Doesn't Take Much To Do It Yourself In The Kitchen

I never thought my 6 1/2-by-9-foot kitchen could double as a cheese making factory, but there I was mixing a vat of whole milk with cream and lemon juice to make ricotta cheese. Cowgirl Creamery it wasn't, but as the curds wrested themselves from the whey, I was astonished anew at how I really don't need a big kitchen to create something from scratch.

Nor do I need to supply my salt tooth with bags of organic corn chips from my neighborhood market — all that's required is some cornmeal, salt, an oven and a bit of time. The possibilities for do-it-yourself culinary projects are endless, I soon discovered, though I also discovered I had a tendency to go overboard.

Case in point: I was at the farmers market last summer stocking up on cucumbers to make my own pickles (green beans, too). As I passed by the honey stand, I wondered if it might be too much to cultivate a hive on the fire escape outside my bedroom window. Would the neighbors really mind?

Though I quickly — and wisely — nixed the budding beekeeper idea, there was no stopping me in my other endeavors. Jams, jellies, sauces — no problem that I didn't have a lot of room or a garden. I availed myself of seasonal (and cheap-ish) produce at the market, cleared the schedule and persevered. I quick-pickled pearl onions because they're cute and also because I love them. Along with a wedge of sharp cheddar and good bread, there's nothing finer. I sterilized way too many jars for a vat of blackberry-huckleberry jam, the literal fruits of hours of labor picking in the wilds of Northern California, and which I still haven't tired of. And that ricotta cheese — I will probably never buy it again. From-scratch has a delicacy and sweetness the store-bought stuff just can't match.

About The Author

Nicole Spiridakis lives in San Francisco and writes about food, travel and her native state on her blog, cucinanicolina.com. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, chow.com and other publications.

When you start thinking about, not to mention getting into the spirit of, DIY, there's really no end to what you can accomplish: homemade gnocchi, handmade vegetable potstickers, granola bars, hot sauce, fruit preserves, chocolate syrup, candy, butter, nut butters, beer, English muffins, even cured meats if you're into that sort of thing. If you have interest and scope of the imagination enough, the DIY world is your virtual oyster.

For the purpose of today's exercise, however, I've chosen a few recipes that are not difficult and should, depending on appetite, last more than a few days, so that effort will linger long after the dishes are done. I've also chosen recipes that when served in sequence could make up a complete meal: homemade gravlax (salmon cured in dill, sugar, salt, vinegar and a healthy shot of vodka) with a sauce incorporating homemade mustard to start; homemade pasta with vegetables and ricotta cheese; and a bittersweet chocolate version of Nutella nibbled along with cups of chai to finish. (Each dish may also be enjoyed on its own — try a light appetizer of thinly sliced, toasted baguette topped with a generous spoonful of ricotta cheese and sauteed zucchini or roasted tomatoes — in a myriad of ways as well.)

Of course, there's no shame in buying mustard or chocolate spread or peanut butter. Most of us have neither the time nor the inclination to make everything from scratch. But there's a sense of satisfaction that comes from doing it yourself that can't be matched. There's also the cost-saving benefit to consider, especially if you buy spices in bulk for your mustard or chai concentrate or get a deal on bulk almonds you're able to turn into almond butter.

Plus — dare I mention? — it's fun to see what you can create.

The key here is to choose projects you'll actually use and which entice you. For example, I don't love or use hot sauce too much, so I haven't tried making my own version (though I have loved homemade ones and will probably attempt it eventually). I love ketchup, though, and have discovered that the homemade version, with tomatoes, vinegar, garlic and a mix of spices blended together until smooth, is easy and much better than the store-bought stuff. Also, know your limitations. If you don't have the time or patience (or iron stomach) to make a batch of homemade sausage, don't force it. Make some honey-rhubarb jam instead.

I'm still amazed by my cheese-making prowess, and have definitely patted myself on the back for saving a bit of money as well as a trip to the supermarket. I don't think I could turn out a wheel of brie — yet — but what I can do is inordinately satisfying. Stirred into a quick pot of whole-wheat pasta, the cheese I made with my own hands and a few extra hours elevates a weeknight meal beyond the ordinary, which may be the best part of doing it yourself.

