I go full foodie in the summertime. Gardens are growing, farmers markets are teeming with fresh goodies, and family cookouts are running late into the evenings. Unfortunately, my love for food can sometimes overstretch my budget. In an effort to cut back on the summer treats I usually allow myself to indulge in, I’ve been experimenting with some home-cooked alternatives this year, and I couldn’t be happier with the results. My homemade versions of store-bought staples are usually tastier, healthier, and much cheaper than the products I would normally have to pay someone else to make and package for me. Plus, they’re so much easier to prepare I would have expected. There are a ton of dishes you can and should start making at home, but I’ve singled out a few of my favorites to help get you started.
As I see it, there are two basic kinds of salad dressing: the clear ones like vinaigrette and Italian and the thick ones like ranch and honey mustard. Lucky for us all, the clear dressings are particularly easy to make at home and only require a few ingredients. Start off by getting your hands a big jar of quality oil. I personally like olive, though sunflower or another natural oil should work just as well. You’ll also need to buy an acid. Lemon juice and vinegar are two of the most common acidic components in salad dressings, but you can always use lime, tomato, pickle, or pineapple juice in their place. To top everything off, mix a few spices into your dressing. The spices you end up incorporating can vary depending on the type of salad you’re making and the things you already have available to you in your pantry or herb garden.
Combine the ingredients by stirring one part acid into two parts oil and adding spice to taste. Make a big batch to keep in your fridge or just enough to work into tonight’s salad. The combinations you can think up are virtually endless, so you’ll always be able to create different flavors and keep your meals interesting. The best part is, each batch of this dressing will cost you less than a buck!
Dried beans are very cheap, especially when you have the option of buying them in bulk. To make your own hummus, you’ll typically need some chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans), tahini (sesame seed paste), and a little olive oil, garlic, and salt. However, you should be able to whip up a batch of hummus using any kind of bean or moderately soft vegetable. In the fall, there’s nothing I love more than some beet hummus and goat cheese on bread or crackers. It might sound like a snooty snack, but it’s just so easy to prepare.
To make your own hummus, start by buying a bunch of dried beans — I usually aim for a one pound bag. Soak them in a big pot of water overnight, then let them simmer on the stove until they’re soft enough to poke with a fork. Depending on the type of beans you’re using, you should be able to achieve this consistency after an hour or so. Next, you’ll want to break out your handy-dandy blender or food processor. Throw the beans in with a couple cloves of garlic, a tablespoon of olive oil, and a dollop of tahini. Bear in mind that these are not exact measurements and can always be adjusted to match your preferred texture and flavor. Pulse the blender until the hummus is smooth and add salt to taste. A batch this big can easily be frozen for later use, too!
There is a way to make yogurt on the stove, but I decided to buy a special gadget to do a lot of the work for me. For about $25, I got a yogurt maker that keeps everything at just the right temperature. My yogurt maker even came with a few easy-to-follow recipes of its own! To get the process going, all the machine requires is a little bit of last week’s batch, milk, and some extra milk powder. I prefer my yogurt maker’s yogurt over the stovetop version because it allows me to know everything that’s in my food and can fine-tune the cooking time to produce my desired tartness and sweetness levels to a tee. Each week, I make a full quart of yogurt for about the cost of a couple small store-bought cups.
Believe it or not, a lot of breakfast cereals are pretty easy to make at home. Granola is my favorite, mostly because it’s another one of those endlessly customizable treats. Just combine several cups of oats with dried or fresh fruit, nuts, seeds, cinnamon, or any other mix-ins you like! You’ll then want to add enough liquid to evenly coat everything. Try using a half-oil, half-sweetener solution that incorporates something like maple syrup, honey, or agave. Finally, you’ll want to bake your granola, stirring it often until it’s brown and crispy. If you wanted to, you could even make granola in an uncovered slow cooker. Before storing your finished product, you’ll want to give it plenty of time to cool naturally. What good is granola if it you can’t eat it while it’s crispy?
What is one to do with things like the ends of carrots, hard broccoli stems, and that slimy outer layer found on onions? Throw them away? No! Put your vegetable trimmings into a ziplock bag and store them in the freezer. Once you’ve amassed about a quart of ingredients, you’ll want to throw them in a pot filled with several quarts of water and let them simmer for an hour. Afterward, you can strain out the veggies and toss them aside. The remaining liquid will be flavorful, free vegetable stock for your future soups, risottos, sauces, and more.
Once you’ve made some tasty stock, it’s time to whip up a fantastic soup! As always, you can and should incorporate the things that are already in your fridge or pantry into this recipe. Beans? Great. Meat? A-OK. Any vegetables? Bring them on. Bring a pot of stock to a simmer, then throw your toughest ingredients into it. Next, you’ll want to add your softer veggies and starch to the mix. Spice to taste. Cook it until everything has been given enough time to soak in the flavors and reach your preferred texture. Presto! A delicious soup that’s much cheaper and healthier than any store-bought alternative.
There are thousands of other great-tasting things that can be made at home to cut down your grocery bills. What are a few of your favorites?