How To Cook On A Budget

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I didn’t grow up in a house with cooking, so food shopping was always a bit casual: a box of this, a bag of that. We’d have Fruit Roll-Ups in the cabinet and ice cream sandwiches in the freezer and so, when I became an adult and lived in my first adult apartment in college, I shopped the same way. I’d go to the store and buy a few frozen pizzas, a packet of cheese, a loaf of bread. There wasn’t much thought behind it; the idea was when we weren’t ordering in Chinese food or going down to Emory Village for dinner at Panera, I could make a grilled cheese or defrost a frozen pizza. Then, after college, I got into cooking.

And from that point on, until just two weeks ago, I shopped in a very stupid way. I would pick a recipe, I would go to the store, and I would buy the ingredients for that recipe.

It didn’t occur to me when I was doing it that this method of shopping was stupid. I’d see a recipe I liked–oh, for example, the Thomas Keller recipe I just posted yesterday–and I’d go to the store and I’d buy the leeks and the rutabagas and the turnips and the chicken and the canola oil and the thyme and the garlic and I’d get to the cash register and, no joke, the total would be something like $40.

I’d justify it by saying to myself: “Oh, it’s ok that you’re buying this canola oil, you’ll use it plenty of times after this. And this thyme you can use tomorrow in tomato sauce or something like that.”

That kind of logic explains the cabinets full of obscure ingredients (black sesame seeds, Chinese five spice powder, walnut oil, pomegranate molasses) that I purchased for a single recipe and hardly ever used again. It also explains why, after several years of doing this, my bank account’s grown slimmer and slimmer and cooking at home often feels more extravagant than eating out. This way of shopping, I’ve discovered, is no longer sustainable.

It’s actually Craig’s parents who sparked this break-through. Every Christmas we go to visit them in Bellingham, Washington and every Christmas, morning, noon and night, a meal is provided, seemingly whipped up by magic. Hardly ever do I see his parents go food shopping, and yet there before us on Christmas morning is a breakfast casserole, the night before a large roast beef, and the night after a lasagna.

What this is, I realized after talking to Craig’s mom about it, is how you run a home when there are three kids and you have to cook on a budget. You don’t shop recipe-to-recipe, flipping through cookbooks like a person of leisure in your bathrobe at four in the afternoon; you go to the store, you stock up and then you cook what you have on hand.

Obvious to most, but a breakthrough for me, I returned to New York after Christmas and spent an hour at D’Agastinos, my local mainstream supermarket, and decided to shop like an adult, like someone who needs to feed a household for a whole week. I bought sweet potatoes because they would keep well in the refrigerator; I bought cauliflower because i could use it for pasta; I bought cans of tomatoes, anchovies, garlic; I bought boxes of pasta, eggs, oatmeal, yogurt, a loaf of bread, granny smith apples, lemons, peanut butter and milk. By the time I reached the check-out, I’d collected $100 worth of groceries.

But that $100 has lasted us a while now. This whole week, in fact, I’ve been cooking still from last week’s shopping spree. On Monday I made a sweet potato soup that was pretty divine; on Tuesday, I made a pizza and only had to buy mozzarella cheese (everything else, I had on hand); I’ve made cauliflower pasta, egg salad sandwiches, oatmeal for breakfast, baked sweet potatoes with butter and cinnamon, baked apples, and so on and so forth.

It’s a rewarding way to cook because instead of a world of infinite possibility (the world you encounter when you stare at your shelf of cookbooks), you are limited by what you have on hand. It was always easier in writing school to do an assignment with a limitation (“write a play with two characters trapped in an elevator”) than just to be told “write a play.” Same here: it’s easier to cook dinner when you know you have sweet potatoes, cauliflower, boxes of pasta, and lemons than to flip through the Ad Hoc book trying to figure out what to make next.

For those of you struggling to cook more at home during this rough economy, I hope this has been some kind of inspiration. The key, again, is to do one big shop every week or two: stock up, don’t be shy, be aware of what’s perishable and what’s not and try to strike a balance between them. A box of salad will last a few days in the fridge, potatoes will last longer, and onions are always good to have on hand. Shop this way, and you’ll cook more often and spend less money. It only took me six years to figure that out.

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