If you want to get all Pollyanna about cooking more often than you’d like during the past year, consider the No Budget Cooking Series. The series launched in late March 2020 when schools, offices and restaurants were mostly closed.
Aimed at folks who have to cook, not those who love to cook, it’s been an exploration of functional recipes. Most came from food labels. The series’ goal has been to be more practical than spectacular and I did my best to focus on recipes that don’t require specialized kitchen equipment or skill. If the recipe can withstand a blunder or two and still turn out tasty, so much the better.
I’ve learned a few things after testing more than 50 recipes in my very average kitchen with my moderately above average cooking talent.
Normally one must wait until the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day to find a year-in-review article of this stature, but COVID-19 didn’t seem the least bit concerned about conventional timing for such stories.
9 things I learned from the No Budget Cooking Series
1. Wisconsin comfort: Shockingly, comfort food recipes proved popular during a prolonged time of stress and uncertainty. Brandy slush, baked bean and beef bake, and air fryer fish fry have been the most read stories in the series.
Two of the top three didn’t surprise me.
Brandy slush packs a one-two punch of alcohol and sugar. That Jeanette Hurt, who’s written a book about Wisconsin cocktails, called the brandy slush the sangria of Wisconsin is a good indication of its popularity.
Air fryer fish fry is another top No Budget Cooking Series story because, fish fry.
While bacon mixed into baked bean and beef pumps up the classic dish, I wasn’t expecting it to land in the top three for the series. Then again, it did require a significant amount of willpower not to go back for a fourth helping, so, maybe it’s not so surprising.
Now you know why I take requests for more “healthy” recipes with a grain of salt.
3. No thank you reads: Not all sweet recipes were smash hits. Pumpkin cheesecake muffins and strawberry shortcake recipes were two of the bottom three when it came to reader interest. It’s the reader equivalent of a ‘no thank you’ bite.
The pumpkin cheesecake muffins weren’t great, so I get why that wouldn’t be a hit.
But the strawberry shortcake recipe? C’mon people. Admittedly the shortcakes are just oversized sugary drop biscuits, but even after I overbaked them, they were still about 721 times better than those weird sponge cups. That recipe deserves better (#savethestrawberryshortcakerecipe) so if you missed it, go back and give it a read.
4. Mostly true: I claimed that food package recipes are foolproof and well within the skillset of novice cooks. Sadly, I must admit a bit of defeat on this point.
The gluten-free flatbread recipe was an absolute disaster in flavor and texture and wasn’t particularly easy to make. Though, shame on me for thinking I could master gluten-free baking on a first try.
My biggest disappointment was the coconut macaroons, which fell short of ‘meh’ flavor status and didn’t bake up the way I hoped.
Finally, the double lemon cheesecake bars recipe was neither as lemony as I would like nor particularly easy to master on the first try.
Still, with only a few failures out of 51 recipes, the RecipeFact TruthSayer rates my claim as mostly true.
5. Home cooks are in this together: When I stumbled, you’ve been there to pick me up with encouragement and advice. I’ve shared those tips through the year.
6. Embrace the true nature of zucchini: When I challenged you to change my mind about zucchini (not a fan) I was overloaded with recipes to try. I found the best recipes leaned into zucchini’s watery ways. Think salsa. It’s a good reminder not to force any food to be something it’s not.
7. Wisconsin nice is a thing: Like genuinely nice, not in the snarky way of hiding insults in seemingly polite replies. Of the hundreds of emails regarding the No Budget Cooking Series, almost all have been genuinely supportive.
8. You must suffer to make true potato pancakes: Wisconsinites take their potato pancakes seriously.
One reader wrote: “The recipe you added to the newspaper is bogus. A real honest-to-goodness potato pancake recipe does not use shredded potatoes. It uses grated potatoes … And it’s very time-consuming, but way better. Using shredded potatoes just makes it a glorified hash brown.”
Other readers expressed similar views, but that was my favorite response. Which reminds me, I haven’t lived up to my promise to grate the potatoes to make these pancakes.
9. Answering your questions are my favorite stories: A reader asked how to get a nice fluffy, cracked top molasses cookie. Not only was the molasses cookie recipe review a popular story in the series, I got an email reply: “I finally got around to making your Molasses cookie recipe. Oh my! They turned out great.”
Knowing that I’ve helped someone achieve cooking success is better than winning awards.
Will NBCS continue?
The No Budget Cooking Series rose during the pandemic. With schools, offices and restaurants returning to something more akin to pre-pandemic times, the No Budget Cooking Series will likely adapt — for the better.
Instead of searching food packages randomly for recipes, I’ll be focused on featuring recipes from Wisconsin food producers like Badger Ham. Not only will the goal be to provide easy, tasty recipes, but also to highlight local businesses, organizations and people.
Your questions and recipes will continue to be a key ingredient for this series.
ASK ME CULINARY QUESTIONS OR TEACH ME YOUR RECIPES: Please keep sending your questions, feedback and recipes you’d like reviewed. I’m always happy to consider a favorite family recipe for the No Budget Cooking Series.
ABOUT THIS SERIES: I test recipes found on food packages in my very average kitchen with my moderately above average cooking talent and meh presentation skills. I’ll provide some insights and basic cooking tips. If you don’t find these stories useful, hopefully you find them entertaining.