Shop-Bought vs. Homemade Staples

Posted on: July 23rd, 2010 Posted by

There’s no denying that baking your own bread, cooking all your meals from scratch and growing your own food is incredibly rewarding and wholesome, but is it really necessary, and more importantly, does it really make sense? Many of us get caught up in the fairy tale ideal of self sufficiency, but oftentimes it means we’re spending more money than we would if we bought our resources from the shops, and we’re spending more time on something that’s just making us feel exhausted. It’s time to separate the wheat from the chaff, and decide exactly what homemade staples will actually enrich your life, rather than make it a chore…

Firstly, growing fruit and vegetables. There’s no way this could ever be a bad thing, for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s much cheaper. Secondly, it gets you outside, in nature and doing some exercise. Thirdly, it tastes so much better than shop bought food, and fourthly, it encourages you to eat healthily. The main disadvantages are that it can take up your time, and you need to be able to tend to a vegetable patch regularly. Not having a garden can be a problem, but you can still grow tomatoes upside down in hanging baskets, and lettuce in trays on the windowsill.

Next, we’ll move onto kitchen appliances. There are so many different ones available on the market today that it’s getting a little silly, but we’ll concentrate on the most popular ones. The ice cream maker is a great piece of kit, especially if your supermarket of choice sells cheap cream when it’s almost reached its sell-by-date. A bread maker is also useful, but you’ll need to make sure you invest in a reliable brand, or you’ll be eating loaves with holes through the middle. Then there are appliances that seem a little useless, but can be great when placed in the right hands. Waffle makers often just sit at the back of a cupboard for decades, but if you have kids and run out of dessert ideas then they’re very quick and easy to make. Also, food dehydrators tend to get abandoned, but they’re great for people who do a lot of camping and hiking. The food retains its goodness and taste, but it is three times lighter and can be stored for up to six months in a sealed bag or tupperware box.

Lastly, homemade clothing and soft furnishings. For most people, knitting, sewing, crocheting and embroidering are all hobbies that have been learnt over the years. One craft project can take a good week or two to complete in your spare time, so is it worth it? If you’ve got the skills under your belt already then we say yes, but if you still need to learn then be prepared for some slow progress. You’ll need to find out what you’re best at, and then invest in the materials you need. Knitting and crochet tend to be cheap, especially when you buy from eBay. Sewing, on the other hand, is generally expensive if you haven’t acquired a sewing machine from your Mum or Grandma. Be prepared to shell out up to £150 or £200 for a really decent machine.

Whether homemade foods and items are worth the trouble over shop bought ones really depends upon your individual situation. Consider whether you have the space for your projects, a bit of money to invest in the equipment to get you started and the spare time to work at them regularly. Hopefully then you can pick and choose your own life of self-sufficiency, balanced with shop-bought convenience, saving yourself both time and money at once.

If you are cooking for big groups you generally want food which is delicious and earns you maximum kudos as the chef but does not have you slaving over your cooker for 48 hours prior to the event. It seems to me that the most important thing is for the food to be as basic and tasty as possible. In a word? Lasagne.

I would like to state at the point that when it comes to cooking for large numbers you will find that mince is your best friend. It is also extremely cost effective. Find the biggest pot you have and splash in some olive oil. Now add mince (obviously the quantities are dependent on how many people you are cooking for but generally a kilo of mince will make a lasagne large enough to feed eight people). Brown the mince along with some chopped onions. You could also add mushrooms if you would like to bulk the recipe out although mushrooms can be one of those ‘marmite’ ingredients that people either love or hate, so I would only add them if you are sure that all of your guests actually like them. Once the mince is browned add 2 tins of chopped tomatoes and a carton of passata with garlic. As I said, you want to make the process of cooking for your large group as stress-free as possible so, while you could add fresh chopped garlic the passata with garlic added means you don’t have to. You can also add a generous glug of red wine.

While you leave your sauce to bubble away, you will want to create your bechamel sauce. You are basically creating a white sauce by adding milk, flour and butter to a saucepan. Now, I am a fan of the all-in-one method where you add the ingredients all at once and then whisk your heart out while you wait for the sauce to thicken. It is extremely important that you whisk continuously as there is nothing worse than a lumpy sauce. You will also want to turn down the heat once it reaches your desired thickness so as to cook out the floury taste. In terms of quantities I really think this is a judgement call but it is probably better to create more sauce than necessary then having to start from scratch when you realise you do not have enough. Add some salt and pepper and grate a little nutmeg in for flavour.

Now you can create your masterpiece. Grab a large rectangular oven dish and start by scooping some of your mince mixture. Layer this with some dried lasagne sheets. On top of the sheets spread some of your bechamel sauce and then some more mince. Continue with this pattern until you reach the top of your dish but keep some bechamel sauce back as you will want to finish with a layer of lasagne sheets and plenty of bechamel. Now grate loads of cheddar cheese over the top and place in the oven at 180 degrees for 35 – 40 minutes. Job done! Serve with salad and garlic bread.

Another crowd pleasing mince-based dish is chilli. Everyone loves chilli and it couldn’t be easier to make. Brown the mince with some chopped green peppers, garlic and onions. The amounts are really down to personal preference. Once the mince has browned, add some chopped tomatoes and water along with crushed chillies, chilli powder, cayenne and paprika. How hot you make it depends on your taste levels but just remember that you cannot take heat back out, so make sure you are tasting the sauce as it simmers. I would leave it simmering for at least 30 – 45 minutes. Once it has thickened and the liquid has cooked away all you have to do is add kidney beans and you are done. This can be served in a big pot with everyone helping themselves. Serve with an assortment of rice, tacos, tortillas and tortilla chips and, most importantly of all, plenty of sour cream. A beer or two wouldn’t go astray either.

Both of the above recipes can be recreated as vegetarian dishes by adding any variety of vegetables you wish instead of using mince. They are incredibly versatile. You can also use vegetarian mince if you prefer.