Tuesday, October 28, 2008

belle's tips for cooking on a budget

I have a post on Amber's blog talking about how I really try to contribute to my relationship in the non-economic ways that I can. Of course, after years of cooking and baking I have a pretty good stock of dry ingredients, tools, pans, etc. But I still have to buy fresh stuff every week, and I cook about 2-3 times a week. My weekly food budget (for two!) is somewhere in the $20-40 range. It depends on whether I'm being fancy, what's on sale, and what cuts/types of meat we are having and whether or not I'm entertaining or baking for fun. So, here's my tips for those with only a knife, chopping board, frying pan, 8 quart pot, and 13x9 pan, and I mean the cheapest stuff you can get at Target:

1. Ignore the slow food snobs. For one thing, they're insufferable and pervert a good ecological, environmental goal into yuppie olympics. For another, they'll break your bank. Look at your local Safeway and Long's Drugs weekly advertisements for specials and coupons. Long's has a lot of dry ingredients like flour, pasta, etc. that goes on sale. They also have little bags of spices for $1 that I buy and put into little jars, rather than buying spices from McCormick's or Schilling for $5 a pop. Safeway's produce and meat aren't great, but beggars can't be choosers. While you can't make silk from a sow's ear, you can make a nice smooth leather I bet. I occasionally go to the butcher's, but only buy stuff that's on special (occasionally cheaper per lb. than Safeway), but really, I usually shop at Safeway--not Trader Joe's, certainly not Whole Foods, and I'm nowhere near a Co-Op. I rarely buy organic. I mean, rarely. It has to be a special occasion. And while there's a difference in quality, no one complains. Anyone complaining about the inorganic (ha) quality of your food is That Guy. You know, the guy who goes to a party and complains about the free beer. We don't like that guy. We would like to cook with fresh, local, sustainably grown quality ingredients, but not all of us can afford to, and it's a certain amount of privilege that comes with that--and hardly anyone has that anymore in this economy.

I often shop first and build menus from what's on sale--buy an ingredient, go to the internet and look up a recipe. Going from recipe to ingredients means you buy a lot of stuff when it's not on sale or perhaps off-season and thus more expensive. Whole chickens are cheaper per pound than cut-up chicken parts; chicken breasts are more expensive than chicken thighs; meat with bones is cheaper than boneless; flank steak is tasty but less expensive than filet; pork tenderloins are way more expensive than pork shoulder roasts on sale (which I can make into a fantastic slow roasted pork); 1 lb of ground beef is pretty economical and can make a nice basis for ragu baked ziti. Dude, stop buying pre-cooked sausage. You won't die if you cook it on medium for 7 minutes, and if you cut it up you can tell when it's cooked. Pre-seasoned/cooked meats are usually always bad and a waste of money.

2. Cook with beans. I learned a lot of bean recipes. They are the cheapest thing you can buy (usually $1 for a 1 lb. bag), and when combined with rice or some other starch, are the perfect meal. I make pinto beans for burritos, lentils for daal, black beans with bacon, navy beans with soup, etc.

3. Make soups. You can get chicken broth on sale usually four cans for $5, or you can save the bones from the whole chickens you roast and boil them until you make your own stock. Add more meat and vegetables, simmer, and you have enough food for a week, and then you can freeze some for later weeks of laziness.

4. Buy cheese on sale or from Trader Joe's. Cheese is expensive. I consider this a luxury, like chocolate. I also don't buy the expensive stuff unless I'm eating the cheese in a pure state. I am all bourgie and up in that, but if I'm cooking with it I buy commecial shredded mozarella when I'm making pizza or lasagna. Dude, no one can tell the difference when it's all melted. It's not like I'm making a plat du fromage or tomato-basil-mozarella salad, in which case I get the good stuff.

5. Wash your own vegetables. I am not a big salad eater, but if I was I'd buy a bunch of spinach for $1 rather than a bag of pre-washed baby spinach for $4. It doesn't take all that much time to wash up. I also eat only fruit that's on sale, which is sad for me because I would have loved to been able to afford cherries and berries during the summer. This week I am eating a lot of apples ($1.49/lb) and some green grapes that were reduced to $1.99/lb.

6. Sometimes Farmer's markets are good deals. Sometimes.

7. When I cook for a lot of people I nearly always make soup, pasta, lasagna or a large roasted something that I got on sale. 4 lbs of pork shoulder to roast adobo style on sale at Safeway for $5.39 and no one complained that it wasn't organic. I have a nice Le Creuset enameled ceramic roasting pan now, but in law school I got by with one 13x9 pan that I used to bake everything from cake to my roasting pan for chicken and roast beef. I still have one, and it's crappy aluminum--yours is better than mine. Pasta is the best option. Also, we're all grad students. Ask them to help out. I provide one bottle of wine, but people are always bringing more and helping out with the hostessing, which is nice. Good parties are a combination of good hosting and good guests.

8. Don't buy alcohol. This saves a lot of money. I don't drink much, so it kind of works out.

9. Make it rather than buy it. This saves calories too. By the time I've finished baking cookies or cake I don't really want to eat much of it, so overwhelmed have I been by the aroma of butter and sugar. But buying cookies is much more expensive than baking a dozen of them, and I get to have a hobby. The same goes for any type of food. I don't buy beans in cans, instead I make my own beans and have enough to eat for a week. I make my own stock. I make everything except for pasta, because that involves buying another kitchen gadget. I even make bread now!

10. As you're learning to cook, there's an inverse relationship between money saved and time spent. If you value your time and have calculated the monetary value of it, you can figure out what you'd rather spend your time making in order to save money. I tend to spend my time on low-labor meals (soups and roasts cook in the background without much stirring or constant attention) that feed me for a few days and freeze well.