Mustard

From-scratch mustard is surprisingly simple to make and will last about 6 weeks stored in the refrigerator. For a smoother version, grind the mustard seeds longer. This recipe is for a more rustic version, not to be confused with the spicier Dijon.

Mustard
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

Makes 1 cup, easily doubled

6 tablespoons mustard seeds

1/2 cup mustard powder

2 teaspoons salt

1 tablespoon honey

3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

1/2 cup water

In a spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle, grind the mustard seeds for a few seconds. (You'll leave them mostly whole.)

Put the seeds into a bowl and add the mustard powder, salt, honey, apple cider vinegar and water. Stir well. Pour into a glass jar and store in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours to let the flavors blend before using.

Gravlax

Gravlax is a kind of Scandinavian cured salmon that gets its flavor from dill and a bit of liquor (if you abstain, water also will work). Plan to start curing the fish at least three days before you want to eat it so it becomes fully infused.

Gravlax i i
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
Gravlax
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

Makes 1 pound

1/2 cup kosher salt

1/4 cup sugar

2 tablespoons ground black pepper

1 tablespoon maple syrup

1 pound salmon fillet

3 tablespoons cognac, vodka or white wine

1⁄2 bunch dill, chopped

5 sprigs from a fennel top

Mustard dill sauce, optional, for serving (recipe below)

Combine salt, sugar, pepper and maple syrup in a bowl and stir well to combine. Remove any bones from the salmon and place fish skin side down on a piece of parchment paper in a large baking dish. Pour the salt mixture over the fish and rub into the flesh, then sprinkle cognac, vodka or wine over it and arrange the dill and fennel on top of the salmon. Wrap the salmon tightly in the parchment paper, then place a slightly smaller baking dish directly on top and weigh it down with unopened cans or a book. Refrigerate for 3 to 4 days.

After the salmon is cured, remove from parchment, rinse in cold water and pat dry with paper towel or clean dishcloth. Thinly slice fish before serving.


Mustard Dill Sauce

Makes 1/2 cup

1/4 cup mustard

1⁄2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1⁄4 cup olive oil

2 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons minced fresh dill

Place mustard in a bowl and whisk in the salt, lemon juice, water and olive oil. Whisk well to fully combine. Add the minced dill.

To serve, place a slice of gravlax on a piece of bread, top with 1/2 teaspoon or so (to taste) of the mustard sauce, and garnish with fresh dill.

Ricotta

Ricotta cheese is the workhorse of cheeses: It may be incorporated into sweet dishes as well as savory (try a ricotta cheesecake, or blend with cream cheese to make tiramisu). While it's delicious stirred into pasta, I also like to eat homemade ricotta on bread with a drizzle of honey, fresh basil and even a few blackberries — or just scooped up plain, from the bowl.

Ricotta i i
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
Ricotta
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

Makes 3 cups

8 cups whole milk

1/2 cup buttermilk

1 cup heavy cream

3 tablespoons lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

Line a large sieve with a layer of fine-mesh cheesecloth and place it over a large bowl.

Slowly bring milks, cream and salt to a rolling boil in a 6-quart heavy pot over moderate heat, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching. Add lemon juice, then reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring constantly, until the mixture curdles, about 2 minutes.

Pour the mixture into the lined sieve and let it drain for an hour. After discarding the liquid, cover and chill the ricotta. It will keep in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days.

Pasta With Vegetables And Fresh Ricotta Cheese

Fresh pasta can be served as a base for a variety of sauces and with many vegetables, but I've chosen vegetables here that are a bit lighter so as to not overshadow the delicate taste of the pasta. The fresh ricotta, added at the end, adds even more creaminess to the dish.

