I'm a big fan of cooking at home. When you cook at home, you get to control what goes into the food you eat. You're not likely to load up your food with butter, salt or sugar just to hit someone over the head with the taste. A lot of things Americans buy in bottles, jars or packets are shockingly easy to make at home--and the home cook has the advantage of being able to tweak recipes for the family's taste.
Below are five things you should make at home.
1. Salad dressing.
Recipes abound for ranch, bleu cheese and Thousand Island dressing; the easiest to make, however, is simple vinaigrette. Shake a teaspoon of mustard, a tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice, a teaspoon of minced shallot, some herbs, salt and pepper; add as much olive oil as you have liquid in the cup and shake until it comes together. It takes under 5 minutes to put together, and it puts even the fancy-bottle Girard's to shame.
People are intimidated by mayonnaise. They're convinced that if it isn't put in a blast freezer immediately, they'll sicken everyone. The cure? Make your own. Whisk an egg yolk, a pinch of dry mustard and a pinch of salt in a bowl. Then add three-quarters of a cup of neutral oil (grapeseed, corn, whatever) a drop or two at a time, whisking constantly. As it comes together, you can add the oil in a thin stream. After it's thick enough (homemade mayonnaise is always a little thinner than store-bought mayonnaise), add a little bit of lemon juice and maybe a few drops of cool water.
If it breaks, don't freak out: just whisk another egg yolk in a clean bowl and add splashes of the broken mayonnaise to re-build it. Once you're done, refrigerate within a couple of hours.
Sure, it's easy to crack open a jar of Pace or El Torito or whatever, but once you've moved into the wonderful world of chiles, you'll never buy them again. Thousands of recipes exist, but they all follow this pattern: toast and soak dried chiles, then combine with other flavors (tomatillos, tomatoes, garlic, fresh chiles, cilantro). Don't forget warm spices such as cumin, and enough salt; cook the salsa down to remove the "raw" taste.
Pico de gallo is even easier: it's just tomatoes, onions and either jalapeño (milder) or serrano (hotter) chiles chopped, mixed with cilantro, lime juice and salt, and allowed to sit for a short wile.
4. Wing sauce.
I wince when I see people spending $3 or more for a jar of wing sauce. Wing sauce is the easiest thing in the world to make; melt a stick of butter in a pan and mix it with a cup of your favorite hot sauce (Tapatío is very cheap, for example). That's it. There's no salt, no spices, and no magic: two ingredients stirred together.
5. Tartar sauce.
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Another one that should be criminal to buy. Tartar sauce is mayonnaise with chunks of various things mixed in. Those always include chopped pickles, capers and chives; anything else you put into it (horseradish, small pieces of potato, parsley) is your own deal. Just don't buy it at the store!