We got back from our vacation to Key West feeling refreshed and invigorated. It feels like spring has arrived early. I'm getting excited about starting the landscaping, planning the gardens. We're also feeling good about the coming season at the store, but first it's time to restock the kitchen after 8 days of being away. Along with the usual list of weekly staples, I realized it was also time to make a batch of granola.
Granola is one of several kitchen pantry items that I prefer to make myself. I find it helps with the weekly food budget, but, more importantly, it's healthier and much more tasty.
I'm a self-taught cook. I learned my way around the kitchen using cooking shows, cookbooks, magazines, then, later, web sites and blogs*. Watching my family cook when I was growing up was also a big part of my culinary journey. Along the way I gained a positive attitude towards efficient home economics. I seem to follow a specific, yet easy, set of rules to keep my kitchen in order. One of these rules is: If you can make it better for less, why waste your money buying it pre-made? Some, but not all, of my other rules are:
My pantry contains several kinds of vinegars and oils.
1) Say No To Bottled Salad Dressings and Canned Pasta Sauce.
I never buy bottled salad dressings or pasta sauces. Though they seem like a convenience, they just don't taste that great. Besides, I always keep the ingredients to make these in my pantry. Buying a store bought version seems redundant and costly. I can make a better home made version myself. My simplest method for dressing, for instance, is to add the chopped elements of the salad (any combination of tomatoes, scallions, cucumbers, fennel, peppers, etc.) to a large salad bowl. Add salt, pepper, a pinch of sugar (optional), vinegar and olive oil. Stir then let it sit while you prepare the rest of your meal. When you're ready to serve the salad toss in the washed and dried greens and taste. Adjust seasonings as needed and enjoy. Pasta sauce recipes are everywhere on-line and in good cookbooks. They take only a little bit of prep work and taste so much better than store bought.
Keep the ingredients for a basic tomato sauce in your pantry. It will allow you to create variations by adding other ingredients: capers, anchovies, herbs, sausage, etc.
2) The Freezer Is Your Friend
Chicken stock is another thing I always make myself. I always have some in my freezer. This helps me control our sodium intake, but it's also very economical. And, besides, home-made tastes better. I love Chicken Stock Day at our house. Why? Because it's also Chicken Tacos Day! When you make a batch of stock the meat from the carcass provides the main ingredient for several meals. Also in my freezer: Left over tomato paste in 1 T portions. (Recipes usually only call for a tablespoon or so. That leaves the better part of the can. I wrap portions in plastic wrap and put them in a zip-lock bag and throw them in the freezer for later use.) I also freeze shrimp shells and any cuttings from other fish for stock.
Chicken stock (top) and left over tomato sauce (bottom) in the freezer.
3) The Less Hands That Touch My Food The Better!
Now this is something I read about years ago and I found it just feels right. (And, at the risk of sounding a bit OCD, it freaked me out to picture a long production line of cut up parts being handled by strange hands...ick!) There's a bigger chance of buying contaminated food if you buy pre-cut portions. Though I sometimes buy chicken legs or breasts, I prefer to buy a whole chicken and cut it up myself and I never buy pre-cut vegies. I buy from small butchers whenever possible for the same reason.
4) Prep Your Own Ingredients
In general, I try to buy "whole and fresh". No bottled minced garlic, pre-chopped herbs, etc. Again, I find it saves me money and tastes better when it is freshly prepped.
There are other rules...rules about recycling and composting, for instance, but, in the end, it's all about enjoying life. Preparing a meal for family and friends helps connect us to each other. It gives us a sense of well being and belonging. So, if you want to break the rules now and then, I think it's OK.
My Friend Dana's Granola Recipe:
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a large bowl combine the following: 3 cups rolled oats (not quick cooking), 1 1/2 cups raw nuts, 1 cup raw pumpkin seeds (hulled), 1 cup shredded coconut (unsweetened), 1/2 cup (I usually do 1/4 cup because I like my granola to be less sweet), 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, 1/4 cup (or less) packed light brown sugar, 1 teaspoon sea salt, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon. Stir to combine well, then...
Spread out evenly on a sheet pan. Bake in the oven for 40-45 minutes, stirring a couple of times during the baking time.
Stirring up the nicely toasting batch.
Yummy, toasty granola. Almost...
Remove the granola to a large bowl. Let cool slightly, then add 3/4 cup chopped dried fruit of your choice. NOTE (added 3/31/16): As you can see, from the picture above, I added chopped dried apricots. This was the first time I tried it and it was a huge mistake...They dried up and became these hard, glass-like shards in my, otherwise delicious, batch of granola. Very hard to chew. So unappealing. I recommend you stick to raisins, currants, etc.
Granola keeps for several weeks in a locked container. Enjoy!
Thanks for checking in this week. Enjoy your kitchen with family and friends!
*PS: I want to share one of my favorite food blogs. Check it out here and let me know what you think.