Today marked one year since I started The Back 40. It’s been a big year with big changes: My grandmother died, as did G.’s dad.
And then there’s the things that remain the same: G. and I still live in separate states. I still can’t sell my condo in Milwaukee because the housing market is bad. We’re still waiting for the economy to turn around and hoping we’ll eventually find work in the same area.
I think I have changed, in no small part because of this blog. I feel more confident now, as a writer, a gardener and a cook. First of all, I am delighted that people actually read this blog and even more delighted when someone tells me they are going to try a recipe or do some cooking of their own.
Second, I am now confident in what a gardening instructor once told G. and I: Plants want to grow, and if you don’t do anything really bad, they will. There have been many days when that thought has given me much comfort. And the plants do grow, they really do. G. and I thought this year’s garden was done after the storm on Memorial Day weekend, but it has bounced back and once again we have more food than we can eat.
And then there’s the cooking. I feel like I’ve improved a lot, although as in most things, the more I know, the more I realize how little I know. But I have a few tips to offer, the things I’ve learned from a year of serious cooking:
_ Gardening and cooking at home saves you a lot of money. I buy the groceries for G.’s home and mine, and between the two, I probably spend about $40 a week on groceries. No joke. And that’s covering breakfast, packed lunches and dinner.
_ Buy a kitchen scale. It’s worth whatever you pay for it, whether it’s $25 or $55. Recipes done by weight are more accurate, and it’s quicker, when baking, if you can just dump in the flour, zero the scale, dump in the sugar, zero the scale, and so on. Also, most European recipes are by weight, and there are good ones readily available online, so having a scale will let you take advantage of that.
_ Taste the chili pepper before you add it to the pot. Otherwise, it might be too hot and your boyfriend will cry.
_ There are several ways to turn fresh pumpkin into “canned” pumpkin for baking purposes. The easiest is to roast the pumpkin in the oven until it’s soft and then scrape the pulp into a food processor. Process until you have a smooth puree, and then strain that for at least an hour to remove the excess moisture. Then you can bake with it or freeze it for later use.
_ Buy an immersion blender. It makes making soups and other purees much easier because you can blend them in the pot and don’t have to transfer hot food to a blender or food processor.
_ You can never have too many dish towels. They get damp and dirty fast.
_ Do your prep before you start canning. That means have the vegetables or fruit cleaned, chopped and ready to go, and you have all the ingredients for your recipe set out. You can’t stop once you start, so if you are missing or short an ingredient, it’s best to know in advance.
_ The bugs that ride into your kitchen on vegetables from the garden won’t hurt you, but they’re still scary and disgusting.
_ Don’t put containers of hot soup right into the freezer. The soup will expand as it freezes, the containers will explode and that’s a mess.
_ Chocolate chips are good in almost any baked item imaginable.
_ If you have onions, garlic and tomatoes, you have a base for dozens of different dishes, from pasta sauce to salsa and Indian curry. Those are the three most useful things you can grow.
_ If you have a good library, you can save a lot of money by checking out cookbooks, trying the recipes and writing down the ones you like. If you’re reading this blog, the chances are that you, like me, have more cookbooks that you know what to do with.
_ Read the whole recipe before you start cooking. Sometimes, there are unexpected twists.
_ Salt is a good thing. Most home cooks don’t use enough of it, which is why our food tends to taste bland. And, if you are worried about sodium, the best way to lower it is to avoid processed foods, not homemade ones.
_ If a recipe doesn’t turn out, the problem might be with the recipe, not the cook. Not all recipes are good, so don’t beat yourself up about it. Just move on to a better one.
_ Cook foods you like. When I get a new recipe, I scan the list of ingredients. If I like them individually, I make it. But if it calls for foods I don’t like on their own, there’s a good chance I won’t like them combined, and I skip it.
_ Cooking is a skill, not a mystery, and you can improve with practice. So just do it.