The Art Of Cooking Well On A Budget

Cooking well on a budget is an art. Learn easy cooking techniques that won't take a bite out of your finances.

Cooking well is a skill. Cooking well on a limited budget is an art. It all hinges on stocking your pantry with the necessary staple items, knowing and using what you have on-hand, improvisation, knowing your neighborhood, and understanding herbs and spices. There is nothing quite so satisfying as providing your family with tasty, well presented dishes that don't put a crater in your wallet. Remember, throughout history some of the most delectable meals from any type of cuisine were developed and perfected by the common people.

First, make sure your pantry is well stocked with staple foods. These can be altered as taste demands, but some of the more common items are flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, sugar, cooking oil, and shortening. You may also want canned cream (evaporated milk), eggs, and cornstarch.

After I have stocked my own staple foods, I also like to make sure I have plenty of rice, onions, potatoes, dried beans and peas, and canned stewed tomatoes, as one or all of these ingredients can usually be found in my family's favorite recipes. Do your family's favorite foods have ingredients in common? If the answer is yes, you should take care to stock those items as you do the staple foods.

Another factor of cooking well on a limited budget is knowing and using what you have on hand. If you have stocked your staples and other commonly used foods, you probably already have a good idea of what is in your pantry. Your next step should not be a cookbook. Instead, decide what flavors from what you have on hand that you want the meal to include""garlic and tomato, butter and cream, pepper and lemon, etc. Once you have an idea you may turn to your cookbook. Try to find a recipe or meal plan to correspond with the tastes you have selected.

You can also bypass the cookbook altogether, if you wish. Before you decide what you are going to fix, look in your cupboards, freezer, and refrigerator, keeping a lookout for things that might compliment each other. For instance, if you find rice, canned tomatoes, and sausage links, you can prepare a tasty Cajun style dish. If you have pasta, parmesan, and evaporated milk, you can serve a savory Alfredo. Even canned soup can make an appetizing meal if served with French bread and cheese or mustard. Surprisingly enough, some of the best, most creative recipes are developed when you are convinced you have nothing in your kitchen to cook for dinner.

Improvisation is key when trying to save money. If you are absolutely determined to have cookbook meals on the table, that's fine. If you are willing to improvise instead of running to the grocery store you can cook almost any recipe with what you have on hand. You can substitute ground beef for sausage and veal, or vice versa; oil instead of margarine; tuna for salmon, potato flakes or crushed crackers for bread crumbs; cottage cheese for ricotta; canned tomatoes and garlic for marinara, and many, many other substitutions can be made. Use your imagination.

Knowing your neighborhood can be a handy and fun way to conserve your resources. There are many natural, wild-growing foods that aren't commonly found in your local supermarket. Consider finding out which foods grow naturally in your area. You may find a tasty surprise. My family loves fried branch lettuce (a leafy green found in creek and stream beds), ramps (similar to wild onions, but much, much stronger and with a distinctive, pungent odor), dandelion greens, and poke sallet (do not attempt to cook poke sallet unless you know what your are doing""it can be deadly). All of these plants can be found practically in our backyard, along with wild blackberries, raspberries, strawberries, onions, edible tubers, and many others.

Finally, one of the most important ways to save money is by making plain, inexpensive fare into exciting, savory meals. This can be done through the careful use of herbs and spices. Growing your own herb garden is an efficient, cost effective way to do this. An herb garden doesn't take up much space, and fresh herbs are much better than dried. You should also make some effort to discover which herbs and spices complement each food. Many of the better cookbooks will have this information charted for you. Here are some of the basic combinations of herbs to use with various meats:

Beef: garlic, savory, thyme, bay leaf, curry, oregano, dry mustard.

Lamb: rosemary, parsley, cloves.

Pork: sage, nutmeg, thyme, garlic.

Veal: basil, marjoram, dill.

Chicken: sage, paprika, rosemary, tarragon, chives, basil, parsley.

Fish: oregano, thyme, dill, basil, parsley.

Remember, the price of the meal should never be the deciding factor in food quality. Rather, if it sounds like it tastes good, it smells like it tastes good, and it looks like it tastes good, chances are that it does taste good, and you might even have money left over for a dishwasher.

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