Friday, July 06, 2007

Spoilt for Choice?

Generally speaking home-made anything works out much cheaper than buying a similar product. There are a few exceptions such as hard cheese (it takes a gallon of milk to make a pound of cheese, and then weeks before it is ready to eat - I have made some, just once, to see if I could). As to soft, curd cheeses, these can easily be made at home by just by making a junket and draining the curds through muslin. A good soft cheese can be made by draining surplus yogurt through muslin.

In yesterday's paper there was a full-page article about the enormous variety of jams and pasta displayed on supermarket shelves. Hundreds of different varieties of jams they said, (I think it was well over 200, I haven't brought the article up with me) by this they must include many made with the same fruits (i.e. strawberry jam ) but produced by different manufacturers. When you think about it, it could be true as apart from the different individual fruit jams, you get the mixed fruits, the conserves, the extra fruit jam, the low-sugar jam, the jams '"just like grandma used to make" (this at nearly £3 for a 12oz pot - proves that it makes sense to make your own).

Similarly, pasta - over a hundred different varieties of those it said. With a wide range of shapes of dried pasta, different manufacturers, the normal, the quick-cook, even the fresh pasta (although that would be in the chilled aisle, and the many the supermarkets don't stock, it could run into hundreds. It is almost a bad with baked beans. Again several different manufacturere, each priced from the cheapest 'value beans ', to the most expensive. Beans with sausages, low sugar beans, four-pack beans, curried beans, spicy beans, chilli beans, to name but a few.
We mustn't forget - there are around 34 different types of milk for sale in supermarkets too (admittedly some are flavoured). If you are seeking 'locally produced milk' I read that this could come from up to 150 miles away from your store. 'Local' in supermarkets terms, seems to cover a wide area.

Olive oil (and other cooking oils) mentioned in the article - again a wide variety. Each Meditteranean country seems to have their own oil (and I do like, when preparing a dish to use the oil from that region). It is easy enough to make up your own 'light' olive oil by blending it with (in my case) sunflower oil - usually half and half.
At the back of one of my open shelves, but in a very dark place, I keep my collection of oils - small bottles of walnut oil, truffle oil, sesame oil, larger bottles of extra virgin and lighter olive oils (from various countries and almost always brought back as a pressie when family have had their holiday abroad). Nearer the hob I keep my bottle of sunflower oil which is my main 'frying' oil. As mentioned before, Beloved has a low cholesterol count (it was 4 at the last check a couple of weeks ago) which seems to prove (to me at least) that the natural fats, butter, oils, cream, beef dripping, which he eats as though there is no tomorrow, perhaps don't do as much harm as the other kind. Or is he just lucky?

Many, many years ago, when it came to manufactured foods, we were given far less choice but the one thing I did notice was that in almost every store, one side of a whole aisle held nothing but biscuits. There was never such a variety of anything else. Now the aisles are three times the length and contain even more varieties of biscuits. I'm not even mentioning the range of potato crisps - that is endless. Yet often, basic foodstuffs, which we (certainly I) really need, are difficult to find - at best limited and quite often not stocked at all.

In almost every case, apart from baked beans (which are good for us), and possibly pasta, the biggest selection on the longest isles are foods that we are encouraged not to eat.

What seems to be happening is that we are given so much choice that it hardly seems worth bothering to make anything from scratch anymore. And that is just how the manufacturers and supermarkets like it. "Don't bother to cook" they say, "let us do it for you". But at what cost to our health and to our purse?
Time now to take control again our own kitchens. Discover the pleasure of making it yourself, the even greater pleasure of eating the end results (the family can vouch for that). Nothing bought can taste better.

Although good quality dried pasta can be bought, from time to time it is worth making some pasta dough at home. (the children would love to get involved with this). Fresh pasta takes only a very few minutes to cook and you don't need a machine to roll it out. A rolling pin will do. Strong bread flour is best to use for home-made pasta, but also look out for OO grade flour which is perfect. However, almost any wheat flour will work.
The amount of eggs depends a bit on the type of flour used but the book suggest 100g (3 1/2 oz) flour to each medium egg used. If making a smaller amount of flour, mix in a bowl, not on the table.

