Friday, August 28, 2009

Coping with Expensive and Exotic Ingredients

I appreciate good food, which is why I love to cook at home. I like to use the freshest and healthiest ingredients possible and I find that it is more cost-effective to create high-quality and fresh recipes at home.

The "curse" of being a foodie is that my palate is sensitive. I can taste the difference between different brands of orange juice. I know that my marinara isn't the same if I use dried basil instead of fresh. I'm disappointed if my lasagna or homemade pizza is made with anything other than fresh mozzarella. We can tell if coffee is "old" (brewed more than 15 minutes ago). And I'd never, ever choose to use the "Parmesan" cheese from the green canister; mine has to be fresh.

Obviously, my food preferences have an impact on our grocery bill. Fortunately, I'm only shopping for two. Still, we're on a budget, so I've employed some creative tactics. These are the strategies I use to get by:

1. I shop at Costco. My husband and I love Costco. At different points of time we've also been members of BJ's and Sam's Club, but when Costco came to our area ten years ago, we were sold. When I tell people that the staff at Costco knows me by name I get the response "I don't like to buy in bulk." Costco isn't really about buying in bulk, it's about quality. I could go on and on about the tires we've had installed on our cars, the plasma tv, the Crock Pot, the beach chair, the shrubs for our landscape, and the designer jeans, but I'll just focus on the savings we get on food. Surprisingly, Costco doesn't just sell food in huge portions. On weekends we can buy seafood by the pound at prices lower than our local grocery store. When we do buy meats in bulk (ground turkey, chicken breasts, pork tenderloin) they are already sold in vacuum-sealed portions that work for our mealtimes. All we need to do is toss them in the fridge or freezer. I also purchase ingredients that would otherwise be out of our price range for weekly shopping like brie, shrimp, fresh raspberries, and organic chicken stock. Not everything at Costco is a deal (soda and pasta seem overpriced), but if you have storage space and you shop smart, you can buy better quality for less money at Costco.

2. I have a garden. We have an extremely small yard (1/8 acre), yet I've found that container gardening works for me. Every May I plant tomatoes, peppers, and herbs in pots on our deck. By July I am feasting on my veggies and by August I am drowning in them. By late September my plants die off, but not before I have my fill of seasonal produce. My garden pays off most with the fresh herbs (thyme, basil, sage, rosemary, and chives). Fresh herbs are expensive and highly perishable. I grow my own, so for at least five months a year I have access to tasty herbs that enhance everything I cook. If I do not have the space and time to grow a particular fruit or vegetable, I purchase it from roadside stand (abundant in South Jersey, where I work) or on sale at the grocery store. I also freeze some fruits (blueberries, cherries, strawberries, and peaches) and store them in our second freezer in the basement.

3. I try not to order alcohol when I dine out. Instead, we keep a well-stocked bar at home. There are some exceptions to this rule: happy hour specials and restaurants known for a signature drink. For the most part, however, I either skip the alcohol or limit myself to one drink. From my experience, many restaurants serve cheap wine for high prices or make mixed drinks weak and with inferior ingredients. We prefer to spend our cash at the liquor store purchasing our favorite beverages and make high quality drinks at home. It's also both safer and cheaper to consume alcohol at home. We have all of the appropriate glassware (pilsners, hurricanes, wine goblets, etc.), so it's just like being out at a fancy restaurant.

4. I use a Food Saver. If I find a 10 lb. pork loin on sale for .89/lb. I divide it into 4 pieces and immediately vacuum seal it with the Food Saver and put it in our freezer. We also vacuum seal our coffee and wine to maintain fresh flavor. Yes, it's a cheesy infomercial gadget, but it works.

In addition to these strategies, I also plan our meals based on what we have overstocked in our pantry and freezer and what is on sale at the market on any given week. I don't purchase out of season produce. I'm just as likely as the next person to get lazy on a Wednesday after work and order pizza, but when I cook at home I am able to plan meals around good ingredients acquired at the best price.

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