Budget City Cooking
A few weeks ago The New York Times Wednesday food section had a feature story about cooking for 99¢ a day. More than a few home cooks I know were steaming about that piece. One said it best: "It was snide. People are really hurting and The Times treated the idea of low cost cooking as a joke." She was right. If you missed it, the article's premise was primarily about eating from the canned and packaged groceries sold at Jack's 99-Cent Stores.
This is not what I have in mind when I think of cooking on a budget.
Like most city cooks, in good times and bad, I have a food budget. It's not rigid but I always have a general idea of what I expect to spend on groceries each week. This does not include wine or the occasional indulgence, like being on vacation and buying a half-dozen jars of locally made cherry jam (I did this last summer and am still benefiting from that impulsive purchase). A big percentage of my food budget gets spent in a major bring-it-home-by-taxi grocery run that I make every ten days or so. This is when I buy core ingredients (canned tomatoes, favorite frozen vegetables, grains and pastas, baking ingredients, spices and condiments, other things with shelf life, some meats and produce). More money is spent in the good urban habit of shopping daily, as when I buy fish for that night's supper, or bread to have with a supper salad.
But it's clear that food prices are going up. I don't blame my beloved New York food merchants. After all, they're paying more, too. Much of the price rise is due to $100+ per barrel oil prices. It costs more to put gas in a tractor or fishing boat, to run the machines that are used to harvest and process food, and to truck everything that we eat into New York City's markets. Someone has to pay and it's us.
So what can we do to lower our cooking costs but still be able to make tempting and seasonal food? I don't have a way to bring our food costs to that of The Times' useless and smug 99¢ meals (a budget that included stroke-provoking canned chicken sausage and Little Debbie cakes). But there are smart, flavorful and nutritious ways to cook well for less.
Budget Cooking and Shopping Tips
- Instead of buying boxed or canned chicken stock, make your own and freeze it (this works if you have a decent-sized freezer). At Manhattan's Big Apple Meat Market in Hell's Kitchen good quality chickens (okay, they're not organic but are good and far better than those marigold-yellow Purdue chickens) cost less than $2.00 a pound. Two chickens plus some carrots, celery and an onion will let you make 8 quarts of chicken broth. Use one quart with some of the shredded chicken meat as chicken soup. Use the rest of the shredded meat and some of the broth in a chicken pot pie adding carrots, potatoes and mushrooms (you can freeze this, too) and freeze the rest in recycled 1 pint deli containers. You'll have enough chicken stock for months of cooking. Total cost for all the stock and 2 meals? About $15.00. Plus you'll know what's in your chicken stock.
- Put your organic food budget where it can make the biggest impact. For me that means buying wild and sustainable fish, organic chickens, dairy products, and eggs. Wild salmon may cost upwards of $18 per pound but wild tilapia often costs less than half that price.
- Join a Community Supported Agriculture program and buy summer and fall produce directly from a local farmer. CSAs let you pay, in advance, for about 20 weeks of locally grown organic produce -- enough for a small family -- at a cost of about $20 a week. You get superb fruits and vegetables for a fair price and the farmer gets early income and a steady market. See our article about New York's CSAs.
- Buy in-season fruits and vegetables at a Greenmarket or local produce store. Whatever is in season is always the most plentiful and you know the principles of supply and demand: whatever is in greatest supply will have the lowest price.
- If you're a beef lover you don't have to give up steak. Instead buy and cook with the cheaper cuts. These include skirt or hangar steak, and London Broil. These less expensive cuts sometimes need different cooking or slicing methods; for example, London Broil needs to be sliced on the diagonal (even then it's a bit more chewy). But these cheaper cuts have big flavor so next time, try one for less than half the price of a New York strip. See our recipes.
- Same for pork. Pork tenderloins are notably inexpensive but tender, flavorful and easy to cook. They're also fast to cook, making them a great choice for weekday dinners. See our recipe.
- Buy in bulk. I don't mean Costco-sized bulk because most of us don't have the storage space. But many of our organic markets sell nuts, dried fruits, grains, snacks, and other foods by the scoop, and this can result in a very big cost savings. At Fairway's Upper West Side market, the bulk organic foods sold upstairs can cost less than the conventional equivalents sold in individual packages downstairs. If you frequently cook with items like couscous or barley or bulgur wheat, bulk organic shopping can be a great value.
- Choose your splurges. My favorites are artisanal cheese and charcuterie, especially imported prosciutto and salamis. I recently bought a small piece of Stilton from London's Neal's Yard Dairy at Zabar's and served with a salad, it was the prize at the end of a low cost meal.
- Cook once, eat twice. This is the old fashioned practice of making a dish in a quantity that can serve two meals. This especially works for one-pot dishes like stews, soups, and chilis. It also is smart if you're making pasta sauces or roasts. If I make a roast for company, I will buy a larger one to be sure that I have leftovers. I then use the leftover meat sliced on a salad or as the minor part of a meal when a whole grain or pasta is the main event. The dinner party menu might have been pricey, but the meal made with leftovers was a bonus and brings the per meal cost down.
- Buy from lower cost merchants. You may love your local fish monger or butcher, but if you're willing to travel to another neighborhood, especially for special purchases, you can save significant amounts of money. Two top quality and excellent value merchants are in the Hell's Kitchen food neighborhood: Sea Breeze Fish Market and Esposito's Meat Market.
- Bring your lunch to work. If you haven't recently totaled up what you spend every month for take-out coffee and lunches, it can be staggering. Invest in a small thermos and lunch kit and bring your own.
- Experiment with lower cost brands and generic store brands. We're all creatures of habit and preferences. I'd be resistant to giving up Hellman's Mayonnaise or Heinz Ketchup. But I've moved to lower priced canned chick peas, frozen spinach and olive oil.
- Make your own bread. Many of us have either cut back on or given up bread entirely, but if it's a continuing or occasional pleasure for you, try making your own. It takes time for the dough to rise and some energy to do the kneading, but with a little practice, you may get so good at it you'll rarely buy a loaf again (bad news for our many superb bread bakeries). I know several bread-making novices who have had great success with the "No Knead" recipe from Sullivan Street's Jim Lahey. Mark Bittman wrote about it, including Lahey's recipe. We've added a link below.
Mostly we can be mindful. Treat ingredients with care, buy only what we need, and eat like Italian and Chinese home cooks, with a little animal protein but lots of lower priced grains and vegetables on our plates. Even when this recession ends and good times again roll, these are good habits to keep around.