Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Cooking at Home Can Be Expensive, Here's How to Avoid the Expense

A while back someone had commented in my blog that she had a whopping failure cooking soup at home and my response was to direct them to another web site. Not cool of me. It was a flip answer in hindsight.

For people who are having to forgo eating out and eating in, they may not have the skills to cook at home. Like many things, cooking is a skill learned. Most people are not born being great chefs or cooks. Plus, unless you are used to cooking at home, it can be expensive to start out. The key to making low cost meals is not to use the cheapest ingredients, but to make sure you have a stocked kitchen with the items that you need to make your meals.

I strongly suggest that if you are trying to give up eating out, buying take out or ready made meals that you don't go all Martha Stewart and try to cook fabulous complicated meals unless you are a practiced cook. Start with the basics.

When my ex BF and broke up, I moved into my own apartment and spent a small freaking fortune on stocking up my kitchen. Butter, flour, pasta, cooking oils, vinegars, spices, canned beans, dried beans, mustard, ketchup, BBQ sauce, sugar, honey, etc. You get the picture. I had to start from scratch. I knew what items I used on a regular basis so I wrote out my list and did my shopping. I will admit, it did take two or three shops to stock up the cupboard. I'd forget that I needed soy sauce and tamari sauce for when I'd do a stir fry. That I really did need curry powder for my homemade curries and that having a couple boxed of Kraft Mac and Cheese is really a good thing.

To ease yourself into cooking at home, you need to do the following things:

1) Get a couple basic cookbooks- I highly recommend the Joy of Cooking, it is my bible for anything and everything kitchen related. It has answers for almost all your cooking questions.

2) Find a good food blog: I highly recommend A Year Of Crockpotting. Yes, it's all about the crock pot, but there is an amazing variety of recipes and lets face it, the crock pot does the cooking! I use my crock pot a least once a week in the winter. I've never had a bad recipe from AYOC.

3) Think about the foods you and your family like to eat, Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Meat and Potatoes, etc. Learn to cook some of those foods.

4) Become proficient at a couple basic items. A roast chicken is one of my favorite meals. I roast the chicken and have that with a couple sides for dinner. I use the leftover meat for sandwiches and I save the carcass and make stock with it. The stock gets frozen and stored in my freezer and use the stock as a base for soups. I make a lot of basic soups. That $7-$9 chicken makes at least 4 meals for one.

I happen to like rice and beans and I frequently make black beans and rice. My recipe for that comes straight off of the can of Goya black beans. Over the years, I've modified the recipe a bit to suit my tastes. I also use this recipe for any kind of beans and rice.

Since I'm not a huge fan of eating the same food day in and day out, if I go overboard and make too much of the black beans and rice, I'll take the leftovers and make burritos, or mash up the beans with some stock and make black bean soup. if I go overboard on the lentil soup, I'll add in pasta or wild rice or some cut up sausages to change it up a bit.

I make a pretty decent tomato sauce (gravy if you are from the NYC area). I eat a lot of pasta. I keep a variety of pasta shapes in my cupboard, spaghetti, ziti, fettuccine, shells, rotini. Sometimes I add in olives, hot pepper flakes capers to my basic red tomato sauce for a little extra zing, that sauce is known as Puttanesca sauce (less the anchovies). I learned how to make pesto and usually make a couple jars to freeze each summer.

I was lucky, I grew up around people who liked to eat and liked to cook. Cooking was a pleasure, not a chore. This is not to say that I have not had some spectacular failures. I've made things that are just plain horrible and a few items that ended up being inedible. It's part of the learning process. I've been making soup since I was 12. I wanted to learn how to make soup and I did.

Again, start small, start with the easy stuff and work your way up. There is no shame in using pre- prepared items. I don't cook beans well, so I use a lot of canned beans. My freezer is small, and if I run out of room or don't have any stock, I pick up a container of stock at the grocery store. I've tried a couple brands and found the ones that I like and when they are on sale, I pick up a couple containers to keep in the cupboard. Trader Joe's makes a dammed fine Roasted Red Pepper and Tomato soup. For $1.89 a quart it's cheaper and easier for me to buy that than to make the soup if I feel like a treat. I use frozen veg as well as fresh. I have on more than one occasion, made Rice A Roni as a side dish. I've even used the ramen noodles from cup o noodles as a base for a noodle and veg stir fry (I omitted the tasteless broth).

I pick up almost all my herbs and spices from the local health food store. They have a bulk section and I am an avid collector of jars. This has several advantages, 1) I can pick and choose the spices I want in the quantities I want. 2) Bulk spices tend to be so much less expensive than the jars you get at the grocery store. I tend to use a lot of specific spices and I buy larger quantities of those and the spices I use infrequently, I keep in the smaller jars. Baby food jars are great, I reuse old spice jars, I use old mustard and jelly jars. My spice shell is an eclectic mix of herbs and spices in jars. None of it matches and I really don't care! I paid $1.10 for a bunch of dried rosemary at the health food store. One of those small spice jars at the grocery store would have run me almost $5. The other advantage to getting my spices at the health food store is at least once a year I just dump them all. Dried herbs and spices have a finite shelf life. I paid around $12 to restock my spice collection two weeks ago. $12 would have gotten me, what two, maybe three jars at the grocery store? I keep a selection of various condiments in the fridge, curry pastes, Chinese sauces, etc for when the mood strikes that I might want a curry or a fancier stir fry.

Maybe you don't have the time or the skill to make your own home made pizza dough, but you can pick up a pre-made shell, a jar of tomato sauce and some cheese, and I know some stores carry fresh dough in the dairy section. I've even picked up a basic frozen cheese pizza and added my own toppings. Still less expensive than take out and not as labor intensive as making the sauce, dough, slice and dice the cheese and other stuff.

Getting out of the habit of eating out or getting take out takes time. I also suggest that you plan a couple meals a week that are quick and easy to make. Use the weekends to fiddle in the kitchen. Don't get too upset if the first few times the dish does not turn out well. This is cooking, not brain surgery. When I started to make meatloaf, each loaf tasted horrible. I used a friends recipe, watched her make the meatloaf and the first few I made were awful. All of sudden, I got the knack for making a decent meat loaf. The same with scalloped potatoes. I used the wrong type of potatoes, I under cooked or over cooked the potatoes, now I "get" how to make the perfect blend of potatoes, milk, onions and flour. I make really good scalloped potatoes. It took time!

I now have a list of dishes I can make and make well, I keep my pantry stocked with items for those dishes, I shop the specials to stick up on those pantry staples and I'm not afraid to branch out (I've been doing a lot of Indian cooking this year). Mistakes happen, food burns or is undercooked (Invest in a good kitchen timer!).

Hopefully, these few tips are of good use for you! As Jacque Pepin would say Happy cooking!

9 comments:

sbinzel said...

A friend of mine teaches a cooking class - on how to cook the basics. Ie how to quarter a chicken....how to make spaghetti, how to read a label. So many people have not been taught how to cook by their parents.

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