan’s article on page 14). Homemade granola is simple enough for kids to make with a bit of supervision at the stove; English muffins or bagels are a bit more involved, but anyone can master them too. Whatever you choose to make, remember that your Co-op has the freshest, highest quality ingredients that will help assure your success in the kitchen. Give homemade a try—the rewards are delicious.