Gourmet on a Dime: DIY Health Food

Save money on four expensive and trendy health foods without missing out on any of the super-nutrition.

almond butter

On her blog Lemons & Anchovies, Jean Pope gives instructions to make this beautiful, one-ingredient almond butter. Visit her at lemonsandanchovies.com

Photo by Jean Pope

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Keeping up with the latest nutrition news and food trends is exciting and empowering. It feels good knowing we’re eating foods with the highest levels of antioxidants, omega-3s, phytochemicals and other powerhouse nutrients. However, although eating the widest variety of whole foods is the smartest way to get all the nutrition we need, some health foods get expensive. Instead of cutting out the nutrients, let’s consider great substitutes and smart DIY recipes for healthful foods so you can get all the nutrition without breaking the bank.

The four following health foods are worthwhile additions to your plate. Here we offer them as examples of how you can save money and increase nutritional value when it comes to dietary trends.

Almond Butter

Perhaps you’ve heard about the many health benefits of almonds and converted the lunchbox classic PB&J to the lesser-known but power-packed AB&J sandwich. Almonds can help lower cholesterol; reduce risk of heart disease, inflammation and cancer; improve blood pressure, blood sugar, digestion, immunity and cognitive function—all while helping maintain a healthy weight. But so can other tree nuts. With a jar of almond butter approaching $10 in some stores, it’s wise to look for ways to save.

Making your own nut butters is incredibly easy and it’s a great way to save money. If you enjoy a range of nut flavors, including Brazil nuts, cashews, chestnuts, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts, you’ll be able to shop for deals on unprocessed nuts (if it’s a great price, buy extra and freeze some for later). Plus, by diversifying your nut intake, you’ll invite a wider range of micronutrients into your diet: Brazil nuts are packed with selenium; hazelnuts are filled with folate and heart-healthy proanthocyanidin; pecans increase metabolism; pistachios support the vascular system; and walnuts have more antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids than any other nut.

How to Make Nut Butters

Add whole nuts or nut pieces to a food processor or high-powered blender, such as those made by Blendtec or Vitamix. If you’d like to add optional salt or honey, a good ratio is 1⁄2 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon honey per cup of nuts. Process all ingredients on low speed at first, then faster, until a cohesive mass of nut butter pulls away from the sides of the mixing bowl. Scrape out and store in an airtight container; eat within two weeks.

Bone Broth

One of the world’s oldest comfort foods, bone broth is having a hip health-food moment right now. A spot in New York City sells 8 ounces of bone broth for the low, low price of about $5. I’m not saying it’s not delicious. But I am here to tell you that you can make a huge batch of bone broth at home out of ingredients that you might have thrown away otherwise—so basically for free. Extras will freeze perfectly for you, and the work involved is minimal.

Mineral-rich bone broth is revered by cultures all over the world for its restorative and curative qualities. It’s famous for improving immunity, but can also boost energy and help restore damaged parts of the body such as muscles, bones and the digestive tract. Plus, bone broth is easily digestible by almost everyone.

Homemade bone broth can be superior to most store-bought soup stocks for two reasons: You get to choose the raw materials; and you can simmer the bones for hours and hours to maximize their nutritional output. It’s important to use bones from grass-fed animals and wild-caught fish, which are better for you than anything you’ll get from grain-fed, feedlot animals and farmed fish.

You can buy bones from butchers who sell sustainably raised meats, or you can use your own leftover bones and scraps (such as knuckles, feet, necks, fish heads and shrimp shells). Bones with marrow in the middle are especially nutritious. Toss bones and scraps (it’s OK if they have skin or fat on them) into a lidded bucket in your freezer and make broth whenever the bucket gets full.

Use bone broth as a soup base or cooking liquid for vegetables, beans and grains. Or you can simply sip it by itself. Get creative with added flavors such as ginger juice, raw garlic or hot sauce.

How to Make Bone Broth

Prepare bones: Crack raw or cooked bones with a mallet, cleaver or good knife to expose any nutritious interior marrow. (Optional: Preroast raw bones in the oven to initiate browning reactions that add flavor.) You need not worry about perfect proportions, but here’s a helpful guide: Per 1 gallon of water, include one chicken or duck carcass; 6 to 8 pounds of beef, lamb or pork bones; four to six fish carcasses; 4 to 6 pounds of shrimp shells; or a combination of any of these. A turkey carcass may require 2 gallons of water.

Simmer slowly: Put bones in a stockpot with optional additional ingredients, and cover with cold water. Add a couple of tablespoons of vinegar per gallon of water; the vinegar helps draw extra minerals out of the bones. If you’d like to add vegetables and seasonings for flavor and nutrition, try carrots, celery, garlic, mushrooms, onions, parsley, thyme, bay and peppercorns. Bring the water to a boil very slowly. As soon as the boiling point is reached, reduce heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Check broth occasionally over several hours, and skim any scum off the top. An hour or two is sufficient to extract the good stuff from thin fish bones or shrimp shells, but allow at least four hours, or even all day or overnight, for larger bones. (You can also simmer broth in a crockpot on low heat.)

