Food Friendly May: What to Cook? What to Buy?

I think everyone who reads this blog on a semi-regular basis knows my feelings in general about homemade, handmade, and getting your hands into things being a big part of my personal philosophy of being superfantastic. I’m in favor, full stop.

But that doesn’t mean I’m a fanatic or that I don’t recognize that there are a lot of lives out there that don’t work the way mine does.

And so it is that I was glad to see a book like Make the Bread, Buy the Butter suddenly become not only a best seller, but a tiny sliver of a cultural phenomenon. There are things that are really, seriously better and usually less expensive when made by hand… and there are things where the hassle hugely outweighs any benefit to the average human being. Having someone come along and quantify which is which is kind of a cool idea.

In general, I think Jennifer Reese does a pretty good job of doing just that.

Note that I said ‘in general.’ After all, Jennifer Reese is one person with amusingly phrased opinions. Your mileage – like mine – may vary. In some cases wildly so.

It’s hard to argue with her assertion that buying eggs is cheaper, easier, and a lot less hassle with neighbors and local urban authorities than raising chickens in a backyard in the city. In fact, I think that could have gone without saying, though I certainly would have missed her colorful descriptions of her experiments in the matter.

On the other hand, her conclusion about chutney is that there’s no point in making or buying it because nobody in the world actually likes chutney. Again, her prose is highly entertaining, but I’ve got a brother with a two-jar a month chutney habit. He’s got a tamarind on his back, and I think he might well enjoy making his own. Reese describes making the Cordon Rose Banana Cake from Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Cake Bible as a frustratingly picky process that resulted in a mediocre cake that nobody could possibly enjoy. That’s the cake I throw together on a dull afternoon when overripe bananas go on desperation sale at my neighborhood grocery because it’s fast, easy, and extremely popular in my crowd. Also, her scones are wildly over-fussy (though I do understand she was trying to replicate an over-fussy scone from Starbucks), and she definitely over-complicates making vanilla extract.

Reese’s method for vanilla? Split the vanilla bean, scrape out the seeds, put bean pod and seeds in small glass bottle, carefully measure the vodka, pour it over the bean and seeds, shake, let sit to do its magic. My father’s method for vanilla? Split the bean not quite in two, put it in the bottle of vodka, allow to ripen.

My other complaint with this book? Endless tiny, wry jabs at weight. Over and over again she talks about how making something too often would result in her becoming hugely fat, which is – it goes without saying, but gets said anyway – a fate worse than the death it will result in with undue rapidity. I have a feeling if I went through the book with a highlighter and marked every anti-fat comment in it, it would begin to look like those scripts back in the day when I got the lead in the school play.

Still, those quibbles aside, this is a highly entertaining book with a lot of great, pithy advice in it. It’s brimful of instructions for making things that most people would never imagine it possible to make at home. Sure, we all know that we can buy pasta makers and that home baked bread is a possibility, even if we never try doing those things for ourselves. But how many of us seriously contemplate that it’s even possible to make our own Worscestershire sauce, let alone whether or not it’s worth the effort? When was the last time you considered making your own yogurt? Curing your own Canadian bacon?

Also, the book is refreshingly free from pseudo-spirituality of the kitchen and humorless political screeds. It’s about the practical, the fun of trying out new things, and the balancing act we all have to pull off everyday between the ideal and the reality of life.

I think Reese’s attitude is best summed up by this quote from the afterword:

“Almost everything is better when homemade. While this may have started off as an opinion (though I’m not sure it did), I would now state it confidently as fact. Almost everything. But not everything. Which makes me inordinately happy. Because I think it’s reassuring that you can walk into a supermarket and buy a bag of potato chips and a tub of rice pudding that are better than you can make at home.”

While I might personally put my rice pudding up against anything found in a tub at a grocery store, there are certainly other things that I find better – and even sometimes more satisfying – to buy than to make. If you’re looking to figure out which is which in your world, I highly recommend taking a good, long look at this book… and then deciding for yourself.

19 Responses to “Food Friendly May: What to Cook? What to Buy?”

  1. Jacquilynne May 19, 2012 at 9:26 am #

    I haven’t read the book, but Jennifer’s sister used to be the Product Manager for the site I work on. I realize this is relevant to nothing at all, but I feel compelled to hit ‘submit comment’ anyway.

