Ten simple things to do now to eat better and save money.

Ten simple things to do now to eat better and save money.

1. Simplify and organize your food hub (kitchen & pantry), and stock it with simple storage/freezer containers sized for your refrigerator size and usual meal size, masking tape, and sharpie for labeling placed within easy reach. Maybe add a radio or speaker so you can listen to books or podcasts as you work and make it an uncluttered, peaceful space so kitchen maintenance will become a meditative time you look forward to instead of a rushed and chaotic chore. 

2. Cabbage is your all-season Friend. Cheap, delicious, healthful, fresh in all seasons, and good for so many satisfying preparations. 

3. Start a simple kitchen herb garden and/or grow sprouts. Plants are available now from all the best local growers, and you can often buy plants with SNAP benefits. Herbs and spices add up. When you buy fresher foods of more flavorful varieties, you will find you need few expensive spices, marinades and rubs. 

4. You paid for it, get your money’s worth!  Don’t cut fat from meats before cooking, instead cook, and skim the fat to use for later browning and sautéing. When you buy well raised meat, the nutritional benefits of the meat are also in the fat. There is nothing hydrogenated or highly processed, so it is a nutritional, flavor-enhancing, and budget friendly practice.

5. Select foods for nutrient density instead of portion size or habit. Bone-in skin-on meats, Fruit vs juice, whole grains vs refined flour and processed quick seasoned sides, plain frozen fruit and veg instead of those with added sauces or microveable packages, whole milk dairy vs reduced fat, pastured eggs vs lowest price, local in-season produce and fruits, whole cheese vs pre-shredded, minimally processed vs convenience, more basic staples and less ready-to-cook one-offs. 

6. Select whole in-season vegetables grown locally for flavor rather than shipping and shelf stability, with leaves & stems on. Use said leaves and stems right away. 

7. Maceration. Harness the natural juices from your fruits and vegetables and your crock pot roasts and stretch the value of the purchase. This works best with local items grown for flavor, as they are the most naturally flavorful and juicy, and that juice has nutritional value. And, if you find yourself with some fruit or produce about to go bad, chop them up, add a bit of sugar or salt, and put them in the fridge to release their juices. Later strain them, and use the juice separately for beverages or to make syrups, and you have bought yourself a little additional time to use the produce. 

8. Replace bread, rice, processed side dishes, and pasta with whole grains. Simple farro, pearled barley, wheat, spelt,  and rye berries, all can be used in place of rice for risotto, fried rice, and hashes, or as a cold salad, or side dish. Easily batch cooked and frozen for later, or just keep a container in the fridge ready to go.

9. Invest: if you can, level up with even a small additional freezer to enable you more space for buying meat and produce in bulk. Don’t forget to check for Marketplace/Craig’s List used options. 

10. Make simple jams and syrups. This is easily done with most fruits and many items of produce and replaces extracts in pies and baked goods, ice cream and dessert garnish, enhancer of purchased sauces, and is a great way to make your own beverages, kicking the soda/Gatorade habit. You don’t have to become a depression-era full time canner, just a little here and there alongside your regular meal prep and cleanup goes far. 

 

Produce season is about to begin – you’ve got this! 

No-cook tomato sauce for the freezer…

No-cook tomato sauce for the freezer…

I don’t have much time, or kitchen space for elaborate preserving projects anymore. So, I have to be really selective and spend my time making the one tomato-y thing that will be quick, flexible, but still remind me in the heart of January that the dark, frozen nights will again be soft and desk, with tomatoes, still warm from the garden. See, that connection to my own Pennsylvania summer is a real spirit lifter – one which canned tomatoes from the supermarket just cannot match.

Elimination thinking makes my decision super-easy; this uncooked tomato sauce, straight from the freezer tastes exactly like summer,  is compact and efficient to store in my freezer, and quick and easy to use in lots of ways later. 

 

Before beginning, I’d like to make this one plea: Resist the urge to chef this one up until you’ve made it once exactly as it is. Yes, it’s a VERY simple, plain recipe, but therein lies the charm. The simplicity allows the special summertime quality of the tomatoes to shine which is exactly why I love it so much. You can add herbs and spices when you use it later if you wish. Oh, and this sauce plain is beautiful with fresh mozzarella… and allows a bit of good olive oil to really shine.

