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May 6, 2008 at 7:05 AM

Kathy says: Zest those lemons, among other money-saving tips. Yours?

After Kathy Benson read what I had to say about cooking on the cheap, she sent an e-mail, sharing some of her favorite food-budget tips. She says she can’t claim the ideas entirely as her own, since many came from her days, back in the ’70s and ’80s, as a production assistant on the “Seattle Today” show, which later morphed into “Northwest Today” and then “Good Company.” Part of her job involved handling the mail for the show’s Household Hints segment, and lo these years later, she’s continued to use many of them. She writes:

“The biggest expense for the least amount of `stuff’ is in the Spice Rack. Ever checked the price on lemon zest? It’s outrageous, especially when its so simple to do-it-yourself. Every time you buy a lemon for any purpose, first zest it. If the Lemon is to be served sliced, use one of those 4-hole zesters, pull it end to end, and you will get flower shaped slices. If you are just going to juice the lemon, use a Microplane. Either way, spread the zest on a paper towel and set aside, with another paper towel over it. In a day (for the Microplaned zest) or two (for the threads) you will have dried zest. Crumble into a jar, leave the lid ajar for another day or two to make sure its really dry. If you do this every time, you will always have some on hand. You can do this with any citrus fruits — oranges, limes, grapefruit, etc. You can mix lemon zest with pepper and have `Lemon Pepper’ instead of buying that, too.

Then there are mushrooms. Especially with portobellos, but really with any of them, don’t toss out the stems. Clean them and slice them thinly, spread out to dry on yet another paper towel, then run through a coffee grinder that is kept just for spices. Again, leave the jar lid open an extra day or two to make sure that they are dry. If you have a dehydrator, it goes much more quickly. The powdered mushroom “dust” adds a huge flavor boost to gravies, stews, soups and sauces.

Grow a bay tree. They are hardy here, and you will have enough to give as hostess gifts in a few years. They can be kept to 3′ to 4′ tall. Grow culinary thyme (ask at the nursery — there are lots of them that aren’t much good as an herb), chives and rosemary — which are also hardy and evergreen here. Parsley and basil are annuals, but handy to have around. When basil happens, MAKE PESTO. Pesto freezes, and is the best way to preserve basil I have found. It’s such a juicy leaf that it does not always dry well. The neighbors thought that it was funny to see me scampering around the yard `gathering dinner,’ but I was saving money!Doing stuff like this gives me room in the food budget for good vanilla extract or other spices I cannot grow or make myself.”

Great ideas, all, Kathy! When it comes to herbs, I, too, grow many of my own, and I buy my spices in bulk — which is not only far less expensive than buying them in the jars and cans sold at grocery stores, but makes for quicker turnover (I buy in smallish-quantities), helping maintain the scents and flavors.

So, gang: What favorite food-centric “Household Hints” do you have to share?

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