The Real Lessons of “How Low Can You Go?”

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Over the past eight Fridays, I’ve posted a series of recipes based on NPR’s “How Low Can You Go” series, highlighting meals that can serve a family of four for under $10. Here’s the list of recipes, for those interested:
Vegetarian Burrito Bowls
Potato-Peanut Curry
Chicken-and-Corn Fried Rice with Lemon Spinach
Lemony Fettuccine with Asparagus
Cheesy Corkscrews with Crunchy Bacon Topping
Dal, Chilean Style
Coriander Meatballs with Yogurt-Mint Sauce
Moorish-Style Chickpea And Spinach Stew

Lots of good food and ideas there.

However, during the process of preparing those dishes and posts, I realized that there were actually a lot of useful general lessons for cooking at home that could be extracted from the experiences. Let’s walk through some of them (along with some tasty pictures of the meals I prepared).

Finished Moorish-Style Chickpea And Spinach Stew
Moorish-Style Chickpea And Spinach Stew

Let the ingredients lead
Recipes are useful because they list ingredients and explain how they can be combined into something tasty. Often, when selecting a meal, people think first of that tasty result. “Mmm, chicken carbonara sounds really good right now,” for example.

That’s usually the wrong approach to food, though.

Instead of looking at recipes in terms of the result you want, consider recipes in terms of the ingredients first. What do you have on hand? What fresh ingredients are on sale this week? What fresh ingredients are in season in your area (meaning they can usually be had at farmers markets on the cheap)?

That doesn’t mean you have to corner yourself. Use search engines like Foodie View or SuperCook to find tons and tons of recipes that match up with what you have available (or can get for cheap).

There are nearly infinite possibilities for tasty meals out there. Don’t limit yourself by starting your search based on the result. Instead, start with the ingredients – the inexpensive, healthy ingredients you have easy access to – and go from there. Plan ahead a bit, making plans for meals throughout the coming week.

Coriander Meatballs with Yogurt-Mint Sauce
Coriander Meatballs with Yogurt-Mint Sauce

Practice makes all the difference
Recently, a friend of mine tweeted “I used to think I could cook I just chose not to… turns out I just can’t cook.” Many, many people seem to fall into this category. They head into the kitchen, immediately try something complex (without having practiced at all), and think cooking is impossible because they fail at it.

Guess what? I’ve made tons of disasters in my kitchen. I’ve burnt countless things under the broiler. I’ve made dishes that are nearly inedible because of an awful ingredient mix. I’ve had bread turn into bricks.

You know what, though? With each failure, I learned something. I learned to keep a careful eye on anything under the broiler. I learned that it’s better to under-season something at first than to over-season it. I learned that it’s usually better to give dough more time than necessary to rise than to rush it.

And, gradually, I got better at it. Now, I can toss together bread without a second thought. I can make all kinds of crazy things in the kitchen. I now tackle complex things out of Mastering the Art of French Cooking which would have basically been impossible for me a few years ago.

It takes practice to make tasty stuff at home, and you should expect some giant mistakes and failures along the way. Start simple. Learn how to make great scrambled eggs. Learn how to pan-fry a chicken breast. Learn how to make a simple soup from scratch.

Then start trying more complicated stuff. Make baguettes from scratch. Bust out some scary recipes. You’ll find that if you’re good at the simple stuff, the complicated stuff is easier.

Soon, you’ll be confident enough to tackle pretty much anything without too much worry (although, I’ll admit, there are still some dishes that scare me – I have yet to not completely wreck a bearnaise sauce).

Chilean Dal with Chickpea Curry on the side
Dal, Chilean Style

Never be afraid to substitute
For many, recipes are gospel. They must be followed down to the letter – to not do this will result in disaster.

That’s rarely the case. Almost every ingredient has some sort of substitute. Sure, you’re likely to change the end result of the recipe, but that’s fine – you might discover something new and delicious.

This works best, again, with practice. The more you cook, the easier it is to know what can be substituted without much worry. If you’re unsure, there are tons of online ideas for what can be substituted and what can’t (but most things can be substituted).

Even better, sometimes you discover better solutions through substitution. Onions and shallots, for example – quite often, they can be substituted for each other and make the recipes better (since shallots taste like mild onions).

Never be afraid to substitute. It’s the first step to really mastering the kitchen.

