One of the best things I've done for my family's budget and my family's health is rethinking the convenience foods we use in our kitchen.
A few years ago, when we were first starting the farm, neither of us had a steady paycheck and at times, we were living on less than $800 a month. That meant a significant slashing of our food budget and when I took a hard look at what was costing us the most money, it was most definitely the items in the middle of the grocery store -- the pre-packaged, processed, convenience foods. It's not like I was buying Hamburger Helper or anything, but even healthy-ish things like rice pilaf mixes, salad dressings, breads, macaroni and cheese (Annie's organic, of course) and cereals and granola were draining our budget.
Also, no matter how pure the product, the ingredient list is still longer than I would like and there's bound to be preservatives and other funky, unpronounceable things that I'd just rather stay away from.
So, slowly, as I started learning to cook (I was a Tostitos queso, little smokies, brown gravy kind of gal), I retrained myself to think wholly about food. If I wanted a rice side dish, I made it. If we were out of granola, I made it. If I needed a quick lunch, I made mac and cheese from scratch.
So, today, I give you a list of the seven big recipes that have helped us kick the box (or bag) and gain more control over what goes into our bodies and out of our pockets.
1. Salad Dressing
This isn't easy as pie. It's easier than pie. (Pie is actually quite hard.) The basic vinaigrette I use is simply:
1/4 cup good olive oil
1/4 cup vinegar (red wine, balsamic, apple cider)
1 Tbs mustard (I'm big on Dijon)
Then, from there, you can make it whatever you like. Add lemon juice for a little zest. Maybe some honey to sweeten, any herbs you have on hand. A diced shallot or red onion or minced garlic. Hot sauce. Minced sun-dried tomato. Customize however you like based on what you have on hand and what might match what else is in your salad. As for mixing, I just use a small jelly jar with a lid and shake-a, shake-a. You just saved yourself $5 and a whole lot of MSG.
The bulk items you need for granola are generally pretty inexpensive (with the exception of nuts). And granola is super expensive.
Here's a good basic recipe I use a lot, from CHOW.
3. Cheesy crackers
Or, really, crackers of any kind. You'd be surprised how easy crackers are to make and how many unpronounceable ingredients are in the store-bought varieties. (My kid went nuts for graham crackers so I started making my own, with our own flour -- ground from our heritage Sonora Wheat. I can't tell you what a super mom I feel like when I feed her those crackers.)
But, today, I'll share this awesome recipe for cheesy crackers. We absolutely gobble Goldfish or Cheez-Its when we have the chance. So, I thought, I'd better learn to make a cheesy cracker.
And I came across this recipe from Simply Scratch. Deelish.
Also, if you want to fancy up a bit, here are some wonderful basic icebox cracker recipes from Martha Stewart.
4. Macaroni and cheese
Sure, the long version of homemade mac and cheese, in the oven with breadcrumbs and whatnot is super good, but who has time when it's supposed to be a quick lunch and then back out the door?
So, we grab the box and actually, it's not that great. But, if you play it right, you can make your own mac and cheese on the stovetop with a few ingredients: flour, butter, milk, cheese and noodles.
Here's a basic recipe I use (but I sort of know by heart now) and here's slightly more complicated one that gives creamier results.
They now make a "shake and pour" pancake mix (actually, it's called "Shake N' Pour"). Yep. A plastic bottle with the mix in it. You add water, shake and pour onto the griddle.
But, you know what? Pancakes are pretty darn easy. So, if you want to spend the extra two minutes and save yourself cash and loads of unpronouceables, here's a simple recipe.
But, if you want to spend the extra cash for those two minutes you save, then by all means, shake n' poor. (Punny, aren't I?)
(Note: When I make pancakes, I sometimes just take the time to measure out three or four batches of dry ingredients and put them in separate, labeled jars so I can just add wet ingredients if it has to be a fast, fuss-free morning.)
Oh, the many ways you can pilaf!
Pilaf is not just for rice you know. It's for quinoa and millet and farro, oh my!
My new favorite is a pilaf I make with our own Prairie Farro, which is what you see adorned with sausages (that's a phrase I don't use enough) above. (More, by the way, on Prairie Heritage Farm's extra special, nutritious, totally cool grains here.)
Here's a good basic look at pilaf from Mark Bittman in the New York Times, but just memorize this:
1. Saute onion and/or garlic in 1-2 Tbs oil in a deep pan or skillet.
2. Add grain or rice (I sometimes add a 1/4 cup or so of wild rice into the Farro or small pieces of pasta for texture) and toast in the oil until glossy and fragrant.
3. Add any herbs and spices you'd like. The more the better. (I like to add a bay leaf, among other herbs.)
4. Add 2-4 cups of broth (depending on how much grain you have -- just get about an half inch of liquid on top of the grain or rice) and cover. (And use a flavorful broth. Do you know about organic "Better Than Bouillon?" you should.)
4. Check every so often and serve when liquid is absorbed (mostly) and/or the grain is tender. (Up to an hour and a half for whole grains, shorter for rices.)7. Artisan bread
Two words for you: No Knead.
Mark Bittman (who helped me more than anyone to kick the box and taught me how to cook, really) was the first to turn us on to no knead bread. If you plan ahead, it's easy, peasy. Mix the ingredients, let it sit over night, let it rise two hours and put it in the oven. The crust is amazing, the guts are nice and lofty and the variations are endless.
Here's Bittman's reciepe - the Jim Lahey version.
(Short on time? Try the faster version.)
Note: You'll need a good oven-safe (preferably cast iron) pot with a lid and good flour. Really, good flour from good wheat makes all the difference. (This is me on my soapbox about grain again, sorry. But we have to start thinking more thoroughly about where our staples come from, just as we do about our dairy and meat and produce. We need to be thoughtful about how our staples are grown and how they're bred even. They are, after all, the staff of life, right?)
So there you have it: The seven wonders of cooking outside the box.
What are your favorite easy, peasy, made-from-scratch secrets?