This is a LONG thing I wrote some years ago for an American friend who was just starting to keep house after coming back from having lived on a research station in Antarctica for a few years/never having had to think at all about any of this (thus the kind of ‘Boil water. Insert pasta. Goooood.’ tone.):
“Okay so MASSIVE TLDR, and I’m not sure how much you cook, so I apologize if this is too much or too little detail:
Sesame Sweet and Sour Eggplant:
This, over rice, makes a very decent meal for four, provided the substantial ‘umami’ taste does it for you. It relies on your still having some slightly spendy shit in your cupboard, namely a little rice wine vinegar and some mirin, but I’ve substituted both in a pinch. Almost any alcohol can be substituted with the help of Google, and all vinegars ever are essentially substitutable*, you just want to be careful not to like, use balsamic in a cake or something. And nothing-but-nothing is cheaper than plain old white vinegar.
* As are a lot of oils, provided the flavor again, isn’t wildly off–only certain Mediterranean cakes can take olive oil, for instance.
Italian sausage is for losers who can’t take el cheapo ground pork and add some spices to it–doing that is just as nice as, perhaps nicer than, the branded stuff. ‘Cans of chicken broth’ are also an illusion (“and so is death!”): stock cubes or your own used bones, made into stock (super easy) will do fine and cost very little. Only the cream in this will really cost much, and not /that/ much.
Lebanese Cauliflower (Allegra again):
Take a whole head of cauliflower. Douse with olive oil, throw on some rough salt and some cumin. Roast it 45 min to an hour at 375 F. It’s done when it’s lightly browned and doesn’t resist fork-pokery. Take it out, douse in a little more olive oil, squeeze lemon over it, and think about tossing on more sea salt and parsley as you like. This seems weird, but it’s nutty and tasty and could easily be served at a party.
Home-Made Apple Sauce:
Cook aged apples down with a bit of butter, sugar and some spices, mash like they’re potatoes, and eat, can or freeze for a delicious desert (especially with a little ice cream).
Malawian Chicken and Peanut Rice:
This is a profoundly good, second-helping-inducing one-pot meal that’s hard to mess up. It’s also great to see the little-known cuisine of one of the world’s poorest countries coming into international repute.
Tea and Home-made Lemonade:
Soda’s convenient, but spendy. Taking the time to make some iced tea or lemonade in the evening, maybe flavored with berries (canned or frozen will do as well as fresh) or canned mango pulp (this is cheap in Indian and West Indian neighborhoods), and throwing it in a bottle before work, saves a ton over the week when money’s tight.
Plain Natural Yoghurt:
A MILLION uses. Home-made mango lassi, with canned pulp? For breakfast, with a simple swirl of jam or a bit of granola and dried fruit? Oatmeal (from cheap simple oats) can be dressed the same way.
Bread’s not too expensive, but flour’s practically free, and bread’s really not as intimidating as it seems! Start with a little quickie flatbread if you’re nervous. Plus, a warm, home-made loaf is revelatory in its niceness, and with a little love can substitute for Dinner in a way Wonderbread could never dream of doing.
Oh the Meats You’ll Meet:
Ground pork, liver, etc. are all cheap cuts, so think about home-made pates, terrines, game pies, etc. Nicer than the ‘pot pie’ of dreaded Sam’s Club memory by far, and not nearly as intimidating as they look.
They make good lunches-at-work, and can also take a LOT of substitution. Which leads me to the next point.
On a similar note, quiche is surprisingly cheap, easy and impressive.
The sales section is your friend! It is my BEST friend. Are they getting rid of meat that’s about to go off? Freezer or tonight’s dinner. Let the savings be your guide. You can always find something awesome to do with a steal.
Sausage and Mash: (we don’t really have this in the US)
With any on-sale sausage or cheap ground pork you spiced yourself and a side of easy mashed sweet potatoes (I like using garlic and onion powder, sea salt, and a bit of sour cream, cream cheese and butter–a splash of milk if needed), this becomes deluxe. Regular mashed potatoes are also great here.
Egg-fried rice with fragrant ginger broccoli:
Rich or poor, one of my absolute favs. The nicer broccoli is a plus, but if none’s forthcoming, regular broccoli will take on a decent enough taste, given a slightly longer time to become one with the flavors.
Lebanese scrambled eggs:
Surprisingly refreshing brunch/breakfast, with some toast.
Cabbage: IS SO CHEAP! Eat with corned beef and, or in dumplings:
General Dumpling Guide:
Dead-easy Roast Chicken:
With even an /only just decent/ chicken, this is SO so so so good.
French New Years’ Lentil Dishes:
There are several variations of this, but the French do a hearty, porky pulse to ring in the New Year, and pulses cost jack.
Speaking of pulses:
CURRY IS YOUR FRIEND. (Most Americans don’t make this at home much, or see it out all that often.) Sing, muse, of the rice that stretched for ages!
