As a single, when I began my cooking journey, I frequently asked myself if I was saving any money or if I was simply wasting a lot of time for the same price than a takeout meal. I want to address that concern in today’s post and share how I cook great meals for a budget.
Before I begin, I would like to share one more series of Youtube videos from Epicurious with you. This chef, Dan Giusti, is genuinely inspiring. He shows creative ways how to use budget ingredients to prepare fantastic meals. Unfortunately, there aren’t many episodes to binge on!
I began cooking a bit more seriously when I moved to the US about six years back. At that time, I gained substantial exposure to foods from different countries, and I was fortunate to afford them. Thus, I realized there was a world of improvement in my cooking that I had to make. Also, I gained access to ingredients I hadn’t seen before because they’re not present in the Argentinian mainstream markets. All in all, every time I tried out a recipe, I ended up spending $10 to $15 in 2016 dollars. Of course, that’s not cheaper than a restaurant meal, but I had to do the prep work and the dishes and bare with the high chance of screwing up.
Then, there is the problem of the leftover ingredients. What should I do with them? Of course, if you’re someone like me who thinks they know a lot when they don’t, you’d also toss out the ingredients after sitting in your fridge for way too long. Or, in the best-case scenario, you’d try to cook something that doesn’t end up tasting quite nice.
Unfortunately, knowing what to do with leftover ingredients, especially those you’re not familiar with, doesn’t come out intuitively for most people. Here is where the cost starts building up. If you spent, let’s say, $20 worth of ingredients, and you end up cooking one meal, then that meal effectively cost you that, plus the electricity or gas you used to cook with, plus the materials to clean your cookware, and so forth. This way, it’s easier to think that cooking is comparable to takeout.
If you have already watched any of Dan Giusti’s videos, you might know that you can eat well by spending only $3 to $4 per meal. So here are some of the things I think of when making a recipe:
- Can I scale it down? I dislike eating the same thing repeatedly, reheated where it has lost its texture, crunch, and color. Most grocery stores offer bulk sections where you can buy the quantities you need instead of packages that serve much more than you alone can eat.
- Do I know in advance how to use the ingredients? Maybe I could cook something else by getting one or two additional items.
- Do the ingredients freeze well? Let’s imagine that the recipe yields four portions; then, you could do your prep, fraction the elements and freeze them.
- Can you grow some of the ingredients in your kitchen? This idea follows the previous one, and you can combine it with prepping and freezing. Many fresh herbs, alliums, and others stay fresh if you simply put them in a pot or a glass of water.
- Are the cuisines that you pick too different? Cuisines from various regions typically use the same set of base ingredients. It might be worth picking a given cuisine and preparing several dishes that share ingredients instead of cooking one recipe on a one-off basis if you’re experimenting.
- Can you incorporate exotic ingredients into your everyday cooking? Try experimenting with those bamboo shoots, guanciale, or barberries and add them to your dishes. Who knows? Maybe you’ll find your secret chef’s ingredient.
- Finally, are you leveraging your shelf-stable pantry in a creative-enough way? Canned tomatoes and beans can become many things. I will talk a bit more about this later.
Now, I will share some examples of meals I cooked with these ingredients. One large can of tomatoes, some spaghetti, a head of garlic, a bunch of Italian basil, a bag of Indian eggplants, one piece of parmesan cheese, a head of purple cabbage, a pack of chicken thighs, and a pack of asparagus.
I placed my bunch of basil in a glass of water, where it would get the most sun possible so it would remain happy and doesn’t wilt too soon. You can keep your herbs like this for way longer than it’d take you to eat them.
- Spaghetti with Eggplant and Tomato sauce. This one is quite simple; I cooked a few Indian eggplants in the sauce and then blended everything with some pasta water using my hand blender, finishing the dish with torn basil leaves.
- Chicken and Rice. I made a single serving of chicken and rice using the garlic and some of the tomato puree from the can as my aromatics, and then I also incorporated some of the parm for umami.
- Chicken Tacos. I made a salsa with garlic and tomato. I had got some masa harina from the bulk section of my grocery store to make fresh tortillas. Finally, I used the purple cabbage to give color to the dish. It ended up delicious.
- Stewed Chickpeas. Chickpeas, tomato, eggplant, garlic, basil, and spices always go well together, so why not make a grain bowl?
- Mediterranean Tacos. I had some leftover stewed chickpeas; thus, I made some more corn tortillas and had these fantastic tacos. I added some asparagus and purple cabbage for crunch and freshness.
Then I repeated variations of these dishes, adding or removing whatever I had left from the ingredients. I spent about $22, and I ate about ten times with it. Not too bad, right? These dishes tasted one order of magnitude better than what I’d get in a restaurant.
To close up the post. Eating well on a budget is possible and better, not only for your wallet but also for your body and the planet, as you can choose fresh and seasonal ingredients. Don’t worry too much if you get an expensive piece of cheese or charcuterie, as they have many applications, and you can use them sparingly to enhance many dishes. Finally, pushing yourself to learn about the ingredients you have and using them in diverse ways will bring you closer to becoming the expert home cook we all aspire to be.