Cheesy Corkscrews with Crunchy Bacon Topping
Cheesy Corkscrews with Crunchy Bacon Topping

Make sure your key tools are efficient
If your tools in the kitchen stand in your way, it will make your kitchen experience much more difficult.

That does not mean that you should go out there and buy a kitchen full of expensive equipment before you try making a grilled cheese sandwich. Instead, I usually suggest that people get one really good knife and one really good pan and a very inexpensive large pot (since that’ll be usually used just for liquids), cooking sheet, spatula, and a Pyrex 13″ by 9″ casserole/cake pan. Everything else is secondary, things you don’t need unless you’re cooking at home every day.

However, going for a cheap pan will be frustrating – stuff won’t cook evenly, everything will stick, and if you get one with a coating, the coating will come off sooner than you think. Instead, I suggest getting a large cast iron skillet. Seriously. They’re easy to wash (you just use water and a brush, no soap) and once they’re seasoned (meaning you’ve cooked bacon or something similarly fatty a few times), you can cook anything in them. You can get a Lodge one for $30 or so. As for a knife, get a single Global 8″ chef’s knife and learn how to care for it. It’ll do almost everything you need very quickly and efficiently.

That’s really all you need to make almost everything. Don’t dump money into a lot of low-end equipment. Instead, get one good knife, a small handful of low-end additional items, and go from there. Spend your money on ingredients, not stuff.

Lemony fettuccine
Lemony Fettuccine with Asparagus

Keep yourself well-stocked with staples
People always ask for big lists of kitchen staples. “What should I have in my cupboards?” they ask.

The problem with such lists is that they vary widely from person to person. What foods do you enjoy eating the most? What spices do you like? What do you gravitate towards?

Some people like pasta, for example, and thus it makes sense to have a few pastas always on hand. Perhaps you like rice or beans. Maybe you particularly like some spices and herbs – I love garlic, for example – and don’t like others.

Here’s what to do if you want to have a well-stocked pantry. Instead of going out and stocking your pantry, instead empty out your pantry/cupboards and put them in boxes. Yes, everything. Then start making the meals you would normally make. Put things back in the cupboards as you use them (or replace them ASAP if you use them up and put the replacement in the cupboard).

After two months or so, look at everything that’s in the cupboard. Those are your staples – the things you actually use consistently. Keep plenty of all of it on hand – don’t be afraid to buy it in bulk. Everything else that’s still in boxes is stuff you rarely use. In fact, most of that stuff will probably be old enough that it should be used immediately or tossed.

Finished burrito bowl - enjoyed with a Dos Equis XX
Vegetarian Burrito Bowls

Base your meals on vegetables, not meat
Meals based on vegetables are not only healthier, but they’re usually cheaper than meals based on meat.

I’m not suggesting that you go vegetarian or anything like that. What I am suggesting is that instead of having your main dishes oriented around meat and your vegetables on the side, try regularly having your main dish centered around vegetables and a side dish oriented around meat.

So, for example, instead of having a big ol’ steak with a potato on the side, why not have a large salad with some chopped-up steak on top of it as your main course? Instead of eating chicken parmesan as a main dish, why not eat half of a chicken breast with a large selection of Italian-seasoned vegetables taking up most of your plate? Instead of having a giant pork chop, slice up that pork and make some rice and bean heavy burritos with a few pieces of that pork in it. When you grill up burgers, by all means have one, but instead of chasing it with another one, grill up some veggie kebabs along with the burgers and knock back a kebab before the burger and after it.

It’s unquestionably healthier. It’s also way cheaper. But, surprisingly, it’s tastier.

Think about it this way. When you get a steak or a burger, which bite do you remember the most? Unless something weird is going on, it’s the first bite – the first awesome taste of that meat. The second bite is almost as good.

After that, though, it becomes somewhat repetitive. The pleasure isn’t nearly as high with subsequent bites. So why not make those subsequent bites healthier?

What I’ve started to do is to really enjoy that first bite of a burger, but instead of just knocking back the rest of that burger, I put it down and eat four bites of something else – whatever vegetable I’ve prepped along with the meal. Maybe it’s corn on the cob. Maybe it’s fresh broccoli. Whatever it is, it’s a side dish that’s cheaper and healthier than that burger. Then I take another bite of that burger – delicious, nearly as good as that first bite.

The amazing part? Every bite of that burger is now tremendous. Every time is almost as good as that first bite. I really savor it.

