Wednesday, October 28, 2009

All the Difference in the World (Your Secret Ingredients)



So many of us these days (myself included) are stretching our food budgets to the limit, trying to save wherever we can. There are tons of websites and resources out there devoted to “feeding your family on a shoestring.” (One of the more valuable websites I've seen is Cook For Good, which helps people develop a healthy, budget-friendly and planet-friendly strategy for feeding a family for about $1.26 per meal. This site has gotten some buzz from Mark Bittman’s blog, if you’re interested in learning more.)

But cheap and healthy eating can become very monotonous. Lots of beans. Lots of homemade yogurt. Lots of homemade bread. Simple recipes are too often missing the special few ingredients that, while adding to the cost of the dish, punch up the flavor or add a richer mouthfeel that makes an otherwise lame-o dish truly satisfying.

A recent example: Last week I bought a very sub-par wedge of Parmesan (I use the name loosely) cheese. I didn’t want to cheap out completely and get the old Kraft-in-a-Can standby, but frankly, I might as well have. It was almost flavorless, with no discernable aroma, no nuttiness, no creaminess, no bite. Just rubbery and bland. In fact, it kind of ruined my homemade tomato sauce. Dammit!! Now I don’t even want to use the half a wedge that’s left, and I should have just spent the extra 3 bucks on a piece of real, well-aged Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Are you feelin’ me out there?

So I want to know: What are the crucial ingredients that give a boost to your home-cooked, shoestring dishes? When is it a bad idea to substitute a more economical ingredient for the real deal called for in the original recipe? Winter is coming, and we all need some fresh ideas to keep us inspired and healthy.

7 comments:

Alissa said...

Crikey! I'm dealing with the same issues. I started shopping at WalMart (gasp) for my everyday regular items like cereal because it is one of the biggest rip-off items in the store. We've started going to the Farmer's Market for produce when we can and seafood is another story. It's very difficult to buy healthy foods and support locally grown items when they are twice as expensive.

Alex Harrison said...

Alissa, if bloggers could do a "Request & Dedication" like on Casey's Top 40, this post would go out to you...from me.

donedieting said...

Beans. I always buy a ton of beans when I go to the store. They're cheap, high in protein and fiber, and can be made into many different things. They make my food budget significantly more bearable.

Mom said...

I think your question isn't what are good cheap things to buy, it is what should you not skimp on, n'est ce pas? Here are some things that aren't worth buying because they are cheaper:

bargain coffee. sausage - only buy the good stuff. Cheap sausage tastes bad. bacon - if it's not Nueske's, I don't buy it at my house not worth the bargain or the calories. grocery store eggs for breakfast.

Alex Harrison said...

Yes, Mom...that's exactly what I'm talking about! My no skimp foods are: coffee, cheeses (like real Parm and Swiss), whole nutmeg, good spices...I also use anchovy paste in tons of dishes. It gives many recipes (including ones with beans!) a depth of flavor that you can't put your finger on- not fishy, just goodness...

Kim said...

I love this idea for your post. I'd add good chocolate to your list. Mmm, getting hungry. :)

I think you should do another one on what are the best things to make yourself rather than buy. Pesto, for example. Roasted tomatoes. Granola.

SUPPERMAN Chef said...

On a budget's fine... but don't skimp on good olive oil... good balsamic... and fresh herbs (over dried)