  2. class factotum May 19, 2012 at 12:02 pm #

    Ever since I learned how to do it a few years ago, I have been making my own yogurt. It does taste better than storebought and I can make it with full-fat milk. I do not care for fat-free yogurt.

    I also just learned to make my own mustard! It’s super easy and it’s so good. And it is way, way cheaper than the fancy mustards at the store: http://rosemarried.com/2010/12/07/a-handmade-holiday-and-a-recipe-for-spicy-brown-mustard/

    Salad dressing: easy. Fried calamari: easy. Caesar salad: easy. Bread: easy. Spring rolls: easy but time consuming. Nutella! easy, easy, easy! http://class-factotum.blogspot.com/2011/12/ho-made-nutella.html

  3. ChloeMireille May 19, 2012 at 2:25 pm #

    Thanks to Pinterest, I no longer feel the need to go to a Chinese restaurant ever again. I can make my own fried rice, lo mein, beef and broccoli, and anything involving cornstarch-coated chicken being fried/baked and covered in sauce(General Tso, etc.)

    The most expensive part of making Chinese food is the meat, honestly.

  4. thinposter May 19, 2012 at 9:33 pm #

    Class Factotum, do you use a yogurt maker? I have had my eye on one, but I suspect I might be more interested in the adorable little jars it comes with than the actual appliance?

    As for homemade in general, I’ve felt the need to step away from Pinterest because it was starting to make me feel like a failure for not making my own ketchup, raising chickens on my condo balcony, and storing all of my homemade, sun-dried pasta in antique Mason jars.

    I certainly see the value in homemade, but I also see the value in the convenience. I think we all have our things that we make well at home and prefer our own versions of. For me, it’s meatballs and marinara, but I am very glad not to feel compelled to mess with homemade spaghetti to go along with!

  5. Violet May 19, 2012 at 11:08 pm #

    Growing up, making yogurt meant- boil full-fat milk, let it cool to lukewarm, put some old yogurt in it, wait 8 hrs or so, voila! Yogurt.

    What are new yogurt makers? As long as one has probiotic culture (sour stuff is better) and warm environment, yogurt should happen from milk. no?

  6. thinposter May 19, 2012 at 11:11 pm #

    Violet, I think the yogurt makers heat it to the correct temperature for the correct amount of time. You either use a powdered starter, or yogurt you have already made.

    That’s what I gather from reading the reviews on Amazon, at least.

  7. Miss Plumcake May 20, 2012 at 12:42 am #

    @Violet & Thinposter: I make my own yogurt in the crockpot and it’s essentially Violet’s recipe, modified for the slow cooker (high until the milk is hot, then add a bit of old yogurt, wrap the crockpot in a towel for maximum heat retention and turn it off). There’s no reason on earth to buy a yogurt maker.

  8. Lisa from SoCal May 20, 2012 at 8:14 am #

    Ok, I have to say, though, that I come from German family where potato chips were made at home, and homemade potato chips are pretty darn good. A huge amount of trouble, and many bought from the store are quite good, but…mine are better. I gotta say the rice pudding comment has me doubting her taste a bit: I’ve never met a prepared-in-the-store rice pudding where the rice was over-cooked to gluey starch and way too sweet, whereas rice pudding at home is super-easy to make and completely delicious.

    My chickens in the backyard really aren’t much trouble, but I didn’t really get them because I thought the eggs were that big of a deal; there are farmer’s markets everywhere. I got them because I felt sorry for them at a Chinese market. Once they got fat and happy they started laying really very nice eggs for me.

  9. class factotum May 20, 2012 at 10:11 am #

    Yep. On the yogurt – I just heat the milk in a big bowl to about 160-180 in the microwave, let it cool to 110-115, plop in a spoonful of Dannon or Yoplait, little stir – it doesn’t have to be all mixed in, cover it with a plate, then put it in the oven overnight with the oven light on. Sometimes, I’ll heat the oven to 200 (and then turn it off) before the milk goes in. No need for an expensive, fancy gadget that hogs up more of your valuable kitchen real estate.

    For Greek yogurt, I read that you just let the yogurt strain in a cheesecloth until you have the consistency you want.