Making the main part of your meal vegetables instead of meat makes your meals cheaper, healthier, and tastier. It’s awesome.

Potato-Peanut Cury with fresh green beans from our garden
Potato-Peanut Curry

Overcome your food fears
Pictured above is easily the most controversial recipe I posted in this series. Potato-peanut curry was met with comments from lots of people about how they would never, ever eat anything like that. A main dish with peanut butter in it? Unthinkable!

Whenever I read comments like that, I immediately think of my three year old, who exhibits the same behavior sometimes. I’m not eating that! At our house, we have a simple policy: you can eat as little or as much of anything served for the meal as you want as long as you take one bite of each thing.

This is a well-understood rule, so our son usually just tries everything on his plate with one bite. Sometimes, I can predict what he will and won’t like. Interestingly, though, sometimes he’ll completely surprise me. He’ll try something I expect him to hate and, before I know it, he’s eaten all of it.

What have I learned from that? A person’s initial idea of whether or not they’ll like something is often wrong. It’s reached the point with me where I no longer even bother thinking about whether I’ll like an unfamiliar dish or not in advance – if it’s considered a remotely standard part of a cuisine somewhere in the world, I’ll try it and make up my own mind about it. This leads me to discovering new, tasty things all the time. Sure, sometimes I don’t like the new things I try, but more often than not, I do.

Doing this really opens your horizons and possibilities. You suddenly begin looking at things like peanut butter as a cooking ingredient in savory dishes. I look at a box of Sun-Maid raisins and I think of stir-fried dishes. For most Americans, that’s pretty out in left field.

Try it. Have some courage. Step outside the box. It’ll make your food preparation much more resourceful as you’ll be using inexpensive ingredients you never expected.

Chicken fried rice on a bed of spinach
Chicken-and-Corn Fried Rice with Lemon Spinach

Go beyond the recipe
This is something of a final step – you no longer follow recipes much at all.

I’ve reached a point where I tend to read recipes for ideas, but I only rarely actually follow them step-by-step. Instead, I use ratios and known pairings that work well. Ham tastes good with gruyere cheese. A cup of any flour, a cup of water, and an egg, mixed with whatever random ingredients I have on hand, makes for a good fritter. Citrus and black pepper often pair really well. Three eggs and whatever items I have around makes an omelet.

I have tons of these little ideas floating around in my head, and I just pull them together when I look at what vegetables are on sale this week or what meats I can get from the local butcher at a good price. I have tomatoes coming in from the garden and we have lots of garlic and some basil on hand – and there’s some pasta – and we have some sourdough starter in the fridge, so let’s make some pasta with a loaf of sourdough on the side.

Recipes aren’t laws or strict procedures you have to follow – they’re just ideas and suggestions you can pull together however you want. Combining that with the other ideas here on how to save money on cooking, you can constantly come up with interesting meals for just pennies at home. How low can you go, indeed.

Good luck.

(And if you think this is, at least in part, a dry run for some ideas for my future food blog… you’d be right.)

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51 thoughts on “The Real Lessons of “How Low Can You Go?”

  1. Trent,

    I like this, mainly because I’m a poor student who usually eats out a lot (not the best idea for cash or diet). If I can whip up something for me and my girlfriend that will cost 6-10 bucks it would really benefit me both financially and through a better diet.

  2. I really enjoy your photos and recipes your display during the second post on Friday and I really hope that you continue this idea because I think it’s great and hope to see more!

  3. I hope you continue to devote the second post on Friday to recipes that you create. I really enjoy learning from them!

  4. I really enjoyed this post. I already know how to cook fairly well, but I think a lot of people would benefit from your style of presentation helping them learn. If/when you start a food blog you should have some cooking 101 posts in addition to complex recipes/techniques. It seems to have from the personal finance perspective already.

  5. I really enjoyed this post. I already know how to cook fairly well, but I think a lot of people would benefit from your style of presentation helping them learn. If/when you start a food blog you should have some cooking 101 posts in addition to complex recipes/techniques. It seems to have worked from the personal finance perspective already.

  6. “Let’s walk through some of them (along with some tasty pictures of the meals I prepared).”