Here’s a link to the more specific recipe.  It makes four servings to be eaten right away but to preserve larger quantities for freezing, simply repeat as many times as you like ( I just figure out how many pounds of tomatoes I have and work it backwards), throw the milled batches together into one large colander, drain over a large bucket then freeze the concentrated sauce in single serving portions.

 

The split skins will peel right away – then toss into your food mill. I use a Roma and run the tomatoes through two or three times to extract every last drop… If you don’t have a food mill, just do your best to skin, seed and chop as finely as you can. The texture won’t be exactly the same, but don’t let that stop you – it’s still going to be awesome.

 

The tomatoes after processing. Add kosher salt and ladle into your cheesecloth lined colander. Maybe you’re not like me with large pieces of cheesecloth lying around. Not to worry, you can use a simple cotton dish towel or pillow case but be prepared for it to be forever stained. I toss my clean cheesecloth into the boiling water for a few minutes before using. Line a colander with the cheesecloth and you’re ready to pour in your tomato mixture. Place the colander over a large bowl or bucket and drain for at least a couple of hours or overnight

 

For me,  one cup portions in freezer bags is the perfect size. One cup feeds two with plenty of  leftovers for the next few days.  Looking at the chicken scratch I wrote on my recipe, apparently I used 24 pounds of tomatoes last year and today I know it was not nearly enough. A word of warning: a little of this sauce goes a long way. I use 2 or 3 Tablespoons to dress a serving of pasta. Really.

Fill your freezer bags, squeeze out any air, and stack flat on a baking sheet or plate to freeze. Onse frozen stiff, the packages can be stacked upright in a container, and are easy to see and access in your freezer, and take little space. 

 

Pouches of finished sauce, in my freezer stash. I freeze this in one cup portions in small freezer bags to use all winter. Thaw it in the bag and gently spoon over cooked pasta tossed with olive oil or butter. If you must heat the sauce, simply warm a little olive oil in a sauce pan and stir in the sauce until just warmed.

 

Because you are straining away most of the water, the volume will be greatly reduced.  I started with a nearly full 5 gallon bucket of tomatoes, and ended up with about 5 cups of sauce. This will vary based on the water content of the tomatoes and the amount of time you leave them drain.

Use your sauce to make summer-fresh Margarita pizzas, toss in the crock pot or dutch oven for a stew or braise, soup, with a pot of beans, anything that can use some fresh tomato flavor. Since the star of this project is the tomato, I wouln’t bother with thick walled, tough-skinned, weak flavored commodity varieties. This is meant as a celebration of the flavor of local, peak-of=freshness, sloppy, flavorful old-fashioned and heirloom varieties.  

 

Home made pasta, uncooked fresh tomato sauce frozen from last summer’s harvest and some good quality parmesan or pecorino – perfection in its simplicity!

 

Also, when you’ve finished making this sauce, especially if you made a bunch for freezing, you’ll have lots of nutritious tomato essence (the water left after straining the tomato solids for the sauce) left.

  • Base for Bloody Marys
  • Braising liquid
  • Reduction for intensely tomato flavored sauces
  • Added flavoring for beer or vodka
  • Base for gazpacho or cocktail sauce
  • Poaching liquid for seafood, shrimp, calamari or lobster
  • Dressing for fresh oysters
  • Marinade for white fish
  • Vinaigrette mix-in
  • Liquid for cooking rice or grains
  • Refreshing chilled beverage served over ice, with basil

 

Or, simply use it in place of any liquid next time you make stock, bread, rice, bulgur, barley or risotto. These are kitchen basics you know you’re going to do anyway, so why not add a little free flavor & nutrient booster?

An icy glass of tomato essence…. yummy and refreshing straight up, and so many great uses in coctails…

The most complicated part of this approach is using a food mill if you have never used one. It makes for a really nice texture and removes the peel and seeds. A food mill is not necessary though, and this sauce will be just as tasty finely chopped by hand.

If you could only do one, what would your single tomato preserving project be?