  10. class factotum May 20, 2012 at 10:14 am #

    Thinposter, I used to make my own pasta – OK, I did it a few times with the cool pasta machine I bought at TJMaxx. It was a huge pain in the neck and I could never taste any difference between it and store bought. So I agree that the effort should be made with the sauce, not the spaghetti. I’ve never had a jarred sauce (I didn’t buy them, my husband did) that tastes as good as homemade. And homemade isn’t hard!

  11. crewbie May 20, 2012 at 5:04 pm #

    On the subject of things to make at home vs. buy, here is a wonderful, wonderful blog (that now has an accompanying cookbook) that is a great read with lots of delicious recipes and thoughtful commentary: http://www.eatingfromthegroundup.com/

    Her stance is that there are certainly some things it makes more practical sense to buy vs. make, but that’s it’s still fun to try your hand at making just about anything at home!

    (and as a sidenote, she highly recommends making butter from scratch just for table/spreading use, as opposed to store bought butter for baking and cooking)

  12. Victoria May 20, 2012 at 8:41 pm #

    I’m interested in this book (and the concept behind it), but I’m quite amused that rice pudding is her example of what’s better bought from the store. Um, rice pudding at home involves four ingredients and maybe 5 minutes of work (and it’s DELICIOUS). I confess to never having bought rice pudding at a store, but I’m always disappointed when I get it at a diner.

    BTW, hi class factotum! This is the same Victoria from Ask A Manager.

  13. ChaChaHeels May 21, 2012 at 9:48 am #

    I just don’t think this writer knows a damned thing about cooking. And I think her fat phobia proves that.

    There, I said it. I can prove it but you all know it’s true, too.
    Sheesh–if you’ve got good raw cultured cream, butter takes all the effort of pushing the button on your food processor. And I guarantee you, you will never want the denatured, food colour fat they sell at the supermarket again. Home made pasta involves some elbow grease for a few minutes, but it has a totally different taste from dry pasta, and you use each of those foods for different purposes anyway. One is not really interchangeable with the other, so the discussion doesn’t apply. And as for rice pudding? Not one thing is easier in the kitchen than that, and you can flavour it any way you want. The stuff you buy at the store is a major disappointment and extremely overpriced whatever the cost.

    But this is a food writer who can’t make vanilla extract properly, so what am I going on about?

  14. ChaChaHeels May 21, 2012 at 9:55 am #

    Also, if you want to read a great article on how to make your own yogurt, click here:

    http://www.salon.com/2011/01/08/how_to_make_yogurt/

    click on his link to Harold McGee if you want to read what a well informed food writer has to say about how it all works, if you want. It’ll take the taste of this book right out of your mouth.

  15. class factotum May 21, 2012 at 8:44 pm #

    hi Victoria! Fancy seeing you here!

  16. KESW May 21, 2012 at 9:18 pm #

    I will be what, the fifth or sixth voice speaking up in support of homemade yogurt? It is seriously so dang easy, and especially when you have kids who eat it like there’s no tomorrow it makes a big budget difference.

    Also on my “always make” list is chicken stock. I am still shamefully inept at dealing with whole chickens, but I make my awesome husband do it and save up bones in a gallon size freezer ziplock until it’s full, then just simmer them merrily on the stove until the bones are soft. Tastier, cheaper, and more nutritious than the store bought any day.

  17. Violet May 22, 2012 at 1:55 am #

    @ChaChaHeels

    Yes, fresh butter is awesome.
    My mom had a friend with dairy business and we got fresh milk with full fat. We made butter from the full fat yogurt and used to drink rest of the butter milk with lime juice and salt.

    @Lisa from SoCal

    My mom also had chickens the same way. She said she didn’t have the heart to kill the birds she fed. So, we had eggs instead.

  18. Gauss May 24, 2012 at 9:26 pm #

    Her comment about chutney? Ridiculous. I’ve just made the most amazing rhubarb chutney, and I’m planning for another batch this weekend.

  19. Lisa from SoCal May 25, 2012 at 5:38 pm #

    @ Violet And the eat the bugs in my backyard, which also includes skeeters (odd for SoCal, but I got ‘em) and slugs. So I have to say, even though it’s cost way more than it will ever be worth in eggses, I like having the chickens. And they are funny when they get mad and chase my little dogs.