    I really doubt that the pictures themselves taste very good. Well, maybe they do to Cookie Monster. :)

  7. It is so very true that practice makes perfect!

    When I moved in with my boyfriend two years ago all I could make was chili, and tomato soup. Now I do most of my cooking au pif, as Julia Child might say–although I have yet to come up with a way to make cauliflower so that my boyfriend will eat it!

    Also second and third and fourth the knife suggestion. When I first moved out I got a cheap Wal-Mart set of knives that cut me almost as often as it cut the thing on the cutting board! Eventually I bought a (slightly better) IKEA 365 knife, which I kept sharp with a knife-sharpener, and I thought I was in heaven…until I moved in with my boyfriend, who has decent chef’s knives which actually hold their edges, and can *gas* cut tomatoes!

    I used to be terrified of sharp knives, because I thought that they’d cut me. I’ve since learned to be more terrified of dull ones.

  8. I’m not sure why you recommend such an expensive knife for people who either don’t cook often or are just beginning to cook. There are plenty of inexpensive knives out there that are nearly of the same quality.

    The Victorinox Forschner knives are nearly always praised highly by Cook’s Illustrated, and the Ginsu Chikara were highly rated recently by consumer reports (though that is a set, for ~100, which I agree isn’t needed at the beginning).

    Most of what I’ve read indicates that how the knife fits your hand is the most important thing, so I’m not saying go cheap if an expensive knife fits well.

  9. You really need to invest in better plates, silverware, etc if you plan on starting a cooking blog. Also, your presentation needs help. You have yet to cook anything that I would find the least bit edible. It wouldn’t hurt if you learned how to set a table correctly either.

  10. You really need to invest in better plates, silverware, etc if you plan on starting a cooking blog. Also, your presentation needs help. You have yet to cook anything that I would find the least bit edible. It wouldn’t hurt if you learned how to set a table correctly either.

  11. Thanks for the excellent post. I have greatly enjoyed your style and tone in the recent posts. You have now motivated me to go cook something fun!

  12. For the Bernaise sauce, try using the microwave instead of a double boiler. Since microwaves only “boil water”, essentially, you -can’t- overheat it!

  13. I, too, have really enjoyed the food posts (looking forward to the new blog!). I’d love to see another series & Friday afternoon is perfect timing for me since I menu plan on Saturdays. Keep up the good work!

  14. yes- cast iron skillets!!

    a good one is affordable. good pots and pans are so pricey, but cast iron ones really aren’t.

    i have a bunch- some i picked up at thrift shops and estate sales.

    but my favorite one is an oversized one i went to the hardware store to order- it’s huge, and it was still less than $30. they had some there, but i wanted a massive one.

    hardware stores can always order things for you.

    the best thing about cast iron skillets, in my opinion, is you can start it on the stove top, and finish cooking in the oven or under the broiler.

    i love them so much.

  15. I like the idea of centering meals around vegetables, but what do you do when your spouse is strictly meat-and-potatoes? The only green thing my husband will eat is mint ice cream! I often feel like I am feeding a small child. Since obviously I can’t make him try everything on his plate, what are some ideas to broaden his diet?
    (I’ve tried hiding veggies in casseroles. Doesn’t work.)

  16. I agree with Meg, lets have some cooking 101. I can follow a recipe real well, but I do have problems with temperatures, and some of the terms from time to time. For example, is med-high heat like 6/10, or 9/10? That kind of terminology always throws me. Simmer…is that 2,3, or 4? Could it really be 1?

    Good articles on cooking tools and their care would be nice too. I have 2 cast iron skillets, one had a coating when I bought it that’s probably ruined. The other is one of my mom’s wedding presents from her marriage to my dad…it rusts, so I scrub that off, is that okay? I had no idea you shouldn’t use soap on them. My mom told me you can season it by putting a cap-full of oil on it and sticking it in the oven for 30 mins at 350 degrees…or spray it with Pam after washing it. True? How about cooking with non-stick vs cooking with classic cookware? So many questions, and so much laziness on my end for not Googling them. Out of sight, out of mind. If you did posts, they’d be in sight :).

  17. The potato curry recipe actually came out with perfect timing for us, as my newly-vegetarian teenage daughter was hankering for curry that same week. Found we were out of chopped tomatoes and tahini, but a can of tomato paste and extra PB did the trick fabulously! I imagine most of the dissenters haven’t yet found their personal happy medium with curry heat (a little green paste, a little red paste, a little green powder for us).