This makes a good amount (the stove-top method produces a markedly better result), though again, it relies on some cover staples, like fish sauce.
In aforementioned-lentil terms, Daal’s a friend. A very cheap friend. A *lot* of curries are decently economical, so look around at your Indian, Thai, and other Asian options. Then look at your fridge. What’s that at the back? Now back at the internet, now back to your stove. There’s a pot of rice on it. It’s waiting for you.
A 30-cent can of tomatoes every time. Buying pre-made sauce isn’t even worth it. Just spice it yourself, it’ll be at least as nice. With caramelized onions (I use brown sugar to speed a regular white onion along, though it still takes a bit and it’s worth doing several at once and stashing them in the freezer) and maybe then some roasted mushrooms or peppers, even more so.
Build Your Own Pizza:
Tomato paste (I’ve cheated and used the above ‘tin of tomatoes cooked down a little’ to no ill effect, just watch the runniness), the cheapest mozzarella balls, and either some blank pizza bases or dough you make yourself (http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/homemade_pizza/), plus some caramelized onions and maybe a few veggies or some crumbled feta? Bliss. There’s also a strange ‘thinly sliced potatoes, a bit of heavy cream and a little rosemary’ topped pizza in the Leon I cookbook that is oddly compelling.
Home-made mac and cheese:
Make a roux by cooking like a tablespoon of flour with like a tablespoon of butter into a light brown paste. Add your milk, stir, add your cheese, get the consistency you want, then add anything special you want before dumping on cooked pasta—same basic principle for an Alfredo.
This is the simple, adaptable DIY taco seasoning base I use, because paying El Paso for anything ever hurts my heart: http://www.diylife.com/2008/04/10/taco-seasoning-from-scratch/ .
Lemme pull something I wrote for a food blog:
“My Very Secret Re-fried Bean Trick:
So perhaps you serve tacos, the greatest quick supper ever devised by humans. Perhaps, to accompany the mighty taco, you buy canned re-fried beans! This makes sense, as re-fried beans are ridiculously delicious for, you know, some silly old beans. But these cans are not cheap, and worse, they’re insufficiently delicious. Purists and abuelas might insist on a two-stage process with hours-to-days of cooking time, but while their Frijoles Refritos are legendary, mine take about 10 minutes and are pretty damn tasty.
Fry some chopped onion and minced garlic in several tablespoons of butter. Go for a heavy skillet here. When the onion and garlic are soft and well-cooked, add black or kidney beans with their juices, which will largely cook away. You can mash up a can or two’s worth, according to your needs, with a potato masher (outside the pot or directly in it, it doesn’t really matter). Fry this up, stirring regularly, and add a fair amount of salt, to taste. Don’t be shy about the salt, that’s what makes these pop. Taste your mixture occasionally–if you think it needs more butter, it does. Additional garlic powder can also be your friend. When the mixture starts to dry out and sizzle around the sides of the pan, you’re done! Sprinkle cheese on for presentation and extra tastiness if you fancy.” [A/N: I NOW ONLY USE LARD FOR THIS.]
Other good options:
Stews and pot roasts tend to be good calls here, and to make tons and be amenable to freezing. Chilli. Grilled cheese. Winter warmers of that ilk. Adobo and southern American food can also be bargains–again, adobo just wants a lot of that sweet, sweet cheap vinegar. Also, it’s worth saving fat that drips off anything you roast or fry and freezing it–cheaper than oil or butter, perfectly fine for you, and far more flavorful when frying or roasting vegetables and the like. If you get meat with a lot of fat on it, chop the fat off, cut it tiny, and throw it in a low over or crock pot (use a drizzle of water as well if you’re using a crock pot) [A/N: I NOW SLOW-ROAST FAT IN THE OVEN TO RENDER LARD AND USE WHAT WON’T COOK OFF IN STOCK]. You’ll render the lard and get some use out of it/it feels more respectful to the animal, to me, to let as little as possible go to waste. Likewise, save bones for stock! You can make it twice with the same set of bones and veg [A/N I CROCK POT ROUND 1 12 HOURS, AND ROUND 2 24, ON LOW.], and it’s nicer than anything you’ll buy/a ballsier base for casseroles, soups, etc.
I think it’s easy to eat nice stuff on a budget, and, as probably everyone knows, a lot of cheap convenience food doesn’t actually work out to be terribly economical. But then it’s a matter of having at some point acquired cooking skills or an interest in cooking, and moreover not being so exhausted by your work and other responsibilities that you can’t be bothered to bargain-hunt, research, and prepare. So being able to make good food with not a lot of money is, crappily enough, a matter of privilege–but also a skill worth cultivating and passing on to everyone? Frankly that home-ec credit we had to take in high school probably should have included more Basic Cooking Skills And You stuff. I know I didn’t know jack in college, when I *really* could have used it.”