Written by Teanna of Spork or Foon?
Roasted Chicken Legs with White Beans and Rosemary – serves 4 – $6.82
Once upon a time – in a land far, far away – there was a booming economy. Jobs were plentiful, family vacations to far away places were taken, and restaurants were filled with diners, hungrily ordering appetizers, entrees and desserts.
Life was good.
Now there is a stark contrast to those opulent years. Unemployment rates are high, the travel industry is suffering, and restaurants that once required one-month advance notice for a reservation are offering specials and discounts.
Along the way, cooking came into fashion. Even before the recession, the popularity of shows like Top Chef and the Food Network programming spawned a burgeoning interest in trying new cuisines and ingredients. People’s eating habits got braver, and their interest for cooking got larger; this was typified by the emergence of the term “foodie.” As some of the most acclaimed chefs will attest, never before had food been so chic. But as the economy worsened and tight budgets became the norm, the desire to cook at home went from interest to necessity. The hard-earned skills that were acquired when cooking was fashionable have now become valuable for those people who still want to eat well but not spend money at restaurants. Much to the dismay of restaurant owners everywhere, more and more people are cooking at home rather than ordering in or eating out.
Furthermore, food prices have been on a rollercoaster ride, surging through the economic boom in 2006 and bottoming out during the worst periods of the recession where people got relief in food and gas prices. However, with signs of an improving economy, it is now predicted that food prices will skyrocket again.
So how does the home cook eat well on a budget? In some cities, it is actually cheaper to eat out than it is to cook at home. In cities like New York, items are highly marked up. In one Upper East Side market, a pound of shrimp costs $37. However, a watchful eye, a good knowledge of inexpensive ingredients, and some creativity in the kitchen can make all the difference.
A very important aspect of being able to eat well at home is to have a well-stocked pantry filled with staple items, including: flour, canned tomatoes, chicken stock, beef stock, dried beans, seasonings, yeast, sugar, kosher salt, Arborio rice, black peppercorns, dried pasta, bay leaves, oils such as olive oil and vegetable oil, garlic, potatoes, onions, and maybe a red and white wine vinegar. For perishables, items like milk, butter, eggs, carrots, celery and a versatile cheese, like Parmesan, are necessary ingredients to create delicious dishes at home.
Orecchiette with chickpeas – serves 4 – 5.95 per serving
Having these basic ingredients can open up a world of possibility when cooking at home and will make trips to the supermarket much more inexpensive in the long run. Some of the simplest breads require three ingredients: flour, water, and yeast. Homemade pasta also uses these similar ingredients (and you don’t need a pasta maker to make homemade pasta. Do it like an Italian nonna and use those rolling pins!). A flavorful homemade orecchiette pasta served with a chickpea sauce costs just under $6 per serving. Not bad for a homemade dish that can rival any dish at some of the best Italian restaurants. Homemade mayonnaise is made simply with eggs and olive oil, and is so much more satisfying than the processed, store bought kind.
It is also important to know more inexpensive, yet quality, cuts of meat. Goat meat, for example, is becoming more and more popular for both its health benefits (goat meat has 1/3 of the calories and half of the fat of cow meat and is equally as flavorful and succulent) as well as its flavor. Always be on the lookout for more inexpensive fish, such as tilapia, that is delicious and lower in calories than, say, Alaskan Salmon. Instead of buying costly chicken breasts, where prices have risen exponentially over the past few years, why not buy an entire chicken for $10 and roast it with a simple seasoning of smashed garlic, salt and pepper that will last for days. For example, on day one, slice off a bit of the chicken breast and serve it with fluffy mashed potatoes. The next day, use the dark meat from the chicken and top it with a poached egg and some hollandaise to make a play on eggs benedict. The leftover chicken makes a fantastic chicken salad to munch on. And of course, boiling the remainder of the chicken bones produces a delicious stock for which to make a variety of soups.
Spring Risotto – Serves 4 – 6.58 per serving
For those lucky enough to have outdoor space, growing vegetables and herbs is a fantastic way to save money on perishable items such as tomatoes, herbs like basil or chives, or lettuces. Even for those who do not have outdoor space, it is possible to grow smaller herbs, such as rosemary or thyme, with the proper care and attention.
In addition to all of this, it is vital to know the shelf life of foods so that food is not wasted. When shopping, make a shopping list so as not to detract from the needed items, as it is very easy for the eye to wander to merchandise on sale and purchase unneeded items, which will only for it to go to waste. Search for seasonal ingredients, which are much more affordable.
For a little bit of inspiration, several recipe databases such as MyRecipes.com and Epicurious.com have special sections dedicated to eating delicious, seasonal meals that feed a family of four for less than $20. Not too shabby.
This odd confluence of many factors, from the recession to the renewed interest in cooking to virulent food prices, has led to more creativity in the kitchen. And when these tough times improve and the dreary recession changes from a harsh reality to a distant memory, home cooks everywhere will have a little bit more to show for it. Maybe, when we all can afford good ingredients again, we can even give those celebrity chefs a run for their money.
OK, I won’t go that far.