    Like the others have said, the recipe posts have been great. I am always on the lookout for good recipes with a slant toward being economical. The last thing I need is another recipe calling for 30 ingredients, 15 of which I use maybe once a year and have to re-buy every time. But in a household where 1 won’t eat meat and 1 won’t eat beans, we have to get creative!

  18. I had a cast-iron skillet once. It rusted within 3 months and I tossed it. Granted, I didn’t really understand proper care techniques, but I’m of the opinion that cookware should be a no-brainer. I doubt that I’ll ever get another one. I had a nice non-stick cookware set, but after about 6 years of good care and steady use the coating started to rub off…eww. Then I switched to stainless steel (and treated myself to a good high-quality set). Amazing. A joy to cook in, and cleanup is as easy as just popping it in the dishwasher or, if there is something burned-on, just letting it soak with some water in the sink for 20 minutes.

  19. It’s refreshing to see that you’re not denying yourself an ice-cold beer, or good glass of vino to complement your meals.
    I just made a great cucumber gazpacho for less than ten dollars using cucumbers my husband grew himself. This doesn’t count the condiments that I already had in my cupboard though. I spent four dollars on almonds (soaked overnight and then blended with a cup of water to a thick milk), two dollars on grapes, water was free, salt, pepper, olive oil. It served eight. I had some blended almonds left over so I took a couple of large courgettes grown by hubbie and used them to make more gazpacho. Tasty.

  20. If anyone needs a book to help them get started with cooking, I recommend “Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family” by Ellyn Satter. She talks about nutrition and meal planning, and then provides simple recipes with detailed instructions, including what steps can be started the night before, and how to involve children in the prep.
    She even has a small section called “Grab-and-Dump Meals” with super-simple meals to keep you out of the drive-through. Also, there are tips on things like getting your kids to try vegetables.
    The cuisine is a bit midwestern and mild-flavored, but that’s why my kids like them. They would be easy enough to jazz up if you want to.

  21. Let me tell you something, that Potato Peanut Curry sounds ***delicious*** to me because one of my favorite dishes to order at the thai resteraunt is massaman curry. (But peanutbutter is also one of my favorite things in the world, so there is a definate bias here). So I would *definately* recommend anyone scared to try it to try it, but people love it so much.

    I just wanted to say thinking peanutbutter is weird in that type of recipe reminds me of when I found out that ketchup has a ton of added sugar in it. It takes so bitter I never would have guessed

  22. check out thrift stores for appliances and pots/pans. obviously you want to make sure they’re in good shape, but i got a coffee grinder for a whopping $3 and a really nice saucepan inexpensively. the higher end items hold up better, but initially can be way expensive.

  23. Trent, I think this is my favorite of your posts. By a squeaker, though, since I generally find your posts to be very worthwhile…but this one really reaches out and grabs a person meaningfully. Food and diet are, in my opinion, hugely underestimated aspects of personal finance when one takes a life-long perspective.

  24. Great post. The Tightwad Gazette taught me how to cook (ie break away from recipes) with her Universal recipes. After that, though, sometimes it becomes tougher because of too much choice! I’ve developed a rotation of protein sources for 10-14 days around which I plan meals. We aim for at least 3 to 5 veg and/or fruit for our evening meal. The challenge of fitting in with the schedule (particularly sticking to a single protein) makes cooking even more fun. The basis of the list is for health and economy: beans – poultry – fish – beans – cheese – fish – vegetarian – meat – fish – eggs – beans – combo – fish – veggie. Our food bill is 1/4 to 1/3 of most peoples’ and we eat very well.

  25. Some great tips here. It amazes me how many people are terrified of improvising in the kitchen. I read a few cooking blogs from time to time and there are often comments from people who won’t try the recipe because the writer didn’t specify the EXACT amount of some totally unimportant ingredient, or was slightly vague about the length of cooking time. It really does all come down to practice and experimentation, and you have to start somewhere!

  26. Love your blog, Trent. But you have some crappy taste in wine. You can drink great wine for a reasonable price, you just have to look for it.

  27. If you oil a new cast iron skillet all over, put it in a 400 degree oven for one hour, turn the oven off and leave the skillet until the oven is cold you will have a perfectly seasoned skillet that will last a lifetime. Just use water to clean and put a light coating of oil on it each time you put it away and it will never rust.

    The cast iron skillet I use the most is over 50 years old.

