Eating well for less

Thriftiness an essential aspect of being a great cook, whether one is Chinese, Italian, German, French or American.

HaPizza pizza 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Robin Robertson)
HaPizza pizza 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Robin Robertson)
When I was studying in Paris to become a professional chef, one day I pinched off too much of the green bean ends. The chef scolded me.
“A good chef is a frugal chef,” he reminded me.
Although the course was on lavish classic French cuisine, the chefs made it clear that avoiding waste is an important tenet of good cooking. We were taught to use everything, including trimmings that people routinely discard.
We learned that even fish and chicken bones and vegetable scraps like tough green leek tops and tomato skins add good flavor to stocks.
Like the chefs with whom I studied, Jacques Pepin, author of Cuisine Economique, considers thriftiness an essential aspect of being a great cook, whether one is Chinese, Italian, German, French or American. He points out that economy, not only of food but also of time and money, reflects the cook’s intelligence and comprehension of his or her craft.
Economy also extends to avoiding washing extra dishes. “To save time... I reuse a pot several times in a logical sequence – cooking foods that are non-sticky before those that stick and stain – before washing it,” wrote Pepin.
For a fall menu that illustrates ways to save money on ingredients, Pepin makes a terrine from inexpensive zucchini. To give the zucchini flavor, he sautes slices in olive oil and adds garlic and chopped parsley, and then purees the mixture. In the menu’s entree, a traditional French casserole of lamb baked with sliced potatoes and sauteed onions, garlic and fresh herbs, he replaces the usual lamb chops with meaty shoulder chops, which cost a third as much and make the dish even better.
Old ingredients should be used, too. Pepin makes fromage fort, an old-fashioned French snack he loved in his childhood, from leftover cheeses. To prepare it, you combine bits of as many hard and soft cheeses as you like (such as Brie, Cheddar, Swiss, blue, mozzarella or goat) and trim off the surface dryness and mold.
Then you whirl them in a food processor with chopped garlic, seasoning and white wine or vegetable broth. You eat the creamy spread on bread; for a hot appetizer, you can broil it on toast to melt the cheese.
Using leftovers wisely is an important part of frugal cooking. “A good cook is never apologetic about leftovers,” wrote Pepin. “The common mistake is to try to re-serve them in their original form. A roasted chicken is good only when fresh. But if the cooked chicken is served in a hash... or is transformed into a salad, it will taste as it should – like a freshly made dish.”
Alain Braux, author of Healthy French Cuisine for Less than $10/Day, emphasizes portion sizes and gives tips on how to succeed in reducing them. Limiting portion size, he says, shrinks your budget as well as your waist size. He advises using medium plates instead of large ones. “Visually, it will look like your plate is full with less food.”
A typical dinner that Braux recommends is spring vegetable quiche with a salad, fruit and chocolate. The quiche is composed of broccoli, sweet peppers, spinach, grated carrot, onion and garlic, lightly sauteed in olive oil and spooned into a crust. Braux makes the quiche batter not with cream, but with milk or soy or almond milk.
Eating more vegetarian meals is another way to save money. “A plant-based diet generally costs less than a meat-centered one,” wrote Robin Robertson, author of Vegan on the Cheap. A vegan diet can save not only on grocery bills but, she says, even on medical bills: “Eating a well-balanced plant-based diet can go a long way toward boosting the immune system.”
To save time, money or both, Robertson recommends preparing a week of menus and including planned leftovers. “Plan one or two meals a week that you can stretch into two meals each. It can be as simple as making extra rice on Sunday to turn into a fried rice dish on Tuesday.... If you make a large casserole or pot of stew... leftovers can be used for lunches... or portioned and frozen for easy single-serving future meals.”
Her shopping tips include stocking up when frozen and pantry foods are on sale and not shopping when you’re hungry.
Soups and stews are the ultimate dollar-stretchers, notes Robertson. Designing meals around pantry staples such as rice and beans or pasta is another good way to extend the budget. One of her practical tips is keeping a few simple pantry-based recipes handy in a kitchen drawer to remind you of easy meals that you can put together quickly. “This will save last-minute panics when you’re starved and don’t know what to cook. If you have a box of pasta and a can of beans in the pantry, you’re within twenty minutes of a satisfying meal.”
TO MAKE meal preparation efficient, Robertson recommends big-batch cooking: Once a week, prepare large amounts of a few basic foods like brown rice, beans or pasta sauce; then portion and freeze them for later use. Chop extra vegetables such as carrots, celery, garlic and sweet peppers and refrigerate for later use in soups and stews. You can even chop onions and freeze them for a few weeks.
