Kate explores ways for gourmet cooks to save a few dollars, including her Top Ten Tips for Gourmet Cooking on a Budget, and heralds green food wraps and other environmentally-friendly—and useful—products.
by Kate Heyhoe
Do you consider yourself a gourmet cook? If so, you're a retailer's dream consumer. During this time of obese gas prices and ballooning inflation, households with a gourmet cook smell especially sweet to food and lifestyle businesses.
A Nielsen survey of 27,000 consumer panel homes in March 2008 shows:
Gourmet cooks outspend other households by 11% across all stores, not just grocery stores. They spend bigger in warehouse clubs (+20%), grocery stores (+17%), drug stores (+15%) and even dollar stores (+11%). Gourmet cooks are not as hot on stores like Kmart, Target and Wal-Mart, and they make five more trips to a grocery store each year than do remaining U.S. households.
To combat high gas prices, households with gourmet cooks combine errands and trips, eat out less, and stay home more often, and a disproportionate percentage of them rely on coupons, warehouse clubs, larger economy-sized packages, and shopping via the internet.
In a related survey, fewer people are drinking in bars, restaurants, and night clubs. A report on drinking patterns says people are also ordering fewer drinks and less expensive ones. Nearly everyone is going out less than they did a year ago, including 65% or more of fine dining and nightclub patrons, 59% of casino and resort visitors, 55% of bar patrons, and 52% of casual dining visitors.
People may well be drinking on their porches and in their living rooms instead, notes the report. "Watching their wallets, a growing number of consumers are simply opting to stay home more often rather than go out for dinner or drinks," said Danny Brager, vice president, client service, beverage alcohol at Nielsen. "As a result, sales of alcoholic beverages at restaurants, bars and nightclubs are suffering as consumers seek ways to economize." Beer remains relatively stable, but wine is being hit hard by cutbacks, partly because restaurants are suffering more than bars, and wine is more of a dinner drink than spirits or beer.
If any of this describes your lifestyle, search thousands of recipes for dollar-stretching ideas. And for practical solutions, check out Ten Tips for Gourmet Cooking on a Budget (immediately below) and 25 Tips for Better Brown Bags.
Just because the economy's tanking doesn't mean your lifestyle has to. Eat well, with gusto and good taste, by cooking at home. If you already opt for eating in over dining out, get creative with your gourmet dollar with these easy tips.
1. Stretch your meat with fruits and nuts—Animal foods are costly on the planet and on your budget. Nuts and dried fruits (like sliced almonds and cranberries) may seem expensive, but pound for pound they're a better buy than meats, and packed with nutrition. To stretch your meat servings, serve cooked pork loins, steaks, or chicken breasts in thin slices (about half of what you're used to serving), and make a quick pan sauce by stirring dried fruit bits and broth into the drippings. Pour the sauce over the slices, sprinkle on toasted pecans or other nuts, and serve with rice or pasta on the side. No one will miss the meat, and your star-chef rating may actually improve.
2. Pick power cheeses—The more flavorful the cheese, the less you need. Think blue cheeses, feta, extra sharp cheddar, Romano, Parmesan, and goat or sheep's milk cheese. These cheeses punch up flavor impact and are another way to stretch a meat dish, or round out a meatless dish into a full entree. Sprinkle them over the top of sliced meat servings, or add them to a salad, with nuts and fruit if you like, for a main course. Romano and Asiago are generally cheaper than real Parmesan, and can stand in for pricier cheeses in many recipes.
3. Drop on fancy oils and balsamic vinegar instead of bottled dressing—Bottled dressings cost a lot, can contain preservatives, and often taste bottled. Specialty oils may be expensive, but just a few drops are all you need, especially with intensely flavored toasted nut oils, and lemon or orange infused oils, or basil or toasted garlic oil (which typically use olive oil or avocado oil as a base). For salads, I don't even bother to mix the dressing separately. Pour a few drops of nut or flavored oil in the bottom of the bowl, add a little olive oil if you like, pour in some white or red balsamic vinegar, chopped garlic, sea salt and pepper. Toss with greens and serve.