Pasta With Vegetables And Fresh Ricotta Cheese i i
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
Pasta With Vegetables And Fresh Ricotta Cheese
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

Makes 4 servings

2 batches homemade pasta (recipe below), cut or rolled into fettuccine-like strands

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium red onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, sliced

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 cup fresh or frozen peas

1/2 cup reserved pasta cooking water

3 cups baby spinach or spinach leaves, chopped

1 teaspoon dried oregano

1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated

Salt and pepper to taste

1 cup ricotta cheese (see recipe)

Cook the pasta and reserve about 5 tablespoons of cooking water after draining.

Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and saute until translucent and soft, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the butter and stir until melted. Add the peas and two tablespoons of water and cook for a few minutes until the peas begin to soften. Add the spinach and cook until wilted. Add the oregano, salt and pepper, the rest of water and the Parmesan cheese and cook, stirring lightly to make a sauce.

Toss with the freshly cooked pasta, trying to coat each strand. To serve, divide the pasta into 4 bowls, and divide the ricotta evenly between each, dropping the cheese by teaspoonfuls into the pasta.


Pasta

I've actually never made pasta in a machine, though I'd like to; point being that if you don't own one, it's still quite easy to make your own pasta. As you gain experience, you'll learn how much water you do or don't need. Fresh pasta cooks in far less time than the dried stuff, so watch carefully and test early to make sure you don't overcook it.

Makes 2 servings, easily doubled

1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour (or 1 cup flour, 3/4 cup semolina flour)

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

1 teaspoon olive oil

1 tablespoon water

In a medium-sized bowl, combine flour and salt. Make a well in the flour, add the eggs and olive oil and mix with a wooden spoon or your hands. Add a little water if the dough seems too dry, and knead for about 4 minutes until all ingredients are incorporated and the dough is smooth, adding a little more water if necessary. Lightly roll the ball of dough in olive oil and put in a bowl, covered, to rest for about 20 minutes.

If using a pasta machine, set to desired width and feed the dough into the machine. If cutting by hand, roll out the dough to desired thinness on a lightly floured board, and use a sharp knife to cut into strips. Then dust lightly with flour and lay out on a clean kitchen towel to dry for about 10 minutes before cooking.

To cook, bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the pasta, stir and cook about 2 to 3 minutes, testing for doneness.

'Nutella-Esque' Dark Chocolate-Hazelnut Spread

This is my version of the classic Nutella spread, but with semisweet chocolate rather than milk. For dessert, serve on toast with a cup of chai or drizzle generously over vanilla ice cream.

'Nutella-esque' Dark Chocolate-Hazelnut Spread i i
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
'Nutella-esque' Dark Chocolate-Hazelnut Spread
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

Makes about 2 cups

1 1/4 cups hazelnuts

12 ounces semisweet chocolate, chopped

4 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon salt


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Spread the hazelnuts in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast in the oven for about 12 minutes until slightly browned. Cool completely before using.

Meanwhile, in a saucepan over simmering water melt the chocolate and the sugar, stirring until smooth and melted. Remove from heat and let cool.

In a food processor, grind the hazelnuts to form a paste. Add the oil, cocoa powder, vanilla and salt and process until the mixture is very smooth. Add the melted chocolate and pulse to blend well. If you prefer a smoother spread, force the mixture through a sieve to remove any bits of unprocessed hazelnuts.

Put the spread in a resealable container or jar and let reach room temperature. It will keep, covered and unrefrigerated, for up to 2 weeks.

Chai Concentrate

Chai — or tea — is mixed with warm milk (I like soy milk) in about a half-half ratio, though of course you may adjust to your taste. I keep a jar of this concentrate in the fridge for a morning pick-me-up before heading in to work — it's much tastier than the boxed stuff.

Makes 4 cups

4 1/2 cups water

10 black tea bags

1 vanilla bean, split in half (or 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract added at the end)

1 stick whole cinnamon

3-inch piece chopped fresh ginger

7 whole cardamom pods

2 whole star anise pods

10 whole cloves

1/4 teaspoons ground black pepper

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon orange zest

1/2 cup brown sugar

1 tablespoon honey

In a saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Add the tea, spices and orange zest, stir and remove from heat and let steep 15 to 20 minutes. Strain out the spices and tea and add the brown sugar, honey and vanilla extract if using. Stir well to combine.

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