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No Recipe

by | Oct 7, 2019

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Hello, friends, I’m No Recipe, a stay-at-home dad of two young’uns in Midcoast Maine. I cook from scratch on a razor-thin budget and also teach nutritional cooking for a non-profit in my neck of the woods. Cooking from scratch and using local produce is part of how we eat like royalty on a monthly allocation of $400.

My shopping list is planned annually. I buy beans, rice, flour and oil during the winter months, meat in the spring, and fresh local vegetables throughout the summer. The ability to preserve these veggies in season allows us to eat fresh food year-round and make the most of Maine’s bounty when it’s most affordable. 

Cooking from scratch can be easier than you think, and it results in delicious, healthy, inexpensive meals free of artificial preservatives, colorings and other undesirable additions. With a little practice you can sculpt your food to perfectly suit your tastes and diet.

August and September are peak months of plenty in our brief growing season. Each year, the challenge is to put more food away than the year before, preserving the harvest to savor the flavor as far into the following year as possible. With the temperature dropping, it’s a race against winter, and it pays to learn to run in pace with nature!

During these cooling days an abundant second crop of cucumbers and zucchini begs to be pickled. The garlic is still fresh and the jalapeños are ripe. The dill flowers have seeded and their season has almost passed, so we must move quickly! Gathering up the necessary ingredients — mustard seed, peppercorns, dill flowers, bay leaves, jalapeños and grape leaves (yes, grape leaves!) — I fill a big stock pot with water and vinegar and bring the brine to a near boil while slicing the cukes and zukes with a sharp knife.

The secret to a crisp pickle that stands up to canning and maintains its crunch through the winter is to add grape leaves. The tannins in the leaves help maintain crispness while doubling as an inner cap to keep the pickles submerged in the brine. In the absence of grape leaves, there are many options, including white oak leaves. When gathering oak leaves, look for small, rounded leaves, as these contain the correct level of tannins. The mustard seed speeds the flavoring of the pickles for the impatient, while the peppercorns and jalapeño slices are a counterpoint to the garlic and dill, adding a firm yet subtle bite. Nothing puts the finishing touch on a burger or sandwich quite like a good layer of pickles!

The next star of late August and September is the workhorse known as the tomato. Local organic tomatoes range from $3 to $6 per pound, and many places are willing to give a bulk discount. Their acidity makes canning with them simple, and their shelf life once canned is impressive. From a hearty pasta sauce to a robust salsa or even the demure sundried tomato, there are few limits to what this versatile veggie can become. Tomatoes also freeze incredibly well. Once frozen, the skins pop right off in warm water, though I usually leave the skins intact and process with an immersion blender — the Excalibur of kitchen appliances!

Peppers are also harvested in late summer. As convenient to freeze or dry as the tomato, and similarly priced, they boast a plethora of flavors, hot and sweet. A green bell pepper to beef up your pasta sauce, a spicy jalapeño or chili to embolden your salsa, or solo as a hot sauce — there’s always a use for peppers.

Let’s not overlook onions and garlic, which show up in the majority of the meals I cook. Many varieties of onion will be happy to hibernate in a cool, dry spot through the worst of the winter. Garlic will store well the same way, but fermenting the cloves in raw local honey is another great way to preserve it. Garlic adds wonderfully earthy undertones to several hot sauces I make, and is mission-critical in pasta sauces.

Herbs are another important player, but since they grow throughout the season, there’s no rush. Besides bundling and drying your herbs, you can easily freeze them to save the fresh flavor. They last about six months in the freezer. The trick to freezing herbs is to dry them off after washing and to freeze them one layer at a time on a baking sheet before bagging or jarring them. Basil, parsley, cilantro and celery are much better frozen than dried. The celery works best frozen when it is blanched prior to freezing. Frozen tomatoes, basil and cilantro provide a satisfyingly fresh tomato soup to shine through January’s bleakness.

How much does it all cost? Assuming you buy everything instead of growing or trading for it, here are the figures for organic pickles: 

5 lbs. of cucumbers, @ $3.99/lb., come to $19.95. 
Dill was $2.99 for a bunch. 
The garlic, @ $10.99/lb., came to $1.76. 
$2.63 in salt. 
$0.70 of jalapeño peppers. 
$8.39 in vinegar. 

The few mustard seeds, peppercorns and bay leaves didn’t break a dollar, which brought the total for a six-quart batch to $27.33. The same amount of pickles from Vlasic would cost you $25.52, but they would not be organic. The same batch of pickles could be made using non-organic ingredients for about $12 less, making them far less expensive than their commercial counterpart. To lower your costs further you can grow your own, look around for backyard veggie swaps, or find a neighbor with too many!

A few other downsides to commercial pickles:
• Polysorbate 80 (found in most pickles) acts as a carrier that crosses the blood-brain barrier and has been linked to increased risk of colon cancer. 
• Yellow 5 food dye, another chemical byproduct, has also been linked to health issues. 
• Sodium benzoate, a preservative which, when in the presence of citric acid, creates benzene, a known carcinogen. Many products contain both, and you’ll find citric acid in most condiments.

I’ll step off my soapbox here and urge you to continue your own research if it concerns you. There are many resources on industrial food additives online. Personally, I don’t think the meager $1.81 you would save buying the commercial pickles outweighs the potential health risks. Besides, the homemade pickles taste so much better, they provide a sense of accomplishment, and you’re supporting local businesses. 

Maine’s agriculture is stunning, especially considering our short grow season and temperamental weather. Be sure to visit your local farmers’ market, food co-op or grocery store to get the local produce while you still can — or before I get there first!

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