Cook to Save Money

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In
the current economy, most people are trying to make cuts in their
home budgets. One of the first places frugal Americans begin is
with restaurant expenditures. Many people have become almost completely
dependent upon others to prepare all of their meals. If you are
looking to save some cash and consider yourself helpless in the
kitchen there is hope. It is not necessary to attend Le Cordon Bleu
to be able to save money by preparing meals yourself. When learning
any new skill it is best to start with a few basics and eventually
build upon them. I suggest that you learn to prepare three basic
types of dishes to satisfy your culinary needs. You should select
a single dish within each category according to your personal taste
and preferences then learn to prepare it from scratch and memory.
Since it is not possible to suggest a specific dish which would
satisfy everyone’s needs, it is far more practical to suggest guidelines
for selecting your dish within each category.

The first type
of dish that should be learned is the "quick, easy, and cheap"
meal. The second is the "for a crowd" meal. The third
and final dish is the "special occasion" meal. No type
is more important than the others and each specific dish, within
each category, should be selected according to personal taste and
preference.

The first type,
the "quick, easy, and cheap" is ideal for times when you
are looking to satisfy your hunger in a quick and inexpensive manner
without resorting to going out for a McCoronary. This dish should
meet several criteria. When selecting this dish you should be sure
that it will take no longer than about 25 minutes to prepare from
start to finish. Also, the requisite ingredients should ideally
be things you have on hand at all times so that a trip to the grocery
store can be avoided. Most recipes found online and in books today
come with a difficulty rating; consulting this rating will help
determine whether the dish qualifies as "easy." Ideally,
this dish should also take no more than 1–2 pots or pans. After
all, if making the dish requires doing dishes for an hour or so
after you are finished with your meal the "quick" and
"easy" criterion are not really met. Everyone has a different
idea of what "cheap" is. As a general rule of thumb, each
serving should cost the same or less than whatever you would be
eating if you were to step out for a cheap meal. Certain dishes,
lentil soup for example, can easily undercut (in price and flavor)
even the "dollar menu" items at fast food establishments.
Always consider how many meals you expect to get from what you cook.
It is also advisable not to choose for your "quick, easy, and
cheap" dish something which requires highly seasonal ingredients,
but more on that later.

Dining out
is an inherently social undertaking, yet there is no reason to forgo
the pleasant company of family and friends simply because you are
avoiding restaurants. In fact, meals prepared and served in one’s
own home often make for a more intimate dining experience than that
which can be had at any restaurant. By going to the effort of preparing
a meal by hand and inviting guests into your home, you are demonstrating
the importance and value you place on their friendship. So in many
ways, having a group over to your home for dinner is actually preferable
to dining out.

When selecting
the perfect dish to learn to prepare for your hungry crowd several
factors must be considered. Price is of course an important factor.
Since you will be entertaining people you presumably care about,
you want your dish to be inexpensive rather than seem inexpensive.
When selecting the perfect "for a crowd" dish be sure
that it includes one or more ingredients which are relatively inexpensive,
filling, and tasty. Pasta dishes fit the bill rather well as do
rice dishes; however, dishes which feature large quantities of potatoes
should be avoided. Potatoes are a bit too bland and are overused
as a cheap filler ingredient. Another thing to consider is how well
the dish will keep once it is done. Anything that requires constant
tending even after it is ready to serve will prevent you from being
able to enjoy the company of your guests.

When cooking
for a group you must carefully walk a tightrope with bland and boring
on one side and too adventurous on the other. While something like
roast beef might be enjoyable, it is ubiquitous in American households
and unlikely to leave a lasting impression on your guests. Similarly,
tripe is a fantastic and flavorful ingredient but is probably too
adventurous for the average dinner guest. It is also advisable to
choose a dish which is not likely to interfere with a significant
number of peoples dietary preferences. This does not mean that everything
must be free range, organically grown, and vegan but if the entire
thing is deep fried you might want to reconsider. As with the "quick,
easy, and cheap" dish, it is important to choose a dish that
requires as few pots and pans as possible though limiting it to
1–2 as before is probably impractical. It is extremely helpful
if many of the components of the dish can be easily cooked at the
same time; this greatly reduces the total time spent in the kitchen.

The third and
final dish, the one for special occasions, need not be overly difficult
or complicated. The special occasion dish does have some unique
criterion which it must meet if it is to meet the standards of your
significant other or honored guest. This dish must be elegant but
not tortured into pretentious shapes or designs. If the recipe requires
you to purchase special equipment for molding or shaping your dish
then it is not the one for you.

The flavor
of the food, not the presentation, should be the primary focus of
the dish but care should still be taken to ensure that it is presented
in a neat and clean manner which entices the diner. Remember that
if your recipe is filled with rich ingredients such as heavy cream
or butter the portion should be smaller. This is especially true
if you are serving a woman; few women would be enthusiastic about
trying to eat their weight in beurre blanc sauce no matter how delicious.
While a sauce is not an absolutely necessary component of the "special
occasion" dish it is advisable. Few things can bring as much
flavor, elegance, and character to a dish as a fine sauce. That
said, if you are a novice, a hollandaise sauce is probably not the
place to begin but an excellent Alfredo sauce can be learned with
surprisingly little effort. This dish should also be something that
is not eaten on a regular basis. This excludes dishes such as steak,
spaghetti, salmon, and many chicken dishes. Of course chicken itself
cannot be excluded but the most common preparations of chicken are.
The purpose of the "special occasion" dish is to leave
a lasting, memorable impression upon your guest.

Just because
this dish is intended for special occasions does not necessarily
mean that it must consist exclusively of expensive and rare ingredients.
In fact, it is probably best to forgo cliché items such as
lobster and show your guest what you can do with basic ingredients
and perhaps a few special accoutrements. Well-cooked chicken with
a simple saffron cream sauce will likely leave more of an impression
on your guest than would lobster or filet mignon.

A few general
guidelines should be considered when selecting the perfect dish
for any of the three categories. Highly seasonal ingredients should
be avoided unless you are fairly good at using substitutes which
are in season. For example, if the dish you are considering requires
fresh asparagus then you might want to reconsider; asparagus in
December can command quite a premium. If however, broccoli is a
key ingredient, this poses little concern as it is readily available
in both fresh and flash frozen form. It is sometimes necessary to
buy ingredients which cannot easily be found in their fresh form;
in this case it is virtually always better to select frozen rather
than canned products. It should be noted that pork is often cheaper
than beef and due to people’s fear of the virus formerly known as
Swine Flu (now H1N1) pork prices have substantially declined.

Hopefully after
learning to expertly prepare your chosen dishes you will come to
see cooking as a more enjoyable experience rather than a chore to
be dreaded and will elect to continue your culinary education by
attempting to prepare different dishes. At the very least, you should
be able to save a substantial amount of money. By following these
guidelines to select the three different dish types and then learning
to prepare each dish from scratch and from memory you should be
able to liberate yourself from expensive restaurants and TV dinners.

This originally
appeared on Mises.org.

July
13, 2009

Briggs
Armstrong [send him mail]
is a student at Auburn University majoring in accounting and minoring
in finance.

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