OK. I admit it. I still get really excited when something I make from scratch tastes better than the store-bought version.
This past weekend I made pesto for the first time. Why did it take so long for me to give it a try? After all it’s an easy recipe with few ingredients, and it’s one of my favorites. I never made it because I could always buy it. I had seen chefs whip it up on TV, stumbled across recipes here and there, but surely it (like ketchup or mayonnaise) wasn’t worth making.
I was wrong.
After gathering ingredients, I made it in about three minutes. Presto, I had pesto! And there is a difference. Last night I spread it over pizza topped with sliced tomatoes (coated in garlic oil), mozzarella, and Parmigiano. Granted, you can’t go wrong with those ingredients, but the pesto really kicked, far more potent than the jar stuff.
It’s the same with gardening. These past few years I’ve tended a small veggie patch. Right now, end of season, my zucchini plant is in overdrive, spitting out two or three every couple of days. Huge, brightly colored yellow and green zucchini, perfect in their rustic imperfection. Even after a few years of doing this, I still get a sense of amazement that I grew this, and that it tastes like zucchini! Strolling through the produce aisle last week I checked out the small, damaged zucchinis. They were a sickly green hue. I thought to myself, “thank goodness I don’t need to buy those!”
In my limited experience, some vegetables are fussier than others, but there is absolutely nothing to growing zucchini. We plant them in April, water them every couple of days, pull a few weeds here and there, and now we’re reaping the benefits. It’s food at our back doorstep, handy when making an omelet and you realize you’re one ingredient short of a really good one.
Thursday we’re having a Moroccan-themed evening with friends. Forget the store-bought hummus and baba ghanouj. I’m making my own!
As I read your piece, Michael Pollan’s recent New York Times Magazine article Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch came to mind. It’s true, as Pollan argues, that many of us need to stop watching other people cook on television and just do it ourselves. And you’re right, of course: most things would taste better if we just made or grew them ourselves. But I’m not sure I want to return to a time where I had to. (Thank God you weren’t dependent on me in your childhood years to grow your supper.) As long as the easy option exists, it’s pretty hard—except for the few committed—to resist.
Along with you, I’m happy there’s someone willing to grow, produce and, on occasion, cook my food, and I gladly pay dearly or even live with slightly inferior quality for the convenience. I realize, however, that if I don’t feel like baking (or don’t want a whole batch of cookies around to tempt), I can afford three dollars for two really good ones. Others don’t have that luxury. Unlike me, they’re stuck with cheap manufactured ones. A topic worth further discussion, but not in a response to my daughter’s delight at making from-scratch pesto and pride in growing her own zucchini!
You’re right. Making stuff is fun and making certain stuff is, in fact, crazy easy. I always pass those upscale box mixes and wonder why anybody would pay ten times ingredient costs for mixed flour, sugar, baking powder, and preservatives. Must be the pretty picture. On the other hand, there are those who just don’t have the will/drive/desire/temperament to cook and garden, and I’m grateful for grocery stores, restaurants, and caterers who make life more pleasant.
I totally know what you mean. It one of those things that you know in your head—99% of the time homemade anything is better than store-bought anything—but you don’t really think about when it comes to certain foods.
Some ingredients are a no-brainer. It would never occur to me to wheel my cart down the Italian aisle and pick up a container of Ragu, Prego, or even Rao’s (although I’ve heard it’s quite good.) Canned tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, a few herbs, maybe splash of red wine, and a good simmer—that’s all it takes. And it reaches rich, tomatoey, better-than-store-bought goodness in the time it takes to drink a gin and tonic and crunch on a few Marcona almonds at the kitchen island. The only cocktail you can drink in the time it takes to open a jar is a tequila shot, and that’s just not appropriate for weeknights.
Then there are certain things you buy because it’s simply not practical to make them as often as you need them—puff pastry, for example. Might it taste better if I made it? Maybe. Would I be exponentially more proud of myself if I made it from scratch? Definitely. But I’d also be really proud of the toasty brown tan I could acquire after three days at the beach. Seriously, that’s how long it takes to make laminated dough.
So pesto was your “Ah ha!” food, huh? I don’t eat pesto much, but if I were going to, I’d probably buy it—especially if basil wasn’t in season. Store-bought versions are fine—it’s not like you can pump it full of hydrogenated palm oil and high fructose corn syrup, though I’m sure Kraft is working on it. But, I actually just had homemade pesto this week (my roommate’s cousin makes it by the liter in the summer), and it was pretty phenomenal. I seriously toyed with the idea of eating it straight off the spoon. Though I rapidly I reconsidered because—unless you don’t plan to make out with anyone for the next decade or so—eating raw garlic by the spoonful is generally ill-advised.
I’ll see if I can rustle up a couple containers of this pesto for you, Mags, and stick it in my freezer until you get back from Malawi. Because, unless you pull a fast one and decide to stay in Africa forever, it’ll be winter when you arrive stateside. And we can’t have you buying pesto anymore now that you’ve gone and spoiled yourself on the real deal.