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

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.)