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Top 10 DIY Summer Food Projects

2011 June 22

By Jessie Chien

Inspired by the creativity on RecipeRelay that has been flowing from coast to coast, country to country for the last year, and also in light of the bounty of produce we’re able to find during the Spring and Summer, I’m ready to head into the kitchen with some new projects in mind. Recently Sarah made her own tofu, then Megan made her own baguettes. This got me thinking what other oft-packaged and mass produced products can I make at home, with either local or natural or seasonal ingredients?

Hence, a list of Top 10 DIY summer food projects. This list is inspired by, and in celebration of, RecipeRelay’s one year birthday, a place where ideas, techniques and seasonal food experiences are exchanged and passed along. It also kicks off Summer, a season that brings us fabulous produce, outdoor dining, family trips, and those long summer days – perfect for spending a few extra hours in the kitchen.

CLICK HERE for the full post and Top 10 list.

  1. Popsicles – A fun and cooling treat, popsicle recipes have been making the blog circuit as of late. Whether they be kid-friendly or adult-friendly, simple and pure or luscious and decadent, I can’t think of a better way to combine flavors and cool down at the same time. Popsicles are the #1 item on my kitchen DIY list this summer. Hurry, add it to yours!  Tip: you can go as fancy as splurging on a popsicle kit or just go Martha Stewart on your guests and use paper cups and old fashioned wooden sticks.
  2. Beef Jerky – Long road trips, it seems as if there’s one every summer. What do you buy at gas station pit stops? Do you reach for the 99cent sunflower seeds? The bag of cheese balls? The tall can of Arizona Iced Tea? If you’re planning a Route 66 adventure this summer, let’s face it- the options for road snacks get pretty dismal. Homemade jerky is much lower in sodium, is additive-free, and makes for an awfully fun kitchen experiment. Tip: If using the oven, make sure leave your oven door slightly ajar- jerky needs air in the dehydration process. Also, take a look at the USDA website for some jerky food safety tips.
  3. Homemade Sodas – The beauty of homemade sodas is not only in the elimination of high fructose corn syrup found in virtually all mainstream sodas, but also for the combinations of seasonal flavors that you can make from available ingredients. Where the soda fountain was once the place to be seen in the summer, it’s now all about the refreshing DIY flavors of homemade syrups.  Try flavor pairings that aren’t found on the shelves, like rhubarb ginger, lemongrass lime, and watermelon mint! Tips: Tired of buying all that soda water at the store? Invest in a sodastream!
  4. Fruit Leather – I still remember when Fruit By the Foot first came out- along with their psychedelic commercials complete with skateboarding cartoon characters and the miraculous snack that kept growing by the foot. I don’t know much about childrens’ commercials today, but I’m sure it still ranks at the top of the list of mothers’ biggest banes (admit it, you begged your mom to buy that Costco-sized box of Fruit By the Foot when you were younger). Re-indulge in the snacks of your youth, but instead of shopping in the fruit snacks aisle, head over to the fresh fruit section instead. Pick out a selection of fresh apricots and roll up your sleeves (and your fruit) in the kitchen.
    Tip: Like any other recipe, making fruit rolls and fruit leather gets easier with each try. Once you feel comfortable, switch to other fruits throughout the seasons – peaches, strawberries, concord grapes, persimmons, and pears. yum.
  5. Homemade Crackers – Summer and Winter, in my book, can fight it out for the best seasons to entertain. It’s Summer’s outdoor barbecues, lawn games, and forever-sunlight, vs. Winter’s family-style roast and soup dinners, mulled wine, and guests staying longer in your warm and cozy apartment. Whichever happens to be your favorite, make your guests happy and roll out the hors d’oeurves in style, serving your signature spreads and dips on homemade crackers, or make your own homestyle snack mix with homemade goldfish! Tip: add a bit of spice to the traditional cracker, like the indian version of the animal cracker (the katri matri). Another dash of cumin seed, a flake of red pepper, a pinch of cinnamon, spices up an otherwise plain cracker
  6. Mustard and Ketchup – Condiments are the key for any burger bar, and frankly I believe can put an already-sinful burger over the moon. Dressing my burgers and dipping my potatoes in homemade condiments  is akin to eating fresh sausage or tasting good honey for the first time – you genuinely wonder why you ever ate the packaged stuff for so long. Take a cue from the artisanal mustards and ketchup available in stores today, and use beer or sake to give a kick to mustard, and hot peppers and a piece of fruit for a more flavorful ketchup! Tip: don’t use your condiments right after you make them. Ideally, give them a day or two in the fridge to let the flavors mellow and meld together. If you’re on a tight schedule, let the flavors marinate for at least a few hours.
  7. Ricotta Cheese – The ricotta cheese of my youth was found only in lasagna layers, sourced from cylindrical tubs plastered with the colors of the Italian flag. Like olives, ice cream, and raisins, I had no concept of this foodstuff coming from anything other than an imagined ricotta-producing cow (the olives came from a pool of cured black olives, the ice cream from the frozen ice cream tundra and the raisins from a raisin bush, duh). Thankfully my habits and knowledge of eating have expanded, and not only do I know how ricotta can be made, but I also know the variety of ways to eat it, sans lasagna! Tip: different recipes call for different wetness of ricotta. Strain accordingly!
  8. Marshmallows - Store-bought marshmallows are packed with preservatives and high fructose corn syrup. For a meltier, stickier, and “healthier” treat for you and your family, why not make your own marshmallows! Perfect for the season of camping. Not only are they a fun at-home project, but I guarantee you’ll be able to make good friends with the campers on the next lot over. A word of warning – the marshmallow making process gets awfully sticky, so make sure you have plenty of non-stick gear on hand. Tip: Add a drop of flavor – strawberry syrup, peppermint extract, orange zest- a little goes a long way.
  9. Fig Newtons – When I was a kid, my mother was absolutely dead-set on chasing the evil sweets-monster out of our pantry. One treat we could both agree on was the dual snack packs of Fig Newtons, which I would get to bring to school on special occasions like field trips and for soccer game snacks. Looking back, the packaged Nabisco Fig Newtons aren’t exactly the healthful bundle that I thought they were (although, Fig Newman’s is certainly a healthier alternative). I do have a feeling, though, if my mother new about these fig bars, I wouldn’t have traded away my lunches as often as I did. Tip: Recipes are guidelines, and just that. Don’t feel overwhelmed if your newtons don’t turn out like Paul Newman’s. There are various takes on the fig bar, so find form that is the most friendly to you.
  10. Brandied Cherries – School is out. Work is on vacation. Half days on Fridays. Kids go to Camp. Summer semester. Study abroad. Whatever situation you find yourself in, summer calls for kicking your feet up, having a little fun, and enjoying the company of friends – hopefully with a refreshing libation in hand. My drink of choice happens to be the Manhattan, but I often opt for a bright twist of a citrus zest rather than the bright bulb of the fake maraschino cherries (it is doubtful they were ever real cherries to begin with). But I have a feeling if I had these fresh homemade brandied cherries around, things would be a lot different… Tip: Add some citrus zest or spices to the syrup for an extra kick. And don’t forget to save the syrup to add to your homemade sodas!

Jessie is an intern for RecipeRelay, which helps her keep in touch with the changing of seasons around the world. She keeps a diary of her Chinese market and travel adventures in her own blog,