  28. Discussion of decreasing marginal utility? In a food blog? You just won the love of my inner econ nerd even more and sold me on your future food blog.

    Excellent post. As a was reading it, I kept thinking, this is a good article, especially that point about (every section after I read it). I extra-especially liked your point about modifying recipes and mainly using them for the ratios. I’ve started doing the same thing! My problem, though, is making something divinely delicious off a heavily modified recipe and then not being able to replicate it later! I’ve taken to keeping a notebook in my kitchen and try to myself write down things that turned out especially well.

  29. I am really going to miss these posts. I would love to have a feature on Fridays adapting expensive, complex recipes to something more manageable and less expensive.

  30. Can definitely second markets for cheap but good stuff. I bought a really nice rolling pin for 2EUR, while a brand new one isn’t half as nice and costs 7-12EUR.

  31. Great stuff… can’t wait for the new blog.

    This info is exactly how I cook – and everyone loves my food – but they haven’t been around for the stuff that doesn’t work. ;)

    A recipe is only an idea / guideline, measuring devices are for wimps, good tools are essential, substitute, practice, experiment, what can I do with this ingredient today, etc..

    I’m now in process of learning to cook “gluten free” with a newly diagnosed “celiac – gluten intolerant” in the house – more challenges and learning ahead. I’m reading books and experimenting with all new ingredients and recipes.

  32. I highly recommend Jacques Pepin’s “Complete Techniques”. It will knock your socks off! It’s really “the next level” of cooking, esp. home cooking. I bet you’d have fun w/ it, Trent. It’s quite a challenge, but a very worthwhile one.

  33. The recipes look great and these posts are good, but for anyone trying to gain or maintain muscle mass there is not nearly enough protein content.

  34. I really love your posts about cooking. I’m single and live alone and am in my twenties, and it’s really hard sometimes to stay inside my budget on food (mostly because it’s so much easier to eat out). Thanks for all of the tips. This series in particular has reminded me how much I enjoy experimenting in the kitchen. That, more than my budget, keeps me cooking at home.

  35. I’m with Brian. More protein is seriously necessary. Even for a relatively un-athletic person, you need about .7g of protein per pound of lean body mass per day. And you’re just not going to get that by “bulking up” meals with rice and pasta.

    My husband and I have recently cut out all grains from our diet (pasta, rice, bread, cereal, etc.) and we also don’t eat legumes (soy, beans, peanuts). So our meals are focused on meat and vegetables…

    I thought it would be more expensive to eat this way, but it’s not. Our grocery budget hasn’t changed at all. Our food is now more nutritious than it was before with all the pasta/rice, so we don’t have to eat as much, are full longer, snack less between meals, etc. It’s pretty awesome.

    Sorry to disagree with you (it’s never fun to get comments like this), but I just wanted to point out that your statement that meals with less meat are “unquestionably healthier,” “way cheaper,” and “surprisingly tastier” is neither unquestionable nor true.

    If you want ideas for meals that aren’t just “beef and potato” but that don’t have all the grainy filler, please check out the recipes I’ve come up with since making this switch.
    http://www.joyfulabode.com/blog/category/primal-recipes/

    I have more energy than ever before, my husband’s workouts are finally paying off (mmm bigger muscles), and my waist has shrunk an inch so far (I’m not a big person so an inch is a lot for me).

  36. #25 Brian, try incorporating quinoa, beans, etc., or eggs, fish & low-fat dairy for more protein if you’re not vegan.

    I second the applause for cast iron cookware but have found a problem w/ our wonderful cast iron Dutch oven – when it’s full, it weights a TON. Now that hubby & I are Social Security age, we find more physical challenges w/ kitchen equipment. I won’t call them ‘problems’ because there’s always a way around them, but they’re issues to deal with.

  37. If you’re a novice cook/baker, I highly recommend watching the show “Good Eats” on Food Network or buying Alton Brown’s “I’m Just Here for the Food” and “I’m just Here for more food”, which all explain the science behind cooking and baking. When you understand what happens from a chemical standpoint when you put a bunch of ingredients in a pot or a pan and apply heat to them, it will help you know when you can substitute and what you can (or can’t) use as a substitute.

  38. Just a note: In your posts at the bottom it always says “20 comments” once you hit 20 and never increments. Not really important, since comments are also listed at the top of the post, but if it isn’t correct, maybe it should be removed?

