I keep a rotating line-up of jars, each filled with a homemade condiment, sauce, spread or pickle in my refrigerator at all times. It’s one way my cooking has evolved from the rigidly recipe-specific approach I took when I first began to cook. The change has been for the better and I attribute to it mostly to reading and cooking from cookbooks written by people who know more about food and cooking than I do. As with most things, it’s a good idea to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. The usual of my jarred suspects include a creamy tahini or peanut- based sauce I use to coat noodles, a spicy chili-oil I use like a hot sauce, a small-batch jam or chutney made from seasonal fruit and, in the summer, a refrigerator quick-pickle, often red onions or jalapenos, and a green sauce, vinaigrette or pesto featuring fresh herbs.
When I set out to prepare one of these kitchen-staples, I usually begin by consulting a base recipe. But, the great thing about homemade kitchen-staples, is that they’re almost endlessly adaptable. Perfect for using what you have, especially anything that might otherwise languish in the pantry or crisper drawer. In my home, the ingredients most vulnerable to waste are fresh herbs, fruit and small quantities of ingredients leftover from what was purchased for a specific recipe. If you decide to turn these into a make-ahead kitchen staple it’s usually fine to swap one herb for another in a vinaigrette or sauce, acidic and sweet components can often be used interchangeably and, if your goal is not long-term storage, any fruit or vegetable, in any amount, can be processed into a small-batch jam or chutney or made into a quick-pickle.
While homemade kitchen-staples can help minimize food waste, they are also their own potential source of waste. Once made, sauces, jams and pickles become one more ingredient that will need to be used up. Many times I’ve put the effort into making a sauce or a pesto, feeling good about saving ingredients from finding themselves in the compost bin, only to neglect to freeze it in time, or freeze it, but forget that it’s there until it becomes unappetizingly freezer burnt. The work of being economical in the kitchen often begets more work. Most homemade condiments will keep for at least several days to two weeks in the fridge, but if you want to really maximize your time and effort, you’ll need to get creative in finding uses for anything that can’t be frozen and freeze those that can for longer term storage. I like to freeze them in ice cube trays then transfer the cubes to plastic bags. All of which, of course, takes time and effort.
So I don’t begrudge myself, or anyone else, for relying on store-bought where possible or necessary. It’s certainly easier. But ease is not the only consideration guiding how we cook and eat. Healthfulness, good taste, affordability and ethics are important values that are often compromised by ultra-processed store-bought kitchen-staples. Store-bought options are often packed with added salt and sugar, don’t taste as good, and can be more expensive than making your own. Learning to feed yourself and your family means finding the best way to balance everything that matters to you about how you cook and eat. Which can’t be done, I don’t think, without at least sometimes moving beyond an immediate concern with “what is the quickest and easiest thing for me to make to eat, right now.”
My little stock of jars makes me a better cook because, with them, it’s easier to make really good tasting food by “throwing things together” quickly, without sacrificing the flavor that’s often only achieved by putting in a little more effort. Drizzle chili oil over hummus or mix it in with scrambled eggs; sprinkle pickled vegetables on top of tacos, shakshuka or chili; spread chutney over toast, stir it into oatmeal or spoon some into a grilled cheese; use a pesto or green sauce as a base for a creamy pasta dish, or drizzle it over roasted vegetables or meatballs in a tomato sauce. Having these jars on hand is a bridge between being rigidly tied to recipe-specific cooking and the sort of recipe-free improvisational cooking that I admire, but am still not completely comfortable with, most of the time. It’s a helpful cooking strategy for those not naturally inclined to improvise in the kitchen because, when it comes time to cook a meal, it’s more about combining ready-made things than making everything from scratch on the fly, without having to resort to ultra-processed foods.
Cherry Tomato Harissa Jam
A sweet jam of stewed cherry tomatoes with a rich umami base of lightly caramelized shallots, a hit of vinegary acidity, and a hint of spice and heat from the harissa paste. Taste the harissa you are using to gauge its heat level and adjust the recipe accordingly. I tend to use a mild homemade harissa, but the one you use might be much hotter. This jam is a great way to use up a glut of fresh cherry tomatoes from the garden or salvage grocery store cherry tomatoes that are nearing the end of their shelf-life. My favourite way to use this is slathered on a fried fish sandwich, but it would also work well on a burger, on top of a crostini, or as a base for a pasta sauce.
- 2 tb oil
- 3 shallots, very thinly sliced into rings
- ¼ cup apple cider vinegar
- 1/3 cup granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 tablespoons harissa (store-bought or homemade, if you have it)
- 1 lb cherry tomatoes, halved
- Heat the oil in a small heavy-bottomed pot over medium-low heat. Add the shallots, season with salt, and cook, stirring frequently, until the shallots begin to brown, about 7 minutes.
- Turn the heat to low and add the vinegar, sugar and salt. Stir until the sugar dissolves. Add the tomatoes and harissa, stirring to combine.
- Lower the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes break down and the sauce thickens, about one hour. Transfer to a sterilized jar and store in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Bring to room temperature before serving.