Chill and remove fat: Strain out and discard solids. Chill broth in the refrigerator to make it easy to remove the solid fat that rises to the top (reserve it for cooking). Store broth in the refrigerator for several days or freeze in ice cube trays or freezer containers. When you are ready to use your broth, it may be a gelatinous mass depending on how much healthful gelatin was in your mixture. To reconstitute it, simply heat some of the gel with water.

Coconut Oil

There’s no doubt that coconut oil is a miracle food. Coconuts are incredibly nutrient-dense and contain fats that protect us from heart disease and a long list of other maladies. (Learn more in The Health Benefits of Coconut Oil.) But coconut oil isn’t the only fat making a comeback in the kitchens of conscientious eaters. As the world learns more about the bad science of recent years, which had everyone avoiding fats while still managing to put on weight, it’s becoming clear that many naturally occurring fats are good for us. They make us feel full and satisfied, which contributes to the maintenance of a healthy weight, and contain heart-healthy compounds our bodies cannot otherwise make.

The fact that coconut oil must be harvested in exotic locations and shipped to us necessarily means it’s not going to be cheap. I keep coconut oil at home for some purposes, but I also buy healthful lard from heritage-breed pigs raised on nutritious pastures near my home for about half the price of most brands of coconut oil.

Unfortunately, most commercially available lard is processed in ways that transform it into a trans-fat-laced bad fat, so when choosing lard for healthy cooking, you’ll want to investigate your source. If you don’t have a good farmers market, sustainable butcher or other specialty market near you, check the pastured lard resource listing.

You can also make lard at home quite easily, and you might be able to get it for free—like I did last summer when a farming friend gave me an enormous bag filled with pork fat that her family normally throws away. If you’re in a position to be choosy, keep in mind that fat from the back of the hogs is best for sautéing and frying, while the prized fat around the kidneys, known as leaf lard, is best for pastries.

How to Render Lard

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Fill a large, ovenproof pan with 1-inch cubes of pork fat, plus about 1⁄3 cup of water per pound of fat, and roast in the oven for four to eight hours. It takes a while, but slow cooking ensures the fat will retain a neutral, nonporky taste. Stir and press on the fat cubes about every 30 minutes or so. Remove the pan whenever you see that the fat is beginning to color.

Drain off the rendered liquid and return any cubes to the oven to continue melting. Eventually, you will reach the point of diminishing returns and some of the pieces of fat and connective tissues may not melt but will instead become crispy cracklings that you may choose to eat or discard—or feed to your dog or chickens. Strain the liquid fat through cheesecloth into a glass jar. Refrigerate for a couple of months, or freeze for up to a year.

Greek Yogurt

Greek yogurt is thicker and more luscious than many other kinds of yogurt. Its creamy quality comes from straining out some of the whey, which ends up concentrating the yogurt into a more nutrient-dense offering. Many brands of Greek yogurt have about double the protein of other yogurts. Besides being an easy breakfast food, thick and tangy Greek yogurt is a perfect substitute for cream and sour cream in a wide variety of recipes.

While many brands of Greek yogurt do contain an abundance of protein, they often lack the full blend of micronutrients they could offer because the milk used to make the yogurt isn’t of the highest quality. To get that kind of yogurt, you have two options: Buy yogurt made from the milk of grass-fed animals, and strain it through cheesecloth for several hours to concentrate and thicken it; or make your own yogurt from premium grass-fed milk, and then strain it to the thickness that you prefer. If you wish, you can also strain yogurt long enough to go well beyond the consistency of Greek yogurt and turn it into the soft cheese labneh.

How to Make Thick, Homemade Yogurt

The instructions here are for use with a yogurt maker—available at most kitchen stores or online for $30 to $50. Yogurt makers keep the fermenting mixture at a consistent 110 degrees during incubation, perfect for the proliferation of yogurt bacteria. If you don’t want to use a yogurt maker, improvise with a Thermos or cooler using these instructions.

Heat a quart of whole milk to 180 degrees over low heat, stirring frequently. Allow milk to cool to between 110 and 115 degrees. In your yogurt maker, mix a small amount of the heated milk with 1 tablespoon of any yogurt you like that contains live, active cultures. (This is known as your “starter.” From here on out, you can use a tablespoon of your own homemade yogurt as the starter for your next batch.) Then stir in the rest of the heated milk and cover the yogurt maker for incubation. The longer your yogurt ferments, the tangier it will be—you might like the results of your yogurt at three to four hours, or more likely at six to eight hours. Taste to determine your preference.

To thicken your yogurt, pour it into a cheesecloth-lined colander set over a bowl to drain for a few hours, or longer if you prefer. If you allow it to strain for about 24 hours, you’ll end up with yogurt cheese. Refrigerate the yogurt while it strains. Enjoy your homemade thick and tangy yogurt within a week or two. (For ideas on using your strained yogurt whey, check out Cultures for Health.)