Standard Pasta Dough - makes 1 1/2 ln (700g) pasta dough
1 lb (500g) flour
5 or 6 eggs
2 -3 tblsp olive oil
Put the flour in a mound onto a flat surface. Make a well in the centre and into this break the eggs with a good pinch of salt and the oil. Using one hand, gradually bring the flour into the centre, stirring with your fingers to break up the eggs and to end up with a batter. Use the other hand to support the wall of flour and prevent the eggs from flowing out. When the batter has become stiff and kneadable (you may not have used up all the flour) , form it into a lump and knead with the ball of your hand, pressing flat, folding and kneading until silky and elastic (this make take up to ten minutes). If using a pasta machine just knead to combine ingredients, then let the machine finish the kneading and the rolling. Otherwise, cover the kneaded dough with a cloth and leave to stand for one hour.
To use the dough, divide into portions and roll out thinly. If needing noodles, cut into narrow strips, for lasagne and cannelloni, cut wider strips. Cut into circles to make tortellinis, or leave the rolled pasta in one piece to make ravioli. To cook the pasta, have ready a large pan of boiling, well salted water, and cook the freshly made pasta for about 3 - 5 minutes.
Note: If making a smaller amount of pasta dough, start with less flour and add more as and when necessary as it is not easy to incorporate more liquid if the dough ends up too dry.
Tip: A richer pasta can be make using just egg yolks, or use some yolks with whole eggs. This means you can use the whites to make meringues, soft-scoop ice-cream etc.

Coloured Pasta:
Add finely chopped herbs to the flour to make Speckled Green Pasta
Add cooked, pureed and well drained spinach or chard to make Green Pasta
Add pureed cooked beetroot to make Red Pasta
Add a tsp. of tomato puree to make Orange Pasta
Add a pinch of saffron to the flour to make Yellow Pasta
Note: you may need to add a little extra flour to compensate the any liquid in the vegetables.

To form Tortellini:
Cut circles of pasta dough about 3" dia (7.5cm). In the centre put a teaspoon of chosen stuffing (spinach and ricotta cheese is a classic). Moisten edges with water and fold up to a semi-circle/ half-moon shape. Pinch together the edges to make a tight seal (they can be cooked at this point but worth continuing). Take each shape in your hands and curve the straight edge gently around the index finger until almost touching. At the same time fold up the curved side (to look like the brim of a hat). Pinch the ends of the curved pasta together so that it remains curved round. Lay each on a floured towel, not touching or they may stick together. Leave to dry out for a few minutes before popping into boiling salted water or stock and cook for five minutes or until tender. They tend to rise to the surface once cooked through. But always check. Serve with a cream sauce: a little melted butter swirled with cream and plenty of grated Parmesan. Pour this over the cooked, drained tortellini and serve with more Parmesan.
Note: if wishing to use a meat filling etc, this must be pre-cooked before using. Remember that a grating of nutmeg goes well with soft cheese fillings and also with meat. A subtle flavour that turns a dish into something a little bit special.

I don't feel there is any point in drying your home-made pasta when dried pasta is cheap enough and easily available. On the other hand, fresh pasta is more expensive to buy, but of course far cheaper to make yourself. When preparing parties etc, I have successfully frozen my home-made cannelloni - stuffed with pre-cooked and cooled spag.bol meat sauce - which I later thawed out, put into a shallow casserole dish and smothered them with passata and grated cheese, then baked in the normal way. Freshly baked lasagne could also be chilled, portioned and frozen to be re-heated later.
In truth I used to make my own pasta when catering mainly because it was far less costly, yet every scrap was eaten as it was so delicious. The guests thought it was wonderful, so for special occasions I now always make my own - cost has nothing to do with it. Always serve the best when you can. Keep following my hints and tips and you will find this can be often the cheapest way. A real win-win situation.