    I too enjoyed the food series.

  39. Outstanding photography is an essential tool for food blogging success. And I emphasize, OUTSTANDING.

    Have you looked into the craft of “Food Styling”? It might be an indispensable strategy for making frugal food look _exceptional_, rather than average. It’s harder than it looks.

    I wish you the best, as a longtime RSS subscriber and twitter/friendfeed follower.

  40. Trent, excellent advice on the basics. Casual Kitchen did a couple of articles on applying the 80/20 rule in the kitchen to ingredients and food cost as well as spices you use, and pots, pans, gadgets you use.

    On reduced meat portions, in the US we do tend to make meat the focal point. My wife and I used to eat at least our recommended daily protein intake at each and every meal. The perception is a meal without all this protein will feel empty. Simply asking people to eat less meat will make them feel deprived, unless you replace it with something hearty and filling. Risotto with some chicken strips is one of our favorite low meat fill you up meals.

    There are two points to take away here.

    One, if you plan your meals from the nutritional side it changes your perspective on how much protein you use. The body won’t absorb any excess proteins and it will just be wasted.

    Two, use complimentary proteins like beans and rice to pull some of the load. Together they form a complete protein like a meat or an egg. I usually add some sausage to my red beans and rice, but there is plenty of protein in the dish without it. I use the fats in the meat to get full flavor from the fat soluble spices in the dish, I suspect Olive oil would do the same thing.

    http://www.howtodoitandwhy.com/wiki/index.php?title=Red_Beans_and_Rice

  41. Love this post and also love Good Eats with AB!!! I find a recipe I like and follow it exactly the first time then I start making small changes to fit my taste and make my notes on the recipe.

  42. “I’m not suggesting that you go vegetarian or anything like that.”

    Oh, heaven forbid! :)

    I really liked this series of recipes because so many were veg (or easily made so). Like many, I grew up with plates of meat-and-two-veggies, and after going vegetarian I had to rethink that a lot. One recommendation is to go starch-and-two-veggies. I tend to stick to one-dish ethnic recipes, like many in this series, and most of mine contain lots of veggies and usually beans or tofu, served over rice or pasta.

    Most people on a Standard American Diet (SAD) really eat way more protein than is necessary. For my weight, about 60g per day is plenty, and I don’t have trouble meeting it w/o meat. Whole grain pastas are healthier than white and higher in protein… all veggies have protein… and a glass of chocolate soymilk is a great way to start the day.

    Anyway, thanks Trent for encouraging less meat as a healthy and cheaper alternative! The more folks who start thinking of this as regular fare instead of an alternative, the healthier/richer we all can be. The benefits to the planet and animals are a bonus!

    For more info on the vegetarian food pyramid and diets from the ADA:
    http://www.eatright.org/cps/rde/xchg/ada/hs.xsl/governance_5105_ENU_HTML.htm
    and the USDA: http://fnic.nal.usda.gov/nal_display/index.php?info_center=4&tax_level=2&tax_subject=257&topic_id=1359

  43. I enjoyed the post. I eat vegetarian and very inexpensively. My husband was a real meat-eater, but I’ve done a few things to slow him down from eating so much red meat.

    #1 – I make up a roast, but I don’t serve the roast-meat as a main dish. I divide it up and:

    (a) – I make a salad and put a few thin slices of the roast on the salad as a main meal.

    (b) – I cut up some of the roast, and turn it into an omelet or scrambled eggs with vegetables.

    (c) – I make up a soup with beans; other vegetables, and add some of othe roast in small chunks.

    (d) – I cut some of the roast very very fine; mix it into sour cream and chives, and serve with a baked potato and summer squash as a main meal.

    I essentially treat the tiny minced pieces of roast like a ‘topping’, and now he eats the ‘sprinkles’ instead of slices of meat.

    Obviously, I can make a very nice fresh batch of noodles with mushrooms; top with a sour cream sauce, and top it with the bits of red meat.

    I make up wraps with bits of chicken and lots of peppers; onion, tomatoes, and lettuce.

    I use wraps for scrambled eggs with fresh juice for breakfast.

    I blend up left-over vegetables with apple-juice for a light refreshing drink.

    My husband is 74; I’m 67, and we’ve had to live on a fixed income for years, so we keep making healthy changes to keep our food bill affordable, and the more we are challenged, the more fun we have meeting that challenge.

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