To keep meals interesting, advises Robertson, “cook ethnic. Since much of the world’s population has long been eating frugally by necessity, many nations have a rich menu of tasty and economical fare. When you cook the ‘peasant food’ of a particular cuisine, you’re offering your family exotic flavors... while also saving money. My mother frequently prepared Italian ‘povero’ dishes such as pasta e fagioli... that were so good, it never occurred to me that we were on a tight budget.”
Instead of buying processed foods, you can save money by making them at home. Robertson calculated that cooked dried beans cost almost half as much as canned beans, homemade salad dressing costs less than a third of bottled ones and homecooked marinara sauce (Italian tomato sauce) costs just a little over half as much as store-bought.
Everyone knows that eating home-cooked food more and eating out less saves money. If cutting back on dining out causes you to have “restaurant withdrawal,” as Robertson calls it, she suggests making your own version of some of your favorites, like Chinese stir-fry dishes or pizza.
The writer is the author of Classic Cooking Techniques.
Keep this Indian soup a purely vegetable soup, or boost the protein with chicken, tofu or 1 or 2 cups of cooked beans. To save time, you can omit the fresh ginger, the cumin, coriander and turmeric and increase the curry powder by 2 tsp., or to taste. Serve the soup with hot cooked rice.
2 Tbsp. canola or olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 Tbsp. minced ginger-root
2 Tbsp. chickpea flour or
1 Tbsp. whole-wheat or white flour
1⁄2 tsp. to 1 tsp. curry powder
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
1⁄4 tsp. turmeric
5 cups chicken or vegetable broth
1 carrot, diced
1 potato, diced salt and freshly ground pepper
1 medium zucchini or white squash (kishu), diced
1 cup frozen green beans or peas (optional)
2 tomatoes, fresh or canned, diced (optional)
1 or 2 cups cooked chicken or turkey, or 175 350 gr. (6 oz. to 12 oz.) tofu, cut in bite-size cubes cayenne pepper to taste
A few drops lemon juice, or to taste (optional)
2 Tbsp. chopped fresh coriander (cilantro)
Heat oil in a medium saucepan. Add onion and sauté over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add garlic and ginger and cook over low heat, stirring, for 1 minute. Add flour, curry powder, cumin, coriander and turmeric and stir over low heat to blend well; add remaining oil if mixture is dry. Cook for 1⁄2 minute, stirring.
Stir in broth and bring to a simmer, stirring. Add potato, carrot and a pinch of salt. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes.
Add zucchini, green beans, tomatoes and chicken and cook, covered, for 5 minutes or until vegetables are tender. Season to taste with cayenne pepper and lemon juice. Serve sprinkled with fresh coriander.
Makes 4 servings
This recipe is from Vegan on the Cheap. Author Robin Robertson writes: “The people of Tuscany come by the moniker ‘bean eaters’ owing to their inclusion of fagioli in everything from soups and stews to this creamy, protein-rich pizza topping.”
She recommends cannelini beans, but you can use any white beans you have. If you like, you can add sliced pitted black olives along with the tomatoes.
2 3⁄4 cups all purpose flour
2 1⁄4 tsp. instant yeast
1 tsp. salt
1 cup lukewarm water
1 Tbsp. olive oil
3 garlic cloves, finely minced
1 1⁄2 cups cooked or a 400-gr. (15-oz.) can white beans, drained and rinsed
1⁄4 tsp. salt
1⁄4 tsp. black pepper
1⁄3 cup water or vegetable stock
3 Tbsp. chopped fresh basil
2 medium-size ripe plum tomatoes, cut into 6-mm. (1⁄4-in.) slices
Make the dough: In a large bowl, combine the flour, yeast and salt. Stir in the water until combined, then use your hands to knead it into a soft dough.
Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface and knead until it is smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes, adding additional flour as needed so it doesn’t stick. Shape dough into a smooth ball and place in an oiled bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature in a warm spot until doubled in volume, about 1 hour.
After dough has risen, transfer it to a lightly floured work surface, punch it down, and gently stretch and lift it to make a 30-cm. (12-in.) round about 6 mm. (1⁄4 in.) thick. Transfer the round to a floured baking sheet or pizza stone. Let dough rise in a draft-free place for 20 minutes. Adjust oven rack to bottommost position of the oven. Preheat oven to 220ºC (425ºF).
Make the topping: In a large skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add garlic and cook until softened, about 2 minutes. Add beans, salt and pepper.
Mash beans to break them up, then stir in the water and simmer, stirring occasionally, until mixture is creamy, about 8 minutes. Stir in the basil and set aside.
To assemble the pizza, spread the bean mixture evenly on top of the dough round, to within 1.25 cm. (1⁄2 in.) of the edge. Arrange the tomato slices on top and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Bake until the crust is browned, 12 to 15 minutes.
Serve hot.