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Cook to Save Money

July 11, 2009

In the current economy, most people are trying to make cuts in their home budgets. One of the first places frugal Americans begin is with restaurant expenditures. Many people have become almost completely dependent upon others to prepare all of their meals. If you are looking to save some cash and consider yourself helpless in the kitchen there is hope. It is not necessary to attend Le Cordon Bleu to be able to save money by preparing meals yourself. When learning any new skill it is best to start with a few basics and eventually build upon them. I suggest that you learn to prepare three basic types of dishes to satisfy your culinary needs. You should select a single dish within each category according to your personal taste and preferences then learn to prepare it from scratch and memory. Since it is not possible to suggest a specific dish which would satisfy everyone’s needs, it is far more practical to suggest guidelines for selecting your dish within each category.

The first type of dish that should be learned is the “quick, easy, and cheap” meal. The second is the “for a crowd” meal. The third and final dish is the “special occasion” meal. No type is more important than the others and each specific dish, within each category, should be selected according to personal taste and preference.

The first type, the “quick, easy, and cheap” is ideal for times when you are looking to satisfy your hunger in a quick and inexpensive manner without resorting to going out for a McCoronary. This dish should meet several criteria. When selecting this dish you should be sure that it will take no longer than about 25 minutes to prepare from start to finish. Also, the requisite ingredients should ideally be things you have on hand at all times so that a trip to the grocery store can be avoided. Most recipes found online and in books today come with a difficulty rating, consulting this rating will help determine whether the dish qualifies as “easy.” Ideally, this dish should also take no more than 1-2 pots or pans. After all, if making the dish requires doing dishes for an hour or so after you are finished with your meal the “quick” and “easy” criterion are not really met. Everyone has a different idea of what “cheap” is. As a general rule of thumb, each serving should cost the same or less than whatever you would be eating if you were to step out for a cheap meal. Certain dishes, lentil soup for example, can easily undercut (in price and flavor) even the “dollar menu” items at fast food establishments. Always consider how many meals you expect to get from what you cook. It is also advisable not to choose for your “quick, easy, and cheap” dish something which requires highly seasonal ingredients, but more on that later.

Dining out is an inherently social undertaking, yet there is no reason to forgo the pleasant company of family and friends simply because you are avoiding restaurants. In fact, meals prepared and served in one’s own home often make for a more intimate dining experience than that which can be had at any restaurant. By going to the effort of preparing a meal by hand and inviting guests into your home, you are demonstrating the importance and value you place on their friendship. So in many ways, having a group over to your home for dinner is actually preferable to dining out.
When selecting the perfect dish to learn to prepare for your hungry crowd several factors must be considered. Price is of course an important factor. Since you will be entertaining people you presumably care about, you want your dish to be inexpensive rather than seem inexpensive. When selecting the perfect “for a crowd” dish be sure that it includes one or more ingredients which are relatively inexpensive, filling, and tasty. Pasta dishes fit the bill rather well as do rice dishes; however, dishes which feature large quantities of potatoes should be avoided. Potatoes are a bit too bland and are overused as a cheap filler ingredient. Another thing to consider is how well the dish will keep once it is done. Anything that requires constant tending even after it is ready to serve will prevent you from being able to enjoy the company of your guests.
When cooking for a group you must carefully walk a tightrope with bland and boring on one side and too adventurous on the other. While something like roast beef might be enjoyable, it is ubiquitous in American households and unlikely to leave a lasting impression on your guests. Similarly, tripe is a fantastic and flavorful ingredient but is probably too adventurous for the average dinner guest. It is also advisable to choose a dish which is not likely to interfere with a significant number of peoples dietary preferences. This does not mean that everything must be free range, organically grown, and vegan but if the entire thing is deep fried you might want to reconsider. As with the “quick, easy, and cheap” dish, it is important to choose a dish that requires as few pots and pans as possible though limiting it to 1-2 as before is probably impractical. It is extremely helpful if many of the components of the dish can be easily cooked at the same time, this greatly reduces the total time spent in the kitchen.

The third and final dish, the one for special occasions need not be overly difficult or complicated. The special occasion dish does have some unique criterion which it must meet if it is to meet the standards of your significant other or honored guest. This dish must be elegant but not tortured into pretentious shapes or designs. If the recipe requires you to purchase special equipment for molding or shaping your dish then it is not the one for you. The flavor of the food, not the presentation, should be the primary focus of the dish but care should still be taken to ensure that it is presented in a neat and clean manner which entices the diner. Remember that if your recipe is filled with rich ingredients such as heavy cream or butter the portion should be smaller. This is especially true if you are serving a woman, few women would be enthusiastic about trying to eat their weight in beurre blanc sauce no matter how delicious. While a sauce is not an absolutely necessary component of the “special occasion” dish it is advisable. Few things can bring as much flavor, elegance, and character to a dish as a fine sauce. That said, if you are a novice, a hollandaise sauce is probably not the place to begin but an excellent alfredo sauce can be learned with surprisingly little effort. This dish should also be something that is not eaten on a regular basis. This excludes dishes such as steak, spaghetti, salmon, and many chicken dishes. Of course chicken itself cannot be excluded but the most common preparations of chicken are. The purpose of the “special occasion” dish is to leave a lasting, memorable impression upon your guest.
Just because this dish is intended for special occasions does not necessarily mean that it must consist exclusively of expensive and rare ingredients. In fact, it is probably best to forgo cliché items such as lobster and show your guest what you can do with basic ingredients and perhaps a few special accoutrements. Well cooked chicken with a simple saffron cream sauce will likely leave more of an impression on your guest than would lobster of filet mignon.

A few general guidelines should be considered when selecting the perfect dish for any of the three categories. Highly seasonal ingredients should be avoided unless you are fairly good at using substitutes which are in season. For example, if the dish you are considering requires fresh asparagus then you might want to reconsider, asparagus in December can command quite a premium. If however, broccoli is a key ingredient, this poses little concern as it is readily available in both fresh and flash frozen form. It is sometimes necessary to buy ingredients which cannot easily be found in their fresh form; in this case it is virtually always better to select frozen rather than canned products. It should be noted that pork is often cheaper than beef and due to people’s fear of the virus formerly known as Swine Flu (now H1N1) pork prices have substantially declined.

Hopefully after learning to expertly prepare your chosen dishes you will come to see cooking as more enjoyable experience rather than a chore to be dreaded and will elect to continue your culinary education by attempting to prepare different dishes. At the very least, you should be able to save a substantial amount of money. By following these guidelines to select the three different dish types and then learning to prepare each dish from scratch and from memory you should be able to liberate yourself from expensive restaurants and TV dinners.

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