4. Shop bulk bins for small and large amounts—When creating recipes for magazines and books, I often need small amounts of ingredients, just to see if the recipe will work. Then, when testing and retesting a recipe, I need large amounts. Bulk bins are my friends from beginning to end. The prices are cheaper and I only buy what I need, so nothing goes to waste or goes rancid. For instance, in a recipe for Cooking Pleasures, I added just 2 tablespoons of sunflower seeds to a bowl of mixed grilled vegetables for crunch and flavor, and ended up with an upscale taco topping.
5. Buy bulk spices for freshness and savings—Who really needs a whole bottle of bay leaves, especially at $5 a jar? Few of us will use them all up before they lose their flavor. Take a few minutes to spoon spices into the small zipper bags of the bulk aisle (in natural and upscale markets), buying just the amount you can use, and you'll spend a few cents instead of a few dollars.
6. Buy big jars of sun-dried tomatoes—You may think you'd never use up a hefty 32-ounce jar of julienned sun-dried tomatoes in oil, but once it's there, lurking in your fridge, you'll find all sorts of creative gourmet ways for it. Especially if there are herbs in the oil. It works as a spread on bread instead of butter, a pizza topping, in salads, as a sandwich spread, in soups, stews, omelets, casseroles, and sauces. Pan-fry chicken breasts, spoon on the tomatoes with a few nuggets of goat cheese, and eat. Roll into tortillas with cream cheese and pesto, slice into rounds and serve as a nibble or salad complement.
7. Rediscover cream cheese—Cream cheese is to creative cooks what a tube of white paint is to an artist. You can tint it with color and flavor, thicken it with textures or thin it into a sauce. Serve it cold, hot or in between. Mix naturally-favored chive cream cheese with feta and garlic for a faux herb cheese spread. At a fraction of the cost of butter or goat cheese, cream cheese is a versatile ingredient. Neufchatel or reduced-fat cream cheese tastes as good as regular, and supermarket labels can be as fine as the leading brand (Philadelphia), for a few pennies less.
8. Serve crackers instead of bread—Flour products are up in price, but crackers can still be more economical than breads, and they're shelf-stable, so they're less likely to go bad. Serve crisp breadsticks instead of artisanal bread loaves. When mom was on a budget, she'd toast saltines with a light smear of butter and black pepper, and it was surprisingly good; try it with your favorite cracker, simple or upscale, and consider a sprinkle of Romano on top, too.
9. Serve tortillas instead of bread—Steamy hot tortillas with a little butter, olive oil, or roasted garlic oil are fine sides instead of dinner bread. At less than a dime a tortilla, you can take the savings and splurge on a bottle of chic blood orange oil or aged balsamic. Don't fire up the oven just to warm tortillas; microwave the tortillas (under a towel or inverted plate), and you'll be greener and more thrifty.
10. Gussy up the grains—If you're not swinging to a quinoa beat, you're late to the dance. Quinoa, bulgur and other grains are all the rage these days. They're hip, good for you, tasty and adapt readily to flavorprints from Morocco to Malibu. Plus, they're cheap (relative to the price of other food groups like meats and dairy), and like vegetables, they're planet-friendly. I'm a big fan of grain salads, and of simple grains seasoned just with garlic and olive oil. Or mix in some sun dried tomatoes with their oil.
Finally, pick olive oil over butter. Some very good, inexpensive olive oils are out there. Chop up some garlic and herbs in them. As bread dippers or spreads, they can be as tasty as butter, but less expensive.Check out Budget-Conscious Gourmet Recipes below.
Brown bag lunches, wrapping up turkey leftovers, fall potlucks and festive tailgatings ramp up our use of plastic wrap, storage bags, trash bags, and paper products—all of which have greener options these days. But some can be pricey. Natural Value makes a full line of planet-friendly products at affordable prices, including plastic wrap and storage bags with no plasticizers or PVCs, unbleached recycled lunch bags, unbleached waxed paper bags, recycled paper products, home-compostable plates, and a full line of detergents, scrubbers, baby wipes, and trash bags with eco-positive aspects. They even make unbleached parchment paper (gourmet cooks listen up!). The Natural Value brand sells organic foods ranging from coconut milk from pasta to popcorn; some are also kosher. Got cats? Their cat food contains no preservatives, byproducts or coloring. Check out these products:
This article also appears on our New Green Basics site. Visit New Green Basics to see reviews of other green cooking products.
Copyright © 2008, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page created September 2008
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