Cooking From Scratch

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new-suburban-stockade-introAnother part of cooking from scratch is changing what you think a meal is. Omelets, sautéed vegetables, and toast for dinner? Sure, why not? We do it all the time. Pancakes, bacon, and heaps of fruit, canned or fresh? You bet. If you don’t feel up to omelets yet, substitute scrambled eggs for dinner.

As you expand your repertoire, look at basic cooking practices from other traditions. I do a lot of vaguely oriental cooking. I sauté a heap of chopped onions, peppers, celery, carrots, and other things if I have them, add chopped meat (ground meat doesn’t work well for this), add a jar of some Asian sauce from the supermarket, and serve over fresh rice. Easy, other than the time spent chopping all those vegetables, and everyone likes it. Is it authentic Chinese cooking? Not on your life. It’s different every time, depending on what I throw in and how I season it. I’ll bet it was different every time for the peasants who cooked like this, too.

King Arthur Faux-Oreos cooking from scratch

We made Faux-reos from King Arthur’s baking book.

I have a book that promises to teach French cooking in ten minutes. You read that right. This is a reprint of a book published in 1930 by Edouard de Pomaine called “French Cooking in Ten Minutes, or Adapting to the Rhythm of Modern Life.” The recipes are basic and to the point and they put food on the table in a hurry.

There are probably “learn to cook fast” books for every cooking tradition in the world, but they all share a common technique. The seasonings and the side dishes change chicken from something Italian to German to Indian to Chinese to Mexican. Chinese cooking doesn’t come with a side of fries but some of French cooking can (pomme frites). Pasta sends an Italian signal, not a Mexican one. Rice, depending on how it’s seasoned, says Asian or Mexican; it doesn’t say German.

When you’re searching for recipes that meet these standards, look for short lists of ingredient that you recognize. Be wary of recipes that ask for small amounts of exotic ingredients. Half a tin of smoked baby octopus can sit in the back of the fridge for a long, long time, before you give up and compost it. Capers are another one of those things that you buy a jar of for a recipe and then you have the jar for the rest of your life.

As your cooking skills improve, branch out into desserts. The easiest dessert, bar none, for variety, low-cost, number of servings and ease of preparation, is store-brand ice cream. After that, it’s instant pudding and Jello. Add canned fruit to Jello to improve it.

Believe it or not, you can buy ready-made Jello! A box of Jell-O brand gelatin costs a dollar. Ready-made must cost three times as much considering the size of the servings.

If you buy ready-to-eat Jello or pudding, check out the rack of tiny boxes over in the baking aisle in your supermarket. You do have to boil water to make Jello, but you can do it in the microwave. Instant pudding, despite it being chock full of bizarre ingredients not found in nature, is as easy as it comes. Don’t buy this stuff ready-made.

Should you make your own cookies? It depends. I make cookies and all of them, hands down, are better than anything I can buy. They cost less, sometimes far less per pound, than the commercial variety but they take plenty of time as compared to ripping open a box of Keeblers.

There are exceptions. We have made Faux-reos from King Arthur’s baking book. They were terrific. They cost the earth, took hours, and destroyed the kitchen. Buy Oreos instead.

Chocolate chip cookies? Use the recipe on the bag (with butter!) and the resulting cookie is superior to anything that comes from the cookie aisle including those gaspingly expensive Pepperidge Farm cookies.

Do I make traditional pie crust? I do not. I use the refrigerated ones from Pillsbury. Do I make graham cracker crusts? Yes I do. They are easy, cost less, and taste far better than those stale ones from the store.

As you explore the world of cooking, compare what you’re learning to do with what is available ready-made in the supermarket. Almost every item in a supermarket started out as a real food item make in a real kitchen. This is true even of snack foods like pretzels and tortilla chips.

This leads to another avenue of cooking: making things you thought you had to buy. There are a LOT of books on this topic, old and new. A recent one that we really enjoy (it’s funny!) is Make the Bread, Buy the Butter: What You Should and Shouldn’t Cook from Scratch–Over 120 Recipes for the Best Homemade Foods by Jennifer Reese. It has the best hash brown potato recipe that we have ever tried and was worth the cost of the book for this recipe alone.

There are plenty of others books like them; I have many of them. You discover when reading them that you can make your own granola (easy! and cheap!), your own tortilla chips, your own big fat pretzels, your own pancake syrup, your own pastrami, your own marshmallows, your own chocolate syrup, your own cream cheese, and your own ginger ale and fig Newton’s. Look for titles that say “make your groceries from scratch” or “cheaper and better.”

Your big fat cook everything book will have some of this stuff as well. Every basic cookbook has numerous recipes for pancakes. You do not have to buy “pour out of a spout ready mix” pancake batter, or, shudder, frozen pancakes. If you have flour, butter, eggs, leavening, and some milk, you have pancakes. It isn’t hard.

Drop biscuits are similar. They are much, much easier than those Southern-style flaky ones with the steep learning curve that have to be patted out and cut with a biscuit cutter. Drop biscuits are so easy that you won’t ever buy the whack-em-on-the-counter variety ever again. And, as with everything else you make yourself, you will not get an extensive list of stabilizers and preservatives that allow a biscuit to be made in a factory months ago, stored in a warehouse, stored at the store, sold to you, and wait in your fridge a while before baking and come out, well not fresh, exactly. Something like it though, due to miracles of modern chemistry.

As you branch out into this new world of cookery you also get recipes for things like liquid soap.

Liquid soap is amazingly cheap to make compared to even the cheapest bargain brand. You’ll need a box grater, a one-quart glass jar (or larger) and a small bar of Ivory soap (other kinds are okay too). Grate the soap and scrape all the bits into the jar. Cover the contents with boiling water. Let it cool, and shake. The grated soap dissolves into the boiling water and you get, yes, liquid soap. A small bar, on sale, is about 25 cents. This bar will make a quart or more of liquid hand soap, suitable for refilling the fancy container or using in the shower. Since even a small container of store brand liquid soap is $1 or more, you can see the savings. It’s quick, too.

The make your own groceries books are full of this kind of recipe. It is both surprising and empowering to see what you can do yourself.

Will you do it all? Probably not as it all takes time. But if you have time and not money, you can make the money you have go further. I don’t do it all as I keep running into that pesky time-management issue. If I’m writing this, then I’m not growing tomatillos to process into jam.

But you can if you want to. And at a minimum, by learning how to cook, you can take control of what you and your family are eating on a daily basis. Even if you never make your own pancake syrup or liquid soap, you can make your own pancakes and your own casseroles and your own chili.

Next Week: Advanced Cooking Hacks.