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Healthier, Tastier, Cheaper: Homemade Sauces, Jams and Preserves

photo: camy west

It’s hard to imagine having too much of a good thing when the “thing” in question is fresh, tasty, in-season produce. But it happens.

Last week, Frugal Foodie had to devise a recipe to handle the gross of jalapenos — yes, that would be 12 dozen — ripening in her garden. (She charred most of them to make a smoky hot sauce. See recipe below.) Two friends with farm shares later begged for her sauce recipe (also included below) to handle a surplus of tomatoes.

Making jams, jellies, pickles, sauces and other preserves works best as a cost-cutting move when you’re working with that kind of excess supply for little cash outlay. But even buying at supermarket prices, you’d spend roughly $8 on the supplies (sugar, lemon juice, fresh strawberries, powdered fruit pectin) to make four 16-oz. jars of jam, or $10 total if you need the jars, too. Cost per portion: $2.50, max. Even Smucker’s in a similar-sized jar costs $4. (Never mind the homemade advantages of controlling preservatives and using real sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup.)

But home canning — processing and sealing the food in an airtight container for room-temperature storage — isn’t a task to take on lightly. One wrong variable, such as too-full jars or poor sealing, can lead to spoilage or even botulism.  “Make sure your recipe is scientifically tested,” says Chef Tom of Salt Lake City’s ABC4 “Cook With Tom“.

With that learning curve in mind, we’ve kept this column’s recipes to those that can be refrigerated, frozen or dried. (Frugal Foodie highly recommends learning to can, though. It’s fun, and lets you save produce without taking up valuable fridge space. Check out the USDA guide for a good introduction.)

All cost estimates below are based on non-sale NYC supermarket prices, adjusted for quantity — figuring if it’s a cheap meal here, cooks anywhere else are likely to spend even less, and that if a recipe calls for half an onion, you’ll find something to do with the other half. Estimates don’t count basic ingredients you likely already have, like spices.

Use these recipes to lighten the “burden” of too much seasonal produce:

Frozen fresh herbs

$0.08 per cube.

Frugal Foodie has been harvesting herbs from her garden for this trick, but it’s also a good saver for leftover purchased fresh herbs. Finely chop herbs and place them in a clean, empty ice cube tray. Cover with water and freeze. Remove frozen cubes and place in a freezer bag. Use a frozen cube as needed for fresh herb flavor in soups, sauces and other recipes.

Sweet and tart lemon carrots

$1.26 per 16-ounce jar

Elizabeth Sweigart
of Houston, Texas, starts this “fool proof” recipe by tying one tablespoon pickling spice in a square of cheesecloth to create a spice bag. In a medium non-reactive saucepan, combine one cup white vinegar, a cup sugar, a half-cup plus a tablespoon lemon juice and the reserved spice bag. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve sugar. Boil for eight to 10 minutes to infuse spices into liquid. Place one bay leaf and one lemon slice in each jar, and then pack with carrots sliced into rounds or baby carrots (you’ll need about two to three pounds). Seal and store in the fridge at least a week before eating. Makes three pints.

Charred chili hot sauce

$1.70 per 16-ounce jar

Lightly coat one pound chili peppers (any variety) with oil and cook close to heat source until blackened on all sides. Frugal Foodie uses the broiler, but grilling will also get the job done. (Be sure to wear gloves when handling the peppers.) Cool, and then blend with one cup white vinegar and a tablespoon salt.

Poached pear and pineapple freezer jam

$2.20 per 16-ounce jar

Stephanie Petersen of “Chef Tess Bakeresse” makes this freezer-friendly jam in large batches. Bonus: it’s sugar free, too.

Joe’s blueberry jam

$2.76 per 16-ounce jar

Gin is the secret ingredient in Pasadena, Calif., resident Karen Klemens’s jam, which won a “Best of Division” ribbon at the LA County Fair. Rinse two and a half pounds of berries and remove stems. Put berries in a pot with one cup of water and heat gently until they start to sweat and soften. Place berries through a food mill. Return the pulp to the pot, add two cups sugar (can be adjusted for taste) and three, 3″ cinnamon sticks. Bring to a boil and cook about five to 10 minutes until sufficiently thickened. Stir in the juice of half a Meyer lemon and 1.5 tablespoons gin, and return briefly to a boil. Ladle into jars. Makes two pints.

Spicy tomato sauce

$2.83 per 16-ounce jar

Frugal Foodie peels, cores and seeds five pounds of tomatoes, and then purees them in a food processor. Bring puree to a boil in a large stainless steel saucepan. (The mixture will bubble and splatter, so make sure to pick one that’s at least 1.5 times bigger than the amount of liquid you’re adding.) Add one and a quarter cups finely chopped onions, two cloves of finely chopped garlic, one bay leaf, and a half-teaspoon each of salt, oregano, sugar, black pepper, and red pepper flakes. Adjust seasonings to your taste – the Foodies add more red pepper flakes and some Cajun seasoning to give the sauce more bite. Let boil, stirring frequently, until sauce has reduced to half volume (about two hours). Makes three pints.

Simple blackberry preserves

$5 per 16-ounce jar

You’ll need just three ingredients to make New York-based food and travel writer Tracey Ceurvels’s easy recipe: blackberries, sugar and a lemon. Rinse and drain four cups blackberries. Freshly squeeze juice of half of a medium-sized lemon, making sure to remove any seeds. Place blackberries in a large pot and add the lemon juice and one and three-quarters cup sugar. Bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to low, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Skim off foam then ladle preserves into jars. Let the preserves cool, then refrigerate. Makes two pints.

Prosecco poached peaches

$5.83 per 16-ounce jar

Chicago native Melissa Graham of “Little Locavores” teaches this recipe and others at her canning classes. Mix together one bottle prosecco, a cup and a half sugar, two sprigs lavender and three cups of water in a large saucepan. Bring the liquid to a boil stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar. Reduce the heat and simmer gently for seven minutes. Add five pounds ripe, unpeeled peaches and simmer for approximately 20 minutes or until very tender.  Let the peaches cool in the liquid. Remove the peaches, peel, pit and cut each into 8 slices.  Return them to the poaching liquid and freeze in a large airtight container.

Frugal Foodie is a journalist based in New York City who spends her days writing about personal finance and obsessing about what she’ll have for dinner. Chat with her on Twitter through @MintFoodie.