Wednesday, March 21, 2012 at 1:21 AM
For home cooks with enough interest and imagination, the do-it-yourself world is practically limitless. The store-bought stuff just can't match what's made from scratch — from cured salmon to a Nutella-inspired chocolate spread.
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I never thought my 6 1/2-by-9-foot kitchen could double as a cheese making factory, but there I was mixing a vat of whole milk with cream and lemon juice to make ricotta cheese. Cowgirl Creamery it wasn't, but as the curds wrested themselves from the whey, I was astonished anew at how I really don't need a big kitchen to create something from scratch.
Nor do I need to supply my salt tooth with bags of organic corn chips from my neighborhood market — all that's required is some cornmeal, salt, an oven and a bit of time. The possibilities for do-it-yourself culinary projects are endless, I soon discovered, though I also discovered I had a tendency to go overboard.
Case in point: I was at the farmers market last summer stocking up on cucumbers to make my own pickles (green beans, too). As I passed by the honey stand, I wondered if it might be too much to cultivate a hive on the fire escape outside my bedroom window. Would the neighbors really mind?
Though I quickly — and wisely — nixed the budding beekeeper idea, there was no stopping me in my other endeavors. Jams, jellies, sauces — no problem that I didn't have a lot of room or a garden. I availed myself of seasonal (and cheap-ish) produce at the market, cleared the schedule and persevered. I quick-pickled pearl onions because they're cute and also because I love them. Along with a wedge of sharp cheddar and good bread, there's nothing finer. I sterilized way too many jars for a vat of blackberry-huckleberry jam, the literal fruits of hours of labor picking in the wilds of Northern California, and which I still haven't tired of. And that ricotta cheese — I will probably never buy it again. From-scratch has a delicacy and sweetness the store-bought stuff just can't match.
When you start thinking about, not to mention getting into the spirit of, DIY, there's really no end to what you can accomplish: homemade gnocchi, handmade vegetable potstickers, granola bars, hot sauce, fruit preserves, chocolate syrup, candy, butter, nut butters, beer, English muffins, even cured meats if you're into that sort of thing. If you have interest and scope of the imagination enough, the DIY world is your virtual oyster.
For the purpose of today's exercise, however, I've chosen a few recipes that are not difficult and should, depending on appetite, last more than a few days, so that effort will linger long after the dishes are done. I've also chosen recipes that when served in sequence could make up a complete meal: homemade gravlax (salmon cured in dill, sugar, salt, vinegar and a healthy shot of vodka) with a sauce incorporating homemade mustard to start; homemade pasta with vegetables and ricotta cheese; and a bittersweet chocolate version of Nutella nibbled along with cups of chai to finish. (Each dish may also be enjoyed on its own — try a light appetizer of thinly sliced, toasted baguette topped with a generous spoonful of ricotta cheese and sauteed zucchini or roasted tomatoes — in a myriad of ways as well.)
Of course, there's no shame in buying mustard or chocolate spread or peanut butter. Most of us have neither the time nor the inclination to make everything from scratch. But there's a sense of satisfaction that comes from doing it yourself that can't be matched. There's also the cost-saving benefit to consider, especially if you buy spices in bulk for your mustard or chai concentrate or get a deal on bulk almonds you're able to turn into almond butter.
Plus — dare I mention? — it's fun to see what you can create.
The key here is to choose projects you'll actually use and which entice you. For example, I don't love or use hot sauce too much, so I haven't tried making my own version (though I have loved homemade ones and will probably attempt it eventually). I love ketchup, though, and have discovered that the homemade version, with tomatoes, vinegar, garlic and a mix of spices blended together until smooth, is easy and much better than the store-bought stuff. Also, know your limitations. If you don't have the time or patience (or iron stomach) to make a batch of homemade sausage, don't force it. Make some honey-rhubarb jam instead.
I'm still amazed by my cheese-making prowess, and have definitely patted myself on the back for saving a bit of money as well as a trip to the supermarket. I don't think I could turn out a wheel of brie — yet — but what I can do is inordinately satisfying. Stirred into a quick pot of whole-wheat pasta, the cheese I made with my own hands and a few extra hours elevates a weeknight meal beyond the ordinary, which may be the best part of doing it yourself. [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]
This article is filed in: Food, Recipes, Arts & Living
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