Frugalize any recipe
My wife picked up a cookbook at the library--one of those beautiful cookbooks with a gorgeous pictures of each dish. It had an above-average number of dishes that appealed to me. But, like a lot of cookbooks, it was written with no thought of holding the line on costs. That didn't matter, though, because my wife and I are old hands at doing that ourselves.
The fact of the matter is that we never cook a recipe just as its written (except for candies and confections, which are sort of a special case). We change recipes for many reasons:
- to leave out things we don't like or that someone is allergic to
- to add things that we do like or that we have and want to use
- to leave out things that we can't get or don't happen to have on hand
- to combine things that we think will go together, even if the cookbook authors didn't think of it.
It occurred to me, though, that lots of people don't do this--they either cook something that they know how to cook, or else they follow a recipe. What we do amounts to using recipes without necessarily following them. I thought it might be useful to show a worked example, and then talk a bit about the general principles.
Here's a frugalization of the Sesame-Garlic Sirloin Steak from the book my wife checked out of the library last week, Cooking for Two: Efficient and Delicious Meals.
Now, if what you want is a thick, juicy steak, it's tough to come up with a good, cheap substitute. In this recipe, though, the steak wasn't served that way--it was served cut into thin slices. If you're going to cut it into thin slices anyway, I figure you might as well use pot roast. (Sirloin was going for $5.99/lb.)
I looked in the grocery store flier and found top round roast on sale for $3.99/lb, and would have used that, except that my wife spotted one package that was marked down even further because its sell-by date was tomorrow. Since I was going to cook it today, that was fine, so I snapped up a roast for just $1.58/lb. It's a fairly small roast, (a pound and a half) but there'll still be plenty left over to make sandwiches tomorrow (french dip or maybe italian beef) and maybe again the next day.
I pressure-cooked the meat. It's the quickest way to cook a roast and it does especially well with slightly tougher cuts of beef.
I put a tablespoon of oil in the pressure cooker and browned all sides of the roast over medium heat. Then I added 2 cups of water (because I wanted one cup of broth for rice for this meal, and another cup for the french dip tomorrow), and then cooked it at high pressure for 24 minutes (because the book that came with the pressure cooker says 12 to 15 minutes per inch and the roast was about 2 inches thick). After 24 minutes, I turned off the heat.
While the pressure cooker was depressurizing, I made the sauce.
The sauce in the book had 2 tablespoons each of soy sauce and hoisin sauce, which would have been fine except we don't have hoisin sauce and I wasn't going to buy a bottle just to fix one meal. What the hoisin sauce adds, though, is a bit of sweet, a bit of sour, and a bit of hot. So, I took the sauce recipe from the book, boosted the soy sauce from 2 T to 3 T, and added a bit of honey, a bit of vinegar, and a bit of hot sauce. (The hot sauce we use is very hot, so I just added a little bit. If you use a milder hot sauce or you like your food really hot, add more.) Here's the sauce I made:
3 T soy sauce
2 T roasted sesame seed oil
2 T minced garlic
1 T honey
1 T vinegar
8 drops hot sauce
In the book it's used as a marinade, but I just heated it up in a sauce pan and then poured it over the thinly sliced meat just before serving.
As I said, the book has beautiful pictures of the dishes. The photo for this dish was made especially attractive by sprinkling the meat with toasted sesame seeds. We didn't have any sesame seeds in the pantry, but it turns out that you can buy four or five times as much as you need for a couple servings of sesame beef for 35 cents, so we went ahead and bought some. In the book they also sprinkled some cilantro on the beef, but I hate cilantro, so I used parsley instead.
After the cooker depressurized, I put the roast on the cutting board and (while it rested), I used one cup of the cooking liquid to make some instant rice. (Normally we wouldn't have used instant, but it just worked out so well using the same cooking liquid.) The rest of the liquid I saved in a container in the fridge and will use to make the dip for french dip sandwiches tomorrow.
In six or seven minutes, once the rice was ready, I carved a few thin slices of the meat (cutting against the grain), poured on a little of the sauce, sprinkled the sesame seeds and parsley, and put the plate down for the photo shoot. Once I'd gotten a picture I liked, I carved a few more slices so my wife could get her serving fresh and hot. (I ate the one in the picture. It was yummy.)
With that example in mind, here are the general principals for frugalizing any recipe:
First principle--take the recipe apart
There are usually three parts to a recipe. There's the ingredients list, a preparation procedure, and a cooking procedure. The key notion is that these things can be mixed and matched with those of other recipes however you like.
Second principle--use what's on sale
You can substitute almost any cut of beef for another--just cook it according to how that cut of beef needs to be cooked (rather than whatever it says in the recipe you're working from). Beyond that, though, you can substitute almost anything for the main item in a recipe. Besides substituting a cheaper cut of beef, you can substitute chicken for beef, thighs for breast, bone-in for boneless, and so on. Just cook it as appropriate.
Using what's on sale doesn't necessarily mean using a cheaper cut, either. The high-end cuts go on sale as well, and sometimes you can get a better steak or roast for less than you'd pay for what the recipe calls for.
And that's just the beginning. There's no need to stick with beef and chicken. Pork, lamb, turkey and tofu are always available, and you can often get exotic stuff like rabbit, elk, bison, venison, and so on. The exotics go on sale a lot less often than the ordinary stuff, but they do go on sale. Something like venison can sometimes be obtained by barter, if you have a neighbor or relative who hunts--or even for free. (We used to get free venison when hunting season approached if a certain relative's freezer still had some from the previous year.)
The point is that you can go pretty far afield from whatever the recipe calls for.
Simply cook whatever you decide to use the way it needs to be cooked (if you're not sure, just find a recipe for whatever you're using and ignore everything except the time and temperature part of the cooking instructions) and then follow the other parts of the recipe you're using as a model.
Third principle--use less of an expensive main dish
Just because the recipe calls for 12 oz steaks doesn't mean you need serve them. If you want to serve steaks, serve 5 oz ones. (If you want to make the dieticians happy, serve 3 oz steaks). Or, instead of serving steaks at all, as in the example, cut up a cheap cut of beef into thin strips and present it elegantly as a condiment on something else that provides the bulk of the meal--on a bed of greens, to make a salad or on a starch course (rice, pasta, potatoes, polenta, flatbread--whatever you like).
With those three principals and a little flexibility, you can make any recipe as cheap as you need it to be, and still keep it delicious.