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3 February, 2012

Think outside the jar

Posted in : Food Finance, Staples on by : Lauri

One of the best (and easiest) ways to save money on groceries is by getting out of the habit of stocking your pantry and fridge with dozens of condiments. For some, the Heinz picnic pack at Costco (mustard, ketchup, relish) is enough to get you through most meals.  For others, a customized mix of favorites is the staple inventory that keeps meals inspired:  although I certainly stock more mundane toppers, my kitchen isn’t complete without buttermilk dressing, corn relish, spiced honey, and Vietnamese sriracha (made just a few miles from home).  Then there are the extremes:  when I was in grad school, my new roommate moved in with an array of condiments that numbered well above three dozen archaic and, in some cases, almost mummified items.  (My favorite was the Rice-a-Roni box that had expired a full decade earlier.)  It took some time to separate those “treasures” from our refrigerator…

In the end, I’m certainly no stranger to unique mealmakers and sauces, particularly those that I’ve never seen before.  I’m a sucker for unusual jams and marmalades, and as I posted last summer, I’m learning to create some of these bejeweled preserves on my own. But with the success of my pluot jam and the rebirth of the corn relish recipe that I’ve been missing for years, I find I’m no longer satisfied with the bland, one-note concoctions I find on most shelves, and I’m certainly not willing to pay the price for gourmet selections: a decent dijon is likely to start at four bucks or more, and that adds up quickly for households on a careful food budget.  One recent grocery list showed that I’d run out of five different “essentials” in just a couple of weeks.  Just a few price checks proved that if I stayed with the list, I’d spend half my food budget for that week on items that would add flavor, but relatively little actual nutrition to my diet.  There had to be a better way, and a personal challenge was born.

After some surprisingly entertaining web research, I’ve selected some links for recipes to help create everything from chocolate milk to pasta to a truly great sandwich.  Using these recipes can save a bundle, but also allows you to control the ingredients you use, customizing for individual tastes or restrictions.  Any one of these can be frozen or canned to serve as the perfect, personal thank-you gift for anyone you can think of, but the big bonus is that this has been an awful lot of fun.  I’m making friends with my food processor and blender again (they’ve been very jealous of my crock pot), putting my jar collection to good use, and blending favorite flavors into inspired condiments that will make me think twice about drive-thru when I have the option of eating at home.  Take a quick spin around the Web and see what you can come up with!

Olive oil mayonnaise
Mayo can be made with almost any oil, and can be flavored with whatever herbs and seasons you wish.  This flexible staple holds sandwiches and prepared salads together, and (depending on flavor), adds moisture and flavor to cakes and baking.  Can be whisked by hand (for those with stamina and coordination), in a blender or food processor, or best, with a hand blender.

Chocolate syrup
Using better-than-average cocoa powder pays off here.  Play with the balance between cocoa and sugar, or try adding a little cream to make “dark” and “milk” versions.  This great, basic recipe from Alton Brown will get you started, with plenty to share.

Olive tapenade

Corn relish
Similar to corn salsa, but tangy rather than spicy.  This makes it a surprisingly versatile topper for a simple bowl of rice or next-day casserole.  This recipe has evolved on Martha’s websites as years pass, but it’s similar to the one that stole my heart in her first Christmas book from 1989.

Mediterranean hummus
An ancient recipe that is now considered standard in a wide range of homes, this stuff can start at $4 per cup.  You, however, can make it fresher and cheaper in just a couple of minutes.  This traditional recipe has several interesting variations linked at the bottom, as an added bonus.  Go play!

Mustard
This is one of the best explanations of what mustard is and its inherent flexibility that I’ve seen.  Although I don’t eat a lot of meat, this blog, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, includes quite a variety of recipes, and is lively, visually stunning, well-written, and likely to become one of my favorites.  Take a look, too, at Food.com’s take on sweet hot mustard (one of my favorites for sandwiches and snacking).

Marinara sauce
Biba Caggiano is a preFood Network chef, writer and restauranteur from my dad’s neck of the woods in Northern California.  One of her early cookbooks was a staple in the kitchens of my teen and college years, and her knowledge of Italian food is encyclopedic.  This video makes jar sauce obsolete, and her warm, personal style will inspire you to release your inner chef.

So, let us know how it goes: did you find or invent a recipe that must be shared?  Did something flop?  What did you find that is/isn’t worth the effort?

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